Wednesday, 21 September 2016


Give a thought if you will to the world's coconut farmers. 

They had just become accustomed to being the new stars of the western food industry (and hair and skin care industries) when along comes turmeric. While last week expansion and productivity increases seemed the obvious next step, complimented by artisan coconut plantations pursuing a sideline in eco-tourism, this week those same farmers are frantically consulting Agribusiness for Dummies to see if they can grow turmeric, as middle class Westerners rush out to buy it in products that range from pills to porridge and shampoo to enemas, all while looking to book holidays in eco-lodges on turmeric plantations

Surely, it can only be a matter of time before Mark Lynas pops up on the Today programme promoting Rothamsted scientists, who will claim to have managed to splice turmeric genes into the humble British sheep, thereby curing cancer for people who eat lamb chops and adding a much needed splash of colour to the Yorkshire Dales and Lakeland fells.

Is turmeric just another in the long-line of food industry-created superfood fads, or is there something to it? Well, a medically trained journalist at the Beeb, Michael Mosley, wanted to answer this question, so, naturally, he organised a trial and brought in some experts.  

Could Turmeric Really Boost Your Health?
Bold health claims have been made for the power of turmeric. Is there anything in them, asks Michael Mosley.

So, what of the article and trial? 

The trial was, even for a small trial undertaken at the request of a journalist, badly constructed. The 'placebo' control was only a control for those taking the supplement, when there really needed to be a 'placebo' control for those taking the turmeric as part of their diet. A decent trial would have had a randomised group given inert yellow powder and told to use it in cooking and food prep, ideally this should have a similar bitter taste to that associated with turmeric. What we usually refer to as the placebo response is, as Daniel Moerman pointed out in his now classic text on the topic: a meaning response. To control for a meaning response and isolate it you need to replicate the meaning of the practice of which the administration of the apparently effective treatment is part, and that means that the way the control group are talked to needs to be the same. This means understanding what that practice means for the participants and replicating that meaning with the inert turmeric substitute. Having failed to do this in the trial they fell short of gaining warrant for the claims made about turmeric. As things stand, we cannot, with this trial, say whether it was the turmeric, a meaning response ('placebo'), or a healthy diet that is responsible for the results (or, as often transpires to be the case, some combination of all three). Consider one example, perhaps pertinent here: there seems to be reason to believe that diary-keeping in relation to diet brings health benefits: people often eat healthier food, portion better and eat at more regular intervals and optimal times, and, of course, doing so has meaning in our culture. 

What is also of interest here is that once again supplements seem to fail. For whatever the flaws in this small trial, the supplements did not produce the outcome that they were looking for. It does seem to be the case in many examples of foodstuffs showing some sort of medicinal or significant health benefit that this is rarely replicated when consumed as supplements. 

There are obviously lots of possible explanations for this, some of which might cast doubt on the claims made for the particular foodstuff, others which might point to factors such as that mentioned here in this article: that other things help activate or aid absorption of the active element and those things aren't present when it is consumed in supplement form. Sometimes, however, it seems to point to what we believed were the effects of a wonder-food or wonder-ingredient actually being the effects of good diet and/or a meaning response. 

Take two examples: the claims made by the food and supplement industry for antioxidants and Omega 3 fish oil. When the claims made for antioxidants and Omega 3 fish oil are examined alongside the RCT data, any of the claimed are notoriously difficult to isolate from the benefits of a good, balanced diet, for example. Just take a look at the trial data on PubMed. Indeed, this has been the case for over ten years now, yet one still finds anti-oxidants talked about in a way that implies that it is uncontroversial and established that eating food which is high in antioxidants is not only beneficial to health, but staves off cancer and Alzheimers, and so on. Well, while the food industry might like you to think that is the case, the evidence remains inconclusive at best regarding any benefits of nutritional antioxidants.

When we design trials we need to be more inventive with the controls, having understood the nature of meaning responses (placebo), and only then will we have a better understanding of what is really going on. It is, as I've already noted, notoriously difficult.

So far things might look hopeful with turmeric, but bad science is driven by hope (and, in this context, by food marketing) which makes us jump the gun and declare something a superfood. While fads might seem harmless, they can kill, either because people stop taking proven treatment in favour of the latest fad product promoted on their Facebook news feed or because, for example, people damage their liver by ingesting large quantities of something because it is 'good' and 'natural', but which has never been trialled in that form and quantity.

I'll end with an anecdote. I once discovered I had a sensitivity to tea tree oil. I had a mouth wash which contained it and I developed blisters in my mouth when I used this mouthwash. Over the space of a couple of years, and by process of elimination (using different mouth washes, cutting out mouthwash altogether and using tea tree essential oil in water as a mouth rinse) everything pointed to the tea tree oil as the cause of the oral blisters. I then did some investigating and found that there were studies that had indeed demonstrated that for a minority this was a known reaction (at the time, 10 years ago, it was stated as 14% in studies that I consulted, if I recall correctly). I reported my findings to a friend, whose response summed up for me one of the problems: "No", she said, "tea tree oil is good. It can't be that!" 

The thing is, what's good in certain doses might well be an irritant or even poisonous in higher doses; what is good for some people, might not be for others; what makes you feel good in the short term might be slowly leading to liver failure in the long term. Whether what you are taking was recommended by the nice guy at the health food co-op, and comes from an organically grown tree, or was prescribed by a medically trained doctor with a poor bedside manner and comes from the labs of Big Pharma, what you need to form a judgement is data from well-designed and well-conducted trials. 

Whether or not a trial is well designed is not merely about randomisation, blinding, and sample size, it also depends on the designers understanding the nature of the meaning response and factoring this into the design of the trials. Simply administering a dummy pill and ticking-off the placebo control box on the checklist is a fail, and understanding the meaning response is to understand why it is so.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Stage Managing a Power Play --- Labour Managerialists fail to Manage Effectively, going forward

If you're going to stage manage a power play, you need to inform your actors, not only of their roles and lines but that they are actually actors in the play, otherwise you will find them feeling just a little pissed when they see their names in the promotional literature, billed as actors in a play for which they never auditioned, much less signed up for.

The Labour managerialists omitted to tell many Labour councillors that they had a role in this play for power. The councillors are angry

(When you follow the link above, scroll down to the section titled: "Forged Signatures", which includes a screen grab, providing evidence)

Meanwhile leading method actor Angela Eagle (recall the tears?) is now reclining in her dressing room back stage, with her bowl of red and blue M&Ms, being interviewed by Owen Jones. 
The opening night has been delayed.


This does not have to be about being a Corbynista, or even about being a Labour party supporter. It is about reasonable expectations of honesty, integrity and responsibility-to-office placed by us on our elected representatives in a time of national insecurity. This time of national insecurity is being played out now as a large increase in racist & xenophobic abuse and violence on our streets, an imminent change in Prime Minister without a general election taking place (meaning a lurch further towards the libertarian right in economic policy), unprecedented market instability, and a history-making vote having been based on lies, etc, etc, etc...  

Friday, 1 July 2016

Politics as Managerialism: the self-denying, sublimated, ideology of New Labour

Labour Party divisions are basically between the managerialists and those who come out of the labour movement and who continue to see their role as first and foremost to represent working people, and society's poorest and most vulnerable social groups. Then there are the opportunists who simply want to back a winner.

The managerialists are responsible for where we are now, because when they controlled the party from the mid-nineties until very recently they effectively deserted the labour movement and workers, leaving many localised vacuums for the right to exploit: when you're ignored, someone appearing to listen to you, represent you and articulate (& re-package) your anxieties can seem like your friend; they can seem like they've got your back.

So, with their burgundy ties, well cut suits, backgrounds as parliamentary advisers, and with neutral accents softened by trained, considered use of contractions like 'gonna', the managerialists and their wannabe acolytes readjusted their focus, away from the core vote base and onto the periphery: the PR-company-fabled Mondeo man; the floating voter who could, if won over to New Labour, keep them in office beyond a single term. 

The thought seemed to be that the core was always going to be the core, so it could be left alone, while the periphery got all the attention.

So, what do you do to court this peripheral demographic which only ever seems to have voted for you, as opposed to the Tories, as a protest at Tory mismanagement? Well, you speak their language, fit in with their hopes, desires and prejudices. Do some focus groups, and employ some people to engage in perception management. 

Basically: give up the ideological battle, where what was being fought over were the rules by which we play the game of government. Instead, claim to be post-ideological and start to play the game by the Tory rules. 

Of course, you're not post-ideological, you've embraced the dominant ideology, the one your party was founded to challenge. You can't acknowledge this is what you've done, so you explicitly deny you're ideological, and talk of this being post-ideological politics: your ideology is sublimated to become management.

And this was the problem. Those Tory rules that were embraced rigged the game in favour of certain players, which was after all why, historically, political movements on the left had emerged to challenge them. Those rules really did and do need challenging, not embracing and following by anyone representing the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society. 

But then this didn't present a problem for the managerialists, because they didn't represent the working class anymore, or even the poorest and most vulnerable, but rather they represented "hard working families", which was code for: people who are good at playing the game. Lose at the game and the managerialists are not interested in you. Losing is your fault. Complain about the rules of the game and you're perceptions need re-calibrating: perhaps work unpaid at Poundland, this will give you the social capital required to acknowledge the rules, follow them and be manageable.

So, to some working class people finding themselves in a vacuum of representation, looking for people to question the rules of the game, which seemed so stacked against them, the right seemed to do this questioning, and that is what makes this such a destructive disaster.

Disastrously, sadly, and with real dangerous consequences, some people embraced the right wing racist narrative.
Now we're in an almighty mess, decades in the making. This isn't just a political mess of interest to the commentators, but a mess that will impoverish the lives of people already struggling, people who were tricked in to thinking this was the answer to their problems; It's a mess that has violence, racist violence, as part of it.

This is a failure of the Labour party, which I have a strong suspicion it cannot overcome.

Jeremy Corbyn's surprising but overwhelmingly large election win to become leader in 2015 to some extent slowed what had seemed to me the terminal degeneration of Labour as a party which was supposed to challenge the rules of a game which was rigged to the perpetual disadvantage of Britain's poorest and most vulnerable social groups. But it is too late, the essence, the core, of the party has already become so irreversibly managerialist that even a large democratic mandate and well-argued re-positioning of party priorities cannot serve to effect a reversal. 

Corbyn's election as leader did not mark an end to the degeneration of the Labour Party but instead showed us that there was hunger for genuine left representation among many of those the managerialists had deserted.

The Labour party is the final stages of a terminal degeneration. It is, in effect, a zombie party, or perhaps a reanimated corpse. Some recognise it as the old guy they once knew, but in reality everything that made him that guy is gone. The managerialists killed him and now they fight for the right to continue to try to reanimate the corpse to fight one more election. 

Maybe this also marks a near-terminal staging post for the old left politics. The World is a radically different place to what it was in the 100 year period between 1850-1950, arguably the golden age of traditional modern left wing thinking, theorising and political gains. We need to be aware that the categories one learns from that golden age might not be appropriate to, speak to, or be the most optimal for making sense of our age: think of the 20th century revolution in modern medicine, the progress made in thinking about sex and gender, how we now understand the centrality of thinking ecologically (limits to growth, climate change, soil depletion, biodiversity collapse, etc.), and how different early 21st century global geopolitics is. Just perhaps we need new categories. 

Perhaps Labour is beyond saving, but maybe that is not a bad thing. Let's leave it to the managerialists and their PR consultancies. Those of us who believe passionately in the political project of challenging the rules of this rigged, socially and ecologically destructive, game should join with others and set about building new global grassroots movements which are responsive to the challenges we now face.

This is England (and Wales) 2016

I cannot believe this is happening here. It makes me weep.
The dividing line between civility and barbarity can seem distant and remote, but in reality the line is so easily crossed, almost before you notice it's there.

History is full of periods where the line was crossed, where people who had been neighbours for decades, families that had lived along side each other as friends for generations, turned on each other murderously, as those pursuing right wing agendas exploited anxieties and fears through the promotion of hatred and suspicion.

To say this is not to be over the top, examples exist throughout recent history: Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, many parts of Europe during the late 1930s and early 40s. Ironically, the EU emerged as an attempt to prevent a recurrence of this.

This is not something you play with. We sat and watched while our politicians did just that, bringing their decades-long game of blame the migrant to its most damaging climax (no doubt soon to be recommenced) in the EU Referendum campaign. 

Now we're here standing on the line.

Turn back Britain. Turn back.

Go out and smile at everyone you pass. Be kind. Share. And if you witness aggression and abuse, stand with, stand alongside, the person being abused. Show them they are not alone.

[Check the comments below this post for continually updated list of links to articles on post-Brexit racist incidents, plus one or two overviews. 
I'll be posting these here as I come across them]

Remember the tears..?

Remember Angela Eagle's tears..?

       ... They were crocodile tears, shed by a croc who was part of a planned, orchestrated, feeding frenzy. It seems their victim shook-free and lives to drink at the waterhole another day. As for the crocs, they'll be hungrier than ever now.

As the sweltering heat from the hostile media glare continues, it will lead to a need to drink sooner or later. The crocs will be waiting.

For we now know that two days before her resignation, two days before her tears on national television, and the day prior to Sunday morning’s sacking of Hilary Benn, a website was registered with the domain name: “”

Angela Eagle wasn't the person named as registering the domain name, of course. It was one Joe McCrea, who, the i news report informs us, is a PR executive who served as a special adviser in Downing Street during Tony Blair’s tenure.

Are we getting the picture now..?

(Can I also be congratulated for resisting the Eagle puns and avoiding some strained Eagle/bird of prey/croc/predator extended metaphor mash-up? Thanks)

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Arguing on Social Media 101: The ................... 4-Step (insert the name of your favourite exponent of the art on the dotted line)

1. Identify the person with whom you disagree (remember: they are wrong)

3. Hope others join in, and also scream loudly and point

4. await praise

Why is it like this?

Well: what have the superficial appearance of arguments, dialogues and deliberations on social media are often, actually, sanitised versions of courtship rituals or ritualistic sacrifice, or some sanitised hybrid version of the two.

Some poor soul thinks they've been invited to a discussion to find out only too late that they are actually the sacrificial lamb: imagine a kind of Hammer Horror for the Social Media generation - "hey, let's debate ............." ... "Okay, great! Oh, you have a particularly ornate, one might say ceremonial, knife. Why are you wearing that odd hooded cape? What's with the chanting..? Oh, hang on...".

So, starting to realise things are not as they had initially assumed, our hero tries to reason, tries to rebut accusations, challenge premises and expose the flaws in the arguments, but all the participants in the ritual hear is bleating, which in turn just makes them more frenzied: 

In the hybrid version, the participants are further motivated by the thought of courting favour with their emperor or empress, who is looking on, and who might occasionally offer encouragement. Such favour makes them feel purposeful and worthwhile.

Go on, indulge me. It's been a long day ;-)

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Hijack and Chill

Let's say there's a disagreement between housemates about whether or not to get rid of the house television. A date is set for the final decision (June 23rd) and then the housemates set about discussing the issue, prior to decision day.  

When the discussion begins it seems that the relevant issues are the quality of content that is accessible via the TV (is it worth it for that content?), the financial cost of the TV, the space it takes up and time spent watching it just because it's there, time that could be spent doing other things.  As time goes on the debate gets hijacked somewhat by a particularly domineering and perpetually angry housemate.

This housemate wants rid of the TV because he sees it as something which attracts outsiders to the house to watch football, to watch Eurovision or to Netflix and chill.  This housemate hates this and for this reason he wants the TV gone. 

This housemate is domineering and somewhat charismatic, moreover, his argument plays on certain anxieties some of his other housemates are susceptible to. He mentions that those visiting to watch football are likely violent and might well attack him and his fellow housemates. He throws in certain unpleasant, bigoted and homophobic, scare stories about the sort of people who watch Eurovision. He talks of outsiders chilling for free after exploiting 'his' Netflix subscription. The outsiders are freeloaders. 

These fear stories seem to gain traction. Some of the housemates point out that there has been no trouble when football was viewed, that the Eurovision night was universally acclaimed as fun and that was due in large part to the presence of the visitors. One or two confess that it's not only the visitors that gain enjoyment from the post-Netflix chilling.  It's also pointed out that the monthly cost of Netflix subscription is cancelled out by the first bottle of wine brought round by a guest each month, if one insists on seeing this purely in financial terms.  

It then transpires that some of those identified as outsiders coming in to the house for the football, are housemates themselves and have been for sometime, it's just they rarely make an appearance unless there is football on the TV, or Eurovision. Of course, they weren't always housemates, and it's true that they became housemates after the arrival of the TV, but they are housemates all the same and any warrant for seeing them otherwise is simply illegitimate. 

Some of the housemates then point out that the process of discussing the merits of the TV has now become something else, it has been hijacked in the pursuit of a bigoted agenda. This changes the nature of the decision on the 23rd. A decision to get rid of the television will have obvious impacts beyond the presence of the TV in the living room. It will make visitors less likely and unwelcome. It will make those branded as visitors, though actually housemates, feel unwelcome. It will embolden the bigoted fear-mongering housemate and serve to frame future discussions of house policy. It will make the house less fun and less welcoming. It will be a decision based on irrational and un-evidenced, though populist, fears about outsiders, not about rational, evidenced facts about the role of the television in the life of the house. It will transform the culture of the house, to one of suspicion and hostility to outsiders. None of these things were on the agenda when the future of the TV was mooted but they have become precisely what the decision is now about. 

I would insist on keeping the TV, even if I had no intention of watching it.