Empirical measures

Reading through scientific journals is how I address most of life’s problems, and I would recommend that to anyone as a sound way to both personal and professional success (I don’t, and I wouldn’t, in case it needed telling). Like any regular, self-loathing schmo, I am an empiricist. While this doesn’t mean that I believe we can fully understand or even emulate complex social or physical phenomena through experimentation, I do think it can give us an insight into things in such as way as to dispel myths and instigate significant and positive cultural shifts.

Smoking. That’s one. I remember when the smoking laws came in when I were a lad, and we’d be driving down to the shops in the Audi 80, back when they still had ashtrays in the back seats of cars, and we’d ask my mum, ‘do we have to put our cigarettes out’. And get this – even though the law was now in place, she would still sometimes let us puff away right there in the back seat while the car was weaving this way and that through the traffic throwing us about, even though she’d put hers out, even though we were not only putting our lives at increased risk in doing so, even though – most importantly – we were putting my mother in the position of incurring a slap on the wrist fine.

That was a surreal joke, which doesn’t even make sense when you substitute seatbelts back in for cigarettes. Somehow I felt it warranted this explanation, but at least I am a little inkling closer to reaching the fabled 500 words of blog that I need to show big journalists working for the Independent (who notoriously scour the lowest dregs of Microsoft’s very own Blogspot) that I am capable of producing big-time words, week after week.

Anyway, that was a case of the statistics – living in an age and place of Independent Bodies, producing statistics that we can usually trust sometimes – that clearly showed that seatbelts were good at saving your life if you crashed. We were average children, straddling the border of the 1980s and 1990s, bouncing around in the back seat, doing impromptu handbrake turns and mooning out of the rear window, much to the ire of my poor old ma. It must have been a little distracting for her. Even with the added, very seductive offer of complete physical control over her kids that (speaking as a mother) every single mother loves, she still let us go beltless for that short time.

My mother, an incredibly intelligent woman, a mathematician and statistical analyst, nevertheless feeling as though it was okay to lay inert – and most inelegantly, with hindsight – across the tracks as they shifting from one legal position to the next.

And this is what happens to people when laws change. I’m not questioning my mother’s actions. I’m just saying that’s what people do (myself included) – they subject their kids to risks knowingly all the time – and I was using the old girl to illustrate that. In fact, she was proving herself to be most human in that moment of putting our lives, knowingly, at increased risk. We are all guilty of this.

When the law has changed we quickly forget how fluid it can be, and we forget the way things were with equal gusto. But this phenomenon of exctinction is itself a very interesting thing. Take the smoking ban: I was a smoker at the time it came into force, and I felt like a pariah as a result. As someone who gave up entirely during the initial course of the ban, back when we all still felt sorry for pub owners, I must declare that I may be biased in my judgement, but it is perhaps true that we have all grown used to the massive change very quickly indeed. Smoking is something that we have had evidence of its highly detrimental health effects since the 1960s. So why did the ban take so long? And perhaps more pertinent a question is: why do we not more readily ban alcohol by applying this same reasoning?

Both tobacco and alcohol have been linked to serious health problems, just as they are linked in looser folklore to creativity (in the case of alcohol) and sharper thinking or relaxation (in the case of tobacco). I am reminded of poor old Charlie Parker, possibly my favourite of all the avian saxophonists, who had a hell of a life battling with addiction whilst being a highly successful virtuoso musician and composer. The link that we popularly hold in our minds of the famous artist with a terrible addiction, is a causal one – when it is more of a symptom of something else entirely; i.e. we see the addiction as the cause, when it may be simply the effect of fame and possibly just being really bored and depressed and thinking, fuck it, I’m gonna shoot up if I want to because I’m Charlie Parker.

Linking alcohol to creativity in this way is dangerous, just like linking heroin to rock and roll is equally so. But it also hints that alcohol, too, might be a symptom rather than a cause of a nation’s woes. I say ‘nation’s woes’ rather flippantly, because most people that drink do so without any serious health or social consequences. While it may be true that alcohol acts as a salve, cutting the noose for most of us that are working jobs we hate from nine to five because we can no longer drink at lunchtime in a socially acceptable way, it could also mean something else. We as Brits, high in the ranks of the boozehound World Series, not only deal with alcohol well genetically (in general), but we also suffer from interminable stiff upper lip. In fact, being drunk is the only self-imposed circumstance under which we are free to act as we please. We can act as we please without fear and it’s okay, because we’re pissed.

The first thing that alerted me to find out more about alcohol and its crumbling effect upon man was when I got pregnant for the first time. Until then, I didn’t really care what pregnant women did except to laugh at them walking or asking for snacks, and I was confused in general about alcohol – I still don’t know if a glass of red wine a day is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (but let’s also not forget that worrying about it can give you stomach ulcers). It was only when I started reading through scientific literature that I realised that issues of science, so clear cut in my mind, are far from it in the real world.

In my mind, it is possible to perform epidemiological studies of pregnant women to measure the effects of various degrees of drinking. In my mind, you could even measure the decay of alcohol and its derivatives in the bloodstream of women, while taking into account the simple genetic variations that affect it. In my mind, science is about finding the answer so that the general public know what to do for the health of the unborn life growing both benignly and parasitically inside their billious tums, like it might in a U-rated Alien movie.

In my mind science is not about politics, but apparently it really, really is. The reason it is political is because it is not simply a question of figures, it is also a question of what people will do with the figures (plus they sometimes don’t even care about the figures, which are often bullshit anyway). Someone who is dependent on alcohol (without necessarily realising it, or feeling like an alcoholic, or getting drunk every day – just a persistent drinker, perhaps someone that has two glasses of wine every night) might misinterpret or extrapolate slightly something they have read in order to keep on drinking moderately throughout pregnancy, to the possible detriment of the foetus. And I certainly noted this undertone in some discussions, in which it was advised that less is best even when there was no evidence supporting it, because it’s probably for the best anyway, and they’re probably right. So the guidelines have to anticipate this type of behaviour, but on the other hand it can make people that do not have any alcohol issues feel demonised if they do drink on occasion…although if they do feel hard done by, they are doing so rather insensitively. After all, they are not the ones with the problem.

The confusion in how to deal with alcohol properly – to take into account not only its physical effects on our livers and brains, as well as taking into account its addictive properties and resulting social outcomes, and perhaps the fact that it is so deliciously taxable – also arises from the fact that it was prohibited before, famously in the US in the 1920s but more recently in Russia to a lesser degree, with disastrous consequences.

Tobacco – it gives you a buzz, and it’s fairly nondescript. But alcohol – perhaps a glass of red wine a day helps for something? Doesn’t it keep cancer away? Or was it that it gives you cancer? It’s got antioxidants in it. Who knows, and who really cares.

In Bulgaria, they drink either neat eau de vit (called rakia) at a teeth-cleansingly strong 55% alcohol by volume, or they drink beer that comes in a plastic, three-litre bottle and tends to resemble piss in more ways than one. But the interesting vox pop, the word on the crumbling streets, is that – yes – this stuff, rakia, actually helps to reduce blood pressure. It actually cleans your blood as well as cleaning off your tooth enamel, taste buds and stomach lining. Now that’s something that science will never teach you.

What are we to glean from all of this? What is everyone trying to say, to circumvent the obvious? We like to bloody drink alcohol. Whatever the reason – and goshdarnfudge it, I’ll say anything to convince you, because you look a bit gullible.

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