Saturday, 6 December 2014

Unpaid Internships Are Still a Major Problem


A recent report by the London Assembly Economy Committee found that more than 6 in 10 interns are paid less than the National Minimum Wage (NMW) of £6.50 an hour, with the Committee calling on the Mayor of London Boris Johnson to ensure that all internships longer than four weeks are paid at least the NMW, and preferably the London Living Wage (£9.15 an hour). The report also discovered that not all internships are publicly advertised – with one fifth of current or former interns saying they heard about the position from personal contacts – which means that less well-connected Londoners are excluded from these opportunities.

Chair of the Committee Jenny Jones argues that “internships should be fair and accessible to all, and they deserve to be paid…It’s a question of social mobility – unpaid internships limit the numbers of young people who are able to do them as a step in their career.” In addition, findings show that unpaid internships are bad for business too – they not only limit the pool of talent available and risk the employer’s reputation, but they result in less productive workers. This almost goes without saying; someone who is being paid is likely to put more effort into their work than someone who isn’t getting paid.

Research by the Sutton Trust reveals that a six month unpaid internship will cost a single person living in London £926 a month, and £788 a month in Manchester (excluding transport costs). Given that 31% of graduate interns are unpaid, this means that many people are coming out of university not only with £27,000 worth of debt (at least) in terms of tuition fees, but now they have to face the prospect of paying for their first job. The Trust’s results also highlight that 70% of people aged 16-75 in England agree that unpaid internships are unfair because only people from wealthy families will be in a position to work for a long period of time without pay.

Unpaid internships exacerbate social and economic inequality by ensuring that key industries – media, journalism, politics and the arts – are filled with people from privileged backgrounds who can afford to work for free. After I graduated I did a number of unpaid roles, many of which gave me the skills and experience I needed to find paid work. The only one which was a complete waste of time was the Department for Work and Pensions back-to-work scheme, which forced Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants to work for 13 weeks, full-time, unpaid, for four days a week, with the fifth day spent applying for jobs. The scheme was a complete a failure and didn’t help the long-term unemployed find work, including myself. There was nothing about standing around in a charity shop all day which I found rewarding or useful in terms of getting a job.

I was still in a fortunate position where I could do a few short-term unpaid work placements, which I am very grateful for. But sadly, this option isn’t available for those who cannot afford to work for free, which seems to me grossly unfair, since I do not believe that someone’s socioeconomic status should in any way be a relevant factor in their suitability for a position. Unpaid internships are difficult to reconcile with a belief in equality of opportunity. In any case, research tells us that paid interns are far more likely to secure employment than unpaid interns, who, by the way, are apparently no more employable than those with no internship experience whatsoever. The survey, carried out by the National Association of Colleges and Employers in the US, also stresses that those with unpaid internships tend to take lower paying jobs than those with no internship experience, while paid interns attain jobs with significantly higher salaries.

Moreover, in many cases, unpaid internships are illegal. InternAware offer unpaid interns the chance to claim back their pay for the hours they have worked at a company. If you have set hours that you work, have specific duties and responsibilities, and are doing tasks that otherwise a paid member of staff would have to do, then you could be entitled to the NMW, even if you agreed to work for free. There have been many court cases where unpaid interns have successfully claimed back money since it was clear that their duties defined them technically as ‘workers’ deserving of pay. Many job listing websites, such as W4MP Jobs which I used a lot to search for work, advertise jobs which cover travel and lunch expenses, but this reimbursement is still not in line with the NMW. In terms of improving social mobility, the employability and future of young people, and the reputation and productivity of businesses, a strong case can be made for completely scrapping unpaid internships.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Psychology of Bad News

Every day we are inundated with stories about the most disgusting and horrific acts and events that have taken place in the world. It’s common knowledge that “bad news sells” – but what is it about bad news that makes it interesting and readable? It seems counter-intuitive that people’s minds would be primed to seek out information which paints a nightmarish view of the world. But evolutionary psychology has shed some light on why we are interested in stories about terrorism, death, conflict, disease and abuse, even though these events fill us with negative emotions.

Humans seek out dramatic, negative events because these are the events that would have determined our survival back in our hunter-gatherer days. So while people who read news articles about Ebola and the Islamic State group are not really threatened by them – although the fear and anxiety they bring up can lead to this feeling – our brains still interpret the information as significant potential threats.

In one experiment conducted by researchers at McGill University in Canada, results showed that the participants preferred to read news stories with a negative tone – such as those involving corruption, set-backs and hypocrisy – rather than neutral or positive stories. Furthermore, those who were already interested in politics and current affairs were also more likely to choose to read bad news over neutral or positive news. However – and this is the salient finding from the study – when asked which kind of news the participants preferred, they all unequivocally said they prefer good news, and believed the media focuses too much on negative stories.

The researchers argued that their findings clearly point to the existence of a ‘negativity bias’ – a term in psychology which refers to our collective desire to hear and remember negative information. It is not the same as schadenfreude, which is pleasure derived from the misfortune of others, and in German literally means ‘harm-joy’. When our so-called negativity bias kicks in, we don’t receive joy upon hearing about, for example, the death toll from Ebola increasing or another celebrity being convicted of historic sex crimes – rather, we react to the information as a potential threat.

The researchers from the McGill experiment offer their own conclusions. They argue that we pay attention to bad news, not because it signals a potentially life-threatening situation, but because we think the world is in a better state than it actually is. They claim that people over-estimate positive qualities in themselves (a cognitive bias known as 'illusory superiority' in psychology) and in the world, which makes bad news all the more surprising and important. Humans are often described as a novelty-seeking species. Our history and future is defined by a constant hunger to seek out new knowledge and to create even more complex innovations. We are attracted to bad news because it satisfies this desire for novelty, presenting to us a far more shocking view of the world than the kind of good news which gets reported, which often involves more gradual improvements to situations.

However, while this may explain why bad news sells, this does not mean that we should automatically approve of how the media manipulates our cognitive biases. University of Texas professor Mary McNaughton-Cassill says that constant exposure to bad news won’t give you PTSD, anxiety disorder or depression if you weren’t already predisposed toward these conditions. And it may be that depressed or anxious people are more likely than the general population to seek out bad news, which in turn can exacerbate their symptoms.

For those who don’t have a mental illness, however, reading, hearing and watching coverage of the worst aspects of humanity every day can have subtler, yet still unpleasant effects on our mentality. McNaughton-Cassill’s studies show that participants who are exposed to bad news do not meet the criteria for depression, but they do report feelings of despondency and apathy about the world, believing that the world is collapsing and that there is nothing they can do about it.

We have optimistic tendencies as well, but these often become numbed by the endless news coverage we are exposed to. We are given very narrow and biased reporting on countries around the world, so it’s no wonder that many people come to see the whole world as if it’s on the brink of Armageddon. Research also reveals that the more threatened people feel, the more likely they are to support right-wing policies, which means that many predominantly left-wing news outlets in the UK, such as The Guardian, may in fact be encouraging right-wing thinking without even knowing it.

It is true that some countries are getting worse on a daily basis, but the psychologist Steven Pinker argues in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, that the course of history actually shows that the world is becoming less violent, and safer, healthier and more humane. In order to avoid thinking that the whole world is a dark and dangerous place, which it isn’t, the best thing to do may be to avoid the news completely. However, this isn’t that realistic – even those who don’t watch TV or read the newspaper still get their diet of bad news from the Internet and social media.

What can be useful is simply remaining conscious of the fact that the media’s characterisation of other countries is not the whole story. It is also important to remain aware of the fact the media has an incentive to promote bad news because we are more likely to consume it, because instilling fear and anxiety in us is an effective way to make us prefer one policy over another, and because if we are worried that our lives and health are in danger, then we will be more likely to spend money on supposed solutions or cures. The key point is that even though you can’t change how the media operates, you change your way of interpreting it. Rather than becoming an obsessive consumer of news, you can develop a better understanding of why you are worried about things that probably aren’t going to happen.

Fortunately, there are positive news stories being shared on the Internet and social media all the time. Depending on how you control your news feed on Facebook, you can expose yourself to positive stories about success, the latest scientific discoveries and achievements, and examples of altruistic behaviour. The world is not such a terrible place, so long as you remain informed and in control, as far as possible, of the media content which is coming at you from every direction. 

Monday, 24 November 2014

Examples of Geometric Designs Used in Religious Architecture

Nasir al-Mulk Mosque or Pink Mosque in Shiraz, Iran


Spanish Synagogue in Prague, Czech Republic


Lotf Allah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran


Selimiye Mosque in Edime, Turkey


Golden Mosque in Registan, Uzbekistan


Canterbury Cathedral in Canterbury, England


Sagrada Familia Church in Barcelona, Spain

Saturday, 22 November 2014

What the Big Environmental Groups Don't Want You to Know


I used to be a fan of Greenpeace. I’ve donated to them in the past and have always assumed they were leading the way in terms of raising awareness about the devastating effects of climate change, and the relevant human activity that contributes to these effects. But my view of Greenpeace completely changed when I watched the recent and much-discussed documentary Cowspiracy. Directed by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, it follows Andersen as he tries to discover the driving force of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change. If you haven’t seen the film, you must watch it – immediately.

A keen environmentalist himself, Andersen learns from a 2009 World Watch study that livestock products contribute to 51% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, making animal agriculture the key factor in climate change. Even if we take a more modest estimate from a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), livestock is responsible for 18% of GHGs, a bigger share than all transport everywhere combined. Clearly then, the food which we eat every day, and the industries which this supports, has serious consequences for ecosystems and the future vitality of the planet. However, as Andersen soon discovers through his research, this is not something that big environmental groups want you to know about. But why are renowned groups like Greenpeace hiding these statistics? Is it not in their interest to disclose the most accurate information to date?

What unravels before the viewer’s eyes is a deeply unsettling truth: many big environmental groups – such as Greenpeace, 350.org, WWF, Amazon Watch, Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation and Rainforest Action Network – are concealing information about animal agriculture because it will harm their public image and sponsorship. On Greenpeace’s website, for example, you get the impression that it is the burning of fossil fuels for energy that is the main reason why the planet is in the dire state it’s in. They claim that the solutions for climate change include protecting tropical forests, replacing ‘dirty’ fossil fuels with renewable energy and energy efficiency, and rejecting “false solutions” like nuclear energy. These are valid recommendations, but there is still absolutely no mention of the well-documented effects of animal agriculture on the environment.

If you go on the ‘Individual action’ page on Greenpeace’s website you are given advice on how to reduce your own impact on the environment. You can turn down the temperature on your refrigerator, washing machine and water heater; use compact fluorescent light bulbs; insulate your home; walk, cycle or use public transportation wherever possible; use efficient showerheads; and purchase appliances that are the most energy efficient you can afford. And as many other groups will tell you, you should cut down on your use of plastic bags.

What these big environmental groups don’t tell you is that massively cutting down on, or eliminating completely, your consumption of animal products is the the most effective way to minimise your impact on the environment. This is an unsettling truth for most people, because most people consume animal products on a daily basis, and the prospect of changing a lightbulb and using a bag for life seems like a much more manageable accommodation than giving up meat and dairy. For fear of damaging their fundraising campaigns, these groups refrain from telling us that it is our eating habits - those deeply ingrained in our daily lives and in our culture - which deserve a large portion of the blame for resource depletion and environmental degradation.

As finding show, a quarter pound hamburger requires 660 gallons of water - equivalent to two months of constant showering. This means that any efforts to cut down on personal water usage pale in comparison to the water that can be saved from cutting down on, or giving up, beef. In the U.S., domestic use of water makes up only 5% of total water consumption in the country, whereas animal agriculture makes up a shocking 55%, due to the fact that it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. In other words, raising cows for beef production is an insanely inefficient use of our dwindling resources and energy. If you carry out all of the recommendations made by the U.S. government to cut down on water consumption, you can save 47 gallons of water per day. But this is kind of insignificant when you compare that to the 660 gallons that can be saved from refusing to eat one hamburger.

In interviews with representatives of big environmental groups, Andersen finds that they are either an unwillingness to address the problem of animal agriculture, or they attempt to understate, deny or claim ignorance about the conclusions reached by the FAO and World Watch reports. This feat of intellectual dishonesty stems from a prioritisation of publicity and business over integrity. I was also shocked to learn that activists have been killed over trying to expose the harmful effects of cattle rearing on the Amazon rainforest. A U.S.-born nun called Dorothy Stang, who lived and campaigned in the Brazilian Amazon, was shot and killed at point blank range by a gunman hired by the cattle industry. 1,100 activists have been killed in Brazil in the last 20 years, which illustrates that discussing this elephant in the room is not only a risk to the profitability of environmental groups, but to the lives of the outspoken as well.

Even if everyone ate grass-fed beef, long touted as the ethical and environmental panacea for factory farming, this would require 3.9 million acres of grazing land in the U.S. in order to feed the entire country’s population. Yet as the documentary points out, the U.S. only has 1.9 million acres of arable land available, meaning that grass-fed beef would still lead to escalating deforestation in the Amazon. It seems that there is simply no way to sustainably meet the world’s demand for meat, which will inevitably increase with the exponential growth of global population.

It is well documented how the meat industry acts as a powerful political force and how livestock lobbying groups have been successful at weakening or preventing new meat-safety initiatives. The influence of meat corporations, through the millions spent on lobbying each year, also probably explains why governments have been so unwilling to agree on policies and regulations which reflect the severity of environmental degradation. If regulations did match this destruction, the meat and dairy industry would have to bear the external costs incurred through their activities - those which harm third parties, such as air pollution, soil erosion, ocean acidification, and so on. 

If these industries had to internalise these 'negative externalities' - as they are called in economics - this would substantially drive up the price of meat and dairy, making it impossible for the general population to maintain their demand for these products, which in turn would cause agribusiness profits to plummet. It's no surprise then that these industries go to such great efforts to ensure that health and safety, environmental and welfare regulations do not get passed.

If the collusion between the meat industry and government wasn’t bad enough, the possible affiliation of livestock lobbying groups with environmental organisations is even more disturbing. In an interview with Emily Meredith from Animal Agriculture Alliance, one of the biggest livestock lobby groups in America, Meredith is silent on the issue of whether the meat and dairy industry has ever supported or donated to groups such as Greenpeace. Her silence really does speak louder than words. This means that groups like Greenpeace may be concealing the main cause of climate change from the public, not just for fear of public disapproval and fewer donations, but because they will lose serious funding from groups which represent the villains in the fight for sustainability.

The big environmental groups and government leaders can no longer be depended on for effective change. The salient point I took from this documentary is that it is individual responsibility and action – achieved through a switch to a vegan diet – which marks the path to a sustainable future. This lifestyle change is easier, cheaper and more effective than any other eco-friendly recommendation you will hear from Greenpeace or the government.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Children and Young People Need Honest Drug Education

Children and young people in the UK (those aged 5-16) are taught about drugs in the non-compulsory subject known as personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE). However, even though the subject is non-compulsory, the new National Curriculum does recommend that all schools teach PSHE and states that it is “an important and necessary part of all pupils’ education”.

The problem is that children and young people are taught about drugs by non-specialist teachers who fail to deliver an informed, balanced and honest perspective about the subject. This is due partly to a lack of resources, as this joint report by the PSHE Association and Mentor ADEPIS highlights. It is also due to the government’s own distorted view on drugs and its attitude of fear towards drug use.

The government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) is not independent, which unfortunately means that any perspective on drugs which conflicts with the government’s own agenda will be ignored or silenced. Such was the case with Professor David Nutt, who was the previous chairman of the ACMD, but who was dismissed for his claims that ecstasy was safer than alcohol and horse-riding.

Without an independent team of scientists informing drug policy, the government will continue its inconsistent and non-evidence based programme of drug prohibition. This has a knock-on effect on education, whereby teachers have no other option but to draw upon the government’s biased claims about drugs. The joint report by the PSHE Association and Mentor ADEPIS recommends that PSHE becomes a compulsory subject by law. This is to ensure that pupils from all backgrounds receive the same information in order to make sensible life decisions. Moreover, it is argued that statutory PSHE will reduce social and health inequalities, as well as reduce the costs incurred by social and public health issues. These are all valid justifications, but statutory PSHE is useless if the content of the course isn’t honest and practical.

The first issue with current drug education relates to a problem of language. Take the full name of Mentor ADEPIS (Alcohol and Drug Education and Prevention Information Service). The very separation of ‘alcohol’ and ‘drugs’ gives children and young people a biased perspective on drugs – it neglects the fact that alcohol is a drug as well. Furthermore, this distinction between alcohol and drugs gives children and young people the impression that because alcohol is legal and socially acceptable that it is therefore much safer compared to illegal and socially unacceptable drugs. Yet as Professor Nutt continues to remind us, it is much easier to abuse alcohol and use it irresponsibly compared to many other illegal drugs, including cannabis, MDMA, LSD and ‘magic mushrooms’. It is also worth noting that because Mentor ADEPIS is funded by the Department for Education, it is unlikely that it will disseminate a balanced and evidence-based perspective on drugs shared by the likes of Professor Nutt.

A 2012 Ofsted report found that most pupils understand the dangers of illegal drugs, but are less aware of the physical and social damage associated with alcohol abuse. This is due in part to the false distinction made between alcohol and drugs, as well as a lack of information about the true harms of alcohol. Outside of the classroom, the government is doing very little in terms of drug education. For example, the government funded website Talk to Frank is rarely visited and offers no more than a superficial profile of the harms and risks of various drugs.

Drug education in the UK is a lot like sex education – both are focused on the dangers and risks involved. This is not an effective way to minimise harm. Both sex and drug education should focus on teaching children and young people that you can have sex and use certain drugs in a way which is both pleasurable and safe. Even if drug education exclusively focused on the dangers of drugs and on trying to prevent children and young people from using them, they are going to experiment with them anyway. Humans are naturally curious about altered states and no amount of fear-mongering will change this. In light of the fact that many children will grow up with the desire to try illegal drugs, drug education should focus not only on offering a balanced and informed perspective, but also on offering information on how all drugs can be used sensibly. It may seem outrageous to teach our youth how to have a positive trip on LSD, but without this valuable information, they may experiment with these powerful drugs in unfavourable circumstances, leading to a great deal of mental suffering.

There have been quite a few ketamine-related deaths this year, including the death of Nancy Lee who died following years of ketamine abuse, and a man who died after taking ketamine at Glastonbury festival. Some people may regard these stories as examples of a tragic accident (in the case of Glastonbury) or a tragic consequence of mental health issues (in the case of Nancy Lee). And in some sense they would be right. However, we cannot ignore the fact that a lack of education is also to blame. Children and young people simply aren’t taught that ketamine abuse is associated with bladder and kidney damage, nor are they informed about its addictive properties. They aren't taught about the risky combination of ketamine with alcohol either. Both are central nervous system (CNS) depressants – meaning that they slow down brain activity - and when combined amplify each other’s effects, severely slowing down a person's heart rate, even to the point of death.

It is important to teach children and young people about contraception and consent in order to have healthy sexual relationships. In the same way, we should teach children and young people about testing their drugs and using them safely in order to have healthy drug experiences. Straight away some people may view this as encouragement, but in reality it is a lesson in harm reduction, plain and simple. People will use drugs, whether they are told to avoid them or not, whether they are illegal or legal, so we must ensure that our children are equipped with the correct information to minimise various drug-related harms. We should encourage young people to use drug-testing kits, to be aware of the dangers of various drug combinations and how to react if an adverse mental or physical reaction occurs.

Accurate, reliable and practical information on drugs is out there on the Internet, but more often than not, this is not how children and young people inform themselves about various drugs. Before you smoke a joint for the first time, it is unlikely that you would have researched about the high THC/low CBD content of cannabis today, which makes paranoia and anxiety more likely. Before you swallow a pill for the first time, it is unlikely that you would have researched about pills being adulterated with dangerous substances or lacking MDMA altogether, instead consisting of some dangerous substance, like PMA. And before you drop acid for the first time, it is unlikely that you would have researched about risky substances such as 25i-NBOMe being sold as 'acid'.

You can find out about this useful information on popular drug forums – including Bluelight and Erowid – but only a minority of drug users will use them in order to educate themselves. Furthermore, these are not sites which children and young people regularly visit or which their parents would want them visiting. Yet it contains exactly the kind of information that should be taught in PSHE in every school in the UK. Drug education needs to shift away from its current amateurish approach to one which is more honest and focused on harm reduction.