Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Friday, August 26, 2011
If A Tree Falls On The Road And No One's Around To Hear It...
On my way into work, at about 2:30 this afternoon, the main road between Stirling and campus (Airthrey Road) was being blocked by police because a large tree had been struck by lightning and there were concerns that it might fall. The policeman let me go past on the footpath the other side of the road (surely strange: if there's a risk of a tree falling presumably it'd be safer for my to cycle past as quickly as possible). Before I'd got very far at all, they then allowed traffic towards the university again and, shortly after, that going in to town as well, the road now re-opened in both directions.
Obviously at some point later in the afternoon they changed their mind about the safety of the situation. An all staff email round the university advised us that Airthrey Road was again closed and that we should take alternative routes home. When I left campus, I found that not only was the road cordoned off, but also the footpath, so I couldn't even get through by bike.
Now admittedly I don't know how much danger this tree poses, but the fact that they were letting traffic through previously, combined with the fact that it hadn't fallen all afternoon and there was no particular reason for it to do so in the brief time that I would be passing, led to me assume it wasn't that dangerous. In fact, I'm well aware every time that I cycle along this fairly busy stretch of road that I could get hit by a bus. It's quite possible that I'd actually be at less risk from the tree than I ordinarily am from buses (a risk removed by the closure of the road). As I say, I can't judge for sure how risky it was, but then nor could I put a figure on how likely I am to get hit by a bus.
Preventing me (or anyone else) from taking the risk is an example of paternalism - that is, the authorities pre-empt my own judgement and seek to decide for me what is good for me as if I am a child, incapable of coming to my own decisions. Many philosophers, J. S. Mill among them, think that paternalism is wrong (at least in most cases). It's true that it may sometimes be justifiable. Perhaps the fact that I didn't know the true risk, for example, means that my decision to take the risk would not really be autonomous. But, even if one agrees with that, the obvious solution is to inform people of the risk, rather than to prohibit them from taking it.
As it happened, I turned back on to campus and took another route. Not only did this take me out of my way, but it involved going up and down a hill, along a poorly-surfaced path I didn't really know, in diminishing daylight, and coming off my bike when I hit a (not very low) drop-curb. When I came out the other side, the tree hadn't fallen, so perhaps I really would have been safer taking the usual road after all...
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Correlation is not Causation
The BBC reports here on a study into cycling. I'm all for cycling and pedal my way to work as often as I can, though that's markedly less often in the winter. The article mentions the contribution that cycling makes to the economy, which I'd imagine to be absolutely negligible compared to cars. Then, when it turns to the more important health benefits, it says this:
"And [the report] says a 20% increase in cycling levels by 2015 could save millions of pounds in reduced congestion, pollution levels and NHS costs.
The report says that regular cyclists take 7.4 sick days per year, compared with 8.7 sick days for non-cyclists, saving around £128m through reduced absenteeism, with projected savings of £2bn over the next 10 years."
Now it's true that cycling is exercise and exercise helps keep you fit and healthy, but it doesn't follow that cyclists take fewer sick days because they cycle. It's quite likely that those who choose to cycle are already relatively young and fit, compared to those who don't, so we'd expect them to take fewer sick days. In other words, the correlation here may simply be a case of selection bias.
Monday, August 22, 2011
The Dangers of Gunfire
This BBC piece highlights the dangers of celebratory gunfire, where bullets shot into the air can fall on and kill bystanders. This was the bit that struck me though: "a number of US states including California, Texas, Arizona and Ohio outlaw firing a gun into the air. In Minnesota, it is specifically forbidden in cemeteries." Why cemeteries?
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
National Student Survey
Stirling comes joint third among Scottish universities (behind St Andrews and Glasgow but ahead of Edinburgh), with 88% of respondents declaring themselves satisfied overall with their course. In Philosophy, the news is even better, with 97% overall satisfaction, though this is still a fall from last year's 100%.
Saturday, August 06, 2011
Sunday Drinking Bans
I like collecting little examples of things that have been banned to use when teaching Mill's On Liberty. Most of my students, I hope, don't think that homosexuality should be banned, but here's a good one: between 1881 and 1961 it was illegal for Welsh pubs to serve alcohol on Sundays.
A UK Bill of Rights?
Apparently there's a Commission on a UK Bill of Rights, seeking written responses to its discussion paper until November. This could be a chance for some impact, particularly given that I'm organizing a conference on Democracy and Rights in September.
Friday, August 05, 2011
Vote Counting Machines
Wednesday, August 03, 2011
Paying for Organs
More controversy about organ supplies in the news: a Dundee academic has suggested that we should consider payments to donors. This came in the BMJ (unfortunately I can't access this, at present at least), but has been widely reported, for instance by the BBC. The BBC report only mentions students and, coincidentally, the £28,000 suggested for a kidney covers three years' tuition fees (at £9,000/year) with a little beer money left over...