Episode 127 – 16th March 2012

This week we get a horrifying update on the pro-lifers anti-abortion campaign, a nice update on Queen Mary Jesus & Mo fiasco, and a cautiously optimistic update on the libel reform campaign. Plus why the NHS risk register shouldn’t be released, assisted dying and we speak to Ophelia Benson.


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NHS Risk Register (3:32) by Drew Rae
Delia Smith (9:36) by Tom Williamson
Dodgy Abortion Counselling (16:29) by James O’Malley (ft Laura Hurley & Lisa Hallgarten)
Assisted Dying (26:36) by Adam Jacobs
Libel Reform (37:03) by James O’Malley (ft Hardeep Singh & Vaughan Jones)
Queen Mary’s Sharia Rejig (45:46) by James O’Malley (ft Simon and Robert from QM Atheist Soc)
Ophelia Benson Interview (50:49) by Liz Lutgendorff
The sketch at the end is by David Lovesy & Brian Two
The recipe at the end is by Martyn Norris

Follow-Up Links:

6 thoughts on “Episode 127 – 16th March 2012

  1. Two in a row for Adam Jacobs producing clear and well-reasoned discussions of complex issues. I think it was very powerful tying the discussion down to a single case, but any consequentialist argument really has to think about the effect on society about regularly allowing euthanasia.

    Compare with criminal justice – you could make a strong case on both deontological and utilitarian grounds for not punishing a particular criminal. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t punish criminals, and it may mean that the particular case gets subsumed in a wider need for fairness and certainty.

    Not a criticism though – there’s only so much you can put in eight minutes, and the report was pushing length anyway.

  2. Thanks Drew, I appreciate the feedback.

    You’re right of course that there were many issues I didn’t have time to explore, and the one you raise is one of them. That ties in nicely with another ethical theory known as “rule utilitarianism”. I would hope that euthanasia, were it to become legal, would still be incredibly rare, and effects on society of regularly allowing it would be minimal. But it’s certainly worth thinking about.

    Now, on to your piece.

    I think you’re right to point out that if the risk register were to be published it would be taken massively out of context by people trying to make a political point. That’s unfortunate, but is it a good enough reason to keep it secret? I’m not sure I’m convinced by that. I would argue that if such things are routinely made public, then the media and the general public would gradually get better and interpreting them in context. Sure, it would take time, but the sooner you start, the sooner you get there.

    I’m also not sure I’m convinced by the argument that knowing that such documents would be published would inhibit civil servants from writing useful stuff in the first place. Is there any evidence that that actually happens? It’s an argument I’ve heard before from people arguing for keeping things secret, but on the whole it seems to be made by people who want to say daft an indefensible things. I suspect it is true that knowing what you say is going to be published may well inhibit you from talking bollocks, but is it true that it would inhibit you from a realistic assessment of the risks in something like the NHS reforms?

  3. Oops! A reader – who is Culture Editor of the New Statesman – points out that I made a mistake: the New Statesman was not one of the Left periodicals who gave Does God Hate Women? to a goddy reviewer. I was thinking of the Independent, which gave it to Sholto Byrnes (who duly trashed it).

    Can I blame jet lag?

  4. Ophelia:

    Is it really the best idea to attack your reviewers themselves, rather than respond to their reviews? It seem to be an ad-hominem. This is probably not what you intend, but it does come across as defensive, and not especially rational. This is a shame considering how you’ve positioned yourself in the skeptical community.

    Surely anybody is entitled to criticise your work (which I haven’t read and have no opinion on by the way), and have their criticisms acknowledged or addressed rather than being dismissed as unsuitable to comment on your book?

  5. Adam,
    You are right to raise the two issues regarding public understanding of risk and whether there is evidence of any chilling effect of publication.

    For the first one, I’d point to the large number of risk assessments published outside the health sector without any consequent increase in public understanding of what they actually are. It’s like no one notices them except to suddenly point every now and then and say “gotcha!”. You’d hope to see over time journalists asking “why was such and such risk not considered and managed in the risk register?”.

    For the second, there’s good evidence that the USA environment (where talking about “acceptable risk” is a practical legal no-no) does result in divergence between how risk is actually thought about and managed and how it is recorded. The shuttle program is a good example. Quantitative risk assessment was explicitly discarded because the results it gave were politically unacceptable. Read some of the satellite re-entry analyses for really good examples of quantitative double-think.

    As with your report – there are nuonces I didn’t go into. Always a balancing act between clarity and over-simplification. I did have a couple of extra minutes though, so I don’t have your excuse. I should have at least pointed to the parts of the discussion I was leaving out.

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