Sunday, January 10, 2010

Random Nick

Nick can be so random sometimes. When a group of MPs comes up with a report that argues that NuLab ministers (Tessa Jowell in the forefront) introduced a raft of socially-damaging policies at the behest of lobbyists from the drinks industry, you'd expect him to be fully behind the attack. But no, Nick chooses instead to see this as evidence of a new wave of puritanism. Well perhaps. I was certainly shocked by the central factoid of his column:

What do you imagine they say is a "moderate" level of drink? According to the health committee, the answer is six units – that is three pints or one bottle of wine – a week. This is not a misprint. The committee and its associated health professionals do not believe that three pints is a reasonable amount for an evening or a day, but the boundary a "moderate" drinker must not cross from one weekend to the next.

Can they really have written that? Oh, luckily the whole report is online and it is possible to check .... So where does the figure of six units come up?

Aha! It is in the following sentence (para 337:

It would cost a moderate drinker who drinks 6 units per week 11p per week, as we have seen, a woman drinking the recommended maximum of 15 units could buy her weekly total of alcohol for £6.

But the figure given there isn't given as a definition of what a moderate drinker is, it is an example of the effect of price on a person who fits within the range. If Nick had read with any care he'd have seen that the committee employs the standard thresholds of 14 units (women) and 21 (men) (see para 333 immediately above). (To be fair, the figure of 6 gets referred to a few times in the context of the "Sheffield Report" but it is clear from context that it is always being employed in the same way, to give an example of the effect on price of a typical moderate drinker.) Now there may be a point to be made about whether the conventional advice is right. I haven't seen any evidence that justifies setting the limits so low (14;21). But in order to mount such a critique, Nick would need to be able to read with the attention of a weak undergraduate with a bad hangover. He doesn't seem to be able to do that.


Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

i guess this is a different n cohen from the one who railed against women who dare to occasionally get drunk as betrayers of feminism only three weeks ago? What's most depressing, though, is that cohen is a self-styled leading light in the fight for journalistic accuracy and against libel laws - and just this week threw a belated hissy fit on his "blog" at chomsky who suggested that our nick wasn't a very diligent researcher.

1/10/2010 10:38:00 AM  
Anonymous Der Bruno Stroszek said...

Well, Nick's opinions on alcohol abuse can be expected to vary depending on what time of the afternoon it is. Oh, fuck it, this is far too easy, isn't it?

1/10/2010 12:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

who suggested that our nick wasn't a very diligent researcher.

Stated that he's insane, to be slightly more precise.

1/10/2010 01:22:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

i dunno, i doubt chomsky was using maniac in that context. Incidentally, nick's source - kate fox- appears to have ties to the alcohol industry, and his calling her an "oxford anthropologist" is a bit suspect-she works in oxford, but is not part of the uni. I'm also really unconvinced by nick's idea of unspoken health codes in pubs-in village boozers where the truly bladdered are told to walk home, maybe, but lots of pubs are pretty non-discerning about drunkenness. And i thought nick was a science absolutist? Funny how when science professionals say things he doesn't like, he stops listening...

1/10/2010 02:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Simon said...

My definition of a moderate drinker would be someone who doesn't allow their drinking to affect their professional or personal conduct.

To take a hypothetical example, someone who is visibly drunk at a panel event and spends the evening ranting incoherently at the audience while pouring himself further glasses of wine in order to make himself drunker, probably doesn't count as a moderate drinker.

1/10/2010 03:26:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

in his defence, i doubt nick would claim to be truly moderate. But to reiterate, all this support for boozing sits awkwardly with his weird piece on feminism. And the idea that pubs who throw regulars out for being paralytic is somehow a solution to the long-term deterioration of health of those who go there and sink a few every night but manage to walk out is beyond me. Equally beyond me is nick's logic about puritanism which seems entirely founded on his basic misreading as outlined above.

1/10/2010 03:39:00 PM  
Anonymous bubby said...

I think its a bit ridiculous to suggest that health professionals concerned about the enormous social implications of alcohol abuse are guilt or 'puritanism' or that alocohol policy is heading towards 'punishing the law abiding'.

Would such arguments be used against public health camapigns designed to minimise the spread of HIV?

I know many here are wary of attempts to speculate about the psychological motives of writers but I can't swat way the nagging suspicion that the article stems from a desire to self-exculpate.

After all his performance at the Orwell awards were not exactly an advert for resposible social drinking.

1/10/2010 03:39:00 PM  
Blogger Captain Cabernet said...

Would such arguments be used against public health camapigns designed to minimise the spread of HIV?

Well yes they were. By Living Marxism and the RCP ....

1/10/2010 03:42:00 PM  
Anonymous bubby said...

Well yes they were. By Living Marxism and the RCP

I know its been said before but Nick's occasional strange lurches towards a kind of right-wing populist libertarian controverialism does remind me of RCP writings. I doubt he’d care for the comparison knowing full well what a horrible bunch they are.

1/10/2010 04:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Decency = RCP + Tomahawks.

1/10/2010 07:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Wrestling Dick said...

At least he refered to "puritans" rather than "new temperance" that Richard Reeves,of mindtank Demos labels those who think £2.99 for 3 litres of 7.5 alcohol gutrot cider is too cheap.As anyone who has come into contact with health professionals as a result of their alcoholism can tell you,the harm caused by alcohol is cumulative.So it's easier to make a convincing case that increasing price will lessen harm caused by alcohol than the opposite.Anyone who doesn't believe me can take the 3 litres of white lightning on an empty stomache test.

1/11/2010 08:56:00 AM  
Anonymous Phil said...

Spot the talking point:

"Nowhere in their report do they manage a word of praise for the conviviality and solidarity the now threatened English pub offers. Not once do they recognise that pubs' informal taboos produce responsible drinking or recommend that the chancellor takes urgent measures to help landlords compete with Tesco by slashing the duty on draught beers."

As well as the prefabricated language (urgent measures, not just any old measures), the lack of logic is striking. If excessive alcohol consumption is a problem and the supermarkets are selling booze too cheap, why on earth would a health committee recommend making it cheaper in pubs as well?

I think Nick's been had. Kate Fox works for the Social Issues Research Centre, a non-profit organisation which "shares the same offices, directors, and leading personnel as a commercial market research company called MCM Research ... The scenario becomes even more interesting when one reads the list of MCM's clients. These include Bass Taverns, the Brewers and Licensed Retail Association, the Cider Industry Council, the Civil Aviation Authority, Conoco, Coral Racing, Grand Metropolitan Retail, the Portman Group (jointly funded by Bass, Courage, Guinness, etc), Pubmaster, Rank Leisure, and Whitbread Inns, as well as several Australian brewing concerns and several independent television companies." (BMJ).

Fox's first publication was actually funded by the Portman Group. I'm not saying she's a drink industry shill, but she's certainly taken the drink industry's shilling.

1/11/2010 10:12:00 AM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

According to the health committee, the answer is six units – that is three pints or one bottle of wine – a week.

I'm surprised no one picked this up, but bottles of wine are often labelled with their units; and most are 10. A pint of most beers is actually 2.3 - 2.5 units. So he's not even got that right.

1/11/2010 01:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Compare with Nick's 2000 piece "The Plot to Keep us Puffing"

another sign that the new Nick Cohen is all about an internal war with the old Nick Cohen - the pro smoking lobby gloating about this

Ann On

1/11/2010 02:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

Nick's occasional strange lurches towards a kind of right-wing populist libertarian controverialism does remind me of RCP writings.

Francis Sedgemore points out that Susan Greenfield is an advisor to SIRC; she was also heavily involved in the establishment of the Science Media Centre, a kind of glorified press office housed at the Royal Institution. The director of the SMC is Fiona Fox (no relation), of RCP/LM/IoI/etc. Apparently Sense About Science - the campaigning group currently holding Simon Singh's coat - is also loaded with Furedites.

This, of course, says nothing about Nick in and of itself. I once read a review of a book on ley lines which said that the author had proved conclusively that it was possible to draw lines on a map; network-of-influence-spotting suffers from the same sort of temptation. But it's interesting.

1/11/2010 05:25:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

Ah, Richard Reeves, who criticised a book whose message he disagreed with, in a review for the Observer, because it had too many facts and figures. Even hacks usually have a little more dignity.

1/13/2010 01:18:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

I don't have any strong opinions on Kate Fox either way, but she is a cultural anthropologist. Just one who works for a consulting firm (SIRC). I think ties to alcohol industry here probably means simply that they have been among SIRC's clients.

The book he's quoting from is a semi-humorous popular "Look at the English" guide. Its actually quite good if you have foreign relatives and want to get something of middle England across, but its far from being authoritative and is closer to Bill Bryson than Clifford Geertz.

1/13/2010 02:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

cian - I can't find any record of Kate Fox holding an academic post or writing an academic publication, which I tend to think of as the price of admission to a title like "anthropologist" - let alone "Oxford anthropologist"! She's been a director of MCM since 1989.

As for the drinks industry being just one client among many, I'm not entirely convinced. According to Wikipedia Kate Fox's first three books were

Drinking and Public Disorder (co-authored with Dr. Peter Marsh) (Portman Group, 1992)
Pubwatching with Desmond Morris (Sutton, 1993)
Passport to the Pub: The Tourist's Guide to Pub Etiquette (DoNot Press, 1996)

and she followed that up with a year-long research project funded by the Tote, resulting in

The Racing Tribe: Watching the Horsewatchers (Metro, 1999)

I think she's got a definite niche.

1/13/2010 04:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Marsh is not bad as a scholar, IIRC.

Chris Williams

PS I promised solemnly that I'd never pay attention to the giftrap again. But this one I can't resist - it's 'nospin'

1/13/2010 04:53:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Ah, Desmond Morris and Peter Marsh. Both Oxford, both big football men - Morris wrote the much-derided The Soccer Tribe, the title of which Fox's racing book obviously echoes - and was a director of the much-derided Oxford United. Meanwhile Marsh also wrote about hooliganism (and apparently still does).

I assume they know one another, though I don't actually know that (albeit I could presumably find out).

1/13/2010 07:37:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Actually, if I bother to actually read Marsh's SIRC CV that I linked to, he obviously does know Morris, yes.

I met Marsh once, can't remember why, may have been to do with football ID cards. Seemed very fond of himself. Never met Morris, though I do recall seeing a chap once delivering himself of some choice words as he left the Beech Road stand at the Manor - this was actually at a reserve match, I believe - and a mate of mine saying "you know who that is? That's Desmond Morris."

1/13/2010 07:43:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

With apologies for a third consecutive posting, this reminds me that Marsh, too, was at one time a director of the club. I think this is why I get confused about whether they know one another, because my memory has difficulty establishing that they're two different people! (But it was Marsh I met, not Morris. Definitely. I think.)

1/13/2010 07:56:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

in nick's defence-sort of-he has mentioned the fox book before, in a staggers piece on julian baggini. Though his liking for it is testament to his preference for glib, lighthearted books over the serious, peer-reviewed, academic stuff. his favourite history writer is, lest we forgot, john o'farrell. Who is not even close to being a historian. I wouldn't really mind this if it were surely a preference for accessible writing- but cohen takes himself so seriously as an intellectual heavyweight, and in the obs piece seems to be trying to present a woman who writes enjoyable but throwaway stuff as some sort of academic. There's no other reason for that "oxford" to be there.

1/14/2010 10:26:00 AM  
Blogger cian said...

What Organic Cheeseboard said. She works as an anthropologist for a consultancy firm. I have no idea as to whether she is any good or not, my guess would be not. Though from my brief skim of her book before giving it someone as a present, she does have a reasonable grounding in anthropology, if nothing else. The thing about consultancy is that you don't get to pick your niche, and once you have one you tend to get stuck with it. On the plus side the money is fairly good, and you don't necessarily need a Phd. A couple of industry anthropologists sans PhDs are pretty well respected, so it is technically feasible for her to be quite good.

Given anthropology's birth as the hand-maiden of imperialism, I think gatekeeping is a little late by this stage of the game...

1/14/2010 07:58:00 PM  

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