Archive for December 2012

Angels and the cult of early

December 21, 2012

The first people to hear about the birth of Jesus were the shepherds. Proof that God loves people in humble walks of life? Or did the angel just go to them because they were the only people up that early?

The high-born magi, it goes without saying, arrived quite a bit later but brought expensive presents.

A happy Christmas from Verbal Tea to all its readers. I hope you’ll be back in the New Year.

The shibboleth of homeopathy

December 20, 2012

I’ve written before (though not here) about the smugness of your average self-declared “sceptic”. The kind of person who puts “atheist” in their Twitter bio as if “not believing in God” counts as a proper hobby. The internet is absolutely crawling with them.

And of course all online communities have their shibboleths. In the left-leaning communities, it’s the BNP. Making an anti-BNP comment, however obvious or fatuous, marks you out as one of the gang. Hating the BNP is easy, sure, but that’s kind of the point. You might disagree on education or immigration or cycling, but you can all agree on hating the BNP. How very cosy. (The Daily Mail, ditto.)

I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to spot that homeopathy serves exactly the same function among internet “sceptics”. In the past few weeks I’ve heard several friends expressing doubt about an ethical bank because it funds homeopathy, and another friend saying she’s unsubscribed from a vegan newsletter because they ran a pro-homeopathy article. Yes, the ethical bank also supports windfarms and fair trade and third world development projects. Yes, the vegan newsletter probably also offers a wealth of interesting content and support for a vegan lifestyle. But still, the perceived evil of homeopathy definitively overrides the good bits for one friend and plunges the others into a quagmire of ethical dithering.

To me, that’s hard to understand, because in these examples the good still so clearly outweighs the bad. Of course homeopathy is a load of rubbish. Of course it’s been debunked again and again. And yes, it can be dangerous. But I don’t believe that’s why it attracts such horror and ridicule on the internet, to the point where people (like me) who spend half their lives on the internet are trained to hear loud alarm bells when it’s mentioned.

It’s because homeopathy is a shibboleth. It’s a handy way of othering certain groups to show your membership of your own group. And it’s easy to laugh at the misguided flakes who use it, even when they’re misguided flakes driven to desperation by chronic pain. Maybe they’re misguided flakes who are frightened of mainstream medical treatment because they’ve had a traumatic experience that destroyed their trust. Chortle! The hilarious fools!

Even if you’re not that cruel, you’re still discouraged from showing empathy for homeopathy users because you know you’ll be jumped on if you express a nuanced view. You can’t say something like “We need to look at why people use homeopathy”, or criticise mainstream medicine in the context of the rising popularity of alternative medicine, because there are so many people out there itching to find a homeopathy advocate to argue with. And even though you’re not a homeopathy advocate, they’ll turn you into one for the purposes of winning an argument with you. Up to now, I’ve avoided blogging about homeopathy for the same reason I don’t blog about economics; I can’t face dealing with the comments of people who see certain keywords and joyfully jump in to say I’m stupid without actually listening to what I’m saying.

Mocking homeopathy on the internet is a way of asserting your identity as a rational, ethical person. It suggests you’re worthy to follow in the footsteps of the sainted Ben Goldacre, even though you don’t have his medical qualifications or his talent. Showing contempt for one minor, specific piece of flakery is a way of joining the right-about-everything club. You look like a free-thinker without actually challenging the views of anybody around you. It’s a sweet, easy pill to swallow.

Leaving your car unlocked

December 18, 2012

Imagine that you live in a parallel universe where everybody owns a car. Not just rich people; everybody. You’re actually born with a car. If you want to travel anywhere, you absolutely have to bring the car with you. Leaving it behind in a secure place is absolutely not an option, ever.

There’s no way of locking your car, no way of even removing the key from the ignition. But it’s sort of OK, because that’s just how things are. Anyway, there’s a widespread understanding that stealing someone’s car is one of the worst things you can possibly do to them, and that decent people would never do it. Roughly half the world’s population have never worried at all about the possibility of having their car stolen. Of the other half, perhaps a third have had their car stolen. But the funny thing about this parallel universe is that the vast majority of thefts actually happen to cars inside locked garages, where you’d think they would be at their most secure. And most car thefts are perpetrated by friends and relatives of the car owner, people the owner could be expected to trust.

Some people are under huge social pressure to bring their car everywhere, to make it visible, to modify it so it makes more noise. Other people are under huge social pressure to stay at home with their cars and hide them if possible – but oddly, they’re the ones more likely to have them stolen.

Despite widespread agreement that car theft is a terrible thing, there’s a very low conviction rate for it. When you head out to meet friends in your car, you always know there’s a chance that your car will be stolen and that the thief will get away with it. But you have no way of preventing this, not even if you hide away at home – especially if you hide away at home.

Your choice isn’t between possibly getting your car stolen and definitely not getting your car stolen. Your choice is between living your life (and possibly getting your car stolen) or living a grey, ghostly husk of a boxed-in life, full of fear (and still possibly getting your car stolen). You choose the former option and you go out, with your car.

In that parallel universe, Mia Freedman’s comparison between leaving your car unlocked and walking home at night after a few drinks would be valid. But in the universe we actually live in, it’s victim-blaming bullshit.

A simple test of cycling policy

December 11, 2012

The cycling “debate” blunders on. Ostensibly we’re asking “How can we make the roads safer for everybody?” but really it turns into a fight over who gets to have their needs met and who has to change their behaviour. And so many ostensibly sensible, pro-safety suggestions are really being offered in the spirit of trying to punish, rather than protect, cyclists as a group.

So here’s a simple test. When you have a suggestion for making the roads safer, ask yourself:

If this suggestion was put into practice, would I be more or less likely to cycle?

Think honestly about how often you cycle now. If your suggestion became reality, would you get on your bike more or less often?

If your immediate response begins “Well, yes, but I -”, you’re going to have to stop and try again.

If this suggestion was put into practice, would I be more or less likely to cycle?

Perhaps you’ve never been on a bike in your life. In that case, a) it’s interesting that you think you’re qualified to offer advice on cycling; b) you should still ask yourself the question:

If this suggestion was put into practice, would I be more or less likely to cycle?

Perhaps you’re the kind of person who would cycle whatever the circumstances: in the dark, in the snow, with people throwing burning javelins at you. In that case, we’re going to have to adapt the question. Assuming your own suggestion wouldn’t make you personally any less likely to cycle, think about someone you know who doesn’t cycle much, or at all. Maybe your mum, your boss at work, your 10-year-old son.

If this suggestion was put into practice, would that person be more or less likely to cycle?

If the answer is “more likely”, you’ve probably come up with a suggestion that makes cyclists feel safer, possibly one that makes them safer in reality. In other words, you’ve probably got a good suggestion for safer roads.

If the answer is “less likely”, you’ve come up with a suggestion to discourage cycling. If your goal is to discourage cycling, that’s your prerogative; but don’t claim that it’s about making anybody safer. Because it isn’t.

All sorts of policies can be run by this simple test: compulsory helmet laws, segregated cycle lanes, compulsory insurance for cyclists, heavier punishments for running red lights, lower speed limits, higher speed limits, free cycling proficiency training in schools… you name it. Try it. The results are enlightening.

To each according to his need

December 10, 2012

My resolve not to help people who won’t help me has already been tested a few times since I posted last week. Out of habit, I nearly helped a former colleague to promote an event he’s organising. It’s something I personally have no interest in, but I know it’s very important to him. How easy it would be to retweet his mentions of it, or link to his website. But then I remembered: he has never done the same for me, and probably never will. So why clog up my own Twitter feed with info about something I don’t care about?

After a few similar experiences came something more difficult, because it involved someone I’ve been close to in the past. I’ve worked on many things closely with him and we’ve supported each other. He didn’t send apologies or good-luck wishes for my “thing” recently, so I assumed he was coming. I actually delayed the start of the event for ten minutes because I was so sure that he (and others) were on their way. But I was wrong; he didn’t turn up.

I found out afterwards that he was abroad on a planned trip, so he clearly never had any intention of being there. I was hurt about that. He’s also annoyed me recently by asking for help and not saying “thank you” afterwards. So when he invited me to his own “thing” this week, I decided to tell him I wasn’t going because I only support people who support me.

But it’s never black and white. My partner explained to me that this person is suffering from severe depression, that he probably has no energy left for his own “thing”, let alone other people’s things, and that he’s in no state to get into a discussion about obligations with me.

So I’ve gone for the compromise I really didn’t want: not going, sending my apologies, but not explaining why.

It’s amazing how much guilt I feel. If I went, I would be out three weekday evenings in a row. I would be spending an evening with people I don’t really know, discussing issues I’m not really interested in, unable to contribute because I have no knowledge or insight to offer. And, you know, I didn’t ask him to do his thing. But I still feel bad. And part of the guilt is the knowledge that my absence doesn’t achieve anything. I suppose I was hoping that my decision to get reciprocal would help to educate the people who let others down, to show them that there are consequences. But this guy is too ill for that approach to work on him. So instead I’m just quietly letting him down, just like the majority of my friends and acquaintances let me down recently. The whole thing makes me feel sad and tired. But nobody said that defending the value of my own time and energy would be easy.

More on help with my thing

December 5, 2012

I’ve written before about people who ask for “help with my thing”, and my own (incorrect) assumption that you can “earn” help and support by valuing other people’s time and not pulling too much bullshit.

Back then, I said I was planning to limit the amount of stuff I do to help with other people’s things. This hasn’t worked because I found it so hard to know where to draw the line.

What’s prompted this return to the topic? Well, last week I tried again to do a “thing”. I’ll spare readers the details. Suffice to say I put a huge amount of effort into it, because it was my thing. But I only got a tiny amount of the support I was hoping for.

Some people helped me organise and promote the event. Some people were there on the night, or sent apologies and good-luck wishes. Some people thanked me afterwards or contacted me to ask how it went. And if you drew a Venn diagram of those groups, you’d be dealing with a lot of overlap and a tiny handful of names. Most people I know just ignored the event completely.

I tried hard to be outwardly positive and focus on the many good aspects of the situation: great venue, brilliant speaker, appreciative audience. I chaired the meeting with a smile on my face and did an upbeat write-up the next day. But inwardly I was devastated.

I don’t want to take a point-scoring, tit-for-tat approach to support. My voluntary work is in a world with a culture of teamwork and sharing and cooperation. Point-scoring seems silly, not least because keeping track is exhausting: “You helped at my stall on the fair but then I helped you deliver those leaflets but you wouldn’t write a blog post for me…”

But I realised that my own hurt feelings were coming from the assumption that there should be some reciprocity, some fairness, whether you want to call it point-scoring or not. The people I was expecting to be there, or to shout about it on my behalf, were mostly people who had received similar help from me in the recent past (one of them the very same day).

My energy (emotional and physical) is finite. I think I would be healthier and happier if I stopped running myself ragged trying to support everything I’m asked to support. And limiting my support to the people who support me in the things that matter most to me seems as good a way as any of doing this.

The concept of finite-ness even applies, in a smaller way, to Twitter. I’ve gained followers through being interesting. Every time I RT someone who’s boring just because I think I “should” support them, I draw on the finite goodwill of my own followers and risk losing them. Why the hell should I do that for anyone who wouldn’t do the same for me?

Maybe I’ll be the poorer for this decision. But I’m going to try it. Shit just got reciprocal, people.

On homework

December 4, 2012

New(ish) research finds that the evidence on giving children homework is complex. In general, it seems that older, brighter children get more out of homework than younger, less able children. The linked article also says that:

Overall, the more complex, open-ended and unstructured tasks are, the lower the effect sizes. Short, frequent homework closely monitored by teachers has more impact…

I wrote a while ago that

lazy teachers would rather dump a poorly explained, confusing, pointless activity on their pupils than actually teach

and I’d say that’s even more applicable to homework than to in-class activities. If you’re over 25, cast your mind back. I can’t speak for everybody, but I remember getting lots of homework requiring independent research or creativity, sometimes even asking me to “go to the library and find out about…” despite the fact that the library closed long before I got home and the homework was due in the next day. (Other misery-inducing tasks included somehow building objects out of materials I didn’t have, or writing a short story in an evening on top of all my other work.) I worked out when I was about 13 that the teachers who set that kind of work weren’t hard taskmasters who genuinely expected the near-impossible from me; they were just sodding lazy. So lazy that they copied homework tasks from existing teaching resources without even bothering to read through them first and find out what they were asking us to do. (We all worked out eventually that with those teachers, there was a good chance they’d forget to mark the work at all, so it might be worth risking detention rather than attempting the impossible.)

Now, of course, the internet is your friend. You don’t need to live in a home with a full set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica or knowledgeable adults. You just Google it and copy/paste a Wikipedia entry. I find it amusing to imagine that my teachers in the 1980s and the 1990s weren’t lazy or stupid – they were just prophets who could see the internet age so clearly, they assumed it was here already. I also find it quite funny that now the teachers who don’t read the tasks they’re setting are matched by kids who don’t read the homework they’re “writing”.

But I think we’re asking the wrong question. Why are we having a debate about whether homework benefits kids or not? Why don’t we go right back to the drawing board, drop all our current assumptions about what education looks like and ask what’s actually best for kids?

To give just one example: the debate about homework is starting from the point that a schoolkid’s day ends around 3:30pm. We’re having arguments based on the idea that they’re only in school for about six hours a day, so the discussion becomes about whether that’s enough or whether they need “extra” work. Why? Why, when that actually makes no sense at all?

Firstly, the time a child officially spends in school is not the time they spend on school-related things. Maybe teaching starts at 9:30am, but you’ve got assembly at 9am and your dad needs to drop you off earlier on his way to work, so you’re actually in some kind of school breakfast club from 8:30am onwards, which means you left the house at 8am, which probably means you got up at 7am, which for teenagers is a stone-cold killer, fucking up your body clock and leaving you exhausted for the rest of the day. Then school ends at 3:30pm, but neither of your parents can pick you up then, so you go into an after-school club until maybe 5pm, and then your mum drags you to the supermarket because she can’t do the weekly shop any other time, so you actually get home about 6:30pm. Yes, even then you theoretically have a few hours to get your homework done before a sensible bedtime, but that’s assuming you’re a reasonably quick worker, you’re still capable of doing difficult or creative work when you’re tired and hungry, you don’t do any after-school activities like Scouts or music practice or sport, you don’t have to cook your own evening meal or wash up afterwards, you don’t see friends on weekdays, you’re not tempted to relax in front of the telly…

I mean, maybe you live in some beautiful Holland-like paradise where you’re trusted to walk or cycle to school and back on your own. Maybe you get to let yourself into the house at 3:40pm, eat some Nutella on toast and practice speaking six languages. But I’m talking about the huge numbers of kids who live in some stressed-out, unhealthy bit of England or Wales where driving everywhere and working full-time is the norm.

So, the “they’re only in school for six hours” thing is incredibly misleading, because it suggests that a child could get eight hours’ sleep, spend six hours in school and have ample time where they’re in a position to do homework. Which is obviously bullshit, because it ignores things like commuting and stress and tiredness and the fact that if you’re under 16, a huge chunk of your day is taken up with being dragged to places you don’t want to go and waiting in places you don’t want to be. It assumes that kids don’t see friends in the evening or do after-school activities or have any caring responsibilities. It assumes that every parent is ready at the school gates when school’s out.

But more than misleading, it’s stupid, because it assumes that’s the way things have to be. Why? Why have we set things up so that parents who work 9-5 have to run around organising childcare to bridge the gap between the end of their child’s school day and the end of their own work day? If there’s any validity in the argument that six hours of learning isn’t enough, why the hell are we booting kids out of school mid-afternoon? Why doesn’t that extra learning they supposedly need happen in the actual school?

Maybe the current situation is to do with pressure from teachers who want to “beat the traffic”, get into their little Vauxhall Corsa (or equivalent small, roundish, sensible little hatchback) and fuck right off out of there. And part of the reason they need to leave early is that they have all that homework to mark…

Or maybe it’s just because nobody’s ever questioned the current set-up publicly enough. I agree that teaching classes is the kind of full-on experience where you need a break after an hour, and eight hours of it in a day is unsustainable. But couldn’t we rethink the school day so that kids are there for eight hours without teachers actually having to teach for eight hours?

And couldn’t we rethink some other stupid assumptions too? When I was at school, there were rules forbidding pupils from doing homework on the school premises, and I think that was quite common. That turned the pre-school and after-school clubs into dead time where you were literally forbidden from doing anything education-related except possibly reading a book in the corner. Couldn’t we rethink school rules to stop them being anti-education, anti-time-management and generally batshit insane?

Conversations, research and media “debate” about homework are all starting from the wrong place. Let’s have a complete rethink about what actually benefits kids, their parents and teachers in the 21st century.