Sunday, 13 June 2010

Abuse, misuse and statistics

I’ve just been watching a sad example of the current state of British academia.
More precisely, I’ve been watching what happens when the subsidy from one major industry pays for not only the ‘right’ research results, but a pseudo-professorship at a former minor technical college upgraded to university status to enforce the ‘rightness’.
The sad example appeared on my favourite Sunday morning comedy show to argue that ‘we should all pay the price of alcohol abuse’. What’s even sadder, I once spoke to this ‘professor’ and her more principled research partner about the misuse of their work by the Manx government, so know that they have grave reservations about the way in which the tip of the research iceberg – articles in properly peer-reviewed social science journals – is quoted totally out of context when used by advocacy groups and the major drinks companies to forward their agenda (i.e. no more cheap alcohol in supermarkets and artificially inflated prices in pubs and licenced premises which have no choice but to pay them, then pass them on to the punter).
One of the show panellists – a liberal rabbi whose name I didn’t catch and who looks like Jonathan Pryce’s stunt double - put his finger on the problem. If we’re serious about reducing alcohol intake, why does a pint cost £2.20 and a soft drink cost £2.40 in an average pub?
The answer, though no-one said it, might be obvious to anyone who can be bothered to do the research and join the dots. It is because the same company owns both the beer and the soft drink and has a virtual monopoly over supply of both, at prices artificially inflated by a moral panic over ‘binge drinking’ based only on the misquoting of ‘research’ which (like the academics and academic departments who produced it) those drinks companies also own.
Notes From The Borderlands, an excellent print and online mag which provides the UK’s best research on far right and secret state activity, uses the term ‘state compromised journalism’ to describe when ‘investigative journalists’, incapable of or reluctant to do proper research, have their stories written and agendas set by state agencies. Such stories then appear in documentaries or left of centre papers like the Guardian and so help the state to keep smallish reform groups at each others throats, while dismally failing to end racism or any of the other tools of government. A clever tactic, as us liberals automatically discount anything in rightish broadsheets; especially as we know, thanks to folk like Nick Davies, that MI5 are on good terms with editors and key staff.
Similarly, isn’t it time we ask which academics are ‘state compromised’ or ‘commercially compromised’ – not always simply by career choice (though it definitely happens), but in many more cases because research parameters - and sometimes the existences of whole university departments - are set by the sponsors? Not only that, but there is no longer a true academic commitment to fearlessly independent research and making results available for public scrutiny -due to the high price anyone outside academic networks has to pay to see academic articles, and the way the sponsors also control publication and use of ‘their’ research.
Certainly we should still pay attention to the ‘freedom of speech’ arguments we sometimes hear when one major interest group tries to gag the research of a more independent writer, e.g. the Simon Singh case. But we should recognise such independent research is now the brave exception, not the rule it is held up to be.
And there are also those who ask why I am obsessed with the ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll’ end of civil liberties, not more mainstream concerns like poverty. To which I would reply thus.
The police say they practice ‘zero tolerance’ of petty crime, using the rationale that it prevents it escalating into major crime, though the reality might be that they can’t go after major criminals anyway – especially when they are in government or running the civil service!
Similarly, I have zero tolerance of PR misdemeanours, like greenwashing , advocacy research and the deliberate twisting of results which (far too often) aren't available for proper independent scrutiny: because their drip, drip drip of misinformation dominates and sets ‘common sense’ understandings of society and morality.
We cannot, overnight, change the effect of decades (sometimes centuries) of bigotry and lies. But we can chip away at the newer, smaller lies before they take root, in the hope that they make more people question the bigger ones. And at the very least, people will then refuse to cooperate with the state, the churches and other major anti-democratic interests on newer infringements on civil liberties.

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