Sunday 30 January 2022

Why I am not engaging with the Reading Wars

I’m not sure whether to feel flattered or irritated by Jeff Bowers’ latest blogpost, where he expresses his disappointment in my failure to support his critique of research on phonics intervention.

The short explanation, as I already conveyed to Jeff, is that I'm busy with other stuff. I’m aware that there’s a pretty intemperate debate going on at present about the value of phonics in teaching children to read, with various people writing lengthy critiques of one another’s positions. So clearly it’s a complex and murky situation. The last thing this needs is for someone else, me, who hasn’t looked in depth at the relevant research, to weigh in with an opinion.

As background: I am a (soon-to-be retired) researcher who has never worked on reading intervention, though I do work on topics tangentially related to this. I'm currently finishing off a big project on cerebral lateralization for language. I’m also involved in a couple of other projects unrelated to reading. I am a  hands-on researcher, so am heavily involved in designing, analysing and writing up research. I currently work a 4 day week, and these three projects, plus regular reviewing, giving talks, etc, take up all of my time.

One of the fun parts of my job is that I am my own boss and, as far as time allows, I can pursue odd topics that take my fancy. I sometimes put my head above the parapet and engage in, or even initiate, academic disputes about research. These consume much time and emotional energy, so I choose carefully which battles I want to get involved in. In particular, I think hard about what can be gained - I do get passionate when something is wrong, especially where someone is behaving badly and deliberately distorting science for some nefarious ends. In such cases I will get engaged to try and put things right.

The reading wars don't look like that to me. They actually look rather like the equally heated debates going on among epidemiologists and public health experts around Covid – another topic on which I don’t’ speak out because I lack expertise. The most I’m prepared to offer is a general suggestion about perspective that might be helpful in achieving some truth and reconciliation.

In both Covid and reading wars there are arguments about research evidence and arguments about policy. Typically, there isn't really good research on which to base important decisions, but we don’t have the luxury of waiting for such studies to be done. Doing nothing is in itself a choice, for which, in the case of an epidemic, we know the consequences are likely to be bad. So it’s all about making the best decisions we can, given the patchy evidence that we have – a point nicely made by Trisha Greenhalgh in the context of COVID-19. 

The current debates have highlighted the shortage of well-designed studies to show which teaching method is most effective for which children at which age. As with medical interventions, studies also need to evaluate potential costs and harms – something which was neglected in the past, but which is relevant given that some of the disagreements are about whether particular approaches can be counterproductive.

But, as with Covid, policy decisions have to be pragmatic. This was the remit of the 2006 Rose Report, which attempted to synthesise evidence and expert opinion on reading intervention and came out recommending use of synthetic phonics. Overturning the status quo to radically change how reading is taught would only be reasonable if there was some other intervention approach for which there was better evidence of effectiveness – so much so that the costs of making a change would be justified. Maybe there is, but it hasn’t come up on my radar. 

My apologies to all of those engaged in current discussions whose contributions I have ignored. I hope this blogpost will suffice to explain why.

Thursday 20 January 2022

Boris Johnson leads the world the number of false facts he can squeeze into a session of PMQs


The first weeks of 2022 have had quite enough drama to last us the whole year. Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) on Wednesdays has developed a must-watch quality that was previously reserved for the final of the Great British Bake-off. I find myself studying the oratorical approach adopted by Boris Johnson. Previously, I analysed his strategies for (usually not) answering questions in a session of a Select Committee. In PMQs the style is different. It's a gladiatorial context where the goal is to earn howls of approval for trouncing your opponent.

Last week we had the unusual sight of a remorseful Boris Johnson, trying to convince the nation that he was truly, truly sorry for allowing parties to take place on his watch, during a period when we had extremely severe lockdown rules that were preventing people seeing dying relatives or attending funerals. It was one of those apologies where you sensed he was sorry at having been found out, rather than for having done something wrong. But he clearly hoped this would be enough to settle the matter so we could put it behind us – at least until a whitewashing report is published. He had not reckoned with the Machiavellian cunning of his ex-advisor Dominic Cummings, who is drip-feeding damaging information to the media. This started a new story at the weekend, after Cummings contradicted Johnson’s denial that he knew about a party. So I wondered if we would have Remorse, the Sequel at yesterday’s PMQs. 

Johnson, however, adopted the very strategy that he had previously learned from Cummings – brazen it out. So we had the bizarre sight of a Prime Minister who has lost confidence of his own party because they no longer trust what he says, doubling down and telling yet more lies to convince everyone that this is an Absolutely Splendid Government, and he is a the best chap to lead them. (My thanks to Hansard for this transcript of the debate). 

Here is a selection of some of the more questionable claims (there is more, but I have a day job!):

 “We are building 40 new hospitals.” Cf this analysis by FullFact.  One might add that the biggest problem faced by the NHS is lack of staff, rather than buildings.
We have also been cutting crime by 10% and putting 11,000 more police officers out on the streets” – I guess this is an improvement on previous claims of 20,000 more police officers, but it’s been debunked as misleading, given that this is reinstating police that were previously cut.  
We now have the fastest-growing economy in the G7 and GDP is now back up above pre-pandemic levels.” Here, Google just led me to a Government report from the previous day which stated: “In Q3 2021, UK GDP grew by 1.1% compared with the previous quarter (Q2 2021), while GDP rose by 2.2% in the Eurozone and 0.6% in the US. Compared to the pre-pandemic peak, UK GDP in Q3 2021 was 1.5% lower, compared with 1.1% lower in Germany and 0.3% lower in the Eurozone. In the US GDP was 1.4% higher. 
Thanks to the efforts of people across Whitehall, this country is now capable of producing 80% of our own PPE.” I couldn’t find recent data that might be the basis for this claim, but talking up their record on PPE as a source of pride seems a rash move by a Government whose shambolic handling of this issue was documented in a report by the Public Accounts Committee in Feb 2021:  “...its failure to be transparent about decisions, publish contracts in a timely manner or maintain proper records of key decisions left it open to accusations of poor value for money, conflicts of interest and preferential treatment of some suppliers, and undermines public trust in government procurement and the use of taxpayers’ money. Between February and July 2020, the Department of Health and Social Care spent over 12 billion on 32 billion items of PPE. We are concerned that the Department has so far identified items worth hundreds of millions of pounds which are unusable for their intended purpose, putting the efficient use of taxpayers’ money at further risk.”
As Daisy Cooper noted on Twitter, Johnson also repeated the claim that the vaccine rollout would not have been possible except for Brexit – a claim that has been debunked more than once 
Then there was this extraordinary claim: “I will tell you what this Government have been doing to look after the people of this country throughout this pandemic and beyond. We have been cutting the cost of living and helping them with the living wage. We have been cutting taxes for people on low pay. We have been increasing payments for people suffering the costs of fuel- “ People don’t need to consult Google to challenge this rosy vision of life in the UK. We can simply take use of foodbanks as an indicator of how many people are living in serious poverty. We had barely heard of foodbanks before this Government came into power – now more and more people depend on them just to exist. Not only is the cost of living going up, Jack Monroe noted that the way it is computed underestimates the impact on the poorest 
No, Prime Minister, you can’t talk your way out of this one. People are worried about what the future holds, but they are not going to reject the evidence of their eyes and ears

Sunday 16 January 2022

Response to Philip Ball's critique of scientific advisors

This week, Philip Ball wrote a piece in the New Statesman headlined: “Muted and deferential, the UK’s scientists have failed the pandemic test”. I regard Ball as a thoughtful and knowledgeable science writer, and I usually agree with him, but this piece made me uneasy. I expressed disagreement on Twitter and Ball asked for my reasons, so here is a brief response.

I should start by saying that, while I try to keep myself informed about the science of coronavirus, I have no background in infectious diseases, epidemiology or public health. I follow a lot of genuine experts on Twitter, and what has been striking is the lack of agreement between them on many policy issues. Initially there was uncertainty about the nature of the disease – it seems WHO held out for a long time against the view that the virus was airborne, a view that I think is now pretty universally accepted. This led to early mis-steps with a focus on handwashing and surface-cleaning rather than masks and indoor air quality. On other matters, such as vaccination of children, disagreements still remain. And when we move to consider potential non-pharmaceutical public health measures, there is a wide range of views – do lock-downs do more harm than good? Should we restrict foreign travel? How should a test-and-trace system be organised? Although people who know what they are talking about sometimes take strong and passionate positions on these issues, there is variation from country to country in how they are addressed, and my impression is the outcomes do not always support what we might have expected.

I’m not saying it doesn't matter what we do – on the contrary, I think it matters enormously, as the health of the world depends on getting it right. But it’s much harder to know what is right when the experts themselves are uncertain. So scientists will lay out scenarios A, B and C, and estimate a range of possible outcomes for each one, rather than agreeing that A is the only valid course of action. I suspect everyone would be happier if it was very clear what we had to do – even if it was painful – but instead both scientists and politicians have to weigh up pros and cons, knowing that they won’t be forgiven for a wrong decision. On top of everything else there is time pressure: if we wait for further research, it may be too late. 

The decisions that governments have to make are complex and high-stakes, and the fact that we have a Prime Minister and front bench who were selected solely because of their commitment to Brexit does not inspire confidence that they will select the right policies. But should scientific advisors be doing more, as Philip Ball suggests, to challenge government?

 It seems to me there are four different scenarios, each of which requires a different response.

1. Bad science/fake news

I agree that if a government minister were to state openly something that was scientific misinformation, then it is the job of senior advisors to challenge them publicly. I was among the first to criticise Deborah Birx early in 2020 when she said of TrumpHe’s been so attentive to the scientific literature and the details and the data…. I think his ability to analyze and integrate data that comes out of his long history in business has really been a real benefit during these discussions about medical issues.”  See also here. There were also times when I thought Anthony Fauci should have just stood up and said ‘No, No, No!’ rather than sit in the same room while Trump spouted dangerous nonsense. However, bad though the situation in the UK is, I don’t think we have had anything like that situation. Certainly there are politicians and others who have tried to discredit scientific advisors as “scare-mongering”, including some who see a pandemic as a nice opportunity for a bit of disaster capitalism. But I haven’t seen government ministers making scientific claims about coronavirus that are so wildly wrong that no serious scientist could support them.

2. Policies that prove misjudged in hindsight 

Most people would agree that in the early days of the pandemic, the wrong policies were adopted, with an emphasis on handwashing and cleaning surfaces, and a severe lockdown imposed too late. Jeremy Farrar, who was on SAGE at the time, described these events in his book with Ajana Ahuja, Spike, and it is clear that he, and other SAGE members, regret that they did not consider more options, or argue for more rapid action. To that extent, the criticism may be valid, but my impression is that the advisors had significant input into the policies, which at the time they thought was the least bad course of action. There were other scientists who spoke out strongly in criticism of lock-downs, but it’s not clear that this helped the situation. I agree, it would be helpful for everyone who was involved in those decisions to reflect now about what they got wrong, but it would have been hard to do so at the time - not because they were "muted and deferential" but because they had significant input into the policies.

3. Ongoing policies 

We became accustomed during the past two years of seeing government advisers alongside the PM or another government minister at press briefings when a policy is announced. Ball says they should “openly criticise bad policy” – this would be fine if everyone could agree what good and bad policy were. The policy we get will typically be the least bad option, formed by trying to integrate scientific and political considerations. Nobody will be entirely happy with it – the question is not whether it has flaws, but whether there are better options that everyone could agree on. Once it is decided, it is the job of the scientific advisers to ensure it is clearly communicated and explained.

For instance, Ball says Chris Whitty was being timid in December 2021 when he suggested that we “prioritise the social interactions that really matter” at a press briefing when Johnson said “we’re not cancelling people’s parties”. This seems to me to be an unfair charge: the policy is at this point agreed. Is Whitty supposed to stand up at the podium and say “I think we should cancel parties.”?  I heard the December briefing and thought Whitty’s contribution provided useful clarification, in emphasising the importance of not dropping one’s guard, and restricting contact to a small circle. 

4. Cases where policies are not followed 

Ball also notes cases where rules or guidance were not followed: Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle, MPs not wearing masks, or drinks at no. 10. He feels scientific advisors are “appeasing” government when they refuse to comment on such matters. I disagree. Their role is to help ensure that policies are based on the best scientific evidence. Where there is failure to adhere to policies, it’s the job of the police, politicians and the media to hold people to account. 

Government advisers and Independent SAGE

Concerns about lack of transparency around SAGE led to the formation of Independent SAGE. I regard this as a very useful development, that serves much of the function that Ball sees as missing in regular SAGE. They provide a wealth of information about different aspects of pandemic management, and can express their views robustly, and suggest alternatives to current policies. Perhaps one way forward would be to formalise the need for a body separate from scientific advisors that is quite independent from government.  But we do still need a group of scientists who work directly with government to provide scientific input into rapid decisions about what is needed now. 

I should make clear that I totally agree with Ball’s criticisms of the government – my sense is that most of his piece is aimed at highlighting how dishonest and incompetent they have been in responding to coronavirus. But it strikes me as unfair to extend the criticism to Whitty, Vallance and members of SAGE who have tried to steer us through the pandemic as best they can, even though that means working with this dysfunctional government. My view is that we would be in a far worse position without their input.