Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The myth of England’s miserable kids

This week, the Children’s Society has published yet another report highlighting how bad it is to grow up in England. The Good Childhood Report 2015 has made headlines, with one newspaper warning that English children are ‘among the unhappiest in the world at school due to bullying’. But what the Children’s Society’s data actually show does not merit the dire reporting. So why the uncritical, hyperbolic coverage?

Of course, uncritical reporting of the Children’s Society’s annual Good Childhood reports is nothing new. This is part shoddy journalism, but also clever spin by the Children’s Society. The latest report claims it is ‘based on the Children’s Society’s ongoing research on children’s subjective wellbeing, undertaken in collaboration with the University of York, which is the most extensive programme of national research on children’s subjective wellbeing globally’. Here, the collaboration with a university lends credibility to the report, and the ‘extensive’ nature of the research may also impress journalists.

The Good Childhood Report 2015 starts with an outline of the research methods adopted, acknowledging that some may question whether it is ‘possible to use self-report survey questions to gather valid, reliable and stable data from children’. This is because ‘the concept of subjective wellbeing can seem rather abstract’, the report concedes, ‘it is understandable that people may have doubts about whether it is possible to gather meaningful information about it, from adults or children’. But, the report asserts, ‘there is now a substantial body of evidence to show that [it is possible]’. The Children’s Society boasts that it has ‘carried out national schools-based surveys’; ‘initiated a regular online survey of children and their parents’; and ‘undertaken wellbeing surveys and consultations in several different local authorities’. In total, around 60,000 children in the UK have participated in the research programme.

This all sounds very impressive. But how much insight can we really gain into the internal lives of children and young people from self-report questionnaires? The idea that there is a substantial body of evidence to confirm that ‘wellbeing’ can be measured is questionable. What ‘wellbeing’ means is subjective – what it means to one person may be very different to what it means to someone else. Also, any student who has done a research-methods class at school or university will know about the many limitations of surveys. So, not only is there the limitation of ‘social-desirability bias’ – even if it is an anonymous survey we tend to give answers that we think would put us in a good light – there is the more important question of what the answers mean. Surveys are cheap and far less time-consuming than other methods that may yield richer, deeper and more meaningful data.

Yet, in two new academic fields – bullying and wellbeing – nearly all the research uses surveys. There is some debate among academics about the limitations of the research and the need to broaden the range of research methods. But far too many academics gloss over the limitations of their research methods and make claims that go way beyond what the data actually show.
Must-reads from the past week

If I were asked on a scale of one to 10 how happy I am with my life as a whole, I wouldn’t know what to answer. How can you reduce a question, such as satisfaction with your life, to a number? I would probably pick a number randomly. I am curious what a question like that would mean to a 10-year-old. In fact, I asked some 10-year-olds and they answered, ‘what do you mean?’.

Other numeric data presented in the report includes lists of the ‘most common key words’ in young people’s responses to open questions. Some of the top words were friends (4,164), family (3,091), bullying (2,391), do (2,106), parents (1,710), school (1,582), drugs (1,182) and go (1,090). But what does this tell us? What does it mean? Numeric data may look impressive, but they may not tell us anything of significance.

Then there is the question of international comparisons. Ten and 12-year-olds were asked to rate on a scale of one to 10 how satisfied they were with their school experience. For 12-year-olds, Romania tops the satisfaction table with a mean rating of 8.9. Germany and South Korea are at the bottom with mean scores of 7.6. English children’s mean score was 8.0. What do these figures mean? We could speculate for hours: the figures could, for instance, indicate a cultural difference over whether it is ‘cool’ to say you like school or not. The most striking thing is how similar the figures actually are. Only if you rank the countries from lowest to highest do the differences appear stark.

This can then be spun to the press as English children being deeply unhappy. Matthew Reed, the chief executive of the Children’s Society, said, ‘It is deeply worrying that children in this country are so unhappy at school compared to other countries, and it is truly shocking that thousands of children are being physically and emotionally bullied, damaging their happiness. School should be a safe haven, not a battleground.’

This is not an argument against ever using surveys. Numbers can tell us something. But once you reduce psychological states to numbers, you lose depth, nuance and contradictions – in other words, insight. The fact that thousands more have been asked to fill out these surveys than previously does not make the data any more meaningful.

The Children’s Society states that a frequent response of English children to the question ‘what prevents a good life?’ is ‘bullying’. I am not surprised that children and young people may have raised bullying as an issue, as they are continually encouraged to understand hurtful experience through the prism of ‘bullying’. They may merely be expressing their feeling that relationships can be difficult.

Children and young people will inevitably feel satisfied with life, friends and family on some days, and find life a challenge on other days. Adult emotions may be less volatile than children’s, but we will also fluctuate when asked whether we ‘strongly agree’ that our friends ‘are a source of support’. Friends, family and intimate relationships can cause immense heartache. Friends can be brutally honest and force us to consider our faults. But our relationships with fellow humans can bring joy, pleasure, warmth, love, happiness – as well as emotional pain. That’s life.

We don’t always treat people as well as we wish we did. We sometimes take out our frustrations on those closest to us. But we can learn to make amends. We should aim to do the right thing in relationships with other people – treating them how we expect them to treat us. But what is ‘the right thing’? That is an ongoing struggle to work out.

For children and young people, relationships can cause heartache. Even the best of friendships will involve some conflict, hurt feelings, misunderstandings and feelings of betrayal. But through heartache, we strengthen our character, deepen our understanding of our emotions and other people.

Relationships are worth the heartache and pain. Not only because of the immense joy and pleasure we gain from relationships, but because it is our relationships with other people that give our lives meaning. The ‘anti-bullying’ script tells children that if they feel slighted and upset, it is because others – that is, ‘bullies’ – have done something wrong to them. Yet, most of the time, it is a two-way process, where both sides have to work out how to make amends.

That is not to argue that bullying does not exist. But feeling bad about something someone has done is not bullying. If society keeps going on about how dreadful and damaging bullying is, and the importance of children’s emotional wellbeing, we could end up in a situation where children interpret anything hurtful as ‘bullying’, and expect that it should be dealt with by someone in authority.

Focusing on a nebulous concept like wellbeing does not make sense. If children’s mean scores on these surveys were to rise from eight to nine, would that symbolise success? Who knows? How we raise the next generation is important. But the starting point should be what kind of society we want. What do we value? What is important in life? What is the meaning of life? These are questions philosophers have grappled with for centuries, and there are no easy answers. But the answer is not higher scores on wellbeing measures.


Hugo Awards and Sad Puppies: Has Political Correctness Invaded Science Fiction?

There is controversy surrounding this year’s Hugo Awards, the prestigious science fiction prize which will be handed out this Saturday and whose previous winners have included Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick and Robert Heinlein. This year’s ballot has many names on it that liberals and the media have denounced as racist and reactionary white men.

The group in question counter that they are not reactionary, racist, or even white, and that the reporting on the entire episode has been atrocious.

The group of writers, calling themselves the “Sad Puppies” – a satire on liberalism’s penchant for appealing to emotion over logic – successfully got themselves on the Hugo ballot, and then nominated, by appealing to the fans who vote for the award. The Sad Puppies unofficial leader is Brad Torgerson, author of “The Chaplain’s War” and other works and a U.S. Army Reserve Warrant Officer. Torgerson, who has been nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula, another prestigious sci-fi prize, told one interviewer, “It became plainly obvious, especially after 2010, that a lot of the classic works of the old days - there's no way they could possibly make it in the current climate because the current climate was all about affirmative action.”

“Message was eating story,” John C. Wright, who got on the ballot via the Puppies’ campaign and is nominated for five Hugos this year, told CNS News. “It’s about that and not political correctness. It’s not that there are certain themes explored in science fiction, it’s that the authors of many of works are being rewarded for advancing an agenda while the craftsmanship of the work is lacking. The question should not be about politics, the question should simply be, are your stories good or bad? People were getting prizes and the craftsmanship just wasn't there.”

Wright notes that the media coverage of the Sad Puppies controversy has been riddled with errors. One of the most egregious cases appeared in Entertainment Weekly, which had to issue a lengthy correction:

CORRECTION: After misinterpreting reports in other news publications, EW published an unfair and inaccurate depiction of the Sad Puppies voting slate, which does, in fact, include many women and writers of color. As Sad Puppies’ Brad Torgerson explained to EW, the slate includes both women and non-caucasian writers, including Rajnar Vajra, Larry Correia, Annie Bellet, Kary English, Toni Weisskopf, Ann Sowards, Megan Gray, Sheila Gilbert, Jennifer Brozek, Cedar Sanderson, and Amanda Green.

Despite the corrections, argues Wright, the media continues to report that the Sad Puppies is an attack on women and minorities.

The Hugo is given out Saturday in a ceremony at the INB Performing Arts Center in Spokane, Washington.


The Beginning of the End of Religious Freedom in America

Just in case you need a refresher: Back in 2012, a baker in the Denver suburb of Lakewood was asked by a gay couple to make them a wedding cake — two years before gay marriage was even legalized in Colorado. The owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Jack Phillips, declined to participate in Charlie Craig and David Mullins' celebration because such an event conflicted with his Christian faith.

Here are a few things Phillips didn’t do: He didn’t query consumers about their sexual preferences. He didn’t bar same-sex couples from purchasing a cake at a place of public accommodation. He didn’t ask consumers traveling in same-sex pairs to leave his shop. He didn’t hang a “No Gays Allowed” sign in his window.

What he could never have known when he first opened his shop was that celebrating gay marriages would be a precondition for making a living. And when you consider that there are at least a few dozen other bakeries within a short drive from Masterpiece Cakeshop that could have accommodated the couple’s celebratory pastry needs, why would he?

Yet instead of exhibiting a basic level of tolerance (or dignity), two priggish bullies decided to call the authorities when Phillips refused to bake them a cake. And the cultural commissars at the Colorado Civil Rights Commission soon ruled that he had discriminated against the couple.

The shop was not only ordered to alter store policy and start baking cakes for gay weddings — or else face debilitating fines, a consequence often reported on by the media — but also forced to provide comprehensive staff training, ensure compliance and then file quarterly obedience reports with the government for two years. In these reports, Phillips has to describe exactly which remedial measures the shop has taken to conform and document the reasons any other patrons were denied service.

So, you know, I’m sure this is exactly how Thomas Jefferson imagined America would turn out when he was writing the Declaration of Independence.

Phillips appealed the decision, and a three-panel Colorado Court of Appeals unanimously decided that Masterpiece Cakeshop’s policy against creating wedding cakes for same-sex couples was a “discriminatory and unfair practice,” further ruling that the shop must continue to answer to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission or else be run out of business.

Incredibly, the court acknowledged in its decision that it would have looked at the First Amendment arguments more closely had the gay couple ordered a cake with some explicit messaging that advocated gay marriage. In other words, the Colorado Court of Appeals believes that the threshold for denying religious liberty is the presence of advocacy. The court has effectively tasked itself with determining for you when religion should matter.

If nothing else, it’s comforting to know that Colorado can force an orthodox Muslim butcher to make sausages for a polyamorous, bisexual bachelor/bachelorette party, as long as no one asks the butcher to outwardly promote swine and free love.

In any event, I’m sure there will be an appeal. But seeing as most Americans are fine with gay marriage and simultaneously put off by unpleasant (though deceptive, in this case) words such as “discrimination” and “prejudice,” the courts — nearly always driven by the vagaries of public opinion — will find a way to force all to comply. This will go for any other businesses even tangentially related to weddings, such as food catering, music and so on. And the crusade will accelerate until the legal lynch mob gets to religious institutions. No doubt advocates will work backward to come up with a great legal rationalization for all of it.

All of this is not to say that in American life, the minority should never be compelled to surrender to some form of majoritarianism, judicial force or government. In this case, though, the minority does not have the ability to compromise without abandoning its faith. The other side refuses to compromise precisely because of this reality. And courts and commissions around the country are willing to destroy businesses — businesses that sometimes took a large part of a lifetime to build — by ignoring one of the most vital functions of the First Amendment.

The position of these businesspeople, unlike Southern racists decades ago, in no way undermines the newfound right of gay Americans to marry, nor does it inhibit them from enjoying freedom or finding happiness. In this case, only one side is attempting to legislate morality.

If you admit — and many rational people do, even those who quarrel with the reasoning behind religious obstinacy — that millions of Christians hold some form of a genuine, long-standing religious conviction that prohibits them from celebrating gay marriages but you still support state coercion against them, then you might as well just concede that religious freedom isn’t compatible with your conception of a contemporary society.

Whereas at one time the state wouldn’t substantially burden religious exercise and would use the least restrictive means to further “compelling interests,” the state today is inclined to substantially burden a Christian by the mere fact that someone’s feelings are hurt.


Australia: Reaction to Mark Latham’s colourful talk at the Melbourne Writers Festival shows us to be a nation of hypocrites

Rowan Dean writes reasonably below but Latham's main offence seems to have been his use of much foul language. And whether such language deserves free speech protection has always been a subject of debate.  "If you don't like it, walk out on it" has always been the libertarian dictum and some people did just that

IF YOU can’t be foul-mouthed at a writer’s festival, then where on earth can you be?

The uproar over Mark Latham’s diatribe at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival lays bare an uncomfortable truth about modern Australia – we have become a nation of whining, craven wimps frightened of our own shadows and terrified of our own thoughts. Worse, we have become a nation of hypocrites.

We pretend that we value free speech, but we instantly take offence at anybody who disagrees with our pre-ordained, pre-packaged, homogenised “progressive” attitudes.

Sadly, I was not in the audience to witness Mr Latham’s colourful use of our mother tongue. But had I been, I imagine it would have been the highlight of the weekend.

I’m pretty certain it would have been far more entertaining, enlightening, thought-provoking, or even enraging, than sitting through hour upon of hour of turgid drivel from authors droning on about gay marriage, climate change, and the evils of Tony Abbott.

Think I’m joking? Check out the festival website. How’s this for unintentional hilarity: “Is This How You Feel? is an exhibition of 22 handwritten letters from some of Australia’s leading climate researchers, describing how climate change makes them feel.

“Written with passion instead of in dry scientific language, the letters are powerful, heartfelt and raw.” Wow! Can’t wait for the book to come out!

Or perhaps you’d prefer to join the queue for this no doubt standing-room-only session: “How do women in media deal with the pressure to look ‘good’ and behave ‘properly’?” Er, with a mirror perhaps?

No, the purpose of good writing is to use words to inspire our deepest emotions, to provoke brave new thinking, and to always challenge the status quo.

The history of literature is all about creative people who dared to break religious and sexual taboos, to rage against the mundane, and to undermine through satire the rich and the powerful.

Writing is possibly mankind’s greatest skill, and one that has permitted our species to thrive through our ability to record our own innermost thoughts and share the lessons of our histories with those who came after us.

Which is why, alongside freedom of speech, sits freedom of expression – the right to write.

Writing captures our noblest dreams, but also our darkest nightmares.

From Shakespeare to Amis, writers have turned their talent to lewd profanities, blasphemy and causing maximum offence.

A writer’s festival, rather than an anodyne collection of minor celebrities twittering on about how they “feel”, should be an explosive and volatile combustion of the use of language to convey ideas that provoke fear, pleasure, joy, terror and sadness.

If I don’t leave a writer’s festival feeling inspired, angry, tortured, frustrated, elated and jealous, then the festival has failed me.

What we publish is of course different to what we write, being confined by defamation, but we should never forget the Duke of Wellington’s admonishment to “publish and be damned!” which, intriguingly in the light of the current Ashley Madison scandal, was in response to someone threatening to expose the Duke’s affair with his mistress.

Although I haven’t seen the transcript of his speech, I have no doubt that Mr Latham managed to offend and outrage all sorts of different people in equal measure. Good. Whether you like him or not, whether you agree with his politics or not, whether you accept his point of view or not on a whole range of issues, there is no denying Mr Latham’s skill with the pen.  He is a genuinely talented writer.

And if the one thing you learn from this festival is that a skilled writer can also be a foul-mouthed hater of things you hold precious and dear, then you have learned something valuable.

Certainly more than how to put on your lippy before reading the news.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the  incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of  other countries.  The only real difference, however, is how much power they have.  In America, their power is limited by democracy.  To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already  very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges.  They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did:  None.  So look to the colleges to see  what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way.  It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH,   EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS and  DISSECTING LEFTISM.   My Home Pages are here or   here or   here.  Email me (John Ray) here


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