Chris Riddell brings Iain Duncan Smith back from the dead
‘It’s everyone’s fight,” said the stickers that striking junior doctors handed out at picket lines and protest stalls last week. But is it really? The chief medical officer has warned that strikes will lead to patient suffering: tens of thousands of operations and appointments will have been cancelled as a result of strikes so far. The health select committee chair – a doctor herself – called them “extreme” and “appalling”.
Doctors’ union the BMA insists that the government – and the new junior doctor contract it is proposing – are an even bigger threat to patient safety. Its claims merit at least the scrutiny we’d apply to teaching or train driver unions whose strikes lead to school and tube closures.
Yes, the government has handled these negotiations poorly. But January marked a change in approach: it appointed Sir David Dalton, a respected hospital chief executive, to negotiate on its behalf. He made substantial concessions, including steep fines for hospitals breaching new, lower weekly working limits, and lower limits on the number of consecutive night shifts.
So why the lingering impasse? I spoke to the BMA on Friday: the key sticking point remains Saturday pay. The government wanted to raise basic pay to compensate for removing the uplift for Saturday daytime working; the BMA wanted lower basic pay and a Saturday uplift. Dalton made a significant concession on this, too: all doctors working at least one weekend in four – the majority – would get the Saturday uplift.
There will be a minority of long-term losers but that’s the inevitable consequence of reforming an old contract that all sides agreed was no longer fit for purpose, and which had expensive and unfair anomalies such as doctors working 41 hours a week sometimes getting paid the same as those working 47 hours. The seven-day NHS is a red herring the government may now regret linking to renegotiation: the new contract neither requires junior doctors to work additional weekends nor reduces levels of staffing on Monday to Friday.
So what’s the link between Saturday pay and patient safety? A BMA spokesperson told me the Saturday pay dispute will further damage junior doctor morale, with knock-on impacts for patient safety.
Let’s call a spade a spade. This is a workplace dispute about terms and conditions, not a campaign to save the NHS. There are bigger and more immediate risks to patient safety: hospital trusts under great financial strain struggling to meet safe nursing levels; cuts to social care budgets putting immense pressure on hospital beds.
Of course junior doctors are hardworking and committed, but so are the police officers, soldiers and firefighters who do relentless shift work for less money. Junior doctors have far from the worst deal in the health service: trainee nurses now face having to pay for their own training despite nursing shortages; some care assistants are not even paid the minimum wage.
If this really were “everyone’s fight”, I’d have expected the BMA to at least mention some of this in its correspondence with the government. It’s conspicuous by its absence.
There’s clearly been a total breakdown of trust between both sides, but the BMA, as well as the government, must bear its share of the blame. The Dalton offer was the government doing its bit. Now it’s the BMA’s turn.
Let us all raise a glass to AlphaGo and mark another big moment in the advance of artificial intelligence and then perhaps start to worry. AlphaGo, Google DeepMind’s game of Go-playing AI just bested the best Go-playing human currently alive, the renowned Lee Sedol. This was not supposed to happen. At least, not for a while. An artificial intelligence capable of beating the best humans at the game was predicted to be 10 years away.
But as we drink to its early arrival, we should also begin trying to understand what the surprise means for the future – with regard, chiefly, to the ethics and governance implications that stretch far beyond a game.
As AlphaGo and AIs like it become more sophisticated – commonly outperforming us at tasks once thought to be uniquely human – will we feel pressured to relinquish control to the machines?
The number of possible moves in a game of Go is so massive that, in order to win against a player of Lee’s calibre, AlphaGo was designed to adopt an intuitive, human-like style of gameplay. Relying exclusively on more traditional brute-force programming methods was not an option. Designers at DeepMind made AlphaGo more human-like than traditional AI by using a relatively recent development – deep learning.
Deep learning uses large data sets, “machine learning” algorithms and deep neural networks – artificial networks of “nodes” that are meant to mimic neurons – to teach the AI how to perform a particular set of tasks. Rather than programming complex Go rules and strategies into AlphaGo, DeepMind designers taught AlphaGo to play the game by feeding it data based on typical Go moves. Then, AlphaGo played against itself, tirelessly learning from its own mistakes and improving its gameplay over time. The results speak for themselves.
Possessing a more intuitive approach to problem-solving allows artificial intelligence to succeed in highly complex environments. For example, actions with high levels of unpredictablility – talking, driving, serving as a soldier – which were previously unmanageable for AI are now considered technically solvable, thanks in large part to deep learning.
AI is also increasingly able to manage complex, data intensive tasks, such as monitoring credit card systems for fraudulent behaviour, high-frequency stock trading and detecting cyber security threats. Embodied as robots, deep-learning AI is poised to begin to move and work among us – in the form of service, transportation, medical and military robots.
Deep learning represents a paradigm shift in the relationship humans have with their technological creations. It results in AI that displays genuinely surprising and unpredictable behaviour. Commenting after his first loss, Lee described being stunned by an unconventional move he claimed no human would ever have made. Demis Hassabis, one of DeepMind’s founders, echoed the sentiment: “We’re very pleased that AlphaGo played some quite surprising and beautiful moves.”
Alan Turing, the visionary computer scientist, predicted we would someday speak of machines that think. He never predicted this.
This also made me think back to my time as an engineer, when surprises in the lab were rarely occasions for celebration. In a more traditional design environment, the goal is to anticipate and control for as many possible states a device could find itself in. Surprises typically meant that our design had deviated from its intended behaviour and required a fix. But this just underscores the difference between traditional design paradigms and deep learning.
When it comes to deep learning, unpredictability and surprises are – or can be – a good thing. They can serve as indicators that a system is working well, perhaps better than the humans that came before it. Such is the case with AlphaGo. In the coming years, it will probably continue to learn and to improve, surprising and teaching its human competitors with new moves and strategies along the way.
Other artificial intelligence, designed to benefit humanity by surpassing our abilities in highly complex tasks – diagnosing illness, researching pharmaceuticals, managing power grids, protecting against cyber threats – could rely for its success on deep learning and the unpredictability that seems to be a necessary part of it.
However, unpredictability indicates a loss of human control. That Hassabis is genuinely surprised at his creation’s behaviour betrays a lack of control inherent in the design. And though some loss of control might be fine in the context of a game such as Go, it raises pressing ethics and governance questions elsewhere.
How much (and what kind of) control should we relinquish to driverless cars, artificial diagnosticians, or cyber guardians? How should we design appropriate human control into sophisticated AI that requires us to give up some of that very control? Is there some AI that we should just not develop if it means any loss of human control?
How much of a say should corporations, governments, experts or citizens have in these matters? These important questions, and many others like them, have emerged in response, but remain unanswered. They require human, not human-like, solutions.
Answers to these questions will also require input from the right mix of humans and AI researchers alone can only hope to contribute partial solutions. As we’ve learned throughout history, scientific and technical solutions don’t necessarily translate into moral victories.
Organisations such as the Open Roboethics initiative and the Foundation for Responsible Robotics were founded on this understanding. They bring together some of the world’s leading ethicists, social scientists, policymakers and technologists to work towards meaningful and informed answers to uniquely human questions surrounding robotics and AI. The process of drafting ethics standards for robotics and AI will involve an interdisciplinary effort.
Because of deep learning, AI is surprising us with the speed of its own advancement. Expertise is no longer a 10,000-hour proposition when the would-be expert’s “brain” expands with every improvement to Amazon’s and Google’s clouds. This new pace of innovation is precisely what lends urgency to our challenge.
So as we drink to the passing of a milestone in AI, let’s also drink to the understanding that the time to answer deeply human questions about deep learning and AI is now.
Dr Jason Millar is an engineer and philosopher. He teaches robot ethics at Carleton University in Ottawa
During a performance of The Patriotic Traitor at London’s Park theatre, Laurence Fox swore back at a heckler and stormed off stage. Apologising later, Fox said he should have handled it differently but that the swearing and heckling, audible throughout the play, had become impossible.
There have been times when I’ve sided against luvvies throwing on-stage fits, because, say, somebody in the audience discreetly checked their texts in case their children were dead. If this is all it takes to put them off, then it’s time to get another job. However, this wasn’t panto, a riotous gig or a boozy night at a comedy club, this was someone swearing at an actor during a quiet play. It sounds like someone was being arrogant, precious and over-entitled, but it wasn’t Fox.
This, along with accounts of incessant loud booing in theatres, appears to be a sign of changing times. It’s not so much that everyone is a critic, rather that everyone is such a bad, incompetent critic, the kind of critic who is too impatient and lazy to fashion a proper critique so resorts to boorish disruption instead.
I would have thought that, if you don’t like a play, you’d quietly leave, maybe ask for your money back, and fair enough. However, now there seems to be a new breed of uber-consumers who “know their rights” and (here’s a crucial shift) won’t sit passively as mere audience members but rather demand “equal billing” just for their reactions. In short, it’s the era of the self-sanctified right to reply as an instant dominant force that cannot be silenced or pacified.
Far from Britain being a nation that hates to complain, as we sometimes have it, these attitudes have risen in recent times (famously via the likes of Twitter and TripAdvisor, but now rife all over the media and social media). Which is great in many ways – I’m a fan of mouthy, spirited, bolshie Brits. However, just as crafted, nuanced criticism in all spheres of the arts (such as my old stamping ground, music journalism) is increasingly demoted almost to the status of unpaid hobby, elsewhere this kind of relentless abrasive denigration becomes louder, nastier and more intrusive, even to the point where, as happened with The Patriotic Traitor, it destroys the performance. Whatever was happening there, it wasn’t criticism (even of an earthy, no-frills variety), and whatever you might think of “real” critics, they wouldn’t behave like that. They wouldn’t disrupt an event as it was happening.
You might be sitting there now, thinking: “Oh shut it, you pretentious cow – what makes the opinion of some waffling hack more valid than an ordinary audience member?”, but I’m not saying it is. The whole point is that, during the performance, the hack and the heckler are both equally the audience, but it’s only the latter who’s inappropriately demanding to be the centre of attention.
While audiences are an integral part of the theatre experience, this doesn’t give individuals the right to throw tantrums, like tyrannical children, ruining the experience for everybody else. After all, when the media likes of me wish to spout ill-informed, unsubstantiated, semi-literate opinions, we usually wait until we get home. This kind of disruption (swearing, booing) seems beyond good, honest audience participation – it’s crude cultural vandalism. While performers often stand accused of being precious and over-entitled, it’s increasingly the hecklers who are displaying these self-aggrandising traits and we allow these situations to become the norm at our peril.
The customer isn’t always right – sometimes the customer is full of self-importance and needs to belt up, play fair and let art breathe. So no, Fox should not have sworn at that heckler – the rest of the audience should have done it for him.
Let children feel the thrill of the chase
A school in Leeds has temporarily banned playground games of tag (aka tig or it) because clothes were getting ripped. Whenever this kind of thing happens, such as when schoolchildren were advised to wear goggles while playing conkers to protect them against flying fragments, there are usually cries of “health and safety gone mad!”.
In some ways, I feel conflicted. Remove rose-tinted spectacles and it becomes clear that most of those “charming” traditional playground games were actually rather horrible. I was never that fond of conkers (all that tedious soaking in vinegar, and it hurt when they hit your hand); “it” seemed somewhat repetitive and I was even less enamoured of “stingy” (for the uninitiated, this was a version of “it” where you got pelted with a ball or a stone, not in the face if you were lucky).
In retrospect, even some of the gentler games had decidedly sinister undertones – what is all that silent shuffling closer (and closer) in grandmother’s footsteps if not kids training to be stalkers?
As I recall, I was always far happier keeping well out of the way with a Ladybird book and a contraband cherry Panda Pop.
On the other hand, you’d have thought that any kind of physical activity in the playground would be good news in this blighted era of childhood obesity. With games such as What’s the time, Mr Wolf? there is lots of exuberant (cardiovascular) running around (and even faster running if stingy made a comeback, believe me); hopscotch (hopping, jumping, stretching); even stupid, boring conkers would improve dexterity and tone arms.
Instead of complaining about these sorts of games and banning them, perhaps schools should appreciate them for what they are – unofficial PE.
Madonna, now you understand true heartbreak
Madonna has appeared on stage in Melbourne, dressed in a clown suit, weeping about the legal situation with her teenage son, Rocco, who’s refusing to return home to America. The clown suit was for the show and not a sign of a nervous breakdown, though clearly she’s stressed.
Commiserations to Madonna and welcome to motherhood’s steepest learning curve. You go through life thinking it’s all about having your heart romantically broken by this or that rotter (boo hoo, wail, scream!) – not that you’re bitter and twisted or anything, but country & western singers could learn a thing or two from you about heartbreak, right?
Then your own flesh and blood morphs into befanged teenagedom and you realise that previously you knew nothing (NOTHING!), because this is a whole new level of pain. A child has the power to break a woman’s heart in ways a mere man could never do. All Madonna can do is breathe deeply and pour herself a large martini – for this too will pass. Don’t forget, Madge, one day we’ll be grandmothers, cackling from the sidelines as our progeny encounter their own “learning curves”. Revenge will be sweet.
This budget Britain needs a decisive break with the past five years on housing. George Osborne likes to blame the Labour party but the Conservatives now have their own track record, and it is five years of failure on every front.
Home ownership is down sharply, with more than 300,000 fewer young homeowners, rough sleeping has doubled, private rents have soared, housing benefit spending has increased, and during the last parliament fewer new homes were built than under any peacetime government since the 1920s.
It is hard to find another area of public policy that is failing so conspicuously and comprehensively. So the big challenge for this budget is to turn this around. The Conservatives’ failure on housing is in large part because of the chancellor’s failure on fiscal policy. Time and again, his bid for short-term political gain has trumped sound long-term policy and the national interest.
In 2010 Osborne’s first budget cut housing investment by 60%, undermining his own ambitions and the commitments Conservatives have made since. Ministers say they want to boost home ownership. But ownership has fallen steeply, and 27,000 fewer shared-ownership homes were built over the last five years than in the five years before that.
They say they want to protect services for the most vulnerable, but while homelessness has risen the National Audit Office has confirmed that funding for homelessness services has almost halved. They say they want to continue to provide affordable rented homes for those who need them ,but while council waiting lists have grown newbuild social rented homes have dropped to the lowest level for more than 25 years – and from next year the chancellor will stop funding them altogether for almost the first time in a 100 years.
They said they would build 200,000 new homes a year during this parliament, but they’ve managed just 124,000, in their best year since 2010.
Osborne has tightened his fiscal straitjacket still further, stifling sensible housing investment at a time when it has never been more needed or less costly. No wannabe first-time buyer would turn down a home because it meant taking out a mortgage, and no government should shrink from investing when it is good value for public money and will generate a return.
In housing this means more jobs, more apprenticeships and stronger economic growth. It’s recognised by the OECD, the IMF and the government itself.
When I was Labour’s last housing minister, the established return on every £1m of public investment in house-building was 11 jobs. It also means lower public spending on housing benefit, which is rising as the cost of housing grows much faster than incomes.
In a report I published last year, I showed how a Labour government could build 100,000 council and housing association homes each year to rent and buy, and pay for them in housing benefit savings over 26 years.
Investment in housing isn’t just good social policy: it’s sound fiscal policy too. Labour’s fiscal rules would deal with the current deficit but also give a Labour government the scope to invest, and fix the cost of the housing crisis. As we did in 2008-10 – when Labour set out the biggest investment in housing for a generation – Labour in government would make housing the first priority for new investment.
George Osborne and his government have no long-term housing plan. Five years of Conservative failure on housing is set to stretch to 10 without a big change. And if the government won’t fix Britain’s housing crisisr it will fall to Labour to clear up the mess.
It’s bad news for the drinks industry, but it’s mainly bad news for people who think each generation is more feckless than the last: the number of drinkers among 16- to 24-year-olds has dropped sharply. All kinds of drinkers are dying out: the steady drinkers, the binge drinkers, the drinkers-in-training, the social drinkers the bus stop drinkers – the lot.
In a study by the Office for National Statistics, less than half of young people reported drinking anything in the previous week, compared with two-thirds of 45- to 64-year-olds – many of whom are in all likelihood under medical advice to please cut it out, or at least do the nation the favour of lying about it in surveys.
Various theories are floated: changes in religion and ethnicity, changes wrought by social media, student loans – which we’ll return to. But a report compiled by the Demos thinktank last year found health to be the most common reason given for this abstemiousness.
Health has got to them all, like a cult: they are also less likely to smoke, and the evidence of our own five senses gives us young people in hordes jogging, climbing, journeying eternally from one institution of wellness to another, serious-faced in Lycra, taking responsibility, counting footsteps, living the dream. They must look at previous generations, the lad and ladette (read “beer”) culture of the 90s, and wonder who on earth we thought we were.
There’s plenty to apologise for about the fin de siècle, and it can’t all be blamed on Tony Blair, whatever his biographers tell you. It was the end of ideology, the decade sincerity died. Feminists went underground, too postmodern (also, in fairness, too drunk) to explain that just because Margaret Thatcher was a woman it didn’t mean she was a passionate advocate of gender equality; and “girl power” was a poor substitute for female emancipation.
The legions of the “post-ironic” never had to account for their vapid agenda or explain the meaning of the term, since it would have been deeply passe to expect one. I say “their”; I mean “our”: there must have been postmodernism refuseniks, but I wasn’t one of them. It was a creed of puckish underachievement, personal debt, slacking and loafing, with authenticity rejected in favour of acerbic cynicism. The epic hangovers of its breakfast show DJs made national news.
It was, paradoxically, both trivial and destructive. But we never went jogging. Measuring your own recovery time, having a personal best: these were the niche concerns of the elite athlete, as irrelevant to the general youth population as blood doping. It would have been considered vain to the point of alienation to prioritise your workout over your social life. That may be a modern question for new media to answer: that as everyone is ever more on display standards of physical perfection are driven inexorably, needlessly, upwards.
But, crucially, we were without this mantra of personal responsibility, in which everyone must constantly strive towards self-sufficiency and self-improvement. It wasn’t because we hadn’t heard of it or didn’t understand it, or because Nike didn’t exist or British Military Fitness hadn’t been invented.
We all remembered Thatcher’s fascination with the “vigorous values” (energy, adventurousness, independence) over the “softer virtues” (humility, gentleness, sympathy). We had lived through the 80s, the decade in which self-sufficiency reached such an ugly apex of valorisation that it had its own, completely erroneous, catchphrase: greed is good.
We understood the fault line between those two visions of society: the one in which you parade your morals with rigorous self-discipline and concrete, measurable ambitions versus the one in which both morals and ambitions were for losers – and chose the second. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than the first.
Underpinning this new seriousness, this new competitiveness, is a very grave set of circumstances: student debt will change for ever the way 16- to 24-year-olds live, and will continue to do so until we find another way to finance education.
I don’t think debt has a particular bearing on alcohol budget but it drives behaviour in more profound ways: people can still afford a pint, but they can’t afford to fall behind. To embrace risk, to have a sense of freedom and possibility, a faith in failure as a learning curve, an interest in activities – drinking, say, or chatting – whose productivity can’t be measured, perhaps because they aren’t productive at all, is plain illogical when you’re living in the economic conditions of this generation.
Under the guise of saving them from the burden of the national debt, we have as a society saddled each one, individually, with impossible personal finances, from life-altering debts to career-changing rents and scant or, at the start, nonexistent wages.
The solution is possibly not, at this stage, to get them all drinking more. But we should recognise in trends like these the fact that conditions for this generation are worse. The reasons are systemic, have nothing to do with personal responsibility and cannot be answered by fitness, however extreme.
The drinks industry seeks to solve the conundrum of the monastic twentysomething by “premiumisation” (getting them to spend more on the few drinks they will buy). We have to understand it as a challenge broader than the market, recognise that all of our welfare is all of our business and, out of penance for the decade that made fellowship a joke, show some solidarity now.
It was scheduled to start over a week ago. Then last Wednesday. Now tomorrow . When round three of the Geneva peace talks on Syria begins, it could be Groundhog Day for Syrians. If the actors read from the script they used at the previous UN-sponsored negotiations – Geneva I in 2012 and Geneva II in 2014 – the last act will be the same: a failure.
The conference, like the current ceasefire, which began on 27 February, is taking place because the United States and Russia want it to. At last they seem to agree that the stumbling block to the last two sessions – the fate of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad – is not important enough to prolong the war.
Both sides know that this US v Russia proxy war is out of control: Europe has been hit with a tide of refugees that threatens the EU’s fragile unity; and the conflict has spread to Iraq, and threatens to erupt in Lebanon and Jordan.
Early in the war, the Syrian combatants ceded decision-making to their financiers and armourers in Russia, Iran, the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. If the war is to end, the powers that fuelled it must impose a solution in Geneva.
The war in Syria can be seen as an imperial card game that the US can leave while it has a few chips left. Once the conflict is over, someone will have to pay billions of dollars to rebuild the nation. Most probably it will be the winners, Russia and Iran – if they don’t cough up, they will lose in peace what they gained in war. Why would any sensible Washington policymaker object?
Russia, with its collaborators, is winning this phase of the war, so renewed negotiations will solidify its gains and allow the Syrian government to restore sovereignty over the entire country. Then, a combined onslaught by the Russians, Americans, Syrian army, Hezbollah, Kurds, non-jihadist Syrian rebels, Iran and Iraq will be able to remove Islamic State from Syria and Iraq.
Russia has stuck to its position from the beginning of the conflict in 2011: that Assad must remain in office. The US demanded that he went as a precondition to a settlement, but Russian credibility was at stake. Before the Arab League suspended Syria, in 2011, it had 22 member states, 21 of which were US clients. Russia had one Arab ally, which was not about to be abandoned.
So unless the US was willing to up its game by sending more planes, drones and troops – which would invite the Russians to raise theirs and risk a world war – it had to change tack. Secretary of State John Kerry did just that in December, when he said: “The US and our partners are not seeking so-called regime change.”
Before the second Geneva conference in 2014, Assad’s minister for national reconciliation, Ali Haider, declared: “Neither Geneva II, nor Geneva III nor Geneva X will solve the Syrian crisis. The solution has begun and will continue through the military triumph of the state.” Haider was wrong: the regime may be winning militarily now, but it cannot wage war for ever. Just as America’s proxy rebels failed to defeat the regime, the regime failed to defeat them. The only way out is compromise.
So the outside world should impose a settlement but not dictate the future of Syria. Proposals to divide it into sectarian cantons in a federal system are doomed. The French tried that in the 1920s, when they cut their Syrian Mandate territory into six separate statelets that its people rejected. Nor can outsiders decide who will lead the nation: such matters are for the Syrian people.
This does not mean the Kurds cannot enjoy some degree of autonomy, despite the objections of many Syrian Arabs and Turkey. Geneva III can impose a transitional arrangement in which the Syrians decide for themselves how they shall be governed and by whom, albeit with close international monitoring of elections. The regime refuses to share power during a transitional period with “terrorists”; the opposition demands that Assad goes before the transition begins. But if both sides cling to these positions, the US and Russia can compel them to change their minds. The Syrian people demand it.
The ceasefire of the past fortnight has allowed many of them to resume their lives. If Geneva III brings peace, they will not take long to rebuild a country they love and of which, despite the cruelty and crimes of this war, they are proud. © Charles Glass 2016
Charles Glass is the author of Syria Burning: A Short History of a Catastrophe (Verso) published on 22 March
So even the US president criticises Cameron over the disastrous war against Libya (Report, 12 March). How relieved he must be that the British media has barely an unkind word to say about the matter.
• Todd Huffman writes that a good memory is not a sign of education (Letters, 10 March). BF Skinner argued that “Education is what survives after what has been learned has been forgotten”.
• While your correspondent is faffing around using mathematical formulae to compare the volume of various shapes and sizes of cake tins (Letters, 12 March), those of us with less time on our hands simply compare them by tipping water between the two. I expect my cake is in the oven before he’s even found his calculator.
• Is Hinkley Point C developing into the nuclear equivalent of Kids Company (Report, 12 March)?
• Marion Harley (Letters, 12 March) feels she was deprived of a favourite toy. My daughter says she feels that she was deprived of playing with her Slinky because we live in a bungalow, only being able to play with it during visits to grandparents.
• Subheader seen on p14 of Friday’s Guardian (11 March): “Double bass player denies killing successful musician.” Journalists know how to hurt.
Paul Scott (Double bass, Glenn Miller Orchestra)
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Deborah Orr is right to voice concern in her report of Oliver James’s psychological theorising and the harm it might do (Oliver James is wrong to blame parents for their children’s mental illness, 12 March). If it is as reported, James would be way out of his domain in considering that psychological abnormalities and serious mental illness like schizophrenia can have only psychological causes and never genetic causes. Unfortunately the genetic evidence is highly complex and technical, and concludes that single-gene varieties of schizophrenia do occur but are rare, and most cases have multiple-gene origin.
The lay person can nevertheless consider a few simple tests of the genetic contribution to schizophrenia. Psychotherapists may never see properly diagnosed schizophrenia, but psychiatrists do, and it is known that the single-gene variety is particularly severe. Thus a man in his 50s with very severe resistant schizophrenia from his teens and most of his life spent in hospital, has a parent with schizophrenia and several siblings with schizophrenia. Psychologists would need to explain how abnormal parenting could produce this familial disorder. Second, the well-known twin studies of the last century, in which twins separated at birth, one having schizophrenia, showed a subsequent very high correlation with the other twin developing the disorder. Third, the well-reported effect of cannabis to trigger properly diagnosed schizophrenia in young people: but only in a minority. Clearly a predisposition is required, and this is highly likely to be genetic.
Blaming parents for schizophrenia is a resurrection of the situation in the 1960s and 70s, when leftwing infantilists like Bateson and Laing hatched conspiracy theories to explain schizophrenia, and this did enormous harm to already devastated parents. It took many years of working with families, explaining the abnormal psychology and brain function, to right some of the wrong done to them. One hopes this will never recur.
• In recent days, your columns have seen Oliver James, Deborah Orr, Clare Allan, Marcus Munafo and others arguing over the relative contributions of nature and nurture to our mental health. It’s tempting to look for simple, reductionist explanations, but when it comes to something as complex as mental health, they are usually wrong. As Ben Goldacre recently put it: “It’s a bit more complicated than that.”
While nobody doubts the value of biomedical research, it’s unlikely to provide the whole or even the main answer. The research that Orr cites in favour of a genetic role only accounts for “about 3% of risk in the population”, and biomedical researchers now even question the validity of the diagnostic categories used in these kinds of studies. On the other hand, it’s equally dangerous to assume that mental health problems are entirely attributable to our parents. Our psychological wellbeing depends on a huge array of things in addition to our genes and our parents, from how our classmates treated us at school, to whether or not we encounter abuse and trauma in our lives, to government economic policies.
These things constantly interact in a complex, interactive dance, and each of us is the product of a unique combination of influences. As the British Psychological Society recently put it in our public information report Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia (www.understandingpsychosis.net): “The precise combination of causes will be different for each person. No professional can ever say with certainty what has caused one particular individual to have certain experiences.” We would do well to remember that before attributing blame to either genes or parents.
Professor Peter Kinderman
University of Liverpool, president-elect, British Psychological Society
Consultant clinical psychologist, Canterbury Christ Church University, Editor, Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia, British Psychological Society
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The letter (10 March) relating to the Artist and Empire exhibition at the Tate and how arrogance, greed, slavery and racism made us rich, while accurate for one section of society, is not true of all and we would do well to remember the history of the working people of Britain. My forebears were nail makers in the Black Country and, along with chainmakers and miners, were known as “the white slaves of Britain”. A little research will show that their labour was exploited unmercifully by the same people who exploited abroad and they were never made rich by the empire.
• Kuldip Khosla (Letters, 10 March) lists “good things” that the empire did, including railways. The reason we built railways in India was to transport the plundered raw materials to the coast, so they could be shipped back to Britain.
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