Thursday, 28 May 2009

Becoming a vegetarian

I have often been asked why I became a vegetarian. This is one of those questions that I get asked so frequently, I really should have a standard response for it.

I have long been interested in animal welfare and animal rights issues, ever since I can remember. As a family, we always had pets, and myself and my brother and sister were always taught to respect the rights of animals. We were taught that animals could suffer pain, experience emotional distress, and were sentient, in much the same way as humans.

I can remember when I was about ten or eleven, when I proudly became a member of the Junior World Wide Fund. I used to carry my membership card (a small green booklet) in my inside school blazer pocket. I carried it with me everywhere.

When I became a teenager, I became a member of the now defunct anti-fur organisation called LYNX. I used to wear their badges, had one of their posters in my bed room (a picture of a wolf caught in a fur trap, and a model wearing a fur coat) with the headline "Rich Bitch, Poor Bitch". I actually stole this poster from a train on the London underground, whilst visiting my sister (who didn't mind me doing this in the least). I used to sell their raffle tickets at my gigs too (I used to play the drums in various bands in a former life). I later joined the animal rights campaign organisation PETA.

I have read the arguments (from books, newspapers and campaign material), watched the documentaries, and became very familiar with the issues. During my lifetime, I have watched some shocking video footage of the barbaric cruelty that humans are capable of inflicting on other animals. I have watched dogs and cats skinned whilst conscious on Chinese factory fur farms, I have watched seals clubbed to death (or at least until incapable of trying to escape), watched sea turtles being eviscerated whilst conscious, whales being chased for hours before being harpooned, bulls being tortured in the ring in bull fights to the jeers of a baying crowd and many, many other acts too awful to mention.

I have come to the conclusion, that while there are a great many kind and wonderful people on this planet, there are also a great many cruel people who view animals as nothing more than a commodity. A source of food, fashion or entertainment.

I made the decision to become a vegetarian when I was eighteen years old. This made perfect sense. I felt that to campaign for animal rights, whilst still eating meat, would make me a hypocrite. So I made the decision to become vegetarian for ethical reasons.

I have never once regretted that decision, and never once have I ever been tempted to eat meat since. My family initially had concerns about my decision. Whilst they approved of my decision on ethical grounds, they wanted to be sure that I would have a healthy diet. In fact, a vegetarian has a very varied, low fat, high protein diet, that has none of the risks associated with a meat diet. Over the years, the selection of vegetarian foods has increased enormously, with practically all supermarket chains having their own range of vegetarian foods, as well as many other food brands also having their own vegetarian range of foods. There has never been so much choice.

A vegetarian is someone who has taken the time to consider what they eat, and made an ethical choice based on those considerations. Far too many people have no idea where their meat comes from. School children in the UK, when asked where lamb came from, gave replies including apples and potatoes. While witnessing the meat production process is not pleasant (I have witnessed it from undercover footage), I would say that if you do eat meat, you have an obligation to know how your meat gets to your plate. If you do not want to see this process, or are distressed when you do see the reality, then choose vegetarianism.

I would like put to rest a popular misconception that I have heard far too often. "I'm a vegetarian, but I still eat fish". No, you are not a vegetarian, you are a pescatarian. The Vegetarian Society's definition of a vegetarian is:

"We define a vegetarian as someone living on a diet of grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits, with or without the use of dairy products and eggs. A vegetarian does not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or crustacea, or slaughter by-products."

It irritates me when I hear people referring to themselves as a vegetarian, when they then state they eat fish in the same sentence.

From my own experiences as a vegetarian, it is varied, tasty, and healthy. I am a member of the Vegetarian Cycling and Athletic Club and Audax UK - the UK long distance cycling club. So any concerns as to whether you can be fit and healthy, and be vegetarian, are unfounded. With its associated diet that is lower in fat, and higher in protein, I would argue that in fact a vegetarian diet is healthier than one containing meat.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Pill solves complex social problem

Ok, I admit I borrowed my blog title from a chapter in Ben Goldacre's excellent book Bad Science (which I fully recommend everyone to read). He also has his own web site called Bad Science.

We've probably all read the headline grabbing stories whereby some new potion or pill is reported to cure or solve some social problem. "Omega-3 increases attention and behaviour in children", "Scientists have discovered fat gene", "New pill to aid weight loss". All of this sounding very familiar?

There are several things wrong with this level of reporting. Firstly, most of it is quite simply wrong, and is not based on any evidence. What evidence there may be, may simply show that there is a relationship between certain factors, but the underlying cause may not be known. What has been confused is what the study was measuring, with the conclusions of the scientists who undertook the study. For example, compare these two sentences: 'Research has shown that black children in America tend to perform less well in IQ tests than white children', and 'Research has shown that black people are less intelligent than white people'. The first sentence tells you what the research found - the evidence. The second tells you the hypothesis - the interpretation. They are very different.

Newspapers and magazines are in the business of maximising their circulation to as wide an audience as possible. Attention grabbing headlines such as those above certainly help. Why let something like the truth get in the way of selling a few more copies.

Secondly, stories such as this hide the solutions that may actually provide real benefit. Social problems such as obesity, problem behaviour in children and so on, are complex. Instead of focusing in on gimmicks such as quick fix pills and potions, we should instead be looking at parenting skills, teacher recruitment and retention, social exclusion, classroom size, social inequality and the widening income gap. None of these solutions however are going to grab any one's attention in the media. Finding a quick fix pill is much more like a 'proper' news story, than anything as boring as a parenting programme.

Thirdly, stories such as this do science no favours. As many of these stories are not based on clinical trials (which should have been double-blinded, randomised, tested against placebo, and their methods, measurements and results published in the public domain for closer scrutiny), then is it any wonder people have come to have completely unrealistic expectations of both the role of science, and what science can achieve.

Fourthly, they do the general public no favours. They feed our growing fixation for quick fixes. Rather than implement societal change and parenting programmes, we'll simply develop a pill instead - it takes far less effort. So real change is never forthcoming, and the problem never goes away.

The media (propped up by their PR machines), with their focus on maximising copy, are responsible for circulating vast quantities of mis-information and bullshit. If you are genuinely interested in science, and what a study may reveal, or what possible benefits a study may have on society, then read a proper science book, magazine or journal. I fully recommend New Scientist. Do not rely on getting your science information from the tabloids, broadsheets, daytime TV and the like. If you do, fully expect to be manipulated and lied to.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Absence of religious faith

My intention is not to necessarily attack religion per se, but rather to explain my own lack of religious faith.

I have never been religious. My parents were not religious, and they never imposed any particular religious values onto me as a child. I was free to make up my own mind on this issue, independently of whatever thoughts or values my parents may have harboured. As an aside, this is exactly how all children should be raised, whatever the religious faith of the parents. To impose your religious views onto your children, before they can understand the issues for themselves, is in my opinion, not acceptable. By all means, teach them your faith, what it means to you and why you follow it, but let them choose for themselves whether they wish to follow in your footsteps.

For me, one of the main reasons I hold no religious values, is quite simply because I see no need for them. I have a perfectly normal moral compass, I know right from wrong, and would hope that my friends and family would describe me as a decent, kind and generous person. It is perfectly possible to be a good person for its own sake, and not through fear of feeling the wrath of some deity when my time is finally up. So religion is not necessary for moral direction.

With no afterlife, no heaven and no promise of seventy two virgins in paradise, I live my life to the full. I do not live my life with the concept of a safety net. If I behave myself I can expect a better life in death. Well, as I don't expect to be reincarnated or to be welcomed by an omniscient deity, who will lead me away for an eternity of happiness. Instead, I prefer to live my life to the full and be happy now, not when I am dead.

We have more than adequate explanations for the formation of the universe, the planets and life. There is no reason to concoct supernatural explanations for them. Science provides our underpinning explanations for such things. While many of these explanations may be incomplete or not yet fully understood, they are still far superior to any explanation that relies upon supernatural beings. Religion does not so much answer these questions, but raises new ones. If God made us, then who made God? Of course, all religious folk will have their ready made, stock-in-trade answers to these questions, and to my mind, they are wholly inadequate.

I find that religion lacks the intellectual endeavour of science. It teaches you to stop questioning, to accept ready made explanations that are simply insufficient in explaining the beauty and wonder of our universe, and everything that is in it. As the late, great Carl Sagan so sagely referred to it, our Pale Blue Dot. As human beings, one of our greatest capacities is surely our intelligence. With it, we have traversed continents, built ships, invented aeroplanes, medicine, civilisations, art and culture, to name a mere fraction. As great as it may be, we must not take it for granted, or let it make us arrogant.

There is just no place or reason for religion. It is perfectly possible to be good and kind in its absence. There is science to explain the formation of the universe, and evolution to explain life. The question therefore is not so much why I do have no religious faith, but why is religious faith required at all?

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Oh my God I'm full of toxins!

We've all heard and read about the trend that is detoxing. This is both the process of removing so called toxins from the body, as well as an associated diet that will help in the removal of these so called toxins.

The Wikipedia definition of detoxification (to give it its full name) is the "removal of toxic substances from the body." However, the science behind their efficacy is limited to say the least. Scientists, doctors and dietitians have disputed the positive effects of detox diets, and largely put such fads down as harmless.

As the word detox implies the removal of toxins, then what precisely are the toxins that such processes are supposed to be removing? Some of these detoxification processes involve placing your feet in a water spa, whereby the toxins are then extruded from the body via the soles of the feet. After the process has taken place, the water apparently turns a dirty brown colour. This is the residue from the detoxification process. Presumably, this substance was circulating around the body just prior to being removed. There are many other such processes, which all make similarly absurd claims, all without a shred of evidence as to their efficacy.

The human body is the most amazing and powerful detox agent anyone ever needs. It can successfully remove alcohol, drugs and all manner of chemicals from the body. I am sure we have all experienced the pain and suffering of a hangover. The alcohol that has been consumed, is rapidly broken down by the liver, and removed from the body as waste. What a superb piece of machinery, and all achieved without the need for expensive and gimmicky foods and drinks.

The best detox diet the body can get is one that contains fresh fruit and vegetables, plenty of water, exercise and sufficient rest. Any over indulgences can be compensated by following the advice above.

Detox is a marketing fad used to sell products at exorbitant prices to a gullible public, with wildly exaggerated claims made regarding their efficacy. If you want to cleanse your body, then drink lots of water, abstain from alcohol and drugs, abstain from smoking, increase your consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables, take regular exercise and get lots of rest.

Friday, 8 May 2009

MPs caught with their snouts in the trough...again!

Practically every one of the UK broadsheet newspapers today is running a story relating to MPs expenses. This follows on from a full expose on the issue by The Telegraph. I have also covered this issue myself in an earlier blog.

While the Telegraph expose primarily centres its focus on the Labour Party (which is to be expected from a right of centre newspaper), no single party is blameless. This is an issue which more than most, cuts across all party boundaries.

The expenses system is supposed to compensate MPs for out of pocket expenses, which I am sure most people would see as quite reasonable. What it is actually used for is something quite different. MPs view the expenses system as a lifestyle, rather than a privilege of the job. What is coming to light is MPs claim for many items which the majority of people would view as inappropriate. When each new revelation comes to light, we hear the usual bleating of 'I was acting in complete accordance with the rules', as if that makes any difference. If the rules state you can claim for a second home when you live less than ten miles from Parliament, then the rules are clearly wrong.

MPs do not use the expenses system to remunerate themselves for just their subsistence expenses, but to subsidise their lifestyles. They claim for their TVs and other electric appliances, fitted bathrooms and kitchens, new carpets and furniture and even their food.

The entire expenses system needs a complete overhaul. As I have said previously, I would remove the claim for MPs second homes. Instead, I would let them claim for travel expenses and overnight accommodation in Travel Lodge style hotel.

The argument for increasing their salaries is a spurious one. They are already well rewarded in their roles as MPs. No further increase in basic salary is necessary. I would remove the ability for MPs to vote on their own pay awards too. In no other role can you vote for your own pay increase, and I would not make MPs any exception to this.

We are in the middle of a recession, but you'd never know this from looking at the items our MPs are claiming for.

They have completely forgotten that their purpose is to serve their constituents and country, not to serve themselves.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Reaching the big four-oh

This year was a milestone year for me, as I reached the ripe old age of forty. Yes, I know that's pretty hard for most of you to believe, but it's true.

So how does it feel to be forty? Well not much different from being 39 or 38 get the idea. It really isn't about your age, it's about your attitude to life. I enjoy challenges, and set them for myself regularly. I'm always trying to push myself in my cycling, or trying to learn new technologies or to become a better husband, father and friend. Life should be a continual learning experience, where each day you gain some new skill, knowledge or nugget of wisdom.

I keep my mind active by reading, blogging and writing up my cycling reports. I watch documentaries, read newspapers and follow politics. I may not be climbing the North face of Everest, but I'm certainly not gathering dust either.

I have my health and a great circle of family and friends. These are the things that matter in your life, and I certainly don't take them for granted.

So how does it feel to be forty.....great!