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 the 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.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Assisted Dying Bill Does Not Go Far Enough

The Assisted Dying Bill had its 2nd reading in the House of Lords last Friday, resulting in a 10 hour debate on the matter. While the former Archbishop, George Carey, has supported the Bill, saying it is compatible with being a Christian, many have warned about the dangers of legalising assisted suicide.

Some believe that if assisted suicide is legalised, it will pave the way to euthanasia. Critics of the Bill are worried that the British medical profession will suffer from the same kind of abuses that Holland has supposedly experienced, a country which has legalised voluntary euthanasia. Holland’s Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide Act (2002) sets out the criteria upon which a physician can carry out euthanasia or assisted suicide.

In spite of the scaremongering stories you may read about assisted suicide leading to a slippery slope towards abuse and medical malpractice, this kind of thing has not happened in Holland. Holland remember has legalised not just assisted suicide, where the physician gives the patients the powers to end their life, but voluntary euthanasia, where the physician carries out the lethal act with the patient’s consent. Yet two decades of research into euthanasia in the Netherlands reveals a viable model of legalised euthanasia, where abuse of the system is rare.

The authors of the study found that “no slippery slope seems to have occurred” – the frequency of the ending of life without explicit patient request has not increased and there is no evidence for a higher frequency of euthanasia. In fact, by some accounts, the ending of life without explicit patient request has decreased, most likely due to the greater control, safeguards and transparency that comes with legalisation of the practice.

Lib Dem Care Minister Norman Lamb and religious leaders like Lord Carey and Desmond Tutu are in favour of assisted dying, while others such as Baroness Campbell and an oncologist called Karol Sikora have opposed the Bill. Those who oppose it claim that to entrust doctors with the power to end a patient’s life is extremely dangerous. In the words of Professor Sikora, the implementation of the Bill could lead to “death squads”.

David Cameron has also said that he is “not convinced” by the Bill and feels that “people might be being pushed into things that they don’t actually want for themselves.” However, Lord Falconer, who put forward this private member’s bill, insists that the final decision will always be left to the patient, with safeguards in place to prevent abuse. The proposed legislation would allow doctors to prescribe a lethal dose to some terminally ill and mentally competent patients who have less than 6 months to live. Falconer criticised the current situation, which allows the rich to travel to Switzerland to die in peace and dignity, while others are left “in despair” to suffer a “lonely a cruel death”.

In addition, doctors who want to carry out the procedure in the name of compassion are criminalised. Since most doctors will not even consider carrying out assisted suicide or euthanasia, many patients are forced to carry out the act themselves. Falconer argues that many patients feared “implicating their loved ones in a criminal enterprise” by asking them for help to die. Without assistance, patients might end their life by overdosing on pills or by suffocating themselves. If these methods fail, the patient may be left permanently brain damaged. Falconer maintains that passing the Bill would reduce the number of people from having to live their final months with unnecessary pain and suffering.

Considerations of welfare certainly justify this Bill, however, in order to apply these considerations fairly, we would need to legalise voluntary euthanasia as well. This Bill would not allow everyone to ‘die well’ – only a limited number of people. These restrictions may seem sensible at first glance, but what they really do is discriminate against other people who should have the right to die. For example, terminally ill patients with less than 6 months to live who cannot administer the lethal dose themselves would be denied relief. Furthermore, patients who experience immense suffering, but who are not terminally ill, would be denied relief.

The Bill would not benefit people like Tony Nicklinson (now deceased) who was left paralysed since his stroke in 2005. He lived a life characterised by suffering, but because he was not terminally ill and physically able to end his life, Falconer’s Bill would not apply to him. This is extremely unfair and cruel - someone who is not terminally ill and suffering (like Mr Nicklinson) might face longer periods of suffering than someone who is terminally ill and suffering. This is why the Dutch system is fair, because it does not limit its scope of compassion. Dutch law offers assisted suicide and euthanasia to not just the terminally ill, but to those who experience a level of suffering which physicians agree is both unbearable and incurable.

Many are concerned that any form of assisted death could lead to terminally ill patients requesting death, not because they want to die, but in order to stop being a financial burden on their loved ones. A survey conducted in Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal, found that 66% of respondents said they wanted the ‘right to die’ so that they do not become a financial burden on their loved ones. On the other hand, safeguards can still be put in place in order to ensure the voluntariness of the decision to die. Also, it would be far more beneficial to eliminate this fear of being a financial burden – through free and effective healthcare – than to leave patients without a means to alleviate their suffering. In conclusion, the Assisted Dying Bill is a sign of great progress, but it certainly does not go far enough in minimising suffering and protecting the freedom of people to die in dignity.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

New Surveillance Bill Puts All of Our Privacy at Risk

David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May have assured us that the Data Retention and Investigation Powers Bill (DRIP) does not give the government new surveillance powers. Yet despite these assurances, privacy campaigners, civil liberties groups and lawyers argue that this new Bill – also known as the ‘snoopers’ charter’ – gives the government exactly these powers.

Cameron unveiled this ‘emergency’ surveillance legislation last week, in light of the fact that current EU mass surveillance methods were said to be illegal by the European Court of Justice (ECJ). So in order to carry on these illegal activities – and broaden them as well for that matter – Cameron decided that the UK should have its own mass surveillance legislation.

Back in April, the ECJ said EU legislation on mass surveillance conflicts with the fundamental rights of privacy and protection of personal data. The Court stated that the legislation “applies even to persons for whom there is no evidence capable of suggesting that their conduct might have a link, even an indirect or remote one, with serious crime.” The Court also pointed out that there was no way to limit the access that national authorities had to personal data.

Even if it were true that this new surveillance legislation merely reinstated existing surveillance legislation, it would still infringe on our civil liberties. Cameron is essentially trying to legalise blanket data retention, which the ECJ recently ruled is illegal. Critics of the Bill stress that the DRIP Bill puts all of our privacy at risk. The Bill requires that internet service providers (ISPs) and mobile operators store customer data for 12 months for purposes of law enforcement. In addition, the clauses in the Bill expand the government’s powers to directly intercept phone calls, emails, texts and social media traffic.

Cameron defended the Bill, saying, “We face real and credible threats to our security from serious organized crime, from the activity of pedophiles, from the collapse of Syria and the growth of ISIS in Iraq, and al-Shabaab in East Africa. I'm simply not prepared to be a prime minister who has to address the people after a terrorist incident and explain that I could have done more to prevent it.”

The whistle-blower Edward Snowden said that this law closely mirrors the Protect America Act 2007, introduced by George Bush in order to also deal with the dangers of terrorism and criminals. Through this legislation, the US government was able to engage in mass surveillance and information gathering activities. Snowden remarked that the “NSA could have written” the draft of the DRIP Bill.

David Allen Green, head of media practice at Preiskel & Co said, “They’re trying to make out this is clarificatory – but if you read through the Bill these are substantial amendments. They are creating things legally that weren’t there before.” Graham Smith, a private practice lawyer voiced similar concerns, saying that these new laws could allow the interception and retention of data from consumer services like iCloud and Google Drive. Isabella Sankey, policy director of the civil liberties group Liberty, told MPs: This fast-track legislation contains sweeping surveillance powers that will affect every man, woman and child in the UK.” Clause 4 of the Bill contains new powers for the UK to require overseas companies to comply with data interception and acquisition requests.

This Bill was brought in with no public debate or parliamentary scrutiny, but was made behind closed doors between the three party leaders. Like the Bush administration, the UK government believes that national security will always trump civil liberties. In any case, it is highly questionable whether we need sweeping surveillance in order to catch suspected pedophiles and terrorists. It is unjust and illiberal for the government to monitor everyone’s information under the guise of national security and crime prevention.

The idea that this Bill was brought in as a matter of “emergency” is extremely misleading, if not an outright lie. The ECJ’s decision against the Data Retention Directive was made in April, a decision which was not surprising, given that criticisms were made against this Directive for years. If this Bill really is needed as a matter of emergency, then it would have been introduced much earlier. There is no emergency. We are not under threat from ISIS. Cameron is trying to justify this attack on our civil liberties through scaremongering. And so we will lose our civil liberties, not suddenly, but through slow and gradual erosion.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Why Schools Should Teach Critical Thinking & Ethics from an Early Age

Critical thinking is a skills-based subject, as opposed to a content-based subject. The majority of what kids learn at school is content-based and little (if anything) is taught about how to think critically. You will have to wait until AS/A Levels until studying critical thinking becomes a subject option and even then only a handful of pupils will study it. Despite people’s assumptions that studying philosophy at university is terrible for your career prospects, many employers recognise the benefits of the degree: it teaches students how to interpret, analyse and evaluate ideas and arguments.

These skills are transferable and are valued in many professions: law, policy, research, the civil service, journalism, business & finance, marketing & advertising, social work and teaching. What employers value is not the graduate’s knowledge of Plato’s metaphysics or Kant’s moral philosophy, but the skills of critical thinking that are gained by studying these topics. Being able to think in a ‘critical’ way means that you think carefully about what you read and write, judging what information and evidence is credible and reliable. You are able to question what other people have written and figure out if their ideas are justified or not. You can compare and synthesise information in order to support an argument. And you are able to notice and challenge biases, distorted views, prejudice and illogical arguments – not only in the work of others, but in your own work as well.

Being trained in analytical thinking will give you a better chance of academic success in higher education, where taking a critical approach to your studies is valued very highly. Simply memorising and explaining concepts will not impress your professors and examiners, despite the fact that this way of learning got you good grades in your GCSE and A Level essays and exams. And as mentioned before, critical thinking will impress potential employers – the ability to reason well can be applied to oral and written communication, strategic planning, trouble-shooting, problem solving and the critical evaluation of projects.

Learning critical thinking is not only important for academic and professional success, but for personal development as well. Being able to think clearly makes you less prone to take things for granted, less likely to accept ignorance, prejudice or poor reasoning, and more likely to form a worldview which is carefully considered and rational. However, it is difficult to create a generation who are academically successful or employable or rational if critical thinking is only taught as an optional AS/A Level subject. Children need to learn the basics of critical thinking, so that they can be prepared to study critical thinking in more depth at GCSE level, at A Level and then at university.

Alongside the teaching of critical thinking, it is important for children at an early age to learn about the nuances of ethics, on both a theoretical and practical basis. Studying a range of ethical theories involves critical thinking skills as well, which makes the study of ethics very useful. Children could be taught about the importance of ethical values such as empathy, honesty, generosity and tolerance, while comparing these to unethical traits such as hatred, dishonesty, selfishness and intolerance. By considering thought experiments and ethical dilemmas, children would be able to learn about the intentions and consequences of their actions. This will prepare them to deal with real life situations in childhood, adolescence and adulthood. If children were taught to think carefully about the intentions and the consequences of their actions, then they might become less prone to lie, steal, cheat, break promises, be selfish and bully others.

There is an increasing concern about ethics in various professions and in business. Ethics is central to the medical profession, so learning about ethical principles at an early age will give you transferable skills for a career in medicine. Furthermore, the skills of critical thinking that are gained through studying ethics will make you far more adept at dealing with the ethical dilemmas and balancing of values that are involved in the medical profession. For example, concern for patient autonomy can easily clash with the doctor’s view of the patient’s best interests. More and more businesses are becoming socially responsible, taking responsibility for how their activities impact the environment, consumers, employees, communities and stakeholders. Businesses would value someone who is skilled at weighing up benefits and risks.

Professor Simon Robinson has argued how learning ethics increases students’ employability. However, Robinson applies these arguments to university students, whereas I think his arguments apply equally well to primary school pupils. If these skills are taught to primary school children, this not only means that these useful skills can be taught to every child, it means that by the time these pupils leave school at 18 they will be highly trained in ethical and critical thinking. This means that it might not be necessary for an 18 year old to study for a further 3 years, accumulating massive debt, with the hopes of being employable after graduation. We need to ensure that young people are able to find work without feeling pressured and expected to go to university. 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Why Do Humans Cry?

Crying as a response to some emotional state has always been seen as something uniquely human. There is, however, some debate as to whether elephants display the same kind of behaviour. We know that elephants do cry, but whether they cry in response to loss, grief or sadness is more of a contentious question. Based on the behaviour of elephants – which is all we have to go by – there are indications that they can experience joy, grief, rage, stress and compassion. Marc Bekoff is one evolutionary biologist who believes that examples of elephants crying can be associated with feelings of grief; as he writes in Psychology Today. This view was also expressed in the controversial book, When Elephants Weep by Jeffrey Mason and Susan McCarthy.

It is likely that elephants cry for some of the same reasons we do and possibly different reasons as well. Regardless of whether elephants cry as an emotional response, what we do know is that humans can cry as a response to a wide range of emotions: rage, grief, sadness, joy and ecstasy. But what is the purpose of crying? Is there some sort of adaptive or survival value to it?

There are competing theories which attempt to explain the strange behaviour of crying as an emotional response. One theory simply states that emotional tears are a response to joy, sadness, distress or physical pain – the tears themselves have no function; they are merely a by-product of an emotional state. However, if this were true, then why is it only humans (and possibly elephants) who weep in response to sadness, distress or physical pain? We know that other non-human animals can experience these emotional states, so why do they not also weep?

Another theory suggests that emotional crying has a cathartic effect; that crying simply makes us feel better in the face of a negative emotional state. The first proper study investigating the cathartic effect was carried out by Lauren Bylsma, who published her results in a paper entitled, When is Crying Cathartic? (2008). What Bylsma found was that crying is only cathartic in particular social contexts; having social support, for example, can facilitate a feeling of relief and release of inner tension. In other words, emotional crying does not always make people feel better. That said, the majority of participants in their study did report a better mood following crying.

Further research has explained why we feel better after crying. Studies have shown that emotional tears contain higher levels of stress hormones than 'reflect tears' (those produced to flush out they eye when it is irritated) and 'basal tears' (those produced to protect the eye and keep it moist). Whether a person is experiencing a victory or a crisis, the body produces more stress hormones. Emotional tears balance our stress levels by releasing excess stress hormones, such as cortisol and corticotropin. Emotional tears also contain more manganese than reflex or basal tears, an element which affects our temper, the release of which can improve our mood. 

While Bylsma’s study suggests that crying can be cathartic in certain social contexts and for most people, some scientists have proposed a more over-arching and complex theory which seeks to explain, in evolutionary terms, why humans cry. An evolutionary explanation of emotional tears says that they are a form of non-verbal communication. They are messages that contain a request for help and humans have evolved the ability to cry emotionally because these messages have proved to be effective at eliciting altruistic behaviour from others.

A more detailed version of this theory is based on the assumption that in many species of animals the appearance and behaviour of a newborn can elicit parental care. Since newborns have no verbal means of communication, they have to find other ways to elicit care from its parents. Parents who respond in the appropriate way to this non-verbal communication will increase the fitness of the child, which subsequently increases the likelihood of this form of communication (and the parental response to it) being favoured by natural selection. It has been observed in some species that older offspring imitate the behaviour of newborns in order to elicit the same caring response from its parents, thereby increasing its chances of survival. Thus, the crying behaviour of humans is favoured by natural selection because it resembles the crying behaviour of newborns and so it elicits helping behaviour.

The resemblances between adult crying and newborn crying are pretty clear: the wetting of the face with tears, the jerking respiration, screaming, the closed and wrinkled eyes, and the open mouth. Humans evolved to display these appearances and changed physical appearances in order to receive assistance from others. This theory, along with the 'cathartic theory', may explain why humans cry in response to a negative emotional state, but they don't seem to explain why humans cry out of joy or happiness. A different evolutionary theory of emotional crying has emerged, although in some ways it is similar to the one just described. Oren Hasson, an evolutionary biologist from Tel Aviv University, says that by blurring vision, tears lower defences and reliably function as a signal of submission. They can also function as a cry for help or to encourage group cohesion.

Hasson argues that by blurring your vision with tears, an attacker will recognise that you are expressing submissiveness and therefore be more likely to show mercy towards you. Moreover, this display of vulnerability could attract sympathy from others and perhaps gain their strategic assistance. And if people cry in a group, this allows them to bond over the fact that they have all lowered their defences, fostering a sense of mutual trust and a recognition of shared emotions. Thus, according to this theory, people may cry out of happiness in order to receive validation of their emotions from others and to strengthen mutual bonds. Hasson does point out, however, that this evolutionary behaviour is only effective in certain contexts – it is unlikely to be effective at work, for example, where one’s emotions should be hidden. This is a very original theory which postulates that crying evolved in order to handicap the individual. This handicap then elicits mercy from an attacker or sympathy from bystanders witnessing the attack, or it can increase group cohesion. In summary, then, emotional tears most likely evolved as an advantageous form of non-verbal communication.