Fixating on social workers

I’ve only skimmed much of the news for the last week. I couldn’t bring myself to read the details of the baby P story, so I picked up the gist and moved on. But even with that little knowledge I got the impression that social workers were taking the brunt of media anger, rather than the actual people responsible for the crime. So I read up on it, and found this post by Unity. In it he compares the official Case Review with the media coverage. He argues for an interpretation of available evidence saying that until two/three weeks before the child’s death, there was nothing to separate the case from thousands of others. And aside from a paediatrician’s failure to notice severe injuries, no mistakes were necessarily made. Many newspapers, from the same evidence, have called for the heads of social workers. And even then without proper regard for the facts:

It’s also worth pointing out here, as this is rarely if even made clear by the media, but of the much quoted sixty occasions that the family had contact with health and social care workers in the 8 months from December 2006 up until the child’s death in August 2007, only 18 of those contacts were actually with social workers, a little less than half the number of contacts with health staff (37, including three visits to the family home), and the family (minus the boyfriend one assumes) were also seen five times at home by staff from the Family Welfare Association, which is now called ‘Family Action’ and there were another eight occasions that the child’s mother took her son to see health professionals including the two occasions on which the child’s injuries raised suspicions of abuse.

So how come the press and politicians are busily trying to kick the hell out social workers when they account for less than a third of the contact between the family and health and social care workers over the entire period and when – if you actually bother to read things properly and think about the many inconsistent elements that are apparent in this case – there evidence provides an equally plausible scenario which accounts more than adequately for the events leading to Baby P’s death but without relying on systematic failures and incompetence to explain the role of a range of health and social care professionals in proceedings?

He makes a convincing case. Here’s Polly Toynbee’s take on the repurcussions:

The fallout will be serious. Children’s departments will cover their backs and take many more into care. The pendulum may be due a slight swing that way, but it has its own dangers: when social workers are seen as child snatchers, parents are less willing to seek help or take injured children to hospital. There is no evidence to show if it is better to take a child away soon after birth when there is a danger the family can’t cope. A child might have a better life with adopters; and if the authorities delay until the damage is done, the prognosis for older children in care is poor, many ending up in prison. But few doubt that, if parents are “good enough”, children are best off with their own families. What Solomon can make the right call every time?

I cannot imagine the pressures of being a social worker. I don’t know how you deal with the things you must see on a daily basis, or cope with the situations that must arise. But people do, and their very existence is astonishing to me. Presumably they save thousands of children every year, to little acclaim. Then something like this happens, and the media don’t have the decency to pause for breath before letting rip. And the next day these same social workers get up and go to work. Because, as Unity quotes, this stuff is happening all the time.

The Big Picture

The Big Picture displays images of current events, but large enough to fill your browser window. It sounds obvious, but simply having big images makes a hell of a difference to their impact. The front page selects one image, but each post contains 15-20.  Good places to start might be Daily Life in Sadr City, Mississippi Floodwaters and an Indonesian mud volcano (accidentally created during drilling, it’s now destroyed 10,000 homes). It’s not all depressing, though – there’s also a rain-soaked Euro 2008 match, weather conditions on Mars and helicopter shots of an uncontacted tribe in Brazil.

Out of the loop

Man, I don’t watch the news for 24h and things happen. The Archbishop of Canterbury apparently did something stupid and is facing calls to resign, though I haven’t read what he actually said yet so don’t know whether it’s quote-mining media hysteria. Having said that, the Archbishop’s ability to obfuscate his points to the point of abstraction is legendary – he’s good at making weasly statements that play to the faithful but give him an Out. I had to read last week’s talk on religious offence three times before I grasped what he was saying, but the blog post necessary to appropriately respond would have been insanely long – thankfully Ophelia and Martin did good jobs of demonstrating why saying something stupid in fancy language doesn’t make it any less stupid (he wants rid of the blasphemy law – yay! – but wants something more powerful in its place. Sigh.).

Also, what’s all this rubbish about acupuncture and IVF? Shall investigate.

Evil Immigrant Babies

What’s with BBC News going all BNP over ‘foreign-born mothers’?! It was all over the Ten O’Clock News, too. It’s costing £200m a year more than a decade ago, apparently, and in 2006 over 20% of births were to ‘foreign-born mothers’. Oh no! How terrible! Let’s tell immigrants they can’t have children, or deny pregnant women visas, or something. It’s our NHS, we don’t want any dirty immigrants using it, especially to have evil immigrant babies.

The real story seems to be that the NHS isn’t coping as well as it should with high numbers of births. But the emphasis is on immigrants, and how evil they are for having children. Weird. Maybe it’ll make sense in the morning.

Trying to have sex with a bike might be odd, but is it criminal?

Here’s a headline you don’t see every day:

A man caught trying to have sex with his bicycle has been sentenced to three years on probation.

He was staying at a hostel in Ayr and got caught in the act when cleaners unlocked his door and walked in. I admit to finding this particularly entertaining:

Stewart had denied the offence, claiming it was caused by a misunderstanding after he had too much to drink.

“I’m sorry, your honour, in the dark the BMX looked just like Kelly Brook”. Said a spokesman.

But, seriously, how is this a crime? He was charged with:

a sexually aggravated breach of the peace by conducting himself in a disorderly manner and simulating sex

WTF. Was this person not in a room on his own? And could they sound any more Victorian?

Weird as it may be, what’s the actual problem here? It’s not even a slap on the wrist, the guy is on probation for three years and is now on the sex offenders register. That’s going to completely mess up the guy’s life, which seems vastly disproportionate. Maybe there are more details that make this less pleasant; from the information given it seems arcane and ridiculous.

Smoke. Black.

Scribbles was watching BBC coverage of the recent fire in London, and admired the eyewitness who saw smoke. In the sky. I also liked the breathless announcement of its being ‘within the 2012 olympic site’, like that’s a Green Zone or something.

The BNP and Joosters

Kudos, hat-tips and smiley-faces to B4L, who says everything I was thinking about Facebook/BNP shenanigans, only in actual well-arranged words.

And while we’re talking Facebook, everybody should join the Bring Back Joosters group. Because they should. A world without Joosters is worse than one with and furthermore everyone knows it. My mouth is literally watering at the thought of Joosters. I was in the fan club, you know, although their website has now been squished, like a proverbial Jooster.

And while we’re talking about sweets, I would like to say that I am terribly conflicted over stories of cricketers and jelly-beans. On the one hand, just another example of cricketing muppetry. On the other, terribly endearing.

The luckier ones

Holy shit.

“She peeked out into the hallway, and saw the shooter, so she immediately closed the door. Three other students moved a table that was in front of the room – it seats approximately 40 students at capacity – and barricaded it against the door.

 A few seconds later, the shooter tried to open the door, but my classmates kept it well shut, as they held the table against it from floor level.

“The shooter shot the door twice at chest level, which resulted in two holes in the door, one of which hit the podium in the front of the class room and the other continued out the window. At this point he reloaded, shot the door again – this shot did not penetrate – and moved on to the other classrooms,”

I cannot imagine coping with that.

The Independent scaremongering over mobile phone radiation

The Independent wants to know whether mobile phones are killing bees. They claim that bees are disappearing all over the world, and that studies have shown mobile phone radiation may be sending them astray. According to an entomologist on the radio this afternoon this is based on a study where a mobile phone transmitter was placed directly inside the hive, and has rather dubious real-world validity. But that’s not what I wanted to mention. The last third of the article trots out a lot of unjustified hysteria over mobile phone radiation:

Evidence of dangers to people from mobile phones is increasing. But proof is still lacking, largely because many of the biggest perils, such as cancer, take decades to show up.

You can just about read this as objective, if you stand on your head and squint your eyes a bit.

Most research on cancer has so far proved inconclusive. But an official Finnish study found that people who used the phones for more than 10 years were 40 per cent more likely to get a brain tumour on the same side as they held the handset.

No it didn’t. Here’s the abstract from the International Journal of Cancer:

We found no evidence of increased risk of glioma related to regular mobile phone use (odds ratio, OR = 0.78, 95% confidence interval, CI: 0.68, 0.91). No significant association was found across categories with duration of use, years since first use, cumulative number of calls or cumulative hours of use. When the linear trend was examined, the OR for cumulative hours of mobile phone use was 1.006 (1.002, 1.010) per 100 hr, but no such relationship was found for the years of use or the number of calls. We found no increased risks when analogue and digital phones were analyzed separately. For more than 10 years of mobile phone use reported on the side of the head where the tumor was located, an increased OR of borderline statistical significance (OR = 1.39, 95% CI 1.01, 1.92, p trend 0.04) was found, whereas similar use on the opposite side of the head resulted in an OR of 0.98 (95% CI 0.71, 1.37). Although our results overall do not indicate an increased risk of glioma in relation to mobile phone use, the possible risk in the most heavily exposed part of the brain with long-term use needs to be explored further before firm conclusions can be drawn.

There was no evidence of increased risk in the vast majority of their studies. The only worry is a borderline statistically significant result indicating that people who’ve used mobile phones for more than ten years, exclusively on one side of the head, are more likely to get a tumour on that side of their head. I’m not sure whether this is actually increasing the odds of getting a tumour, or saying that if they get a tumour in the first place, it’s more likely to be on the side of the head they use their mobile phone. From the phrasing I suspect the former. Either way, the numbers are really, really small, and that the side of the head is reported in hindsight by people already with brain tumours (and therefore possibly suspicious of mobile phones) certainly doesn’t warrant drawing any conclusion beyond ‘further research is necessary’. It’s definitely not enough to make sweeping statements like the Independent has. This isn’t a case of the result probably being true and scientists just being picky, it’s a genuine lack of evidence to make any kind of conclusion. My grasp on statistical methods is fuzzy, but I’m also willing to bet that an odds ratio of 1.39 isn’t the same as being 40% more likely, in this case. Back to the Independent:

Equally alarming, blue-chip Swedish research revealed that radiation from mobile phones killed off brain cells, suggesting that today’s teenagers could go senile in the prime of their lives.

In rats. Assuming they’re talking about a 2003 study. There is no evidence to suggest that mobile phone radiation damages human brain cells. It’s known that mobile phone use can affect the brain, but no damage has been detected. Again, this isn’t a matter of it probably being true in humans too – plenty of tests on animals simply don’t apply to humans. At most it’s a reason to continue researching and isn’t enough to draw a conclusion, especially one so nutty as ‘today’s teenagers could go senile in the prime of their lives’. Where the hell did that come from?

Studies in India and the US have raised the possibility that men who use mobile phones heavily have reduced sperm counts. And, more prosaically, doctors have identified the condition of “text thumb”, a form of RSI from constant texting.

RSI? You’re bringing up RSI in a piece about the supposed deadly effects of mobile phone radiation? I’m perfectly willing to believe that somebody could get RSI from excessive texting. Quick, call the Pope. As far as I can tell, the sperm count studies seem to indicate that people who use mobile phones for many hours a day have smaller sperm counts. But it’s not thought that the radiation itself is causing the problem – there’s no real theoretical mechanism for this, for a start – more likely that it’s a substitute for some other factor. If people are on the phone for so long, are they sitting down the whole time? What kind of lifestyles do they have? What are they eating? How much exercise do they get? Studies need to control for these things before such conclusions can be reached.

Professor Sir William Stewart, who has headed two official inquiries, warned that children under eight should not use mobiles and made a series of safety recommendations, largely ignored by ministers.

No he didn’t. He said, in his 2000 report:

If there are currently unrecognised adverse health effects from the use of mobile phones, children may be more vulnerable because of their developing nervous system, the greater absorption of energy in the tissues of the head (paragraph 4.37), and a longer lifetime of exposure. In line with our precautionary approach, we believe that the widespread use of mobile phones by children for non-essential calls should be discouraged.

He recommended that children be discouraged from using mobile phones not because of any evidence of adverse health effects, but because if any are discovered they would affect children more than adults due to the differing physiologies. This seems reasonable to me, since there’s little reason for under 8s to be regularly using mobile phones anyway. The precautionary approach detailed in the report is laid out on the basis of possible future discoveries, with effort put into finding a reasonable balance between caution and outright paranoia. The final sentence of the Independent report is useless without any details, and I can’t be bothered checking to see whether every recommendation has been implemented.

The health effects of electromagnetic radiation are the subject of huge amounts of research, as you’d hope. If there are any dangers to using a mobile phone, I want to bloody know about it! But with the evidence not suggesting anything to worry about, the Independent article is nothing more than scaremongering, and doesn’t help anybody.