All entries for March 2006

March 28, 2006

The responsibility of authors

I've just recalled an interview I was listening to a couple of months ago on Radio 4. The interviewees were two authors. One was describing the thought processes she went through when planning her latest novel: it sounded like a relatively popularist feelgood yarn. The other then seemed to criticise her methods by saying that 'serious' authors had a duty to always reflect reality in their writings. This jarred with me slightly.

The recent court case surrounding Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code also springs to mind. Quite apart from the accusations of plagiarism, Brown managed to anger many, particularly the church, for presenting as truth much pure speculation about Jesus and the early church. Should he have done this?

  • Should writers of fiction feel a responsibility, or indeed be compelled, to write the truth or reflect reality?

  • Can we classify books as 'serious' only if they are a reflection of reality?

  • Is it not also a valid property of books that they can transport us elsewhere, sometimes far from reality, in flights of enjoyable escapism?

March 24, 2006

Which is the best supermarket?

I have just been chatting to Richard about supermarkets and their relative merits (not surprising when our lab group contains so many food-obsessed people). We tend to disagree as far as which is the best: Richard is a Sainsbury's man, I a Tesco/Asda woman (after having recently discovered the Warwick Tesco due to the permanent presence of Justin plus car and been completely fed up several times recently with the Leamington Sainsbury's). However, I also get more specialist produce from our excellent little shops in Leamington (The Globe is fantastic). But which is really the best? Do people, particularly students, really consider the multinational-corporations-squashing-local-businesses issue or is saving money more important? Does the quality of the shopping experience strongly influence your opinion?

March 23, 2006

Animal testing – a viewpoint

Follow-up to Clinical trials and the ethics and practicalities of animal testing from Musings of a blonde

An editorial in New Scientist from a few weeks ago:

The climate of fear in the UK created by animal rights activists has suddenly changed, as those that support necessary animal testing took to the streets
In the past decade, a particularly nasty form of animal rights extremism has emerged in the UK. Researchers have been attacked. Employees and shareholders of companies that carry out animal experiments, and of firms that do business with them, have been threatened with violence – not only to themselves but also their homes and families.

These tactics nearly closed down an animal testing company and have convinced the University of Cambridge to abandon plans for a new primate centre. But their biggest impact has been to create a climate of fear that has left debate over animal experiments in the UK seriously one-sided.

That changed last week when nearly 1000 students, scientists and members of the public marched through Oxford in support of animal experimentation. Small it may have been, but it was symbolic. At last, the other side of the debate received a public airing.

Of course most people, including biomedical researchers, would rather animal experiments were not needed, but in some areas of science they are simply unavoidable. Much of our understanding of physiology and pathology stems from animal work, and if we want to understand the brain and its diseases, animal experiments will be indispensible.

There is no doubt that alternatives to animal experiments need to be adopted where possible, and that unnecessary test and mindless cruelty must be stopped. The quickest way to bring about such changes is through open debate, which has become impossible in the UK. Last week’s marchers began to dispel the climate of fear. More power to them.


March 21, 2006

Creationism and the views of Archbishop Rowan Williams

Writing about web page http://www.guardian.co.uk/religion/Story/0,,1735730,00.html#article_continue

My dear friend Phil pointed out this story to me when we bumped into each other in front of the newspapers in Costcutter this afternoon.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has stuck his neck out and said in an interview that he thinks creationism should not be taught in schools. His reasoning is that if creationism is presented as a stark contrast to evolutionary theory it will lower the value of Christian, and particularly creationist, doctrine. Williams is, quite rightly, concerned that, when held up as an equal to evolution, creationism falls far behind: indeed, evolution is accepted by the vast majority of the scientific community. However, he is likely to be heavily criticised by members of the Christian community for admitting that a part of the Bible might not be literally true. He seems to, though the transcript of the interview does not suggest that he presents his ideas particularly clearly, suggest that he himself believes in God as a creator but not in the way that is described in Genesis.

  • How many Christians, or indeed non-Christians, still believe in strict creationism? How do they explain the discrepancy between their beliefs and evolution?

  • Is it time that the Church caught up with the times and accepted that a strict belief in the word of the Bible is completely at odds with convincing scientific theory? Is it then time for more daring changes, such as the admission of gay clergypeople? After all, if you bend the rules once, why not again?

  • How significant is Williams's admission in terms of a giving in to the possible inaccuracy of the Bible? Does it not weaken the authority and reliability of the rest of the text?

  • Will this declaration cause Williams and the church to gain or lose respect within the agnostic and atheist community? Why?

  • Should religious teachings form any part of the curriculum for secular state schools? Surely any theory explaining the creation of the Earth or any other mystery should be given equal consideration, thus giving those that learn the chance to make up their minds based on the evidence. Williams seemed to be suggesting that removing creationism from the syllabus would strengthen it because it would not be criticised when compared to scientific theory, but is this tantamount to pulling the wool across people's eyes?

  • Williams is obviously in a position of huge authority and his opinions are important, but in terms of theological reasoning he is just one man and he cannot possibly hope to represent the entire Church of England unless he never makes a decision on a contentious subject. How much influence should his ideas be credited with? Would is be better for him to keep quiet on this subject as he will always otherwise disagree with some of his church?

  • How significant are the current issues dividing the church viewed in terms of its credibility? Is it merely a case of the old-fashioned coming head-to-head with the more liberal or is it more damaging than that? How can the church maintain its popularity as it gradually begins to be more at odds with the changing times whilst avoiding giving in to the extent that its very foundations are removed?

March 20, 2006

999 call death

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/staffordshire/4821588.stm

Blink, and you might have missed it…
I has intrigued me that this story – about a 25-year-old man who was killed when hit by a police car responding to a 999 call on Saturday evening – has not received more media attention: less than two column inches in this morning's Times. With the furore that surrounded the death of PC Sharon Beshenivsky I would have expected more attention to be paid to deaths associated with the police (although obviously the roles were reversed in this instance). How much influence do the police have on the media?

Several years ago this incident happened, where a man was hit and killed by a getaway car being persued by the police. The man's partner has been awarded £345,000 compensation, though it has not been revealed how much of this money is coming from the police and how much from the Motor Insurers Bureau. In this case, why should the police have been required to pay compensation (if, indeed they have) as they were not the offending vehicle? Granted, the reason the getaway car was on the run was as a result of police persuit, but equally they wouldn't have had to persue had it not been for those in the getaway car committing a crime and then trying to avoid capture.

How much care should police take to avoid these potential tragedies? If each car responding to a 999 call drove slower, there is a good chance that more deaths would result at the crime scenes they are rushing to get to. But does this justify the occasional deaths of utterly innocent bystanders?

Was the police officer driving the car acting in a negligent way? How do you define negligence when the usual rules of the road do not apply? I have observed a couple of instances recently where road-users have seemingly ignored the presence of emergency vehicles, and even tried to beat them across junctions in order to avoid being delayed in their own journeys. Do these motorists transfer the responsibility to themselves in the case of an accident?


March 18, 2006

Ellis: should he be booted?

Writing about an entry you don't have permission to view

This issue and its resultant reactions really interest me. I have blogged on the subject of free speech before in relation to Iqbal Sacranie, head of the Muslim Council of Britain who verbalised his views on homosexuality a few months ago. This issue is a similar one.

I feel it to be extremely misled to say that because Dr Ellis has a viewpoint that opposes the politically correct view of the majority of society, he is therefore wrong and should be quashed. His opinion is not proven, but neither is the opposing one, so why should he be punished just because he dares to say something unpopular?

Leeds University have said that, in his defence, Dr Ellis has not shown any prejudice against students of his for reasons of gender or race. Of course, for his beliefs do not support this (this is a point that many have misunderstood). Ellis claims that the average intelligence levels are different, not that all women, for example, are less intelligent than men. The protesters who have campaigned against him have said, how can a female student, for example, take part in a course taught by Ellis with their head held high knowing that he would be looking down on you. This is not a valid argument, but is instead a reactionary misinterpretation of his claims. He said, and I quote: "The way to deal with this is not to treat people as groups, but to treat them as individuals."

I would even go as far as saying (I know very few will agree, but please don't rant at me before you've allowed me to explain) that his claims are not completely ridiculous. This is not to say that I agree with them, just that I can understand the thinking behind it. If we accept that evolution is true, the process of change is based on selection. In the UK, for example, intelligence has been valued for a long time. Those who are mentally adept have enjoyed recognition, success and perhaps even reproductive advantage as a result. In contrast, those living in countries of relative poverty, where many still live a hand-to-mouth existence, intelligence is of more limited benefit and is probably second to physical strength and agility, for example. Similarly in the case of gender, it is only recently that women have taken on similar roles to men: for centuries it has been men who have taken part in business, science and even literature. It has not necessarily been advantageous to be an intelligent women, as other traits have been more highly prized. If these selection pressures exist for long enough, the gene pool can change.

This entire issue seems to be another sad case of 'we believe in free speech as long as you agree with us.'

Dr Munira Mirza, a tutor in multiculturalism and community relations at the University of Kent: "Academics and students are resorting to lazy, blame-game discussion and not engaging in the debate. I would rather disagree with him openly and explain why his theories do not stand up."
Leeds University Secretary Roger Gair: staff have "freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, put forward new ideas, controversial and unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs".

March 15, 2006

Clinical trials and the ethics and practicalities of animal testing

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/4808836.stm

I'm sure no-one can have missed the reports in the news over the past few days about the men hospitalised as a result of taking part in a clinical drugs trial. Many murmerings of incompetancy have surrounded the reports, and I'm sure someone from TeGenero AG will have to answer some very tough questions in the not-too-distant future.

This story raises many, many issues, including:

  • The manufacturer said that there was no indication in previous trials that such an extreme reaction would occur: clearly in some cases the results of trials are extremely unsual and at odds with previous testing. In order to take part in the trials the men would have to have acknowledged and accepted the risk involved: they were going in with their eyes open. That's why people often get paid large sums to take part, I guess. Provided that the manufacturer abided by the regulations, surely they cannot be held responsible for something they could not have forseen.

  • The manufacturer will undoubtedly be criticised, but if there was not way of testing this reaction before clinical trials came about how could they have done more? It is very difficult to pin any neglect on the company if the means whereby they could have avoided it does not exist.

  • Should more testing be done before drugs are put under clinical trial? If you examine this and any other case it might be argued that more thorough testing could have been carried out beforehand. But does the extra time and money spent balance out the risk? And are any extra tests actually possible or, if they are, likely to expose the problems?

  • I'm going to be controversial here: this is an example of why we need to use animal models for drugs testing. This in an extreme case where the non-human recipients (including mice, I believe) did not share the same reaction as the humans. However, in most cases animal testing does give a good reflection of the human reaction, and as such has prevented many potentially harmful drugs from being tested on humans. The reaction from animal rights activists will be that we are animals too and that we shouldn't harm them before ourselves. But the problem is that if we want new drugs to be approved they have to be tested. If we cannot test on animals, many more humans will have to suffer and, potentially, die. Step forward all volunteers to take the place of laboratory mice…

What is it about male pop stars?

My mate Jerzy sent me a link to this article a couple of weeks ago, and it highlights an observation I made whilst listening to the radio this weekend.

I have always thought that, in the most part, women find masculine males more attractive and effeminate men a bit of a turn-off. Thus, I have never really understood why women find the majority of male popstars so attractive when most of them have floaty, feminine voices. Granted, most of them are visually attractive, but that surely can't be the only inflencing factor. Take actors, for example. The most attractive ones all seem to be quite stereotypically manly (George Clooney, Pierce Brosnan, Brad Pitt). Why doesn't the same apply to pop stars?


March 13, 2006

The penal system

I read in this morning's paper that jail terms for rape could be shortened and that in some cases those guilty of domestic violence may walk free if they promise to reform, as recommended by the independent Sentencing Guidelines Council.

The reason given for this action is that prison is apparently 'more demanding' now than it has been in the past.

This prompted me to think about another article I read, maybe last week, about the facilities in which prisoners live. This article stated that the exercise facilities provided by many prisons are better than public facilities in local towns. It was also asserted that, in many cases, more money is spent food for prisoners than on food for school children.

Now, I have to admit that I am torn on this issue. The argument in favour of good facilities and educational services in prisons is, of course, that if prisoners improve their education and fitness whilst in the inside and learn to occupy their time productively, they are more likely to have changed lives when they leave and thus less likely to reoffend. This may be true for some, but how large a proportion fall through this net? One of the prisons mentioned in the earlier article had full sports facilities, but they were only used by 10% of the inmates. In some cases the conditions inside may well be far better to those a prisoner is used to when free. Has the change in prison environment taken the punishment out of the penal system?


March 07, 2006

Banking as a human right

There was a discussion on Radio 4, I think yesterday morning, which concerned banking and the 'essential' commodity of a current bank account.

One of the guests was arguing that the possession of a bank account was a human right, as life without one in this day and age is incredibly difficult. He said that he thought banks should not be allowed to refuse potential customers.

Now, I can understand the sentiment, but banks are ultimately profit-making organisations, and any other business would not be forced to do something they felt would be financially dubious, even if it were disadvantageous to a potential customer.

Also worth considering is that, for most of our other 'essential services', public organisations exist to cater for our needs: the NHS to provide healthcare, the police to enforce the law, state schools for education. Why not for banking?

So…

  • Should banks retain the ability to reject a person's custom if they want?

  • Is banking a human right?

  • If it is, but if we unhold the rights of the banks to reject customers, how do we resolve the problem?

March 2006

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