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Is alcohol really that bad for your health?

The new ‘safe’ level of alcohol consumption should be none, at least according to a recent study into the health risks of alcohol published by the The Lancet.

This contradicts the current official government guidelines on the ‘safe’ level of drinking: currently around 14 units per week for women, and 21 for men.

The findings of this research study were widely reported in the mainstream media:

  • The Daily Mail reported that ‘just one glass of wine a day increases your risk of various cancers’.
  • Even The Independent reported that ‘the idea that one or two drinks a day is good for you is a myth’.

alcohol health statistics.png

But what are the actual statistical risks of different levels of alcohol consumption?

The actual risk of developing a drink related alcohol problem for different levels of drinking are as follows:

  • No drinks a day = 914/ 100 000 people
  • One drink a day = 918/ 100 000 people
  • Two drinks a day = 977/ 100 000 people

I took the liberty of putting this into graph form to illustrate the relative risks: blue shows the proportion of people who will develop alcohol related problems!

alcohol health risks

This means that statistically, there is only a 0.5 % greater risk of developing an alcohol related illness if you have one drink a day compared to no drinks, which hardly sounds significant!

Meanwhile, there is a greater increase in risk if you have two compared to 1 drink a day, which suggests the government guidelines have got this about right!

(NB, despite the headlines, The BBC and Sky did a reasonable job of reporting the actual stats!)

So why did some news papers report these findings in a limited way?

This could be a classic example of News Values determining how an event gets reported: it’s much more shocking to report that the government has got its advice wrong and that really there is no safe level of drinking!

Or it could be that these newspapers feel as though they’ve got a social policy duty to the general public… even if there is only a slight increased risk from alcohol consumption, maybe they feel duty bound to report it in such a way to nudge behaviour in a more healthy direction.

In terms of why some newspapers did a better job of reporting the actual findings: it could be that these are the papers who rely on advertising revenue from drinks companies? Maybe the Mail and the Independent don’t get paid by drinks companies, whereas Sky does>?

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The social causes of the California wild fires

The California Wild Fires are typically reported as being caused by a ‘perfect storm’ of environmental factors. Mainstream news reports tend to focus on how a conflation of a lack of rain, humid conditions, and fierce winds results in these dramatic, and unpredictable fires.

California wild fires certainly appear to be newsworthy, in that they tick many of the news values used by news agencies to determine what should be aired. California fires are dramatic, visual, involve an elite nation, and are often personable: if they’re not threatening a town, we can always focus on the brave bush firemen.

Challenging the envirocentric narrative 

However, I think we need to challenge the mainstream narrative that California wild fires are purely natural events.

If we dig a little deeper, we find that this ‘environment centric’ view is misleading as human social factors are just as much a cause.

Gegory L Simon argues that wildfires in California are just as much a result of reckless human development decisions as they are due to environmental conditions.

Authorities all around California have agreed permission for development to take place on areas they new were high fire risk. He further argues that authorities turn a blind eye to the fire risks because of the huge profits to be made from building houses in California.

Evidence for this lies in the simple fact of the increasing costs of dealing with fires in California…

One would have thought it sensible to stop developing in areas where there appears to be an increasing fire risk. Or if not, at the very least, we could be more honest about the fact that there is a human cause’ to these fires, rather than it just being purely down to environmental factors!

Then again, I guess deluding ourselves with the later explanation is more comforting.

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Sources

If you want to explore this issue further, I suggest reading the following two critical articles

The Conversation – Don’t Blame California Wild Fires on a Perfect Storm of Weather Events

The Atlantic – Power Lines are Burning the West

Federal Fire Fighting Costs 

Image Source 

 

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On Sir David Attenborough and Boaty McBoatface: Reinforcing the Social Class Order?

I can’t help but analyse the launching of the Sir David Attenborough polar ship through a social class lens. The whole affair just seems so terribly middle class: possibly even a ritualistic reinforcing of the social class order and a kick in the teeth for the good ole’ working class, as well as for anyone with a sense of humour.

Sir David Attenborough.jpg

My reasoning is as follows:

  1. 124 000 people (most of whom are likely to be working class, because most people are working class) voted to call the ship ‘Boaty Mcboatface‘, however, this democratic decision was overuled by ministers (who are mainly drawn from the upper middle classes) who instead decided that a more appropriate name for a Polar research vessel would be the name ‘Sir David Attenborough’.
  2. I know he’s a national treasure, but he’s a very upper middle class treasure: Sir David Attenborough attended a Grammar School in the early 1940s, before the Tripartite System. As far as I’m aware this basically meant his parents must have paid for him to go there, as at that there were no such thing as as state-funded grammar schools. So a bunch of middle class people decided to over-rule the working class majority’s naming decision and name the boat after a thoroughly middle class person.
  3. I guess all of the above is not surprising: given that this is a polar research ship that’s likely to be chock-full of postgraduate level scientists, most of whom will  no doubt come from Russel Group Universities which are, again, chock full of the middle classes (80% are from the middle classes). Add in the weight of cultural and social capital that will bias the selection to a prestige research vessel, and I’d be amazed if more than 5% of the research-crew would be from working class backgrounds.
  4. There is still a ‘Boaty McBoatface’ – but it’s a robotic submarine which can be programmed to go off and do its own research, later returning to the main boat. Just pause to think about the class-related imagery here: the larger ‘mother’ ship has a middle class name, the visible, the regal, the symbol which is to be revered; while the vessel with the name the majority voted for is a satellite, submerged, invisible, on ‘auto-pilot’, servicing the main ‘good ship middle class’.

Boaty.jpg

Or maybe I’m reading too much into this?

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Trump’s visit to the United Kingdom – ‘Distraction Politics’ of the very highest order?

The British Press have been all over Donald Trump’s four day visit to the United Kingdom… but predictably the focus has been mostly on the trivial details of the itinerary, the ‘intense’ security surrounding the event and Trump’s ‘outrageous’ off-the-cuff comments about Brexit, rather than on the substance of Trump’s pro hard-Brexit arguments or on the logic behind why thousands of people are protesting about his being here.

The BBC News coverage, for example, made a great deal out of the stringent security methods surrounding Trump’s first visit, and there was lots of coverage of Trump ‘in transit’ to various elegant places, such as Blenheim Palace, where we were reminded that while this wasn’t a state visit Trump still gets the Grenadier Guards playing the national anthem, a full-on Banquet, and he gets to meet the Queen.

Trump UK state visit.png

There was, of course, coverage of the protestors outside Blenheim palace, where a couple of them told us that they didn’t like the politics he represented, or his misogynistic and racist attitudes, but this was largely stripped of any deeper logic or substance.

There was also lots of commentary on the (non)-content of the interview Trump gave to The Sun Newspaper on Thursday 12 July during which he criticised Theresa May for not listening to his advice on Brexit and pursuing a ‘soft-brexit’, suggesting that this would now mean that a ‘trade-deal’ with the USA would be very unlikely, and even lamenting the fact that Boris Johnson had stepped down from Politics, stating that he would make a great ‘Prime Minister’.

According to Chomsky, the function of such ‘outrageous comments’ is to keep ‘all eyes on Trump’ and to distract us from the wider neoliberal republican (and Tory) agenda which seeks to dismantle government protections for the average working person, and make it easier for elites to destroy people and planet for short term profit.

Chomsky outlines his views in this video, and I suggest everyone watches it:

Chomsky makes some pretty ‘hardline claims’ in this video, mainly that in reality Trump is part of a broader republican administration who knows exactly what they are doing: they have an extremely neo-liberal agenda to dismantle every part of government which protects the poor and the planet. In America the Republic Government is currently doing this, by taking away workers rights, pollution laws, consumer protections and by basically destroying the planet for short term profit.

The function of Trump needs to be understood in this context: all the time we focus on him and his personalised politics, we are not focussing on the real issues: the fact that the Republican Party are the most dangerous organised institution in human history, worse than the Nazis: because the Nazis never actually intended to destroy all life on earth for their short term gain, only some lives! (NB these are Chomsky’s words – in the video- not mine!)

Back to the media coverage of Trump – the subtle art of distraction away from the harsh realities of neoliberal politics?

Here I just want to focus on how the BBC coverage distracts us, both in the US and the UK…don’t forget that any 10 minute news item could focus on any aspect of the issue….

Firstly, at least 20% of the coverage is on triviality – itineraries, security, personalities, which has nothing to do with politics. Time wasted here.

Secondly, Trump’s comments in The Sun give us a distorted idea of how politics work – he personalises politics – giving us the impression that Theresa May is ‘free’ to heed his advice or not, that’s not how politics works, individuals are generally much more constrained.

Thirdly, Trump greatly simplifies the issues…. As he’s got the power to decide whether or not the USA does a trade deal with the UK… it’s the republican party more generally that decides that, remember he’s embedded in a power elite, he’s not a ‘lone operator’…. However, in the media, he appears like a lone operator, that’s why the elite love him so much, it’s just total obfuscation.

Fourthly…. Trump today (Friday, one day after) actually called his interview with The Sun ‘Fake News’ and denied criticizing Theresa May, even though the whole thing is recorded: another great distraction tactic, keeping the media focused on him, again away from the issues.

Fifthly… some protesters are protesting because they are against precisely the reality that Chomsky points out…. They are against people destroying the planet for the short term gain of an extremely wealthy ultra-minority. Yet does the media tell us this: no – most people are there protesting because they don’t like Donald Trump the man, the misogynist, again personalising and individualising the issues which are fundamentally social.

I’ll leave it there for today, just a few comments to illustrate what  Chomskian analysis of the mainstream media coverage of Trump’s visit to the UK might look like!

Picture Sources

All pictures screen captured from BBC News at 10.00, Thursday 12th July.

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Sociological Perspectives on the Royal Wedding

Just a few thoughts on how you might apply Functionalism and Marxism to the Royal Wedding!

Functionalists might interpret the wedding as one of those symbolic events which brings people together – enhancing a sense of national identity, and possibly social solidarity. You certainly get this impression from Sky News’ Live Stream which is already in full swing – showing footage of the massing crowds, bunting and al.

HOWEVER, if you dig a little deeper,  it seems that this interpretation just doesn’t stack up… for starters, 50% of ‘us Brits’ were indifferent to the royal engagement:

 

And there’s also small but significant undercurrent of anti-royalist sentiment:

On the question of belonging, this New York Times article is well worth a read, on what Black Britons think about Meghan and the royal wedding – it’s an odd one, given the very whiteness of the royal family, FINALLY including a mixed-race woman into the ‘bloodline’…..

Maybe a Marxist interpretation might be more appropriate…..?

Despite the continued existence of royalty being one of the most obvious reminders of the class divide in the UK, there is some evidence that the state (in the form of the police) are very much inclined to work for the elite class, and suppress those who would oppose it, or even just make it look a bit untidy:

For example, it’s unlikely that the homeless of Windsor probably will celebrating the event, given that the local police have been involved in seizing their Belongings Before the Royal Wedding in an attempt to ‘clear up the area’, maybe so ‘brand Britain’ looks its best for the global media

You also have to wonder how many anti-royalist protesters have been arrested and locked up this morning: the video below shows some anti-royalist protesters on their way to do some ‘street theatre’ being arrested for ‘pre-crime back in 2011 a few hours before Kate and Will tied the knot.

 

Then there’s the apparent disdain with which the royals are treating the ‘commoners’: despite her £400 million fortune, the Queen isn’t even prepared to stump up a free lunch for the 2000 ‘commoners’ who have been invited to Windsor Castle to celebrate the big day – the ‘normal’ guests have [been advised to bring a picnic lunch](https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/may/03/bring-your-own-picnic-royal-wedding-guests-bemused-by-lack-of-catering).

So while I wish Harry and Meghan as individuals all the happiness in the world, maybe we should wish that the institution surrounding them would just whither away?

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Contemporary Sociology: The Parsons Green Tube Bomber

The Tube Bomber: A “Duty” to Hate Britain?

The case of Ahmed Hassan, the 18 year old Iraqi asylum seeker who planted a homemade bomb onto a London tube train in September 2017, injuring 51 people is a good candidate for the most serious crime of 2017. Had his device worked properly (it ‘only’ created a fireball rather than actually exploding) dozens of people would have died.

Hassan was sentenced to life in March 2018, and ordered to serve a minimum of 34 years.

Hassan claimed that he never wanted to kill anyone, he said he was depressed and seeking attention and thrills, having watched Mission Impossible films and developed the fantasy of being a fugitive pursued by Interpol across Europe.

However, there was also the fact that he seemed to have harboured intense loathing of the UK, which he blamed for his death in an explosion in Iraq a decade ago. When he arrived in the UK in 2015 (illegally in the back of a lorry) he told immigration officials that he’d been seized by Islamic State and ‘trained to kill’ (although he claimed to have made this up in court); and he had previously been seen watching extremist videos and apparently sending money to Isis. He’d also told one of his teachers that he had a ‘duty to hate Britain’.

What’s interesting about this case, is how all of the ‘standard’ preventive measures just failed to work….he had been given a foster couple who ‘showered him with love’ and was getting on well with his education – in fact, he seemed to be flourishing, having been made student of the year in 2017 in his college in Surrey: although he actually used his £20 Amazon voucher prize to buy chemicals for his bomb, which he then packed with knives, screwdrivers and nails.

Hassan had also been referred to the ‘Prevent’ deradicalisation programme, but this clearly didn’t work, and social services didn’t even warn his foster parents about his extremist leanings.

Relevance to A-level sociology…

At first glance, this seems to be a good case study which illustrates the necessity the take a stronger line on illegal immigration…if someone can commit a crime of this magnitude with all of the Preventative measure we already have in place, surely it’s impossible to prevent something like this happening again? Maybe a tougher line on immigration would have prevented this?

However, what we’re not seeing with just one dramatic case study is the bigger picture – all of the other cases that the authorities are preventing with their various crime control techniques… and let’s not forget that in complex risk society it is practically impossible to eradicate all ‘bad things’ from happening, so perhaps we just have to need to learn to live with this without panicking unduly.

This could also possibly show us the failings of ‘categorical suspicion’ as a means of crime control – possibly the fact that Hassan had ‘good foster parents’ and he was doing well at college were enough for the authorities to disregard all the other warning signs?

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Contemporary sociology: false news spreads faster than true news

A recent MIT study led by Sinan Aral, published in the journal Science in early March (2018) found that ‘false news’ spreads much more quickly than real news—and it seems to be humans, more than bots, who are responsible for the imbalance.

Fake political news stories spread the fastest, but the findings also applied to stories on urban legends, business, terrorism, science, entertainment, and natural disasters.

Aral’s team of researchers looked at sample of 4.5 million tweets created by about 3 mmillion people over an 11 year period. Together these tweets formed 126,000 “cascades” of news stories, or uninterrupted retweet chains. The researchers compared to spread of false vs. true news stories, verified by using sites such as factcheck.org.

The main findings

Fake News Twitter

  • false stories were 70% more likely to be retweeted,
  • while true stories never reached past a  ‘cascade-depth’ of 10, false stories spread to a depth of 19,
  • false studies reached a cascade “depth” of 10 about 20 times faster than true ones.
  • true news stories about six times as long to reach 1,500 readers as false ones did,
  • “False political news traveled deeper and more broadly, reached more people, and was more viral than any other category of false information,”
  • humans were more likely to spread the false news than bots,
  • Fake news tended to be associated with fear, disgust, and surprise, whereas true stories triggered anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust.

Why do people spread fake news?

The authors of the study offer a ‘neutral’ explanation – simply that fake news is more ‘novel, novelty attracts more human attention, and ‘novel news’ is more valuable – individuals gain more status for being the ones who share novetly (or at least peopel think they will gain more status) and novel information tends to be more useful in helping us make decisions about how to act in society.

Ironically, spreading false news tends to have the opposite effect: it makes individuals who spread it look stupid and may lead to us taking fewer risks and to a misallocation of resources as we attempt to mitigate this (non-real) risks.

Relevance to A-level Sociology?

This is a great example of hyperreality…. to paraphrase Baudrillard, False News never happened… but it has real consequences.

It’s worth noting the limits of the study too… it’s limited to Twitter and doesn’t really help us to understand where fake news comes from, for example.

The fact that it’s humans, not bots spreading false news means that interventions will be more difficult and more complicated, because it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to find a technological fix for the problem.

I could imagine that Gomm and Gouldner would criticise this study as being ‘too neutral’… it could have looked more at the ideological bias of the political fake news stories, and the profiles of those spreading fake news, for example.

Sources 

The Spread of True and False News Online – Science, March 2018

Fake News Spreads Faster than the Truth on Twitter – Forbes

 

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Contemporary sociology: how should we tackle the increase in knife crime?

According to a recent BBC news article, London’s murder rate is increasing rapidly, so rapidly in fact that it’s just overtaken the murder in New York’s, a city historically notorious for its problems with violent crime.

Murder London

So is this just a moral panic, or is this recent increase in violent crime something we should be taking seriously?

What are the recent statistics?

So far in 2018 the MET police have investigated 46 murders, and the rate seems to be increasing alarmingly:

    • 8  murders were investigated in January
    • 15 murders were investigated in February
    • 22 murders were investigated in March.

Of the 44 murder investigations so far launched by the MET in 2018, 31 have been the results of stabbings.

So is this just a moral panic?

Focusing just on knife crime here, because this is the implement used in nearly 3/4s of all murders, the short answer is, probably not….

This recent increase seems to be in the context of a longer term increase in knife crime…

knife crime statistics

Although London’s knife crime rate is twice the national average…

Knife crime London

So while there does seem to be an issue with London’s knife crime rate increasing (rapidly!) this may not be representative of the country as a whole!

What’s causing this increase in Knife crime and murder?

A lot of the debate has focused on the fact that the police are stopping and searching fewer people. Police have become more withdrawn and are less pro-active in preventing crime through the use of stop and search:

stop search
Source: Ministry of Justice/ BBC

There is anecdotal evidence from the police that this has led to an increase in knife crime because young people are now more inclined to carry knives because they know they are less likely to be stopped and searched.

(Ironically it was Theresa May who oversaw this reduction as home secretary, partly responding to fears that the disproportionate use of stop and search against young black men was alienating huge numbers of people.)

Interestingly, knife crime is increasing despite a stiffening of penalties for possessing an offensive weapon:

Knife crime punisment
Source: Ministry of Justice/ BBC

You’re significantly more likely to get a custodial sentence today than compared to 2009, but this doesn’t seem to be putting people off carrying or using knives. I guess the ‘less likely to get caught’ outweighs the ‘likeliness of a stiff penalty’ or the ‘risk of being a victim if I don’t carry one’ factors in the cost-benefit calculation.

Right realists would agree with this approach – of increasing stop and search, of going back to a more random stop and search strategy.

Do we need a public health approach to reducing knife crime?

Labour MPs Sarah Jones (chair of the all-party parliamentary group on knife crime) and Dianne Abbott (both speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme), have both suggested that London needs to adopting a public health approach to reducing Knife crime – which means, for example:

  • engaging in major intervention work with youth workers
  • going into schools, changing the social norms, educating kids, teaching them what it is to be a man, teaching them how they don’t need to carry knives.
  • Working with mental health charities

Both point to case studies of New York and Glasgow, where such interventions have been adopted with both seeing significant reductions in violent crime (while at the same time also having a lighter touch approach to stop and search.

These policies are very left realist in nature – and both of the above MPs are skeptical about the usefulness of increasing the role of random stop and search – pointing out the toxic legacy it leaves in terms of police-community relations.

Selected sources 

Crime in England and Wales: Year Ending 2017

London murder rate overtakes New York’s (BBC)

Nine charts on the rise of knife crime in England and Wales (BBC)

Relevance to A-level sociology

Knife crime and other violent crimes seem to be increasing recently in England and Wales, so this topic is of continued relevance within the crime and deviance module.

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Contemporary Sociology: The poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal by the Russian State

The recent poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, allegedly by the Russian State, is relevant to many areas of the A-level sociology specification.

Details of the poisoning 

On 4th March 2018 Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33 were poisoned by a nerve agent called Novichok. The pair were found collapsed on a bench in Salisbury in the late afternoon, following what seems to have been a pretty ordinary ‘afternoon of leisure’ involving a trip to a pub and lunch in Zizzi’s. Four weeks later, they remain in a critical condition. 

Sergie Skripal.png
Sergie and Yulia Skripal

Much of the news has focused on just how deadly the nerve agent ‘Novichok’ is – basically a tiny, practically invisible amount was sufficient to render two people seriously ill, and even the police officer who first attended Sergei and Yulia Skripal was taken seriously ill just from secondary contact with what must have been trace elements of the nerve agent.

Pretty much everywhere the pair had visited that afternoon was shut down, and any vehicles that they had been in contact with were quarantined while they were cleared of any trace of the nerve agent and total of 250 counter-terrorism officers are at work investigating the case.

Theresa May has accused the Russian State as being complicit in this attempted murder, which seems plausible as Colonel Sergie Skripal is a retired Russian military intelligence officer who was convicted of passing the identities of Russian intelligence agents working undercover in Europe to the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. He was jailed for 13 years by Russia in 2006. In July 2010, he was one of four prisoners released by Moscow in exchange for 10 Russian spies arrested by the FBI. He was later flown to the UK. It seems that the poisoning is the Russian State passing its ‘final sentence’ on this poor guy.

HOWEVER, Russia strongly denies these allegations, so this might just be a hypothetical state-crime!

The international reaction to the poisoning has also been dramatic: to date 26 countries have expelled Russian diplomats, and Russia, which of course denies any involvement in the poisoning, has done the same as a counter-response.

Links to the A-level sociology specification

sociological perspectives russia.png

Probably the most obvious link to the A-level sociology specification is that this is a primary example of a state crime – it seems extremely likely that the poisoning was carried out by an agent of the Russian state – The UK condemned Russia at the United Nations Human Rights Council as being in breach of international law and the UK’s national sovereignty.

Secondly, this case study reminds of us that nation states are still among the most powerful actors in the world – nation states are the only institutions which can ‘legitimately’ manufacture chemical weapons such as Novichock.

Thirdly, you could use this as an example of how ‘consensus’ and ‘conflict’ exist side by side. he existence of global values allows various nations to show ‘solidarity’ against Russia and express ‘value consensus’ but it also reminds us that there are conflicting interests in the world.

Fourthly, media coverage aside, it’s hardly a post-modern event is it! Having said that, we don’t know for certain who did the poisoning, so all of this could be a good example of ‘hypperreality’.

There’s lots of other links you could make across various modules – for example, the way the media has dealt with the event (it’s very news worthy!) and the ‘panic’ surrounding it, it fits with our ‘risk conscious society’ very nicely!

Sources 

Spy poisoning: Highest amount of nerve agent was on door (BBC News)

UK slam Russia over spy poisoning (Washington Post)

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Is Capitalism on the Wane?

John Mcdonnell, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor today announced Labour’s plans to renationalise the railways and many other public utilities at no cost to the public.

Does this mean that Jeremy Corbyn’s rejection of contemporary capitalism is now the new mainstream, and/ or does this represent the end of Capitalism as we know it?

It does seem that Capitalism has become something of a dirty word ever since the financial crash of 2008, and in a recent poll, most British people regard capitalism as ‘greedy, selfish, and corrupt’; and many are more sympathetic towards socialism, and favor the renationalisation of the railways and utilities.

 

However, the ideological scare-mongers are out, claiming that re-nationalisation will be far from free, and it will be interesting to see how much genuine public appetite there is for bringing back services into public ownership!