Tuesday 20 November 2018

History is Bunk

<tetchy rant alert>
Another scandal breaks wind in the Irish Health Service Executive HSE. 'Health' consumes 25% of every tax dollar which I contribute to the national coffers; 100,000 people are employed by the health behemoth, and I guess there is a normal distribution of competence through the service. For every star nurse, the most be a doppleganger on the other side of average. You could hope for better, because we're dealing with life and death here, but you could hope to win the Lotto as well. And, let's face it, thousands of decisions are made every working hour by that mass of people but many of them have no crunch. Enter Mrs Doohickey's blood pressure on the chart wrong - or make it up because you're worked off your feet, and the sky doesn't fall. It's only news if something goes spectacularly wrong - like the cervical cancer misdiagnoses earlier in the year. This weekend, when a patient was at death's door with ovarian cancer, her care team looked through her records and found that, in 2009, she had been flagged negative for a mutation that predisposes for breast/ovarian cancer. They dug down a little because that was counter to their expectations. RTE's health correspondent Fergal Bowers takes up the story:
"Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Dublin is conducting a precautionary review of around 3,500 transcriptions of BRACA genetic test results, due to what it believes was a transcribing error with one test result . . ." [update: note that the RTE page has now been corrected, perhaps because I sent this piece to Will Goodbody, their Science correspondent].

My crap-detector went on because that's the wrong name of the gene. They mean BRCA1 whose name [it's on the tin!] describes how it was discovered; it's full name is breast cancer type 1 susceptibility protein, in normal life, in you and me, the protein-product of this gene is responsible for repairing DNA when it suffers accidental damage. If you are born with a mutation in the gene, your DNA repair kit is compromised and you're much more likely to get cancer. Almost always, you're born with a defective gene because it runs in your family. You might take a meh! position: "you say BRACA, I say BRCA1, we all know what's being talked about". But you'd be wrong, not least because there is a BRCA2 gene which also affects your chances of getting cancer but is completely different. The error tells me that Fergal Bowers is not trained in biology; which is okay, I guess: scientists are almost universally crap at conveying the meaning and significance of their work to non-scientists.  But you'd hope that RTE's HR department would encourage him to take an OU Science degree. Failing to catch or correct the error suggests
1) RTE has slap-dash copy-editors who wouldn't last a morning on the NYT and
2) that Bowers is likely to make more substantive errors in his reporting because at one level he doesn't know what he's talking about.
The Interweb reports that "RTÉ's Health Correspondent Fergal Bowers was named GSK Irish Health Journalist of the Year in the 2010", what a shower the competition must be.

On the same Sunday evening where I thus lost my rag about a typo, RTE posted a piece to camera by Gillian O'Brien Why history should remain compulsory for Junior Cycle. That was a fitting complement to making a dog's dinner over a scientific story; something asserting that the Arts Block was essential to the educational process. And O'Brien would say that because she is Reader in Modern Irish History at Liverpool John Moores University. You can read the article if you want but for me O'Brien's substantive argument is presented by two sentences in the middle:
"History teaches us how to critically evaluate sources, to treat hearsay with scepticism and to demand rigour from those with power and influence. Understanding the past ensures that we do not accept the present with passivity."
History does not have a corner on critically evaluating sources: science should do that too, so should law, so should literature. Up above you have a very direct demand for BRCA1 rigour from those with power and influence from a scientist. Scepticism? I don't remember seeing any historians rock up to the monthly meetings of the Irish Skeptics when I was a regular attender 10 years ago. I enjoy history: about a third of my PhD was a critical evaluation of historical documents about the peopling of colonial America. The word 'history has appeared 50+ times on The Blob, not counting such variants as historical, the past, medieval, ancient, Lavoisier or Pythagoras. But that's my taste and predilection not everybody's! Advice to all of us: take one pace back and look from another angle at those parts of our worldview about which we are most certain.

Understanding the past ensures also that we savour the burpy reflux of a particular flavour and interpretation of the past that, far from helping to critically evaluate sources, rather cements a costive inertia to change in a rapidly changing world. For example, it took 100 years for those with power and influence in Ireland to take the 1916 martyrs of the GPO off the tram-lines of the narrative and allow people to wear a poppy for a few days in November . . . if that's what they wanted to do.

And let me suggest that Irish secondary education is far too content-driven to allow for much reflective learning, cross-disciplinary integration or training of the teenage crap-detector . . . regardless of what subjects the poor bamboozled kids take for their Leaving Certificate.

What Henry Ford actually said in 1916 is instructive: "History is more or less bunk. It is tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today. That’s the trouble with the world. We’re living in books and history and tradition. We want to get away from that and take care of today. We’ve done too much looking back. What we want to do and do it quick is to make just history right now."
Okay Henry, all that Present Moment schtick is current among today's chattering [mindfully] classes but things are running forward so fast that we need a bit of future-proofing.
</tetchy rant alert>

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