Tuesday, 10 February 2015

America's top doc backs evidence-based policy-making (it'll never catch on)

Some parts of what follows did not appear in today's Eastern Daily Press. You can perhaps have fun working out which bits.

Some interesting appointments have been made in America lately, and not all of them are bad.
Take Dr Vivek Murthy, who was sworn in just before Christmas as Surgeon General. Or, as the US media like to put it, “America’s top doc”.
For a start, he’s only 37, which seems very young for the holder of such a key post. Even if, in that weird way Americans have of organising things, he is technically an officer in the military.
Then there’s the fact that, like me, he was born in Huddersfield, which seems an unlikely start to such a career. But then he moved to Miami at age three, got a biomedical degree from Harvard and trained as a doctor at Yale, so you could say he’s pretty well schooled in the American way.
And he looks awfully smart, in an American way, in his sharp, pristine, gold-braided naval uniform.
The pro-gun lobby, who in the USA are used to getting their way, opposed his appointment. He’s not as keen as they are on people carrying firearms around – which seems a reasonable point of view for a top doc, if not necessarily for a top military man.
He did say he wouldn’t use the Surgeon Generalship as a “bully pulpit” from which to preach gun control. Which seems like unnecessary restraint, as well as an interesting form of words.
The fact that he found it necessary to say is in itself a shocking comment on the American addiction to weaponry.
And speaking of addiction…
Dr Murthy also has interesting views on cannabis. A substance which is arguably less addictive than gun-toting, and certainly a lot less lethal.
His latest pronouncement on the matter has predictably produced a chorus of cheers on one side and boos on the other.
He says the drug “can be helpful” for some medical conditions. Which is a simple truth that ought not to be controversial (see below).
While 23 states have already legalised cannabis for medical use – and four now allow recreational use – it remains classified at the highest level under US federal law. Up there with heroin and LSD and above cocaine and crystal meth, which are much more dangerous.
But the really interesting part of Dr Murthy’s statement could apply just as well to everything else the government – any government – takes a position on.
It was this: “I think we have to use data to drive policymaking”.
In other words, he thinks politicians should take notice of expert opinion.
That policy should be based on verifiable research, not gut feelings. On facts, not instant media approval ratings. On tested science, not vested interests.
What sort of fantasy world is the man living in?
The cynic in me says: “He’ll learn”. But how much better it would be if the politicians learned from him, rather than the other way around.


Health stories in the national press should always be taken with a generous pinch of salt.
Especially, it seems, those related to red wine – a reported killer one week, a lifesaver the next. (The salt’s also good for cleaning it off the carpet.)
The latest bulletin says a nice glass of red may help improve your memory. And that reminds me…
Did I really see a headline somewhere last week suggesting that “moderate” cannabis use when young can stave off memory loss when older?
Was that just wishful thinking? Or a raddled, ageing memory playing tricks on me?
No, here it is. Not just one headline, but a whole Google screenful of them.
Research published last year in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease “strongly suggests” that marijuana, “could be a potential therapeutic treatment option”.
Alzheimer’s, the report says, “is thought to result from a lifetime of brain inflammation”. And marijuana, it adds, is “one of the most safe anti-inflammatories in medicine”.
That’ll be some of that data Surgeon General Vivek Murthy was talking about, then.
Now, I’m not recommending that you dash out to score a spliff in the hope of recovering your lost memory.
For one thing, the very fact that cannabis is illegal raises its own problems. Your back-street dealer may not be too hot on quality control, clinical testing or dosage advice.
On the other hand, perhaps I can stop worrying that my moderately wasted youth is behind my growing tendency to forget things like people’s names – and last week’s headlines.
Of course, the red wine may be another matter.


Magna Carta isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be.
The document King John was famously forced to put his seal to in 1215 is said to have established the principle of civil liberties and the rule of law. It’s sometimes claimed to have created democracy.
But none of that is quite true.
The principles it enshrined were all about the power of the barons – the landowners. It did nothing at all for the rights of the people who worked the land. Or any other kind of working people.
Nevertheless, it is an important document. And I was pleased to see that a copy, dated to 1300, has turned up in Kent.
The headlines announcing the discovery were depressing, though. They all seemed to mention the figure £10million – as if the relic’s estimated cash value was the most significant thing about it.
What a sorry, cash-crazed age we live in. Perhaps someone can produce a charter to restore some more meaningful values.


A friend of mine posted this on his Facebook wall this morning: “When I was 11, I had two friends. They lived three fields away. I would play with them in the woods. My 11-year-old daughter tells me she has 483 friends, most of whom she has never met.
“I’m not saying one way is better than the other, but the difference is striking.”
It really is, isn’t it?
But there’s this. When I was 11 I moved up to a school 20 miles from home. I pretty soon more or less lost touch with the friends I’d played in the woods with.
I made new friends, of course – but none near enough for us to pop round each others’ houses. Or play in the woods. I got pretty good at kicking a football against a wall on my own.
I’m not sure most kids these days do much “popping round”. But it seems that while they’re awake they’re in pretty much constant contact with each other.
Which may be a good thing – or it may mean there’s just no escape.
If, like me, you regret the demise of kids playing out, you can’t blame the internet. The damage was well under way before the age of the personal computer.
In fact, you could say the net has opened up the world again, broadened horizons in a new way.
And there’s this. That friend whose remark prompted these musings – I’ve never actually met him in person.