Strange Ontology: Week begging 25th May 2009

Original research

26th May

The gene that links gum disease to heart problems

Which mentions: Michaud et al. (2008) Periodontal disease, tooth loss, and cancer risk in male health professionals: a prospective cohort study The Lancet Oncology 9:550-558

Life-saving wonder drug to fight prostate cancer ‘available in just two years’

A report on: Attard et al. (2009) Selective Inhibition of CYP17 With Abiraterone Acetate Is Highly Active in the Treatment of Castration-Resistant Prostate Cancer Journal of Clinical Oncology doi:10.1200/JCO.2008.20.0642

27th May

Green tea extract could help to fight leukaemia

A report on: Shanafelt et al. (2009) Phase I Trial of Daily Oral Polyphenon E in Patients With Asymptomatic Rai Stage 0 to II Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Journal of Clinical Oncology doi:10.1200/JCO.2008.21.1284

Cancer sufferers facing extra security checks at airports after common drug destroys fingerprints

A report on: Choo and Tan (2009) Travel warning with capecitabine Annals of Oncology doi:10.1093/annonc/mdp278

28th May

Major tumour-busting ‘breakthrough’ in fight against breast and ovarian cancer

A report on: Yun and Hiom (2009) CtIP-BRCA1 modulates the choice of DNA double-strand-break repair pathway throughout the cell cycle Nature 459:460-463

31st May

Boosting levels of vitamin D ‘could cut cancer by up to 25%’

A report on: Garland (2009) Symposium in Print on the Epidemiology of Vitamin D and Cancer Annals of Epidemiology doi:10.1016/j.annepidem.2009.02.002

Testicular cancer test on the horizon as scientists pinpoint faulty genes

A report on: Kanetsky et al. (2009) Common variation in KITLG and at 5q31.3 predisposes to testicular germ cell cancer Nature Genetics doi:10.1038/ng.393

And: Rapley et al. (2009) A genome-wide association study of testicular germ cell tumor Nature Genetics doi:10.1038/ng.394

Causes in brief

25th May

As a woman is hypnotised into believing she’s had surgery: Yes, the power of the mind can heal your body

“Even being told you are in a ‘high-risk’ group for a certain cancer, heart disease or stroke seems to increase your chances of getting these conditions.”

30th May

How 200,00 kitchen utensils were recalled by Marks & Spencer after cancer alert

“The chemical [diaminodiphenylmethane] is found in primary aromatic amines, a group of compounds shown to be related to cancer during animal testing.”


26th May

Record 10,400 Britons hit by deadliest skin cancers

“Last month the charity revealed that malignant melanoma had overtaken cervical cancer as the most commonly diagnosed cancer among women in their 20s. Almost every day, one woman aged 20 and 29 is diagnosed with skin cancer – making it twice as common as breast cancer.”

Shyness could cost me my life: How a mother too embarrassed to discuss her symptoms is now battling advanced cancer

“Every year, around 35,000 new cases of bowel cancer are diagnosed in the UK. The second most common cancer after breast cancer, it causes more deaths every year than breast and cervical cancer put together, although it receives far less publicity.”

REVEALED: The secret to losing half a stone overnight… Get a tan

“‘Responsible action has to be taken now as in the UK alone, there are more than 67,000 new cases of skin cancer every year and the figures are rising faster than any other form of cancer.”

29th May

Facebook forced to lift ban on breast cancer victim’s ‘sexual and abusive’ mastectomy scar photos

“Breast cancer is now the most common cancer in the UK, with around 45,000 cases diagnosed each year.”

BBC sports presenter Clare Balding is battling thyroid cancer

“Thyroid cancers are a fairly rare form of the disease, with around 1,600 new cases in the UK each year.

Women account for around 75 per cent of cases and surgery is their main option, with most cases able to be treated successfully.”

Revolutionary bikini to make tan lines history: ‘See-through’ swimming cossie guarantees all-over bronzing

“However, there was concern from skin cancer campaigners who are already tackling an increase in cases of malignant melanoma.

The number of people who have been diagnosed with the condition is expected to reach 10,000 this year.”

31st May

‘Her tumour weighed the same as two bags of sugar’: Melanie Slade on her sister’s battle with kidney cancer

“[Kidney cancer] mainly affects adults aged over 50, with more than 60 per cent of cases diagnosed in men. There are more than 7,500 newly diagnosed cases in the UK every year and more than 3,700 people died from kidney cancer in 2007. The one-year survival rate is only 68 per cent for men and 65 per cent for women. After five years, that drops to about 50 per cent for both sexes.”


31st May

New test for lung cancer ‘could save thousands’

An advert for these guys.


Strange Ontology: Week beginning 18th March 2009

One of the oddest things about ploughing through every week to chart the Mail’s cancerphilia is the complete lack of reflectiveness of the Mail’s columnists. Take this, from Jan Moir’s MPs’ taste? Pass the John Lewis sick bag: “Jade Goody had the services of professional make-up artists to make her look radiant in her dying days. These are media conceits, which muddy the truth and make real-life cancer patients feel worse. Ask yourself this: What is the real purpose of the Farrah Fawcett documentary, except to glamorise poor, dying Farrah?”. Or this, from Deborah Ross’ Vote for me or I’ll poke your eyes out!: “Also, we [her proposed political party] will keep everyone on their toes by saying wine gives you cancer one day, and declaring it good for the heart the next. It’ll be fun.” You begin to wonder whether they read the paper they write for – who is doing this glamourising, who is keeping everyone on their toes? It isn’t the government dispensing the weekly potted summary of essentially random studies, it isn’t the academic media who are reporting on celebrities. It’s the Mail. Their newspaper. Which they write for. Themselves. Should someone tell them? The poor things probably think they’re writing for the Guardian or something – their evil agents every week carefully cutting their columns out and sticking them over Ben Goldacre’s before allowing them to see them.

Incidentally, the article on tea gets the Finnish study wrong – it referred to both tea and coffee, not just tea, found a reduction of a particular type of stroke, nots strokes qua strokes, and only in male smokers, not men in general.

This week, there might be a pill for renal cancer, tea is good for you, ginger might make chemo less awful and there might be a treatment for liver cancer involving an engineered virus. Mastectomies might not always be the way forward, however.

The Motzer and Molina paper is open source.

Original research

18th May

New kidney cancer pill extends the lives of patients by two years

A report on: Motzer and Molina (2009) Targeting Renal Cell Carcinoma Journal of Clinical Oncology doi: 10.1200/JCO.2009.21.8461

19th May

Can cancer drugs harm your memory? Patients complain of mental problems after chemo

Which mentions in passing: Skoogh et al. (2008) Long-term cognitive function among testicular cancer survivors treated with chemotherapy Journal of Clinical Oncology 26:5035

Is a mastectomy for a breast lump ALWAYS a lifesaver… or could it be a terrible mistake?

Which mentions: Zahl, Mæhlen and Welch (2008) The Natural History of Invasive Breast Cancers Detected by Screening Mammography Archives of Internal Medicine 168:2311-2316

And also: Gøtzsche et al. (2009) Breast screening: the facts—or maybe not British Medical Journal 338:b86

21st May

Brighten the twilight years: ‘Sunshine vitamin’ boosts brain function in the elderly

A report on: Lee et al. (2009) Association between 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels and cognitive performance in middle-aged and older European men Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry doi:10.1136/jnnp.2008.165720

22nd May

Three cups of tea a day ‘can cut heart attack risk by 70%’

A report on: Ruxton (2009) The health effects of black tea and flavonoids Nutrition & Food Science 39:283-294

Also mentioning: Larsson et al. (2008) Coffee and tea consumption and risk of stroke subtypes in male smokers Stroke 39:1681-7

Also mentioning: A French study I can’t trace using the information given in the article.

Scientists adapt common cold virus to attacks cancer cells but leave healthy tissue unharmed

A report on: Cawood et al. (2009) Use of Tissue-Specific MicroRNA to Control Pathology of Wild-Type Adenovirus without Attenuation of Its Ability to Kill Cancer Cells Public Library of Science Pathogens 5:e1000440.

23rd May

How taking ginger can help ease nausea after chemotherapy

Mentioning in passing: Ryan et al. (2009) Ginger for chemotherapy-related nausea in cancer patients: A URCC CCOP randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial of 644 cancer patients Journal of Clinical Oncology 27:15s(abstr 9511)

Causes in brief

19th May

For heart survivors, a big waistline could be a lifeline

“Evidence from other studies suggests obese patients also fare better after being diagnosed with other chronic illnesses like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cancer and kidney failure.”

The (non-cancer related) study is here.

20th May

Jacko denies he’s got skin cancer – but this horrific picture of his bleached-out face will cause fans just as much alarm

“Vitiligo, the disease which Jackson was reportedly diagnosed with in 1986, is thought to be linked to skin cancer.

The pigmentation condition means that there are areas of the sufferers’ skin which do not contain melanin, which gives the skin colour and protects it from the sun’s rays.

Due to this reduced protection, those with the disease are at greater risk from cancer.”

21st May

£3 Asda sun lotion shines out as top performer among protective creams

“UVB light is linked to several types of skin cancer, including the most serious and least treatable, cutaneous malignant melanoma.

Some products also claim protection against UVA, which is identified through a star rating.

UVA is also linked to some aggressive cancers and ageing.”

22nd May

Rice milk arsenic contamination prompts food watchdog warning for children to stop drinking it

“Arsenic is known as a poison but is also associated with the development of certain cancers.”

23rd May

Bed by 11pm, lose the paunch – and take up the electric guitar… How to avoid a midlife crisis

“This not only looks unsightly, but fat around the waist is linked to metabolic syndrome which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, erectile dysfunction and even prostate cancer.”


19th May

Girl, 10, is the youngest person in the U.S. to be diagnosed with breast cancer

“He said about 0.1 percent of breast cancer occurs in children and is generally less aggressive than in adults.

Often those who develop breast cancer at such a young age have a genetic disposition to the disease.”

20th May

Schoolgirl, 8, becomes youngest Briton to battle ovarian cancer

“Around one in 120 women develops ovarian cancer by the age of 70. Although it is usually found in women after the menopause, it can sometimes strike in young children.

In 2005, three girls aged four or under were diagnosed with the disease and one aged between five and nine.”

21st May

Pictured: Cancer-stricken Patrick Swayze poses with wife Lisa to combat ‘death’ rumours

“Last year, after losing a dramatic amount of weight, Swayze was diagnosed with a malignant tumour in his pancreas.

As it had spread to his liver, he was told surgery was not an option.

Medical experts say most patients have less than six months to live after being diagnosed with such cancer.”

23rd May

Tandemic! How love of sunbeds has sent skin cancer soaring

“However, new statistics from Cancer Research UK reveal that tanning can be a killer. It is now the most common cause of malignant melanoma among 15 to 34-year-olds, and sunbeds double the risk of developing it.”


19th May

Health news: Gas to beat MRSA, how blackcurrants soothe dry eyes and caffeine for pain

“A Caffeine drip is being used to combat pain.

In a new trial, it is being given intravenously to treat acute and chronic pain associated with cancer. It is administered in conjunction with traditional drugs to see if the caffeine boosts their pain-killing effects.”

22nd May

Mother-of-eight Colleen Hauser goes on run to stop court forcing son, 13, to have chemotherapy

“A mother has gone on the run with her desperately-sick teenage son to stop him having chemotherapy for cancer.

Parents Colleen and Tony Hauser have resolutely refused to let Daniel, 13, be treated with conventional medicine, instead advocating alternative treatments.”

Strange Ontology: Week beginning 11th May 2009

The most interesting thing this week is the story covering the latest research on alcohol pricing. Does anyone remember how the Mail responded to Dr Liam Donaldson’s suggestion, earlier in the year, that passive drinking was a scourge which should be responded to with price floors for alcoholic drinks? Well, his position was based on this week’s research, which is covered approvingly as it gives the paper an opportunity to round on the Prime Minister for supporting their previous position. As Mr. Littlejohn so often points out -you couldn’t make it up.

The ‘Obesity linked to many, many thousand cases of cancer, even more than we used to think’ story has gone in ‘Other’, as it doesn’t appear to be peer reviewed. As is the one on gender bending chemicals. If proven wrong, I will happily provide a full reference for it.

There’s also a story I haven’t been able to categorise, Gwyneth Paltrow says shampoo causes cancer. Is she right? (16th May) – it is, gloriously, a reassuring story debunking cancer-related myths. Which doesn’t refer to original research, or causes, or stats, and which seems to deserve slightly more prominence than to be buried in ‘other’. Congratulations to the Daily Mail for taking this positive stance for public information. I look forward to a similar approach on MMR, global warming and same-sex adoptions.

Nothing new causes or cures cancer this week, but we might soon have a better test for prostate cancer and price floors may help cancers of the liver.

The Meier et al. (2008) paper is open access.

Original Research

12th May

Health news: How blood pills cut your risk of dementia, whether mud baths ease arthritic pain and how prostate results vary day to day

A report on: Erm, something in this journal. Sorry – but you try tracking it down using the information given in the article…

13th May

Accurate prostate test which could save hundreds from surgery every year a step nearer

A report on: Nilsson et al. (2009) Prostate cancer-derived urine exosomes: a novel approach to biomarkers for prostate cancer British Journal of Cancer 100:1603–1607

15th May

Charging 50p a unit for alcohol ‘would save 3,400 lives a year’

A report on:  Meier et al. (2008) INDEPENDENT REVIEW OF THE EFFECTS OF ALCOHOL PRICING AND PROMOTION: Part B; Modelling the Potential Impact of Pricing and Promotion Policies for Alcohol in England: Results from the Sheffield Alcohol Policy Model Sheffield: University of Sheffield

Causes in brief

11th May

Credit crunch sees people opt for sunbeds over beach holidays

“Some UV rays from sunbeds can be up to 15 times higher than that of the midday sun and using a sunbed once a month or more can increase the risk of skin cancer by more than half”

12th May

Taking folic acid for a year ‘cuts risk of premature births by 70%’

“But there are concerns that [folic acid] could raise the risk of breast and bowel cancer.”

The curse of thalidomide limb defects is explained 50 years on

“A synthetic form of thalidomide could also be a very effective treatment for early stage cancers, they say.”

13th May

Health officials label boy, 5, ‘overweight’… for exceeding NHS guidelines by just 1lb

“‘As adults, children who are overweight are more likely to have high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.”

16th May

Millions face serious health risks over lack of vitamin D in diets

“Around 90 per cent of the body’s supply of vitamin D comes from sunlight, but exposure is controversial as it can trigger skin cancer, said Dr Ruxton.”

Brave Michael Jackson shows his face as he ‘secretly fights skin cancer’

“Experts have warned that anyone who bleaches their skin would increase their risk of cancer”

[see also the ‘Skin Cancer Facts’ section on the same page]


14th May

300,000 old people are denied the right to die in their own homes, say MPs

“The report said half a million people die each year in England – three quarters following chronic illness, such as cancer or heart disease.”

17th May

Heart disease is not a ‘man-thing’: How to stop the equal opportunities killer

“Women may be more afraid of breast cancer but it is more than five times as likely they will die from heart disease. It is so common that one in three adults of both sexes over 65 has some form of heart complaint.”

How Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen’s wife lost five stone on just 500 calories a day

“This year’s walk has already raised more than £1.3million to help combat  the most common cancer among British women [breast cancer], claiming more than 12,500 lives a year.”


11th May

Obesity ’causes 19,000 cancer cases every year’

A report on this press release.

Does cancer treatment mean my sex life is over?

“Although radiotherapy is an effective treatment for prostate cancer, about 70 per cent of patients are subsequently unable to sustain an erection.”

13th May

Gender-bending chemical timebomb fear for boys’ fertility

A report on this report.

Also mentioning: Myrup et al. (2008) Testicular cancer risk in first- and second generation immigrants to Denmark Journal of the National Cancer Institute 100:41-47

Insults that betray the bigotry of gay zealots

Another almost overwhelmingly depressing column today from Amanda Platell. I think of all the Mail‘s writers, Amanda is the hardest to read – her columns are, almost without exception, viciously judgemental, spiteful and negative to a point where they become quite upsetting to read. Working my way through the snapshots of aggression she takes each week is a draining and dispiriting experience and one which sorely tests my sense of living in a world of positivity and hope, surrounded by equals deserving of my understanding and love. I mention this because central to Amanda’s main column this week is a complaint:

“In articles for this paper, I have committed the heresy of stating my belief that married heterosexual couples make the most suitable candidates to be adoptive parents.

In return, I was subjected to a vile and filthy campaign of personal abuse from the gay media. In one online forum, a contributor suggested the only reason I held such views was that I obviously ‘wasn’t getting enough’.

That’s the sordid level of debate we’ve now reached about an issue with profound implications for the most vulnerable children in our society.”

Amanda is completely right – one of the central principles of this blog is that, in responding to negativity, we need to elevate the argument beyond personal attacks and vindictiveness. Although I often feel that my moderation falls just the wrong side of being po-faced, I think it’s important that the debates we have are civil if we are to generate light in them, and not just heat¹.

This is something which works both ways. The following all appear on the same page as Amanda’s justified and fair complaint about personal abuse:

“We’re used to her craven, attention-seeking publicity stunts, but even by Madonna’s standards, the news that she’s exchanging Kabbalah vows with new toyboy boyfriend Jesus is puzzling.

Then again, if the legal reason she can’t adopt Malawian orphan Mercy is because she’s a single mother, it’s not so much a marriage of convenience as of conveyance.”

“He says he [David Beckham] ‘only has eyes for Victoria’. Yes, but what about your other body parts, Dave?”

“Artistic, inspiring and so modest with it. Is there no beginning to Ms Frostrup’s talents?”

“At first glance, the new pictures of the original Calendar Girls 10 years on was a bit much to, er, bare. But in this body-fascist world, any woman who feels good enough about her body to strip naked at 75 earns my admiration. I just pray they don’t do a 20th anniversary version.”

“Pass the sickbag, Sarah. Paris is a tacky celebrity who’s made millions out of being an airhead. Mrs Brown already has one lost cause at home – she doesn’t need to go searching for new ones.”

“The most astounding thing about the ill-tempered exchange between BBC News 24’s presenter Carrie Grace and Lord Foulkes was that this very forgettable, middle-ranking news presenter gets paid £92,000, while co-presenter Simon McCoy gets £190,000.”

So, we have the impugning of the motives of the relationship arrangements of Madonna, a slur on the current fidelity of David Beckham based on old allegations about his sex life, a snide personal attack on a successful broadcaster, an almost hilariously hypocritical review of a charity calendar², a snide personal attack on Paris Hilton rolled into the doubting of Sarah Brown’s judgement³ and a snide personal attack on a news reader. This is the sordid level we’ve reached.

I don’t want to attempt to justify abuse of Amanda Platell, I think it’s wrong. What I will say, though, is that the Buddhists are right when they suggest the world is acting on you as you act upon it. If you live you life in the life states of animality and anger, the world returns your actions to you on the same terms. If your career is based on weekly personal attacks delivered to strangers, can you be so surprised when strangers see you as a fair target for personal attacks? Any such attacks are not justified, any more than an attack on David Beckham is, but they are inevitable.

This is particularly the case when you are seeking to deny human rights based merely on your own prejudices. It is not heresy to suggest “that married heterosexual couples make the most suitable candidates to be adoptive parents” – it is merely incorrect, based on an ignorance on the research that shows gay and lesbian couples to be as suitable as straight couples. To suggest that view is “backed by an increasing weight of academic evidence” is factually incorrect, and I would encourage readers to complain to the PCC to ask them to correct this. As an introduction to research in this area, I would recommend The American Psychological Association’s ‘Lesbian and Gay Parenting‘¨, and for readers to move from there to the massive and increasing number of studies, meta-analyses, reviews and governmental reports in this area. This would be a much more constructive reaction to Amanda’s column than personal abuse would be – a shining of light into the dark.

It would also avoid Amanda’ fear that:

“No, the real danger of this hate campaign is, first, that it unjustly tarnishes the whole gay community, thereby provoking the very homophobia it seeks to condemn. And second, in its rabid attempt to defend the rights of gay couples, it overlooks the rights of adopted and fostered kids to be raised with a mother and a father.”

Instead, it would show up Amanda’s homophobia for what it is – a position taken against the gay community on the basis of prejudice and ignorance rather than evidence. It is homophobic to oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians purely because they are gay and lesbian. Given the overwhelming evidence that gays and lesbians make parents just as good as any straight couple, there is no non-homophobic reason to oppose their inclusion in the adoption system. In opposing Amanda’s attack on such inclusion, this would be defending a much more important right for children – to be brought up in a loving family.


I’m sorry for the over personal nature of this post – I genuinely find Amanda upsetting, viscerally so, and haven’t found a way of distancing myself from that emotion and dispassionately commenting on her negativity and aggression.

¹ And, as ever, where I fall short I hope to be corrected by readers.

²I believe I’ve mentioned before that if you’re apologising before you say something, you probably shouldn’t be saying it. Delivering an ‘anti-body-fascist’ comment either side of a ‘body-fascist’ one doesn’t undo the harm of the ‘body fascism’, but merely underlines it. Particularly when you’re doing so in a newspaper so obsessed with the figures of celebrities.

³ It’s worth noting here that Sarah Brown actually met Paris Hilton, so is arguably in a better position to judge ‘what she’s really like’ than someone basing their opinions on Paris’ public persona.

¨ In passing, we can put this ‘debate’ down as another of the Mail‘s conspiracy theories. Amanda, and fellow columnists, are asking us to believe that every scientific body to have pronounced on the matter, the peer-reviewed scientific journals in which positive research is published, the governments that are advised by such research, the charities (such as the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, whose comments were the starting place for today’s column) who have taken a position in line with the governments’ – that all these groups are acting against the evidence, or fabricating false evidence, to further the agenda of a minority. How ridiculous does your conspiracy need to be before you accept the alternative? What could be the motivation of these groups? Is the American Paediatric Association really run by a gay mafia?

Why can’t the BBC understand that we are STILL a Christian country?

A couple of things are striking about today’s offering from Stephen Glover:

“Despite being required under its charter to provide religious programming, and despite being funded by licence-payers who overwhelmingly describe themselves as Christian, the Corporation has been increasingly pursuing what can only be, at best, described as a non-Christian agenda and, at worst, as an anti-Christian one.”

These two striking things are the claim that this is a Christian country and the jumping off point for this particular article on religious persecution, the appointment of a non-Christian to the head of religious broadcasting at the Beeb. Taking those in reverse order, Aaqil Ahmed, a practising Muslim who believes that “there should be more coverage of Muslim matters in the media”, has been appointed as head of religious broadcasting for the BBC. He comes from a similar post at Channel 4 and replaces Michael Wakelin, a Methodist lay preacher. Or, as Stephen breaks the news:

“On Monday, the Corporation announced that it has appointed a Muslim as head of religious broadcasting. This is not a joke, I can assure you.

The person responsible for overseeing the BBC’s — so far — largely Christian output will be Aaqil Ahmed, a practising Muslim.”

There appears to be an implicit assumption here that to accurately represent a group you have to be representative of it. On this basis, to take an obvious example, in every constituency in the country, half the population are disenfranchised through the gender of their MP. Generally it is felt that this is not a pressing concern, as someone good, nay merely competent, as an MP should be able to see beyond their own concerns as a gendered individual and extend their representation to those of the wider community. Anecdotally, MPs at least do seem able to do this to some extent – despite being predominantly straight, parliament has over recent decades been able to roll back legislation discriminatory to gays; despite being predominantly monied, we have on the books a small number of laws running against the monied classes in favour of the underprivileged. One would imagine that it would be a condition of Mr Ahmed’s terms of reference, and the oversight that ensures he keeps to them, that he shares similar representative skills.

It’s also worth noting that, for all the use of ‘Christian’ as a concrete noun, the set of items covered by the label ‘Christian’ is very broad. If you need to have an understanding of the beliefs of a group to fully represent them, the Catholic population of the UK, for example, may well have had reason for concern over the appointment of the previous head of religious broadcasting. Methodism is a non-hierarchical denomination, structured as a direct democracy with doctrine discussed and decided on the level of elected national committees. It’s not that unlike the Women’s Institute in that respect. A Methodist lay preacher could reasonably be expected to find it difficult to fully justify the practices of a church based on the doctrinal opinions of an elderly celibate in slippers, appointed in secret by other such elderly celibates and claiming authority through a direct lineage from an apostle of the human incarnation of God. This is no small issue given the research in 2007 which suggested that Roman Catholicism would surpass Anglicanism¹ as the country’s biggest Church and so, presumably, the biggest subset of BBC-funding licence payers. Although under Mr Wakelin’s watch the religious coverage of the BBC may have become, in Stephen’s opinion, more “anodyne”, he still managed to make it through without claims that Catholicism was being ignored or slighted, or that there was a noticeably Methodist slant to coverage. The fact he was non-representative of the vast majority of the Christian population of the UK didn’t seem to affect his ability to represent them.

For this reason, there is something slightly unsettling about the claim that Muslim will not do the job as well as a Christian (and the attached claim that a Hindu won’t be as good at organising ‘Songs of Praise’), and taking their appointment as evidence that the BBC is sidelining Christianity. If we’re happy with a member of a minority denomination handling the role, and we’re happy in other areas of public life that you can represent without being representative, there seems to be no reason to see a Muslim’s appointment as a potential punchline to a joke.

Moving on to the other striking thing:

“No doubt [the BBC’s] secular suits assume that Britain is as anti-Christian as they are. They’re out of touch again.”

On the face of it, this is an uncontroversial claim – the last national census (2001) showed that (of the 92% of the population choosing to answer the question) 72% of the population felt themselves to be Christians. However, whilst there is a very vocal population of Christians in public life, 72% seems like a very large number given the number of non-Christians encountered in everyday life. Looking at more recent alternative data, the last British Social Attitudes report to look at the subject of religion (2007) found 69% of respondents did not belong to a religion or attend religious services. Leaving aside the possibility that the intervening six years of anodyne religious broadcasting had persuaded a large chunk of Christians to pack it in and worship capitalism instead, there is a big gap between these two results which needs to be explained. Part of it may be the way the question is posed – in the census you are asked ‘What is your religion?’, a formulation implicitly implying that you have a religion of some sort that is both nameable and listed on the form, while in the BSA you are asked ‘Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?’, which is much more open-ended and places ‘no’ on a par with ‘yes, and it is …’. In particular, in the BSA version of the question, the onus is on the respondent to say that which religion they follow, rather than having a list presented from which they can select the best that fits. It avoids the danger of people who were raised Christian or passed through the Christian school system feeling the need to tick the box as it brings in the idea of active pursuit of the religion rather than mere membership. This seems a much more meaningful measure – to take another political analogy, we would consider someone a ‘Conservative’ only if they voted Tory, having been raised in a Tory household but now not voting would be insufficient.

We should probably be wary of both measures – the question on the census is badly phrased while the BSA is a voluntary survey and so subject to things like selection bias² and both rely on self-definition which is changeable and non-uniform. However, taken with evidence of low attendance of religious ceremonies, low viewing figures for religious programmes and little evidence of religious belief in daily life³, we can have reason to doubt the claim that we are still a ‘Christian nation’. To what extent this means we should change our approach to questions of religious involvement in public life is a subject for another time, but at the very least we should stop seeing such claims as truisms which justify any claim to special treatment.

On which bases, Stephen’s conclusion:

“In appointing Aaqil Ahmed they do not simply offend against this country’s Christian heritage and traditions. They also further weaken the hold and authority of the BBC.”

should probably be taken with a pillar of salt.


¹ Which, although being hierarchical in a way which Methodism isn’t, is much closer to it on issues like same-sex relationships, birth control and the intercession of the saints.

² Although they are actually quite good at avoiding such issues.

³ Where, for example, do we find evidence of Christian belief in our daily newspapers – judgemental, thoroughly lacking in brotherly love and doing a fine line in leery, some might say outright covetous, photos of celebrities – for all their protestations when their privileges are threatened.

Marriage is dead on its feet, but it’s still the best safeguard for a future Baby P

A glorious example of the pocket intellectual’s most basic argumentative error today from ‘Peter’ Hitchens:

“The Canadian figures show that  a child is 50 to 100 times safer with natural parents than with a step-parent in the home. The British research found married homes were 33 times safer than those with serial boyfriends. Stable marriage safeguards children.”

Correlation is not causation, nor does it imply causation. I see ‘Peter”s  research and I raise him, as an example, Sidebothama, Heron and ALSPAC Study Team (2006) Child maltreatment in the “children of the nineties”: A cohort study of risk factors Child Abuse and Neglect 30:497-522:

“This study supports previous research in the field demonstrating that a wide range of factors in the parental background, socio-economic and family environments affect the risk of child maltreatment. By combining factors within a comprehensive ecological framework, we have demonstrated that the strongest risks are from socio-economic deprivation and from factors in the parents’ own background and that parental background factors are largely, but not entirely, mediated through their impact on socio-economic factors.”

The Office of National Statistics don’t collect data on marriage by socio-economic status, but taking a couple of proxies, we can have reason to believe that it is deprivation which is underlying both marriage rates and incidence of child abuse in the UK. Taking the most recent data on marriage rates in the UK¹: starting on page 36, table 3.1 – married couples with dependent children tend to be better educated than either co-habiting or lone parents with dependent children². Turning to maps 5.2 on page 74, the geographical distribution of marriage/co-habiting/lone parent families broadly mirrors the geographical distribution of wealth. If you’re unmarried with dependent children, you are more likely to live in a poor area and have a poor quality education. Taking these as proxies for socio-economic status, unmarried people with dependents are more likely to be poor than their married counterparts. Given the research linking poverty to likelihood of abuse, it seems likely that poverty is co-determining abuse and marriage, providing a sensible alternative explanation to their correlation.

On this basis, ‘Peter”s conclusion is somewhat wide of the mark:

“But all those who have connived at the dismantling of marriage, and continue to connive at it, should recognise their own grave guilt in sacrificing the welfare and happiness of children to the selfishness of ‘liberated’ adults who ought, above all, to be shielding the young from harm.”

Marriage is not the good we should be pursuing, but a distraction. Consider how we might ‘promote’ marriage – the discussion tends to be around tax breaks and other financial incentives. Leaving aside for the moment considerations of the efficacy of such policies³, given that you’re more likely to be married with children if you’re middle class to start with, these policies would have the immediate effect of redistributing wealth to the middle-classes. This wouldn’t necessarily entail a decrease in funding for poverty reduction, but would be less effective in reducing abuse than a comparable increase in poverty reduction spending would be. If our object is reducing abuse, giving money to those who already don’t abuse for living lives emblematic of their low likelihood of abuse as an incentive merely to remain in that emblematic state seems counterproductive. To put it more simply, if marriage is merely a symptom of being well off, and abuse a symptom of being poor, we should be treating the root causes of poverty and the marriage will look after itself.

It’s easy to look at the world at some arbitrary point in the past (‘Peter’ chooses 1965 as the date when, for him, everything started going badly wrong), pick differences between then and now and see patterns. We could draw graphs linking global temperature and Tesco’s market share, women in parliament and divorce, number of countries in the EU and UK birth rates. Their correlation, however, would not be enough to imply a link, or enough to base policy on. The fact that you’re less likely to be abused if your parents are married is not a good reason to promote marriage if it’s only another way of saying you’re less likely to be abused if you’re well-off. It would be nice to believe, as ‘Peter’ seems to, that marriage is the panacea for all social ills, but it’s almost certainly more complicated than that.


¹ Incidentally, if you’re looking for an eloquent precis of the difference between correlation and causation, you could do worse than the box on page 39.

² Tables 3.9a and b, page 43, show the knock-on effect from this, as you’re more likely to continue in education if you’re in a family with married parents, educational status and marriage acting in a declining spiral.

³ Such policies seem to rest on the assumption that people will happily live together if only there was enough financial incentive – that a couple of hundred a year from the government will save troubled marriages, or that such money will encourage people whose relationship is not solid enough for them to choose to marry currently to form a stable and lasting marriage. Which n those terms, it seems more likely that such policies will merely reward people who were staying together anyway.

Strange Ontology: Week beginning 4th May 2009

A bit of a quiet week this week – the only real development is that smoking causes cancer sooner if you’re a woman.

Original research

4th May

Women smokers get lung cancer earlier than men, says study

A report on: This study, the abstract of which is inexplicably unfindable.

5th May
New scans that can reveal if chemotherapy is working

A report on: Benz et al. (2009) FDG-PET/CT Imaging Predicts Histopathologic Treatment Responses after the Initial Cycle of Neoadjuvant Chemotherapy in High-Grade Soft-Tissue Sarcomas Clinical Cancer Research 15:2856

8th May

‘It’s just puppy fat’: How parents deceive themselves about their overweight children

A report on:Jones et al. (2009) Parental perceptions of body size and childhood adiposity at 6-8 years in the Gateshead Millennium Study paper presented at 17th European Congress on Obesity, 6-9 May

Also mentioning: Luttikhuis, Sauer, Stolk (2009) How do both parents perceive the weight status of their 3 to 5 year old child? paper presented at 17th European Congress on Obesity, 6-9 May

Causes in brief

4th May

Tests said Adele was pregnant – but her ‘baby’ was actually a tumour

“Most hydatidiform moles are benign and can be removed through surgery or treated with a low dose of chemotherapy (though they are not malignant, hydatidiform moles spread in a similar way to cancer).

In the majority of cases, this is the end of the problem. However, in a handful of women, the moles turn into cancer, as happened to Adele.”

5th May
New rules that label quarter of one-year-olds as ‘too heavy’

“Rapid weight-gain is regarded as most hazardous in the first year. It has been linked to obesity and increased risk of cancer and heart disease in later life.”

9th May

THE FOOD DOCTOR: It’s time to learn about the fats of life

“Saturated fat is linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cancer.”


7th May
Baby boy’s eye cancer spotted after he is snapped with mother’s camera phone

“Mr Aguirre confirmed Thomas had the rare form of eye cancer retinoblastoma, which affects 50 children under the age of five each year.”


5th May
Latest health news round-up: How folic acid could lower the risk of cancer and antibiotics can fix appendicitis

“Folic acid is being tested to see if it can lower a woman’s risk of cervical cancer. A trial is looking at whether supplements can stop or delay the development of the disease in women infected with human papillomavirus or HPV, implicated in 99 per cent of cervical cancers.”

9th May

Glowing plaster that destroys skin cancer by zapping it with light unveiled

An ad for these guys.