Progress on Covid-19, volunteers and the NHS, extremists’ psychology and the misuse of words

28 February 2021

Boris Johnson’s biographer has had a good week.  Commissioned to write a book called “Truth-telling and Triumphs” ten years ago, there’s been nothing to write about and all that had been written so far was “As a child, Boris was abused spoilt worshipped indulged and, henceforth, he expected no more of life”.

Then suddenly, in late February 2021, Johnson stepped right out of character and didn’t promise the pandemic would all be over by Easter / the summer / Christmas / Easter / the summer;  nor did he even promise impossible dates while his medical advisers looked away and tried to pretend they weren’t with him.  Instead, he said that releasing the lockdown would be phased and, while they wouldn’t happen before particular dates, their timing would depend on the situation at the time.

Then Matt Hancock, the health secretary, praised and thanked the large numbers of volunteers (which, crucially to the government, means unpaid) who are helping roll-out the vaccination programme, and he went on to say they were hoping to keep this volunteer force active when the pandemic is over.  What a brill … hang on a minute, these are people who offered to help because the government has cut NHS funding so much in the last 10 years that it no longer has enough staff.

I’ve spent my life paying money national insurance, VAT and income tax so that the NHS, the benefits system and other public services are properly funded and we can all can use them for free.  Relying on volunteers is just another way for the government to avoid having to make up NHS funding, even just to what it was before they came to power.

However, the latest poll shows that support for the Conservatives has increased dramatically since Monday.  I wonder if Johnson will spot the link between his support falling after he was so weak this time last year and its bounce following his newly-found caution.

Meanwhile, the US Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve a third new vaccine produced by Johnson & Johnson* for emergency use and Joe Biden has confirmed that America has increased vaccination rates to £1.7m a day and is on track to deliver 100m shots within his first 100 days.  What a nice change from Dogsbottom’s failures**.

The Germans have created some new compound words to honour the pandemic, from coronamüde (tired of Covid-19) to balkonsänger (someone who stands on their balcony and sings at passers-by) but my favourite describes stockpiling lavatory paper and baked beans:  hamsteritis.  (While I was checking that the German for ‘hamster’ really is ‘Hamster’, I came across a wonderful example of how the word can be used in a German sentence that translates into English as “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries” – no, me neither.)

Our government has at last agreed to prioritise people on the learning disabilities register for vaccination, but only because Jo Whiley got a lot of press coverage for her sister’s genetic disorder.  What a pity it took somebody famous enough to get a lot of media coverage before they would act on what seems blindingly obvious to the rest of us.

Interestingly, researchers from the University of Cambridge have found that, in a sample of 330 US-based participants, people with extreme political, nationalist or dogmatic views tend to see the world in black and white and perform poorly on complex tasks that require intricate mental steps.

Dr Leor Zmigrod at Cambridge’s department of psychology said “Individuals or brains that struggle to process and plan complex action sequences may be more drawn to extreme ideologies, or authoritarian ideologies that simplify the world.”  Such people are prone to take simplistic views and are resistant to accept credible evidence that doesn’t support their world view, but this seems to be because they have a genuine problem with processing information, even at a perceptual level.

In some of the cognitive tasks, participants were asked to respond as quickly and as accurately as possible. People who leant towards (small c) conservativism tended to approach every task with caution and react more slowly, giving more detailed responses that meshed with their beliefs while those with less rigid beliefs produced less contextual answers faster. 

Because the “psychological signature” for extremism across the board appeared to indicate a blend of conservative and dogmatic psychologies, the researchers are hoping that these results may help identify people most at risk of radicalisation.

So, basically, extremists can’t help themselves but Shamima Begum has still been refused permission to return to the country of her birth, even though she was only 15 when she was radicalised.  Which of us never did anything when we were 15 that we might now wish we’d done differently?  Get the beam out of your own moat before you throw one in somebody else’s.

I mentioned recently that I’ve exchanged a couple of letters with a far-right climate-change denier in our local paper and apologised publicly for having teased him after he’d obviously thought I was serious about how the comparative volumes of frozen and liquid water could affect sea levels.  Last week, he claimed he’d realised I was taking the mickey (ho yerss) and, having completely missed the point of my first letter, said he was glad my heart seemed to be in the right place.  I don’t propose to respond – I’ve had my fun – but I wouldn’t want to meet him on a dark night.

In the same issue of the paper, there was an impressive example of how the omission of a comma can give a misleading impression.  One sentence read “She was the middle of three sisters born to Edwin Gove Trump* and his wife Ruby on May 7, 1918.”  How interesting, I thought, the sisters were triplets, it must have been quite rare for all three triplets to survive in 1918.  Then I read on and it became clear that the omission of a comma after “sisters” wasn’t intended to imply they were triplets.  It would of course have been even clearer if the first seven words had been moved to the end of the sentence …

I also came across an advertisement that said “Your debit card lets you spend up to 8x cheaper than a bank”, which has baffled me totally.  Even correcting “cheaper” to “more cheaply” didn’t help.  What does it mean?  I rather doubt it means you get stuff for one eighth of the price if you use their debit card.  All suggestions on what it’s trying to say will be welcomed.

And the oxymoron of the week was in a report on a man who was defecting from North to South Korea:  “He was apprehended after surveillance equipment spotted him near the town of Goseong at the eastern end of the DMZ, a 248km-long (155-mile) strip of land strewn with mines that has separated the two Koreas since the end of their 1950-53 war.”  Since when has a minefield been considered “demilitarised”?

But my favourite use of words this week was a picture of a woman wearing a sweatshirt printed with the words “Underestimate me – that’ll be fun”.

*          No relation (as far as I know)

**        Doesn’t Dogsbottom sound like one of Shakespeare’s yokels, or the name of an English village, just to the west of Loose Chippings?

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