Meat Life


Uhtred son of Uhtred, regular ale drinker, who I predict will die of injury (but will go to Valhalla, unlike you you ale-sodden wretch)

There has been some fuss in the media recently about a new study showing no level of alcohol use is safe. It received a lot of media attention (for example here), reversed a generally held belief that moderate consumption of alcohol improves health (this is even enshrined in the Greek food pyramid, which has a separate category for wine and olive oil[1]), and led to angsty editorials about “what is to be done” about alcohol. Although there are definitely things that need to be done about alcohol, prohibition is an incredibly stupid and dangerous policy, and so are some of its less odious cousins, so before we go full Leroy Jenkins on alcohol policy it might be a good idea to ask if this study is really the bees knees, and does it really show what it says it does.

This study is a product of the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) project, at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). I’m intimately acquainted with this group because I made the mistake of getting involved with them a few years ago (I’m not now) so I saw how their sausage is made, and I learnt about a few of their key techniques. In fact I supervised a student who, to the best of my knowledge, remains the only person on earth (i.e. the only person in a population of 7 billion people, outside of two people at IHME) who was able to install a fundamental software package they use. So I think I know something about how this institution does its analyses. I think it’s safe to say that they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and I want to explain in this post how their paper is a disaster for public health.

The way that the IHME works in these papers is always pretty similar, and this paper is no exception. First they identify a set of diseases and health conditions related to their chosen risk (in this case the chosen risk is alcohol). Then they run through a bunch of previously published studies to identify the numerical magnitude of increased risk of these diseases associated with exposure to the risk. Then they estimate the level of exposure in every country on earth (this is a very difficult task which they use dodgy methods to complete). Then they calculate the number of deaths due to the conditions associated with this risk (this is also an incredibly difficult task to which they apply a set of poorly-accredited methods). Finally they use a method called comparative risk assessment (CRA) to calculate the proportion of deaths due to the exposure. CRA is in principle an excellent technique but there are certain aspects of their application of it that are particularly shonky, but which we probably don’t need to touch on here.

So in assessing this paper we need to consider three main issues: how they assess risk, how they assess exposure, and how they assess deaths. We will look at these three parts of their method and see that they are fundamentally flawed.

Problems with risk assessment

To assess the risk associated with alcohol consumption the IHME used a standard technique called meta-analysis. In essence a meta-analysis collects all the studies that relate an exposure (such as alcohol consumption) to an outcome (any health condition, but death is common), and then combines them to obtain a single final estimate of what the numerical risk is. Typically a meta-analysis will weight all the risks from all the studies according to the sample size of the study, so that for example a small study that finds banging your head on a wall reduces your risk of brain damage is given less weight in the meta-analysis than a very large study of banging your head on a wall. Meta-analysis isn’t easy for a lot of reasons to do with the practical details of studies (for example if two groups study banging your head on a wall do they use the same definition of brain damage and the same definition of banging?), but once you iron out all the issues it’s the only method we have for coming to comprehensive decisions about all the studies available. It’s important because the research literature on any issue typically includes a bunch of small shitty studies, and a few high quality studies, and we need to balance them all out when we assess the outcome. As an example, consider football and concussion. A good study would follow NFL players for several seasons, taking into account their position, the number of games they played, and the team they were in, and compare them against a concussion free sport like tennis, but matching them to players of similar age, race, socioeconomic background etc. Many studies might not do this – for example a study might take 20 NFL players who died of brain injuries and compare them with 40 non-NFL players who died of a heart attack. A good meta-analysis handles these issues of quality and combines multiple studies together to calculate a final estimate of risk.

The IHME study provides a meta-analysis of all the relationships between alcohol consumption and disease outcomes, described as follows[2]:

we performed a systematic review of literature published between January 1st, 1950 and Dec 31st 2016 using Pubmed and the GHDx. Studies were included if the following conditions were met. Studies were excluded if any of the following conditions were met:

1. The study did not report on the association between alcohol use and one of the included outcomes.

2. The study design was not either a cohort, case-control, or case-crossover.

3. The study did not report a relative measure of risk (either relative risk, risk ratio, odds-ratio, or hazard ratio) and did not report cases and non-cases among those exposed and un-exposed.

4. The study did not report dose-response amounts on alcohol use.

5. The study endpoint did not meet the case definition used in GBD 2016.

There are many, many problems with this description of the meta-analysis. First of all they seem not to have described the inclusion criteria (they say “Studies were included if the following conditions were met” but don’t say what those conditions were). But more importantly their conditions for exclusion are very weak. We do not, usually, include case-control and case-crossover studies in a meta-analysis because these studies are, frankly, terrible. The standard method for including a study in a meta-analysis is to assess it according to the Risk of Bias Tool and dump it if it is highly biased. For example, should we include a study that is not a randomized controlled trial? Should we include studies where subjects know their assignment? The meta-analysis community have developed a set of tools for deciding which studies to include, and the IHME crew haven’t used them.

This got me thinking that perhaps the IHME crew have been, shall we say, a little sloppy in how they include studies, so I had a bit of a look. On page 53-55 of the appendix they report the results of their meta-analysis of the relationship between atrial fibrillation and alcohol consumption, and the results are telling. They found 9 studies to include in their meta-analysis but there are many problems with these studies. One (Cohen 1988) is a cross-sectional study and should not be included, according to the IHME’s own exclusion criteria. 6 of the remaining studies assess fribillation only, while 2 assess fibrillation and fibrial flutter, a pre-cursor of fibrillation. However most tellingly, all of these studies find no relationship between alcohol consumption and fibrillation at almost all levels of consumption, but their chart on page 54 shows that their meta-analysis found an almost exponential relationship between alcohol consumption and fibrillation. This finding is simply impossible given the observed studies. All 9 studies found no relationship between moderate alcohol consumption and fibrillation, and several found no relationship even for extreme levels of consumption, but somehow the IHME found a clear relationship. How is this possible?

Problems with exposure assessment

This problem happened because they applied a tool called DISMOD to the data to estimate the relationship between alcohol exposure and fibrillation. DISMOD is an interesting tool but it has many flaws. Its main benefit is that it enables the user to incorporate exposures that have many different categories of exposure definition that don’t match, and turn them into a single risk curve. So for example if one study group has recorded the relative risk of death for 2-5 drinks, and another group has recorded the risk for 1-12 drinks, DISMOD offers a method to turn this into a single curve that will represent the risk relationship per additional drink. This is nice, and it produces the curve on page 54 (and all the subsequent curves). It’s also bullshit. I have worked with DISMOD and it has many, many problems. It is incomprehensible to everyone except the two guys who programmed it, who are nice guys but can’t give decent support or explanations of what it does. It has a very strange response distribution and doesn’t appear to apply other distributions well, and it has some really kooky Bayesian applications built in. It is also completely inscrutable to 99.99% of people who use it, including the people at IHME. It should not be used until it is peer reviewed and exposed to a proper independent assessment. It is application of DISMOD to data that obviously shows no relationship between alcohol consumption and fibrillation that led to the bullshit curve on page 54 of the appendix, that does not have any relationship to the observed data in the collected studies.

This also applies to the assessment of exposure to alcohol. The study used DISMOD to calculate each country’s level of individual alcohol consumption, which means that the same dodgy technique was applied to national alcohol consumption data. But let’s not get hung up on DISMOD. What data were they using? The maps in the Lancet paper show estimates of risk for every African and south east Asian country, which suggests that they have data on these countries, but do you think they do? Do you think Niger has accurate estimates of alcohol consumption in its borders? No, it doesn’t. A few countries in Africa do and the IHME crew used some spatial smoothing techniques (never clearly explained) to estimate the consumption rates in other countries. This is a massive dodge that the IHME apply, which they call “borrowing strength.” At its most egregious this is close to simply inventing data – in an earlier paper (perhaps in 2012) they were able to estimate rates of depression and depression-related conditions for 183 (I think) countries using data from 97 countries. No prizes to you, my astute reader, if you guess that all the missing data was in Africa. The same applies to the risk exposure estimates in this paper – they’re a complete fiction. Sure for the UK and Australia, where alcohol is basically a controlled drug, they are super accurate. But in the rest of the world, not so much.

Problems with mortality assessment

The IHME has a particularly nasty and tricky method for calculating the burden of disease, based around a thing called the year of life lost (YLL). Basically instead of measuring deaths they measure the years of your life that you lost when you died, compared to an objective global standard of life you could achieve. Basically they get the age you died, subtract it from the life expectancy of an Icelandic or Japanese woman, and that’s the number of YLLs you suffered. Add that up for every death and you have your burden of disease. It’s a nice idea except that there are two huge problems:

  • It weights death at young ages massively
  • They never incorporate uncertainty in the ideal life expectancy of an Icelandic or Japanese woman

There is an additional problem in the assessment of mortality, which the IHME crew always gloss over, which is called “garbage code redistribution.” Basically, about 30% of every country’s death records are bullshit, and don’t correspond with any meaningful cause of death. The IHME has a complicated, proprietary system that they cannot and will not explain that redistributes these garbage codes into other meaningful categories. What they should do is treat these redistributed deaths as a source of error (e.g. we have 100,000 deaths due to cancer and 5,000 redistributed deaths, so we actually have 102500 plus/minus 2500 deaths), but they don’t, they just add them on. So when they calculate burden of disease they use the following four steps:

  • Calculate the raw number of deaths, with an estimate of error
  • Reassign dodgy deaths in an arbitrary way, without counting these deaths as any form of uncertainty
  • Estimate an ideal life expectancy without applying any measure of error or uncertainty to it
  • Calculate the years of life lost relative to this ideal life expectancy and add them up

So here there are three sources of uncertainty (deaths, redistribution, ideal life expectancy) and only one is counted; and then all these uncertain deaths are multiplied by the number of years lost relative to the ideal life expectancy.

The result is a dog’s breakfast of mortality estimates, that don’t come even close to representing the truth about the burden of disease in any country due to any condition.

Also, the IHME apply the same dodgy modeling methods to deaths (using a method that they (used to?) call CoDMoD) before they calculate YLLs, so there’s another form of arbitrary model decisions and error in their assessments.

Putting all these errors together

This means that the IHME process works like this:

  • An incredibly dodgy form of meta-analysis that includes dodgy studies and miscalculates levels of risk
  • Applied to a really shonky estimate of the level of exposure to alcohol, that uses a computer program no one understands applied to a substandard data set
  • Applied to a dodgy death model that doesn’t include a lot of measures of uncertainty, and is thus spuriously accurate

The result is that at every stage of the process the IHME is unreasonably confident about the quality of their estimates, produces excessive estimates of risk and inaccurate measures of exposure, and is too precise in its calculations of how many people died. This means that all their conclusions about the actual risk of alcohol, the level of exposure, and the magnitude of disease burden due to the conditions they describe cannot be trusted. As a result, neither can their estimates of the proportion of mortality due to alcohol.

Conclusion

There is still no evidence that moderate alcohol consumption is bad for you, and solid meta-analyses of available studies support the conclusion that moderate alcohol consumption is not harmful. This study should not be believed and although the IHME has good press contacts, you should ignore all the media on this. As a former insider in the GBD process I can also suggest that in future you ignore all work from the Global Burden of Disease project. They have a preferential publishing deal with the Lancet, which means they aren’t properly peer reviewed, and their work is so massive that it’s hard for most academics to provide adequate peer review. Their methods haven’t been subjected to proper external assessment and my judgement, based on having visited them and worked with their statisticians and their software, is that their methods are not assessable. Their data is certainly dubious at times but most importantly their analysis approach is not correct and the Lancet doesn’t subject it to proper peer review. This is going to have long term consequences for global health, and at some point the people who continue to associate with the IHME’s papers (they have hundreds or even thousands of co-authors) will regret that association. I stopped collaborating with this project, and so should you. If you aren’t sure why, this paper on alcohol is a good example.

So chill, have another drink, and worry about whether it’s making you fat.


fn1: There are no reasons not to love Greek food, no wonder these people conquered the Mediterranean and developed philosophy and democracy!

fn2: This is in the appendix to their study

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By now the series of indictments and convictions of Trump’s hangers-on are old news, but there are some things about these stories that I am finding really mystifying, and/or confirmatory of the suspicions I have always had about super rich people. Trump’s hangers-on give the appearance of being super-rich, and they’re all attached to the “conservative” (i.e. religious radical) side of US politics, but some of the things we learn about them have been, shall we say, disappointing? I’m not sure if there is a word for how you feel when you learn what these people have been up to, especially now that “WTF” is about to be patented by Proctor and Gamble. Some things that have particularly amused (and surprised) me include …

  1. None of them seem to have any money: Cohen seems to have been sucking in vast quantities of cash, but none of it ended up in his pockets, and he was constantly lying to banks about his money in order to get loans to have more money, which promptly seems to have been blown paying off past loans. The Hunters were basically up to their necks in debt, and one assumes using their entire salary to pay off their overdraft fees, and then financing their lifestyle with campaign money, but refusing to tone down the business class rabbit seats despite being in hock. Pruitt was trying to use his position in the EPA to score his wife a chik-a-fila franchise to pay their debts. And of course Donald Trump, supposedly a billionaire, couldn’t manage to find 130k to pay off a porn star in order to smooth his path to becoming the president – instead Cohen did it, and did it by fraudulently leveraging his house because none of these people have any money. And of course Broidy – the only one who seems to have had any money, probably from Russian sources – paid for Trump’s girlfriend’s abortion, and was repaid not with money but with political favours. Beyond the question about whether any of these people have even a basic sense of public ethics, do any of them have any actual money?
  2. These people have no taste: Ostrich jackets, really? Golf? Who goes on vacation to Boise Idaho? Did you really need to fly your rabbit on holiday with you?[1] And we all know about the Donald’s penchant for ridiculously tasteless furniture and fittings (that family photo really is a gem). I used to joke that rich people had no taste, but I mostly made that joke on the basis that I don’t like Foix Gras, champagne or cognac. I didn’t realize that they actually really are this tasteless! Looking at the reports of their personal extravagancies, one is inclined to believe the theory that the super rich really are lizard people wearing skin masks. Surely no human could be this prurient? But apparently they are.
  3. They’re all having affairs: Manafort, Gates, Hunter, they all had a bit going on on the side, and this was part of the reason they were up to their neck in campaign expense violations. Trump of course is most egregious in this regard, and the really cynically ironic thing is that the one person in this little coterie of corrupt fuckwits who appears to have been genuinely devoted to his wife, Broidy, was the one who took the public fall for Trump fucking Shera Bechard and impregnating her and paying her for an abortion. It’s also telling that even then – when these people are caught fucking someone not their wife – they won’t (or can’t) buy their way out of it with their own money, but need to use Russian money (or Broidy’s Emirati money). These people are dirty, soulless losers.
  4. They don’t believe a word of their politics: The Hunters’ indictment is particularly merciless reading on the topic of these peoples’ abject hypocrisy. They used campaign funds to pay for golf shorts[2] and passed it off as a donation of golf balls to a veterans’ organization; they bought haberdashery and pass it off as an event for teachers; they tried to use the navy as an excuse for an international trip and then when the navy wouldn’t comply they said “fuck the navy”. These people have absolutely zero respect for the politics they espouse. They’re traitors, liars, economic wreckers and leeches, and the only time they make a pretense of caring about the politics they supposedly believe in is when they’re trying to cover up illegal spending on their fucking bunny. It’s not unusual in politics to find people who are hypocrites to the cause they believe in, who don’t always toe in private the clear line they maintain in public, but these people obviously don’t give a flying fuck about any principles of any kind at all. They are empty, soulless consumers. The only reason they are Republicans is because – as Trump himself so memorably stated on national TV – Republicans are easy to fool.

I guess it’s reassuring in a sense to see all my prejudices about the tastes and peccadilloes of the super rich confirmed, but it’s also kind of disturbing that people could be such caricatures of themselves. What is less amusing and certainly less satisfying is the clear evidence that these lying fucks are traitors, economic wreckers, and arseholes of the worst kind. Once they’ve been thrown out of office in November I do not want the Democrats to spare them the rod. I want to see them all nailed to the wall for what they have done.

fn1: I can appreciate wanting to buy your rabbit a seat if you do. On an American airline it’ll die in cargo. And I sympathize with the problem of having to find accommodation for your pet when you’re on work travel … except this wasn’t work!

fn2: Seriously what is with these people’s obsession with golf? It’s fucking golf, people. They spend all their time publicly complaining about how the NFL is being ruined, but good luck finding even a cent of their expenses spent on an actual sport!

News continues to trickle out concerning the latest bullying scandal in American academia, on which I reported briefly in a previous post. Through the Lawyers, Guns and Money blog I found a link to this excellent Twitter thread on the damage done to the humanities by celebrity academics like Ronell. These celebrity academics don’t just exist in the humanities, and not just in the “literary theory” cul-de-sac of humanities. They also exist in the physical sciences (think of people like Dawkins and Davies), and they are also a thing in public and global health. In public and global health they are typically characterised by the following traits:

  • They build large teams of staff, who are dependent upon the celebrity academic for their positions
  • They have a flagship project or area of research that they completely dominate, making it hard for junior academics outside of their institution to make progress on that topic
  • They attract very large amounts of grant money, a lot of it “soft” money accrued through relationships with NGOs and non-academic institutions like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, AXA, the World Health Organization, and similar bodies
  • They have cozy relationships with editorial boards and chief editors, so that they get preferential treatment in journals like The Lancet, New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, etc
  • They attract a lot of applications from students and post-doctoral fellows, who often bring in their own funding in the form of scholarships and prestigious fellowships
  • They often have a media presence, writing commentary articles or having semi-regular invitational positions on local and national newspapers, in medical journals and on certain websites
  • They are on all the boards

This means that these celebrity academics are able to drive large amounts of research work in their field of expertise, which they often parlay into articles in journals that have high impact through friendly relationships with their colleagues on those journals, and they also often get invited into non-academic activities such as reports, inquiries, special seminars and workshops, and so on. Even where these celebrity academics are not bullies, and are known to treat their staff well and with respect, and to be good teachers and supervisors, this kind of celebrity academia has many negative effects on public health. Some of these include:

  • Their preeminence and grip on grant funding means that they effectively stifle the establishment of new voices in their chosen topic, which risks preventing new methods of doing things from being established, or allows shoddy and poorly developed work to become the mainstream
  • Their preferential treatment in major journals pushes other, higher quality work from unknown authors out of those journals, which both reduces the impact of better or newer work, and also prevents those authors from establishing a strong academic presence
  • Their preferential treatment in major journals enables them to avoid thorough peer review, enabling them to publish flawed work that really should be substantially revised or not published at all
  • The scale and dominance of the institution they build around themselves means that young academics working in the same topic inevitably learn to do things the way the celebrity academic does them, and when they move on to other institutions they bring those methods to those other institutions, slowly establishing methods, work practices, and professional behaviors that are not necessarily the best throughout academia
  • Their media presence enables them to launder and protect the reputation of their own work, and their involvement in academic boards and networks gives them a gatekeeper role that is disproportionate to that of other academics
  • Their importance protects them from criticism and safeguards them against institutional intrusion in their behavior, which is particularly bad if they are abusive or bullying, since junior staff cannot protest or complain

This is exactly what we are now learning happened to Reitman from his lawsuit – he tried to transfer his supervision to Yale but discovered the admissions officer there was a friend of his supervisor, he tried to complain to a provost who also turned out to be a friend of his supervisor, and he could not complain while a PhD student because of fear that his supervisor would destroy his job opportunities through her networks. We also see that Ronell (and friends of hers like Butler) have a disproportionate academic influence, which ensures that they maintain a cozy protection against any intrusion into their little literary theory bubble. Ronell’s books are reviewed (positively) by Butler, who then writes a letter defending Ronell from institutional consequences of her own poor behavior, which no doubt Butler knew about. There’s a video going around of a lecture in which Ronell’s weird behavior is basically an open joke, and in signing the letter some of the signatories basically admit that they knew Ronell’s behavior crossed a line but they saw it as acceptable (it was just her “style”). We even have one shameful theorist complaining that if she is punished, academics in this area will be restricted to behaving as “technocratic pedagogues”, because it is simply impossible for them to teach effectively without this kind of transgressive and bullying behavior.

One of the best ways to prevent this kind of thing is to prevent or limit the ascendance of the celebrity academic. But to do so will require a concerted effort across the institutions of academia, not just within a single university like NYU. Some things that need to happen to prevent celebrity academics getting too big for their boots:

  • Large national funding programs need to be restricted so that single academics cannot grab multiple pools of money and seize funding disproportionate to their role. This already happens in Japan, where the national grants from the Ministry of Education are restricted so that an academic can only have one or two
  • Private and government funds such as Ministry funding, and funding from organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, needs to be more transparently accessible from outside the academy, and also more objective and transparent in assessment – you shouldn’t be able to work up a large amount of money for your research group just by being able to go to the write cocktail party / hostess bar / art gallery – basically at every level, as much as possible, grant funding should be competitive and not based on who you know or how much money you’ve already got
  • Journals – and particular senior journal editors – should stay at arms’ length from academics, and journal processes should remain transparent, competitive and anonymous. It simply should not be possible – as often happens in the Lancet, for example – to stitch up a publication by sending an email to a senior editor who you had a chat with at an event a few weeks ago. No matter how many times you have published in a journal before, your next submission to the journal should be treated in substance and spirit as if it were your first ever submission
  • Journals need to make more space for critical responses to articles, rather than making stupid and restrictive rules on who and what can be published in response to an article. I have certainly experienced having a critical response to an article rejected on flimsy grounds that I’m pretty sure were based on a kneejerk response to criticism of a celebrity, and it’s very hard to publish critical responses at all in some journals. A better approach is that pioneered by the BMJ, which treats critical responses as a kind of comment thread, and elevates the best ones to the status of published Letters to the Editor – this insures more voices get to criticize the work, and everyone can see whose critiques were ignored
  • Institutions need to make their complaint processes much more transparent and easy to work with. Often it is the case that serious harassment cases – physical or sexual – are easy for students to complain about the smaller and more common complaints, like academic misconduct and bullying, are much more difficult to complain about. I think it is generally true that if an academic is disciplined early in their career for small infractions of basic rules on misconduct and bullying, they will be much, much less likely to risk major misbehavior later
  • Student complaints need to be handled in a timely manner that ensures that they are able to see resolution before their thesis defense or graduation, so they can change supervisors if necessary
  • Academic advisors should never be able to sit on their own student’s dissertation committee, or on the committees of their close friend and co-author’s students, since this gives them undue influence over the student’s graduation prospects and kills dead any chance of a complaint (I can’t believe this happens in some universities!)
  • The academic advisor’s permission should never be a requirement for submission. At the very least, if your relationship with your advisor goes pear-shaped, you should always be able to just tell them to fuck off, go off and do the work by yourself, and submit it to an independent committee for assessment

I think if these kinds of rules are followed it’s much harder for academics to become celebrities, and much harder for their celebrity status to become overpowering or to enable them to stifle other students’ careers. But a lot of these changes require action by editorial boards, trustees of non-profits and NGOs, and government bodies connected to specific topics (such as ministries of health, or departments responsible for art and culture). Until we see wholesale changes in the way that academics interact with editorial boards, grant committees, private organizations and government agencies, will not see any reduction in the power and influence of celebrity academics. In the short term this influence can be fatal for students and junior academics, but in the long term – as we have seen in literary theory, it appears – it can also drag down the diversity and quality of work in the whole discipline, as a couple of bullies and pigs come to dominate the entire discipline, ensuring that no one deviates from their own line of work and no one ever criticizes their increasingly weak and low quality work. Academia as a whole benefits from genuine competition, diversity of funders and fund recipients, spreading grant money widely and fairly, and maintaining rigorous standards of independence and academic objectivity in assessing work for publication. Celebrity academics weaken all of those processes, and bring the entire academy down.

A final note: I cannot believe that academics invite students alone to their houses, or (as in this case) invite themselves to their student’s houses. There is no legit reason to do this. Every university should tell its academics, from day one: if you invite a student alone to your house and they lodge a sexual harassment complaint against you, you’re on your own – we will believe them every time. Just don’t do it, under any circumstances. And they should tell students from day one: if your supervisor (or any academic) invites you alone to their house, report it immediately. It’s simply terrible behavior, and no good will ever come of it. Reading the report that this student lodged against his supervisor, it’s simply impossible to believe that she wasn’t up to no good, and simply impossible to accept that the university did not uphold his complaint of sexual harassment. He has now launched a lawsuit, so we can now see all the details of what happened to him and how he dealt with it, and it looks like a complete disaster for NYU and for the professor in question. If the university had disciplined this woman much earlier in her career for much lighter infractions; if it had a clear rule forbidding these one-on-one home-based “supervision” arrangements, or at least making clear that they are a sexual harassment death zone for profs; and if the university gave its senior academics a clear sense that they are not protected from such complaints, then this situation would never have arisen. There is no excuse for this kind of unprofessional behavior except “I knew I could get away with it.” And the academic world needs to work to ensure no professor can ever know they can get away with it, no matter how famous and special they are or think they are.

The Three Fairies

Recently after a week in London for work I took a trip back to the area of Britain where I grew up, in particular Wiltshire, where I spent a couple of years of my childhood. I think I lived there for about four years from the age of about 6 to about 11 (the details are hazy, as there were many moves in that time and also a period in New Zealand). In addition to some maudlin wandering along the rivers and fields of my youth, I also did a fairly intensive tour of some of Wiltshire’s prehistoric sites. I visited Avebury, Stonehenge, Old Sarum, Silbury Hill and by accident a bunch of ancient stones called the Rollright stones. I also spent the better part of a day at Salisbury Cathedral, which is a beautiful building.

The Rollright Stones

I visited these on the way to Salisbury from the Tolkien exhibition in Oxford. At the time I visited unfortunately English Heritage were holding some kind of local event where local schoolkids could fill in some of the missing parts of this stone circle, which was unfortunate because their efforts were woeful. There was also a sculpture by David Gosling, The Three Fairies, which is the picture at the top of this post. These stones were typical of the kind of things you find in this part of Britain, just random ancient structures sitting at the edge of someone’s field, carrying five millenia of wear and largely unknown except to the locals. Set in the sweeping hillside of golden harvest corn under a flint sky the stones are both mundane and majestic, an unprepossessing memory of a time before any religion or ideas that we know.

Holy spaces

Salisbury Cathedral and the spire

I had the pleasure of visiting Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday morning, which meant I had the opportunity to hear the choir and the morning service. The inside of Salisbury Cathedral is a stunning and majestic monument to the hubris of the ancient christian church, and also to its sense of awe and holiness, and it is easy to spend a long time lost in here, fussing over its tiny details and occasionally stepping back to enjoy the grandeur and stillness of the huge hall. It is not thronging with visitors as are some great Cathedrals, so it still maintains a sense of being a working church rather than a relic. In the afternoon, wandering around the main hall again, I was able to listen to the choir practising for the evening service, which simply added to the feeling of being in a working place of worship rather than a tourist trap.

The original spire supports

Despite it not being a tourist trap, I paid for the tour of the spire, and took a precarious and occasionally disturbing climb up to the top of the original tower, to look at the archaic machinery of the spire. The spire is the tallest in England, and was built about 800 years ago, so it is something of an architectural miracle for its time. Although it was strengthened and repair work was done by Christopher Wren, much of the internal structure remains the same as when it was built, even using the same wooden supports and the same material in the arches, which is a little disturbing when you’re standing 70 m above the ground being told that the whole thing is being held together by the work of some engineers 800 years ago. It’s also very impressive to think about the risks they took and the effort they expended to venerate their god. A god, it should be remembered, that is quite new in the world, and which supplanted much older gods whose own holy sites are scattered around the town where Salisbury Cathedral was built.

Approaching Avebury

Avebury

After Salisbury Cathedral I visited the first of these old holy sites, Avebury. This is a massive circle of stones that forms part of a religious complex about an hour north of Salisbury. The stone circle runs around a whole small village, and within that larger circle is a smaller circle. Along the road to Avebury serried ranks of stones point the way to the circle itself, forming a kind of avenue leading up to the town. All around the town are old burial mounds, one of which is open for visitors to enter, and at a little remove from the town is Silbury Hill, a 32m tall artificial hill built out of chalk by the neolithic fanatics who lived around here. The whole area has the feeling of a religious complex, like a Mecca or Rome for ancient pagan ideas. In the museum at the centre of the stones we learn all about what we know about these religious beliefs in the Old Gods – which is nothing. No one knows anything about why they were built or even, to a great extent, how, and the entire enterprise of archaeology is one of speculation and wonder. It is certainly easy to wonder at these stones – by modern standards dumping a big stone in a paddock is hardly an effort, but standing silent and inscrutable in their crumbling glory, ordered according to some religious codex that defies comprehension, they hold a sense of splendour and awe. It’s easy to imagine that there is something about this land that we don’t know, something these stones could tell us if we only knew how to ask. But we don’t, so they stand there grimly defying both our science and our philosophy, warning us that our own human heritage is a mystery to us.

Stonehenge in the summer

Stonehenge

Stonehenge is the apotheosis of these religious wonderings, of course, but when I was a child it was a pretty naff place, just a bunch of hard-to-reach stones that were kind of disappointing when you got up close, and you weren’t even allowed to touch them. Later, when I lived in Britain in 2008 I visited again, but this time there was a car park and a weird stupid tunnel that led you “back in time” to the stones, and they didn’t really impress at all. But now they are much better presented, and I was able to approach them by walking parallel to the old neolithic way, seeing them first on the horizon and then closer and closer as I marched up the hill. I had a map of the layout of the neolithic monuments that surround the stones, including the Avenue, which may have been part of some ancient ceremonial arrangement. By the time I reached the stones themselves they had taken on their full height and splendour, and even the hordes of visitors could not detract from the sense of being in the presence of something mystical and special. They’re huge, they’re impressive, they are a complete mystery to us, and they stand there slowly crumbling on a time scale humans cannot comprehend, reminding us that once we were so incredibly wild and primitive that we held strange worship of strange constellations on windswept hilltops. Under perfect summer weather it was possible to imagine myself back in time, looking at these stones as a visitor to a religious ritual, and to imagine that in their own way they were as awe inspiring as Salisbury Cathedral would have been to its congregants 5000 years later. The people changed immeasurably over that time, but their passion for worshipful displays of piety obviously did not.

Imagining ancient worlds

Spending two days wandering through all these stones and ancient sites inevitably focused my mind on role-playing worlds, and I began imagining the neolithic world as an adventure setting, perhaps using the Mutant system or some free-flowing variant of WFRP3. This would be a great world for adventuring, a small and narrow world to explore intimately, rich with forests and stocked with natural hazards, where any stranger is a threat and people as far away as what is now the next county would be considered threatening strangers. A landscape dotted with strange and powerful monuments to dark and ancient gods, where magic is in the hands of priests and witches who serve the spirits of the earth and the stars, and perhaps have no allegiance to humankind at all. Or perhaps the worship of these spirits really was connected to the cycles of the earth, and the priests of that ancient time, had they wished to, could have enacted some foul rite at Stonehenge and turned the world on its axis. In that world the best weapons would be clubs and stone arrows, and with such paltry gear to enhance themselves all adventurers would be stripped down to just raw talent and their urge to survive.

When I returned to Japan I prepared and ran a one-shot set in this world, which I will report soon. I think it’s an excellent world for adventuring, as well as for tourism, and if you do visit these ancient sites I think you, too, may find yourself inspired to imagine yourself as an adventurer or a priest in an ancient, mysterious world where nobody knows anything, and nothing is what it seems.

A few tips on travel

If you are going to go through a couple of these sites, I recommend buying a visitor’s pass at the first one – I think mine was about 33 pounds, which will almost cover the cost of the museum at Avebury, entrance to Old Sarum and Stonehenge, but more importantly gives you priority access at Stonehenge so you don’t need to book a tour time. I visited Stonehenge by car, although I assume there are buses from Salisbury and other nearby towns, but it’s worth noting that you don’t go straight to the site – you park perhaps 3 km away and then either walk or catch a bus to the site. The bus will drop you off halfway if you ask, and then you can walk over the fields to the stones themselves, which is what I did and which I think is better.

If you go to Avebury, plan to make a decent day of it. You can walk from the stone circle to nearby Silbury Hill in about 30 minutes, and then from Silbury Hill to a burial mound (I forget the name) that you can enter – when I visited there were two drunk hippies in the entrance who had put candles in every room and were singing plaintive songs, which quite suited the mood, but YMMV. It’s a bit of a walk from Avebury to here and it is possible to get lost – the road goes through some pretty tangled and run down areas that may leave you thinking you’re going the wrong way – so if the weather is bad you may want to drive somewhere nearby (but I don’t know where the parking is). Also there’s no point in thinking an umbrella will be any use – the wind is intense. So just don’t bother bring one, get wet or wear sensible clothes. I would not recommend visiting in winter!

If you visit Salisbury Cathedral I strongly recommend timing your visit to start or end with a service, but be aware that you can’t tour the cathedral during the Sunday morning service, so you’ll have to satisfy yourself with a visit to the magna carta and a circuit of the cloisters. I strongly recommend the tower climb but you should be aware that there are parts where the climbing is a little bit disturbing and their strategy for getting you out if you have an agoraphobic freak out is really disturbing, so if you have a strong fear of heights it’s not a good idea to go. If you’re unsure, check some pictures online of what you might expect to see. I am not good with heights, and this climb had me a little bit shakey at times. But if you are confident you aren’t too bad with heights, do it – it’s great. A good strategy for a Sunday at Salisbury Cathedral would thus be: visit for the beginning of the service to hear the choir; then get a coffee; then visit the magna carta room; then tour the cathedral a bit; get lunch; climb the tower; finish touring the Cathedral; take a break; listen to the choir practicing; stay for the evening service or bail. The lunch at the refectory is surprisingly pleasant given the circumstances, and it’s a nice environment, and on Sunday they do a solid British Roast, so you can make a good day of it.

Also be aware that English Heritage and the National Trust are different, and most of the ancient sites are managed by English Heritage, so if you want a membership to enable you to get into all these sites for free then that’s who you should join – National Trust mostly just manage those boring old country houses.

With that advice I hope you are prepared for a couple of days enjoying the Old Gods and the New!

The New York Times reports on a sexual harassment scandal at New York University, with a bizarre twist: a lesbian feminist philosopher, Avitall Ronell, has been found guilty of sexual and physical harassment of a gay postgraduate student. As is typical of these cases, the graduate student waited until he got his PhD and a job, and then went stone cold vengeful on a Title IX case, getting Ronell bang for rights and seeing her receive some significant penalties. That’s all par for the course for such a case, but in an interesting and unpleasant diversion from the script, we find that a letter was written to NYU, asking it not to punish Ronell at all. This letter rested not on the facts of the case but on her contribution to scholarship and the belief that her actions were inconceivable. The letter was signed by a bunch of literary theorists and feminists, for whom it is apparently too much to imagine that one of their own could abuse the power that accrues at the giddy heights of academia. This letter appears to have potentially been instigated by Ronell herself, which is going to have serious repercussions for Ronell down the track (retaliation is a very serious offence after a Title IX case, whether the case was settled on behalf of the claimant or not). For those of us who are familiar with academia, this is a depressingly familiar story of professors pulling together to protect their own and the (considerable) power of their office – for many academics (mostly but not all men) the right to fuck and harass your students is a job perk, not a temptation to be avoided; and for a great many academics of all genders and races, the right to exploit and academically harass your students is completely valid. What struck me as interesting in this latest scandal, though, is the presence of Judith Butler, queer theorist and originator of the nasty idea that gender is a performance. She appears to have started and signed the letter, including using her status as president-elect of the Modern Language Association. Judith Butler signed a petition not to convict a rapist in 2004 at University of California Irvine, and she was also present in last year’s transracialism controversy, where she was one of the signatories on the hateful letter to Hypatia to have Rebecca Tuvel’s article In Defense of Transracialism retracted on spurious grounds.

Seeing Butler’s name on the latest scandal reminded me that I wrote a blogpost about transracialism and about this scandal a year ago when it aired. In brief, in March last year a non-tenured female assistant professor at an American University, Rebecca Tuvel, published an article in the feminist journal Hypatia which basically argued that a) the process of becoming transgender is a real thing; b) transracialism has many similarities with the process of becoming transgender; c) if you accept the validity of transgender people’s self-identity, you should probably accept the validity of a person’s choice to be transracial. The article was clear, concise and well argued, very much in the spirit of Peter Singer’s work on vegetarianism and animal rights, or Bertrand Russell’s work on religion and war (I think she is an analytic philosopher and so are they, so that makes sense, though I don’t know much about these categories). For a certain class of American activist academics the implications of this work were terrifying: either they rejected transracialism out of hand for obviously dubious reasons, and were scared that Tuvel’s conclusions would degrade the rights of transgender people; or they didn’t really respect transgender rights, and wanted to stop the extension of transgender rights to transracial rights at any cost. This unholy alliance of idiots conspired to write a letter – with 800 signatories! – demanding Hypatia retract the article. In the process they traduced Tuvel’s reputation, embarrassed the journal and their own field, disgraced themselves, and and signally failed to engage with the substance of Tuvel’s work in any way, shape or form. In addition to all of these stupid failings, they also did their very best to destroy Tuvel’s career, which obviously was the worst consequence of all this bullshit.

So today, seeing Butler and her colleagues at work on this stuff again, I found myself wondering what happened to Tuvel after “that little unpleasantness” in May last year? So I did a search, and I was surprised and pleased to discover that she still has her job at Rhodes (I don’t know if she has been approved for tenure or not, or if it is even possible for an Assistant Professor to get tenure), she is still teaching (including the Freedom and Oppression component of Philosophy 101, haha!) and she lists her work on transracialism as her major research interest, so whatever happened over the past year appears not to have destroyed her passion for this interesting topic [1]. So it appears that any consequences of the brouhaha didn’t affect her work, which is great. I checked the status of her paper on the Hypatia website, and it has been cited 4 times already, though google gives it up to 33 citations. In either case this is excellent – getting 4 citations in the first year of publication of a paper is very good, especially in Philosophy. I think the Hypatia metrics are bodgy though because she definitely has been cited more times than that. In particular, I was cheered to discover that the journal Philosophy Today had a whole special issue responding to her paper. This is frankly awesome – very few academics at any level, no matter how original, get to have a whole journal issue devoted to dissecting their work, and to have this opportunity arise from a controversial work that nearly sunk your career is really good. It’s worth noting that in the wash up of the original scandal the issue is generally positive, including an article on the lack of intellectual generosity shown in the response to her work, and some discussion of its implications for various aspects of theory. Tuvel gets to write a response (of course), which means that she gets an extra publication out of her own work, and a bunch of citations – jolly good!

Tuvel’s response is also well argued and thorough, and written in the same plain and accessible style as the original. She begins by noting that the scandal had a significant effect on her psychological wellbeing, and goes on to criticize the establishment for its terrible response to her paper. She then makes a few points in response to specific criticisms of the notion of transracialism. She makes the point first that many critics of her article wanted it rewritten from their own framework:

Critics of my article commented often on how my paper should have been written, which seemed far too often to collapse into saying how they would have written my paper. But different philosophers ask questions differently; and different methodologies shed light differently. We owe it to each other to respect these differences and to resist the conviction that only one method can properly answer difficult questions.
I thought this at the time – Tuvel had apparently presented this work at a conference and received critical feedback from many of the scholars who wrote the retraction letter, and in the retraction letter it was noted that she did not incorporate any of those criticisms in the final article. Nowhere did they consider the possibility that they were wrong. This aspect of the criticism of her work at the time read as an attempt at gatekeeping or policing the content of work, to ensure not just that the conclusions were politically acceptable but that the methods did not stray from those that the crusty elders of the field had always used. One got the impression that the the “Theory” scholars and continental philosophers were horrified at an analytical philosopher just marching in and stating plainly what was true. Quelle horreur! as the Romans would say.
In her response Tuvel also gets a chance to address the criticism that she did not incorporate more work from “African American” scholars. Here she writes (referencing another writer contributing to the symposium):
Botts suggests that typical of analytic methods, my paper fails to engage lived experience when relevant. She further states that “continental methods are better suited to addressing philosophical questions based in the lived realities of members of marginalized populations (in this case, African Americans and transgender persons)” (Botts 2018: 54). However, my paper is a philosophical examination of the metaphysical and ethical possibility of transracialism, not of the lived experience of African American and transgender persons (or African American transgender persons). Not to mention that Botts ignores the lived experience most relevant to an exploration of transracialism—namely that of self-identified transracial people. Insofar as it considers Rachel Dolezal’s story, my article is indeed attuned to relevant lived experience. As Chloë Taylor likewise notes, my article “reflects on whether Dolezal’s experience of growing up with adopted Black siblings, of having an older Black man in her life whom she calls ‘Dad,’ of estrangement from her white biological parents, of being married to a Black man, might be sufficient for understanding her experience of herself as Black” (Taylor 2018: 7). Botts remarks that the relevant populations for my analysis would have been African American and transgender persons, but she does not explain why engaging the lived experience of these populations would be methodologically sufficient. After all, by comparison, one does not rightly suggest that philosophical explorations of trans womanhood must necessarily consult the lived experience of cis women.

This addresses an important problem when we demand the inclusion of specific lived experiences in philosophy or theory (or public health, though it’s rarer): whose lived experience, and how do we choose these experiences? As I remarked in my original post on this issue, America has an incredibly prejudiced, parochial and exclusionary view of race and gender, which essentially ignores the lived experiences of most of the world, and in my view specifically excludes the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist views of black Africans in choosing to name black Americans “African”, as well as ignoring the experience of women in almost all of the developing world. More abstractly, there are millions of competing lived experiences, and we can’t even know what all these experiences are, let alone access them. Certainly we should all strive to incorporate the opinions and voices of the people our work will affect, or the people about whom we are writing, but that doesn’t mean we can ever be complete in our coverage of these voices, or even know who they all are – we will always miss some. But Tuvel’s critics wanted her specifically to avoid the most relevant lived experiences, in favour of other voices and lives that are much more congenial to her critics (and from whose ranks, primarily, her critics were drawn). That’s not an especially scholarly alternative to what Tuvel did. In fact Tuvel brought an important additional factor to this debate, choosing to address broad concepts and frameworks analytically, using a lived experience as an example, rather than trying to build a broad theory from a few select voices. This is a much more effective way of doing this kind of work[2].

Tuvel further backs this point up with this important warning to critics of abstract reasoning generally:

All too often such imperatives border on an injunction not merely to engage sensitively and carefully but to defer to the concerns of black people—all the while essentializing them into a homogeneous group. Like any massively diverse group of individuals, however, black people are of many different minds regarding qualifications for black racial membership. Consider, among others, Adolph Reed Jr (2015), Camille Gear Rich (2015), and Ann Morning (2017)—all black scholars who have expressed more sympathetic positions on transracialism.

This is important to remember – we don’t just choose specific voices within a group, but we can also defer to them rather than engage with them. This isn’t how we should do theory. I think Tuvel is a prominent advocate for transgender and transracial people, but here she makes clear that when we advocate for them we need to not only be careful about whose lived experience we choose to privilege, but how we engage with it.

Tuvel follows this with a dismissal of an argument that people could self-identify as centaurs (which gives the heading of this post), leading to the kind of excellent statement that can only be found in the best journals: “Centaurs, however, are not an actual ‘human kind’ (see Mallon 2016)”. The reference here is: Mallon, Ron. 2016. The Construction of Human Kinds. New York: Oxford. It appears that the academy has dealt extensively with the nature of centaurs, and concluded they aren’t human. What about the lived experience of Actual Centaurs?! How are we to incorporate this into our work?! And has Mallon considered the possibility that centaurs aren’t just not a “human kind”, but actually don’t exist? It’s good to know that philosophy is covering the important issues!

I would also commend to everyone the section of Tuvel’s response on “Inclusive identities” and the last paragraph of her section on “Analytical Methodology”.  Here she attacks the notion that race should be biologically determined, or based only on ancestry, and makes the important point that a person with no allegiance to black people or culture can be considered to have a more valid voice on blackness than a white person raised in a black community (like Dolezal was) if they have “one drop” of black blood. These kinds of ideas have been used simultaneously to define and destroy indigenous communities over many years, and they are very very dangerous. I would argue that just from a practical political, bloody-minded point of view, it is much much easier to maintain a political campaign for equal representation of Indigenous peoples if you allow self-identification than if you demand arbitrary biological definitions of race. The imperial powers that sought to destroy Indigenous peoples can’t destroy a people whose boundaries they can’t police! [Well, they can – but it’s harder, and at some point they’ll have to deal with the Indigenous people in their own institutions].

This dive back through Tuvel’s post-scandal career has been reassuring – I’m very happy to see that the original signatories not only failed to silence her or damage her career, but actually gave her a boost by instigating an appraisal of her work that bought her a whole special issue of a philosophy journal. This also means that rather than driving her theories away, her critics have forced the philosophy mainstream to engage with them and take them more seriously, which is good for her, good for philosophy and great for all those people who are living transracial lives (who doesn’t want philosophers debating their right to exist!?) I bet her students are happy to be being lectured by someone so radical, and if her lectures are as clear as her writing and theorizing I imagine they are getting an excellent education. She will of course be always known as “that transracialism woman”, and of course it’s still possible that the scandal will affect her career progression even if it doesn’t affect her current status, but I’m glad that the resistance those letter writers received was sufficient to protect her and to support her. It’s a strong reminder that the academy always needs to police itself against the arrogance of its own elite.

As a final aside, Wikipedia reports that the associate editors of Hypatia who signed the letter were forced to resign; the whole brouhaha was referred to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), which found that the journal had acted improperly; and subsequently the journal completely revised its procedures and forced all editors and associate editors to sign on to COPE guidelines. The Andrew Mellon Foundation also gave a grant to a university to develop a code of ethics for publishing in philosophy. So even though Tuvel wasn’t directly involved in any of this, her work can be said to have led to significant reforms in the world of feminist philosophy and philosophy publishing. Very few assistant professors can lay claim to such a legacy.

Also, I’m happy to see philosophers have categorically denied centaurs their humanity. Abominations, the lot of them!


fn1: Her publication record has not been updated, however, so it’s possible that she hasn’t updated her research profile, in which case this information may not be up to date. Assistant Professors are very busy and don’t always get to keep their profiles up to date!

fn2: It’s also essential when discussing the rights of people and animals with no voice: the unborn, the very elderly, animals of all kinds, the environment, the illiterate, increasingly criminals … If the lived experience of real people is essential to ground your philosophy, you’re fucked when the people living the experience can’t speak or write.

No this really is not “the healthy one”

Today’s Guardian has a column by George Monbiot discussing the issue of obesity in modern England, that I think fundamentally misunderstands the causes of obesity and paints a dangerously rosy picture of Britain’s dietary situation. The column was spurred by a picture of a Brighton Beach in 1976, in which everyone was thin, and a subsequent debate on social media about the causes of the changes in British rates of overweight and obesity in the succeeding half a decade. Monbiot’s column dismisses the possibility that the growth in obesity could be caused by an increase in the amount we eat, by a reduction in the amount of physical activity, or by a change in rates of manual labour. He seems to finish the column by suggesting it is all the food industry’s fault, but having dismissed the idea that the food industry has convinced us to eat more, he is left with the idea that the real cause of obesity is changes in the patterns of what we eat – from complex carbohydrates and proteins to sugar. This is a bugbear of certain anti-obesity campaigners, and it’s wrong, as is the idea that obesity is all about willpower, which Monbiot also attacks. The problem here though is that Monbiot misunderstands the statistics badly, and as a result dismisses the obvious possibility that British people eat too much. He commits two mistakes in his article: first he misunderstands the statistics on British food consumption, and secondly he misunderstands the difference between a rate and a budget, which is ironic given he understands these things perfectly well when he comments on global warming. Let’s consider each of these issues in turn.

Misreading the statistics

Admirably, Monbiot digs up some stats from 1976 and compares them with statistics from 2018, and comments:

So here’s the first big surprise: we ate more in 1976. According to government figures, we currently consume an average of 2,130 kilocalories a day, a figure that appears to include sweets and alcohol. But in 1976, we consumed 2,280 kcal excluding alcohol and sweets, or 2,590 kcal when they’re included. I have found no reason to disbelieve the figures.

This is wrong. Using the 1976 data, Monbiot appears to be referring to Table 20 on page 77, which indicates a yearly average of 2280 kCal. But this is the average per household member, and does not account for whether or not a household member is a child. If we refer to Table 24 on page 87, we find that a single adult in 1976 ate an average of 2670 kCal; similar figures apply for two adult households with no children (2610 kCal). Using the more recent data Monbiot links to, we can see that he got his 2,130 kCal from the file of “Household and Eating Out Nutrient Intakes”. But if we use the file “HC – Household nutrient intakes” and look at 2016/17 for households with one adult and no children, we find 2291 kCal, and about 2400 as recently as 10 years ago. These are large differences when they accrue over years.

This is further compounded by the age issue. When we look at individual intake we need to consider how old the family members are. If an average individual intake is 2590 kCal in 1976 including alcohol and sweets, as Monbiot suggests, we need to rebalance it for adults and children. In a household with three people we have 7700 kCal, which if the child is eating 1500 kCal means that the adults are eating close to 3100 kCal each. That’s too much food for everyone in the house, even using the ridiculously excessive nutrient standards provided by the ONS.  It’s also worth remembering that the age of adults in 1976 was on average much younger than now, and an intake of 2590 might be okay for a young adult but it’s not okay for a 40-plus adult, of which there are many more now than there were then. This affects obesity statistics.

Finally it’s also worth remembering that obesity is not evenly distributed, and an average intake of 2100 kCal could correspond to an average of 2500 in the poorest 20% of the population (where obesity is common) and 1700 kCal in the richest, which is older and thinner. An evenly distributed 2100 kCal will lead to zero obesity over the whole population, but an unevenly distributed 2100 kCal will not. It’s important to look carefully at the variation in the datasets before deciding the average is okay.

Misunderstanding budgets and rates

Let’s consider the 2590 kCal that Monbiot finds as the average intake of adults in 1976, including alcohol and sweets. This is likely wrong, and the average is probably more like 3000 kCal including alcohol and sweets, but let’s go with it for now. Monbiot is looking to see what has changed in our diet over the past 40 years to lead to current rates of obesity, because he is looking for a change in the rate of consumption. But he doesn’t consider that all humans have a budget, and that a small excess of that budget over a long period is what drives obesity. The reality is that today’s obesity rates do not reflect today’s consumption rates, but the steady pattern of consumption over the past 40 years. What made a 55 year old obese today is what they ate in 1976 – when they were 15 – not what the average person eats today. So rather than saying “we eat less today than we did 40 years ago so that can’t be the cause of obesity”, what really matters is what people have been eating for the past 40 years. And the stats Monbiot uses suggest that women, at least, have been eating too much – a healthy adult woman should eat about 2100 kCal, and if the average is 2590 then a woman in 1976 has been at or above her energy intake every year for the past 40 years. It doesn’t matter that a woman’s intake declined to 2100 kCal in 2016, because she has been eating too much for the past 35 years anyway. It’s this budget, not changes over time, which determine the obesity rate now, and Monbiot is wrong to argue that it’s not overeating that has caused the obesity epidemic. Unless he accepts that a woman can eat 2590 kCal every year for 40 years and stay thin, he needs to accept that the problem of obesity is one of British food culture over half a century.

What this means for obesity policy

Somewhat disappointingly and unusually for a Monbiot article, there are no sensible policy prescriptions at the end except “stop shaming fat people.” This isn’t very helpful, and neither is it helpful to dismiss overeating as a cause, since everyone in public health knows that overeating is the cause of obesity. For example, Public Health for England wants to reduce British calorie intake, and the figures on why are disturbing reading. Reducing calorie intake doesn’t require shaming fat people but it does require acknowledgement that British people eat too much. This comes down not to individual willpower but to the food environment in which we all make choices about what to eat. The simplest way, for example, to reduce the amount that people eat is not to give them too much food. But there is simply no way in Britain that you can eat out or buy packaged food products without buying too much food. It is patently obvious that British restaurants serve too much food, that British supermarkets sell food in packages that are too large, and that as a result the only way for British people not to eat too much is through constant acts of will – leaving half the food you paid for, buying only fresh food in small amounts every day (which is only possible in certain wealthy inner city suburbs), and carefully controlling where, when and how you eat. This is possible but it requires either that you move in a very wealthy cultural circle where the environment supports this kind of thing, or that you personally exert constant control over your life. And that latter choice will inevitably end in failure, because constantly controlling every aspect of your food intake in opposition to the environment where you purchase, prepare and consume food is very very difficult.

When you live in Japan you live in a different food environment, which encourages small serving sizes, fresh and raw foods, and low fat and low sugar foods. In Japan you live in a food environment where you are always close to a small local supermarket with convenient opening hours and fresh foods, and where convenience stores sell healthy food in small serving sizes. This means that you can choose to buy small amounts of fresh food as and when you need them, and avoid buying in bulk in a pattern that encourages over consumption. When your food choices fail (for example you have to eat out, or buy junk food) you will have access to a small, healthy serving. If you are a woman you will likely have access to a “woman’s size” or “princess size” that means you can eat the smaller calorific food that your smaller calorific requirements suggest is wisest. It is easy to be thin in Japan, and so most people are thin. Overeating in Japan really genuinely is a choice that you have to choose to make, rather than the default setting. This difference in food environment is simple, obvious and especially noticeable when (as I just did) you hop on a plane to the UK and suddenly find yourself confronted with double helpings of everything, and super markets where everything is “family sized”. The change of food environment forces you to eat more. It’s as simple as that.

What Britain needs is a change in the food environment. And achieving a change in food environment requires first of all recognizing that British people eat too much, and have been eating too much for way too long. Monbiot’s article is an exercise in denialism of that simple fact, and he should change it or retract it.

This week the US Congress passed a set of censorship laws, commonly called FOSTA/SESTA, that aimed to prevent online sex trafficking but in practice work to shut down all forms of online sex work advertising. The laws were developed in the wake of claims that the website backpage was being used to buy and sell trafficked women, and basically make the website’s provider criminally liable for any sex trafficking that happens on the site. They do so by creating a trafficking exception to a section of a US law that exempts internet providers from being treated as media organizations. Currently under US law websites are treated as carriers, which means they aren’t responsible for the content of material that their users post online. This exemption is the reason that websites like reddit, craigslist and facebook can host a wide range of user-generated content with impunity.

In jurisdictions where sex work is illegal, sex workers use online resources like craigslist and backpage to advertise their services and screen clients. Many sex workers and porn stars who have a good community following also use Twitter and Instagram and other social networking services to manage their community and their client relationships, including organizing events and dates and discussing their work. But since the new law was passed all these websites have had to shutdown their services or warn users that any solicitation or discussion of business is now illegal. Craigslist has shutdown its personals page, which was often used by sex workers, and websites like Fetlife have had to put strict warnings on user content. Because they can be held liable under the new law for any sex work related content, they have had to tell users that no such content can be tolerated at all. At Fetlife this extends to consensual financial domination activities, and at Craigslist the only way they have been able to stop sex work related activity has been to stop all consensual dating of any kind. Because apps like Tinder are also sometimes used for sex work purposes, it’s also possible that these sites are going to have to toughen up their moderation and rules, though it’s unclear yet how they will do this or how serious the impact of the law will be.

The Cut has an overview of why sex workers disapprove of this law, and Vox has a summary of the history of its development and arguments about its impact. For the past few weeks sex worker rights organizations like SWOP have been providing advice to women about how to back up their online presence and what actions they may need to take to protect their online presence, potentially including self censorship. It is unclear at this stage what impact the law will have on online sexual activities outside of sex work, but it’s clear from Craigslist’s reaction that the effect will be chilling. For countries like the UK, Germany, Australia, Japan and Singapore where sex work is legal to varying degrees and women can safely and legally work in brothels or advertise publicly on locally hosted websites the effect may be minimal, but for women in countries like the USA and parts of Europe the impact will likely be huge. It will force women away from the internet and back onto the streets and into unsafe situations where they are unable to screen potential clients, cannot share information about dangerous clients, and cannot support each other or record client information for self protection. Sex worker rights organizations in the USA have been deeply concerned about the impact of these laws for months and worked hard to prevent them, but in the end the money and the politics was against them.

It is worth considering exactly why these laws were passed and who supported them. Although they were developed and pushed by conservatives and republicans, they were passed with bipartisan support and pushed by a coalition of christian conservatives and feminists. The advertising campaign was supported by liberal comedians like Amy Schumer and Seth Meyers, and after some reform it was also supported by major internet content providers and entertainment organizations like Disney. This should serve as a reminder that Disney is not a liberal organization (despite the complaints of some Star Wars fans that its liberalism wrecked the latest awful episode), and that in the American political landscape “liberals” are actually deeply conservative about sex and sexuality. In particular any feminist organization that supported this law should be ashamed of itself. This includes organizations like Feminist Current and other radical feminist groups that think prostitution is a crime against women, rather than a choice that women make. I have said before that this strain of radical feminism is deeply misogynist and illiberal, and is always willing to use state power to override the personal choices of women it sees as enemies to its cause.

These feminist movements need to recognize though that while tactically they may have scored a win, this strategy is very bad for women everywhere. Nothing angers a christian conservative man more than a woman who is financially and sexually independent, and sex workers are the model of a financially and sexually independent woman. Sex workers are uniquely vulnerable to legislative action and uniquely annoying to these legislators, but they’re just the canary in the coal mine. These christian conservative legislators want to destroy all forms of sexual freedom and they won’t stop at sex work. It’s unlikely that they’re shedding any tears over the fact that their pet law led Craigslist to shut down all its non-sex work dating functions – especially since they were especially well used by LGBT people. You can bet that they are already looking for ways to use some kind of indecency based argument to target a section 230 exception for LGBT people, probably arguing on obscenity or public health grounds; and I don’t doubt that ALEC and the Heritage Foundation are already wondering if there is a racketeering-based argument by which they can make a similar exception that can be used to target unions and other forms of left wing activism. It might trouble Feminist Current a little, but I doubt christian conservatives will be feeling particularly worried if Tinder has to shut down, and if this law makes it harder for consenting adults to fuck freely then conservative christians everywhere will be chuffed. Just as the 1980s alliance of feminists and christians distorted the porn industry and made it more misogynist and male dominated, laws like SESTA will distort the world of casual sex to make it more favourable to predatory men and less safe for ordinary women. Sex workers may always be first in the sights of christian conservatives but they are never last. Whatever your personal beliefs about paying for sex, supporting sex worker rights is always and everywhere better for women, better for LGBT people, and better for liberalism.

As a final aside, I would like to sing the praises of sex worker rights organizations. Their activism is strongly inclusive, and while their focus is obviously on protecting the rights of their sex worker membership, their viewpoint is always strongly liberal and aimed at broadening everyone’s rights. They’re strong supporters of free speech and free association, and they include everyone in their movement. As organizations they are strongly inclusive of all sexualities and genders, they are always aware of disability rights and the needs of people with disabilities, and they are opposed to any forms of restrictions on what consenting adults do. They are a consistent powerful voice for liberal rights, worker’s rights, and sexual freedom. These laws will likely restrict their ability to raise their voice in support of these issues, and that ultimately weakens all our rights. Sex worker organizations are a powerful voice for good, and sex workers are not victims, but an important part of our society doing a difficult job. Wherever you are in the world, you should support these organizations and the women, men and transgender people who do this job. Hopefully with our support they can overturn these laws, and through their work and activism broaden the scope for sexual expression for all humans no matter our gender or our sexual preference.

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