79. Cashing the reality check.


An anthropologist, studying a hipster, spotted in Dalston.

This week I had a root canal filled. Guess what, it went well, because I was literally wearing rose-tinted glasses. Radio 2 was playing, everyone was jaunty, the banter flowed as freely as the lidocaine. The craic was mighty, as they (don’t really) say in Ireland.

Fans of CBT know that to stay healthy we need constantly to examine the way we look at the world and the future. I used to be afraid of dentistry but now I easily prefer it to hair care, where the craic is poor and there is no anaesthetic. Although dentistry is invasive and scary, the dental experience can still be positive if the atmosphere is right. Similarly, it’s possible to frame our view of the world as a positive one, though it may be necessary to stop watching BBC News Channel, with all due respect to Clive and Martine.

While we are on the subject of Reality, and how not to face it, let’s ask the question: where have all the scientists gone, the ones who didn’t become dentists?

If you’re reading a scientific paper you expect every single assertion to be carefully argued and referenced. Statisticians will have hosed down the results, using streams of numbers to wash away the confusion. Conclusions will be couched in cautious tones. Where a crisp punch-line is needed, instead there’ll be mumbled suggestions for further research. Anything that a scientist says is subjected to peer review by other scientists before it gets published.

There may be no such thing as absolute truth, but scientists probably come the closest to finding it, or at least wanting to find it.

I often wonder what it would be like if we asked scientists to form a government. This is virtually the opposite of the current situation, where, in the UK at least, scientists are barred from politics. Ok, Mrs Thatcher had a chemistry degree, but that’s about it.   Otherwise all our leaders studied PPE or law or history. Apparently there is only one scientist in the house of commons, out of 650 MPs.

Perhaps, more than any other fact, this one epitomises the British Disease. Which is talking a good game instead of playing one. We don’t know how to use a torque wrench – we use a talk wrench instead.

Most of modern history pays homage to Freud somehow or another. His nephew, Edward Bernays, pioneered the field of propaganda. Bernays had grave doubts about the democratic process, preferring a system where the masses are guided by an Enlightened Elite. Propaganda specialists gradually took over politics in the West, culminating in the election of PR man David Cameron as Top Banana. Bernays was influenced by his uncle, to the extent of recognising there was no such thing as objectivity. We all have different ‘takes’ on reality and we fit any new information into our existing preconceptions.

Clashes between worldviews can’t be resolved by a simple look at the facts. What facts? It all depends on how the evidence is collected and sifted. My view is that we need more of a scientific approach to making sense of information, but others may feel differently. How often do you hear people say that they don’t trust scientists?

Remember, for example, esteemed psychiatrist David Nutt being sacked from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs? For saying that some drugs are more harmful than others. And for saying that politicians distort and devalue research findings. The Home Secretary who sacked him was ex-postman Alan Johnson, now a national treasure. Here’s the narrative then: scientists are too narrow or cranky to see things clearly, that’s why we need politicians to decide how to classify drugs.

Quite who belongs to the Enlightened Elite nowadays is open to question. Maybe it is the shadowy ‘new world order’ and their lackeys in the media. Or maybe it is the ‘liberal consensus’ epitomised by the BBC. Or maybe it’s the Hipsters in Stoke Newington. Writer and film-maker Adam Curtis suggested that the Enlightened Elite are manipulating the news to keep us confused and afraid, a process he recently described as ‘oh dearism’ or non-linear war.

The connection between ‘oh dearism’ and Depression in individuals is not clear, but that hasn’t stopped writers like Joanna Moncrieff from asserting that Depression is just one of the missing arrows from the big Venn diagram of discontent, fear, capitalism and drugs.

I’m not sure why the Enlightened Elite would seek to make us all miserable and afraid when – if they had that kind of influence – they could just as easily make us jolly and bright. They are accused of such intent when they stage feelgood events like the Olympics and Children in Need.

In China, being governed by an enlightened elite is not just admitted, it is celebrated. And most of China’s top government officials are scientists. The president, Xi Jinping, studied chemical engineering at university. The last president, Hu Jintao, was an hydraulic engineer. How about the one before that, Jiang Zemin? Yes, he was an engineer too. Cue ‘machinery of government’ metaphor.

Could it be true that people in China have a better grasp on reality than people in the West, because they know the difference between a torque wrench and a thingybob? Do people in China take a more positive view of the world and the future?

Interestingly, it has been reported that there has been a massive drop in the suicide rate in China between 1999 and 2011, some say by as much as 58%.

China is a country run by scientists, which is not to say that UK would become like China if we rounded up our few remaining scientists and sent them to Westminster to rule over us.

Our scientists are just not used to being respected, listened to, or paid very much. Very few of them are party members, attend socialist summer camps or got seconded to tractor factories during their formative years. Our scientists are just not ready to form a party of government.

There is a solution and it will happen anyway, sooner or later. Why not invite some Chinese scientists to join our government, just like the ‘immortal seven’ (the enlightened elite of the day) invited William of Orange to become special guest king? It’s a controversial strategy, but so was the Battle of the Boyne. (Too soon?)

In December, Prince Charles gave a speech about our attitude to engineering. ‘The skills crisis has reached critical levels’, he stated, ‘particularly in the fields of mechanical engineers, machine setters and engineering professionals, which are among the most difficult posts to recruit’.

Like the house of commons, the royal family has only one scientist, Peter Phillips, who did sports science at Exeter. Shouldn’t he be promoted? And is it too early to get George his first electron microscope?


78. The best solution is probably not the one staring you in the face.


A typical radio enthusiast’s garden.

The amount of energy required to switch on the right hand turn signal on a Vauxhall Astra is probably less than one calorie. Nevertheless, it is too much of a demand for a lot of drivers in this part of England. Similarly, in the age of power steering, minimal effort is required to turn the steering wheel half a turn so that you can turn right without cutting off the corner. Yet this also, it seems, is a Herculean task.

In case you think this is a ‘grumpy old man’ type piece, it isn’t.

I’m not grumbling about poor apostrophe hygiene or using the phrase ‘going forward’. I’m not grumbling about the poor radio signal in the kitchen or the dog woman from number 23. In fact I’m not grumbling at all, just noting a behavioural pattern.

Daniel Kahneman explained it well in ‘Thinking, fast and slow’, one of the themes being the conscious mind’s reluctance to get involved in simple behaviour: ‘Please don’t bother me’, says the mind, ‘someone 44 floors lower down deals with indicating right and that kind of issue’.

If we had a technical term for limited cognition it would be ‘lazithinkia’. In the same way we can’t blame a lazy eye for pointing in the wrong direction, we can’t really blame the human operating system for its limitations. Car drivers turn right without indicating and cut the corner off because the mind doesn’t want to have to tell the finger to move 3 centimetres if it can possibly help it, and the body seeks to minimise the G Force it has to endure. Lazy is not necessarily a judgemental term, but it does lead to problems.

For instance, its unlikely that a dock leaf really provides an antidote to nettle stings. Certainly there is no evidence base for such a claim, unless you want to include the non-specific rubbing effect of the leaf. But that would be equally true for a piece of halibut or the skin (knocked) off a rice pudding. Rubbing the skin reduces the pain perception via the gate control theory, that’s a fact. Dock leafs and nettles can occasionally be found in close proximity, and a dock might be the first thing you find after a nettle attack. But to assume, firstly that the dock is a specific antidote to the nettle and secondly, generalising wildly, that antidotes are to be found next to the relevant poison, requires the mind to take a very long lunch break indeed.

Even in a pharmacy, the uppers and the downers won’t be on the same shelf. And no amount of Merlot will counteract the effects of Cabernet, even if they are right next to each other in Spar. People used to put butter or lard on burns, little realising that the real solution, cold water, was only a yard further from the cooker.

Looking further afield is a nuisance, but in the age of google there is little excuse for failing to get an overview. Recently I had a strange hankering to buy a radio for the kitchen. Not only that, but to buy it the old fashioned way, by going down to the local electric shop and seeing what they had. I can only explain this behaviour psychoanalytically in terms of psychotic defence mechanisms. Radios are somehow comforting objects and going Retro is some kind of regression to a more primitive stage of existence. Retro radios tuned to Classic FM have contributed mightily to calming people down and reducing opiate consumption.

As you will have predicted, this adventure started out like a dream and ended like a nightmare. I found an LG radio massively reduced in the first shop I went in. I got it home and put it on the fridge. It played all the internet stations off the phone via bluetooth. But that was not what I wanted. I wanted to press a button on the top and have it play the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2. But that was not to be. Nothing on FM. Nothing on DAB. I called LG and they said try moving it to a different part of the house. I said I wanted it in the kitchen. They said turn it off and on again. Then they suggested turning it off for an hour and turning it back on again. LG have an algorithm for these problems which they work through calmly. The third thing is to try tapping it with a little hammer from a Christmas cracker, reciting magic words, the fourth thing is dropping it from a third storey window.

I took it back to the shop, where it worked perfectly. They gave me another one. Again, it wouldn’t work in my house. I got a refund, no problem. I wrote a review on the LG website – they asked for one – only to have it censored by the LG administrator, just because of the third storey window remark, which, OK, was a bit of an exaggeration.

On this occasion my only punishment for lazithinkia was missing the Jeremy Vine show. It could have been so much worse. If I had only engaged my brain I could have solved this problem in so many ways. I wanted a simple, local solution to a complicated technical problem and that’s not how it works and that’s why we have google.

If I’d gone for a solution-focussed-problem-solving approach it might have been better. But that would have involved quite a bit of cognitive and behavioural work, such as getting a proper aerial or fundamentally challenging the quality of the Vine show. That, in turn would call for monitoring that show carefully, using minute by minute evaluation, like so-called dementia mapping. This would show that, over a prolonged period, the program struggles to beat white noise in controlled trials of listener satisfaction. And white noise was there all the time if only I’d tried the AM band.

Also, being Christmas, right next to the radio was a bottle of Russian Standard, the very thing that people say improves poor radio programs.