Generally Speaking

The Paradox of Progress revisited

The gifted blogger Richard Emerson has recently done me the honour of making me one of the first to be featured in his new podcast ‘Conversations about philosophy, science, mythology, good life, travels, and the big questions!

In this conversation we revisit my 1995 book The Paradox of Progress together and discuss striking links with Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary (2009), and what has turned out to be its magisterial follow-up, The Matter with Things (2021).

Daunting company

This has taken me back to the period of several years in the 90s during which I, a perfectly ordinary NHS GP, was asked to write about the book, give formal lectures and address numerous meetings, including one in The Hague – when the President of the Dutch College of GPs invited me to give the opening keynote of their annnual congress with the wonderful words, ‘Your book puts words to feeling that are felt by many Dutch GPs‘. A third of all the GPs in Holland were in the hall – 1,500 of them – and I remember they all arrived by bicycle or public transport.

With his friendly, informal style, his distinctive Norwegian accent, his wide-ranging erudition, and his insight, Richard Emerson is the ideal intervewer. I found he had picked out perfect extracts from my book to guide our conversation, showing the links with McGilchrist and showing how much we were on the same wavelength as we explored these fascinating and immensely important ideas.

Here is one extract he picked out:

We use the word ‘unbalanced’ to describe an insane mind. Thus the accumulated wisdom embodied in the very language we speak acknowledges the fundamental role of balance in the definition of sanity. So when I say that the common mind of our society is unbalanced, I am making a very serious diagnosis. I am saying that the common mind of society is, to some extent, insane. But that is what I do say.

The Paradox of Progress, Chapter 11 : Good Intentions

I’d love people to hear my conversation with Richard. I think it puts words to feelings that are just as widely shared as they were 25 years ago, and are no less crucially important: Link to the conversation/podcast

My book was reprinted three times by Radcliffe Medical Press, one of their most successful titles ever, but has been out of print since they were taken over many years ago. I have long sought ways to make it available once again. So the other thing that Richard has done for me is to introduce me to Payhip – a simple way to publish a pdf version of a book and make it available for download for a modest charge:

Link to downloadable pdf of The Paradox of Progress

This complements the online version which has been free to read ever since I placed it on my website some twenty years ago. It is complete with a clickable index of ideas in the book, which as far as I know is rarely used, but might help some people:

Link to The Paradox of Progress on my old website

the biggest science scandal ever

The journalist Christopher Booker has a way of trumpeting his discovery of what turn out to be non-existent science scandals.  Here he is on February 7 this year:



This article, headed “The fiddling with temperature data is the biggest science scandal ever”, turned out to be a misleading account of perfectly proper adjustments to readings from outdated measuring equipment which Mr Booker mistakenly thought showed that scientists were tampering with the historical record and trying to deceive the world about the need for action over climate change. [Full explanation of his errors here].

Mr Booker is rather given to this kind of language. Six years ago he ran an article in the Sunday Telegraph with the eerily similar heading “This is the worst scientific scandal of our generation“. The full text of this article, dated 29 Nov 2009,  is still on the ST website  [here if you want it]

Christopher Booker in the Sunday TelegraphThat ‘worst scientific scandal of our generation‘ wasn’t a scandal either, although Booker wasn’t alone in trumpeting it and calling it by the ridiculous misnomer, Climategate. And in a curious coincidence of hyperbole (unless they were hand-in-glove) another journalist, James Delingpole, wrote an article in The Spectator the following week [here if you want it] referring to the same events as  ‘the greatest scientific scandal in the history of the world‘. Gosh!

Another curious coincidence was the timing: these journalists, and a few others, broke the news of this 2009 ‘scandal’ – based as it was on a perverse interpretation of a ten-year-old stolen email, selected from thousands and quoted out of context – just three weeks before the Copenhagen Climate Summit of that year. It was therefore perfectly timed to undermine the political will so essential to making that crucial conference a success. What is certain is that Climategate – later described by Professor Sir Paul Nurse (see below) as ‘the scandal that never was’, did indeed play a part in securing the limp outcome which was so bitterly disappointing to all but climate change deniers.

At least four independent enquiries subsequently exonerated Dr Phil Jones and the Climatology Department of the University of East Anglia of all the charges of dishonesty which had been levelled so viciously against them. But the clearest description I have found of what actually happened was contained in a BBC Horizon programme by Professor Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society and Nobel laureate. This programme is no longer available online but I prepared a transcript of some crucial sections at the time and posted them [here]. This extraordinary account makes it clear that Dr Phil Jones’ Department was the object of a coordinated campaign to undermine its authority as a world-leading centre for climatological research, and to undermine the credibility of the warnings it, and by implication climate science in general, was giving.

That 2009 campaign by Mr Booker and others of his persuasion was all too successful. The worry is now that they have their (short) sights on undermining the climate talks which are scheduled for this year. They must not be allowed to succeed this time – the world cannot afford another Copenhagen. You might even say that the concerted effort in which they have played a not-insignificant part – either as collaborators or, hopefully, as dupes – to deceive the world over the most serious existential threat mankind has ever faced, really is ‘the biggest science scandal ever’.

What are we doing to our climate? Some links for people attending my talk today…

As promised, here are some links for people who attended my talk at St Mary’s, Clapham on Wednesday 18 June, 2014

1. Hilarious video showing what a statistically valid ‘debate’ about climate change would actually look like: (4.9 million views and counting – updated January 2015))
Sending up the folly of ‘false balance’ in reporting of climate change issues by media such as Fox News and (disgracefully) the BBC:

2. IPCC reports : Climate Change 2014

The links take you to the menu for each report – I particularly recommend the videos, and especially the first one.

Working Group 1: The Physical Science Basis

259 authors from 39 countries

Key messages:

  1. The warming of the Climate system is unequivocal
  2. Human influence on the climate system is clear
  3. Continued Greenhouse gas emissions will cause further climate change

“Therefore we conclude: Limiting climate change requires substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Working Group 2: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability

309 authors from 70 countries

Adaptation and mitigation are complementary

Working Group 3: Mitigation of Climate Change

235 authors from 57 countries

Global greenhouse gas emissions must be cut in half by mid-century and further after that.

Complete transformation in the energy system – especially electricity generation.

The atmosphere is a common resource – free dump for greenhouse gases

We need a broad portfolio of approaches

3. The five stages of Climate denial (beautifully exemplified in the Murdoch press, including The Wall Street Journal )
Stage 1: Deny the problem exists   it does
Stage 2: Deny we’re the cause we are 2b: deny the scientific consensus it’s 97%
Stage 3: Deny it’s a problem it is
Stage 4: Deny we can solve it (too expensive, will hurt the poor, etc.) the exact opposite of the truth
Stage 5: Say it’s too late anyway it isn’t, quite, no thanks to Murdoch

4. Five pieces of ice news revealing earth’s ice cover is in serious decline

  1. Antarctic ice melt is twice as fast as 10 years ago
  2. West Antarctic Glaciers are collapsing and it’s “unstoppable” – 2-3 metre sea level rise may take several centuries
  3. The Greenland Ice sheet could melt faster than previously thought
  4. Other ice caps and glaciers in the northern hemisphere are melting faster too
  5. Soot from forest fires contributed to unusually large Greenland surface melt in 2012

5. Northern hemisphere hits carbon dioxide milestone in April Reuter report 26 May Read the denialists’ comments at the bottom if you’ve got a strong stomach.

Intermittent Fasting – another thought

Further to last week’s item under this heading, it isn’t just the dietary pattern which means you never have a really empty stomach which would have been so unusual throughout most of our evolutionary past. Surely, having a bloodstream suffused with high quality nutrients absolutely all the time would have been another thing which would have occurred rarely, if ever, during hundreds of thousands of years of hunter-gatherer ancestry.

It seems to be open season for speculation about this new dietary idea, because we lack the body of scientific evidence that would support a claim that any particular way of doing it is better than any other. All that can be said with confidence is that a wide variety of eating patterns which result in the stomach being empty – and therefore not  releasing fresh nutrients continuously into the bloodstream – for periods of about a day at a time, all seem to result in weight loss. What’s more people trying out these patterns report that they are surprisingly easy to maintain, that they do not cause ravenous hunger the next day, and that they seem to be associated with feelings of well-being and clear-headedness. And possibly also with improved memory.

All this is of course so subjective that anecdotal reports (and even one’s own experience) must be treated with the greatest caution. But they are effects which would be eminently testable in controlled conditions. Just so long as nobody comes up with a ‘right’ way of doing it which destroys the complete flexibilty which is its greatest attraction.

The sell-off of our National Health Service

I have to think they cannot understand
What they have done;
They cannot understand
What made us tick.
Perhaps they lack some vital cog
Like cripples with important bits missing.
I try to see that as their loss

But I can’t.

I am too angry
I am too sad
They do not understand
That they have killed for me a deeply precious thing.

And they have cheaply flogged
Something that was ours
Without our leave
Having promised
Honest injun
That they never would.

But promises they made elsewhere
Have mattered more
Than ones they made to
Coarse proles on streets outside their Club
How could such people understand
What they have done.

The world’s too full of greed,
Too full of hate,
Too full of deceit,
Too full of self-interest,
Too prostrate before the worthless rich
To have destroyed a thing so deeply good

Just because its warmth and wisdom
and the awkward fact of its success
Those who denied the world could work this better way.

This balm for the new callousness
This moral for the new amorality
Had to be destroyed
Or they’d be proven wrong
These modern barons,
Pathetically locked in counting up their spoils

So, we must not let them once deny
the fact that it worked
For half a century it worked
This inspirational dream
Of far far greater men.
And, though they cannot understand what they have done,
That simple truth will live
Must live
To prove that they are wrong
All along
About it all.

JARW  13 March 2012

Intermittent Fasting – DIY gastric banding?

An article in this week’s New Scientist tells us that the stomachs of competitive eaters become disgustingly distended

“…Somewhere into the seventh [hot] dog, the normal eater reported to Metz that he would be sick if he ate another bite. His stomach, on the fluoroscope, was barely distended beyond its starting size. Eater X, by contrast, effortlessly consumed 36 hotdogs, downing then in pairs. His stomach, on the fluoroscope, became “a massively distended, food-filled sac occupying most of the upper abdomen”. He claimed to feel no pain or nausea. He didn’t even feel full…”
(The body: Can you eat yourself to death? New Scientist, 16 March but behind pay-wall)

So, perhaps, the stomachs of people who fast moderately on one or two days a week become correspondingly smaller.

One of the many attractions of this trending dietary pattern (See BBC News 5 August 2012: The power of intermittent fasting), is that it is completely flexible. Many of the people I know who have adopted it, including myself, fast on a single day in more weeks than they actually fast on the nominal target of two days a week. Certainly, nobody I know adopts the grim-sounding alternate day fasting that the above BBC news item refers to.  Nonetheless, gentle and sustained weight loss seems to be the rule. And although the greatest attraction of all is that you can gorge as much as you like on the non-fasting days, people actually find that they simply don’t want the size of portions that they did in the past.

My expertise in this area extends no further than having been a family doctor, but it seems eminently plausible to me that a stomach which remains more or less empty for 24 hours tends to shrink and stay shrunk, so that it fills up more quickly for some time afterwards. This is the opposite of the way stomachs which are grotesquely stretched, as the New Scientist reports, tend to stay stretched.

It also seems plausible that eating three square meals, regularly, every day of your life, so that your stomach is almost never empty, would have been an exceptionally rare pattern during our evolutionary past.

Surely this should be properly investigated as a vastly simpler alternative to gastric banding. But with nobody standing to gain from the research except you and me it is hard to see it being funded any time soon. Although the necessary research would be relatively simple to do. Until then, the anecdotal evidence is suggestive.

%d bloggers like this: