Whatever happened to the planning process?

I’ve been sitting today in a conference where planners were explaining how they managed applications relating to renewable energy.  One senior planner explained, repeating the point with emphasis, that it wasn’t possible to take account of the interests at stake or the question of ownership.  Another suggested that it was not feasible for the Scottish Government to look for any social advantage from planning decisions, and difficult even to require developers to compensate people who lose out in the process.  The best option communities could hope for was a chance to buy shares in development.

If they’re right, something rather strange has happened to the planning process in the last few years.  There was a time when the texts on planning – such as Eversley, The Planner in Society, or Pahl, Whose city? –  made great play of the role of the planner in allocating scarce resources.  There was little doubt that planning created value – granting permission can have a massive effect on the value of land – and people believed that where value was created by the community, there was a strong case for the community to realise some of that value, rather than gifting it all to developers.  No more, it seems.

11 more genes for Alzheimer’s? Hardly

The reports of another supposed breakthrough in genetic research are, like so many before it, rather exaggerated.  Last week,  a New Scientist editorial commented that neuroscience

” is plagued by false positives and other problems. … Scientists are under immense pressure to make discoveries, so negative findings often go unreported, experiments are rarely replicated and data is often “tortured until it confesses”. …  Genetics went through a similar “crisis” about a decade ago and has since matured into one of the most reliable sciences of all. “

Yesterday the newspapers were stuffed with reports from that most reliable and mature of sciences, concerning the discovery of 11 genes newly implicated in the causation of Alzheimers.  This is from the Independent:

The role of the immune system in defending the brain against Alzheimer’s disease has been revealed in a study identifying 11 new genes that could help to trigger the most common form of senile dementia.

There’s more than enough there to be able to tell that the report is confused.  In the first place, Alzheimer’s disease is not a single disease entity; it’s a syndrome.  The term is used as a residual category for any form of dementia where there isn’t as yet a clear understanding of the process.   Over the years, the size of that residuum has gradually been reduced as various specific disease entities have been identified – Pick’s, Huntington’s, Parkinsonian dementia, Lewy body, CJD and so on.  The process of refinement still has a long way to go.  Second, there is no evidence that Alzheimer’s is genetically determined or ‘triggered’ by particular genes.  The study does not actually  claim to show that the immune system defends against Alzheimer’s.  All it does it to identify  a group of SNPs or snips (single nucleotide polymorphisms to their friends) associated with the immune system which show some association with the diagnosis of dementia.  That’s an interesting finding, because it suggests that it may be worthwhile to examine immune systems to see what connections emerge.  It’s not the same thing as showing that genes cause Alzheimer’s.

However, it’s not possible to exonerate the authors of the paper altogether of blame for the misrepresentation.  The title of the article, published in Nature Genetics, is:  “Meta-analysis of 74,046 individuals identifies 11 new susceptibility loci for Alzheimer’s disease”.  This does assume that the associations show ‘susceptibility loci’, and it emphasises that it’s a big study, which implies that it has greater authority as a result.   The conclusion suggests that what needs investigating is the potential association with the risk of Alzheimer’s.

There are three common errors here: the paper commits some of the cardinal sins of statistics.

  • Confusing association with causation.  An association doesn’t in itself tell us what the influence of genes is or what the direction of causation is.  It follows that assocation with certain genes doesn’t reveal susceptibility.
  • Confusing significance with risk factors.  A relationship can be highly statistically significant although its effects are very limited.   (On a graph, it’s the slope of the regression line that really matters rather than the closeness of fit of the observations).   It’s possible that some small part of the response is attributable to the associated factor, and in medical terms that’s potentially important – it could relate to a particular condition – but that’s not equivalent to a risk factor, and in any case the work done doesn’t identify that.
  • Fishing, or data mining.  In any very large body of data, there will be some unusual associations – it’s in the nature of the exercise.  It doesn’t follow that those associations can be invested with meaning.  This study  fishes for the data in a massive pool – over 17,000 people with Alzheimer’s, over 37,000 controls and more than 7 million SNPs.  Then in stage 2 there were 8572 people with dementia, 11,312 controls and 11,632 SNPs.  The significance levels were strict  (p < 5 per 10*-8), but the sheer size of the data sample makes the statistics more problematic, not less so.  The method can’t do more than suggest that some patterns merit further investigation.

See also: http://blog.spicker.uk/dementia-we-shouldnt-expect-miracles-from-drug-cures/

More open access material

I’ve added some more links to my open access pageCROP, the Comparative Research Group of Poverty, has posted an online version of Poverty: an international Glossary, which I co-edited with  Sonia Alvarez Leguizamon and David Gordon; so now there are four books available.  OpenAir, the Robert Gordon University’s Open Access Repository, has added several more refereed articles.

The list has more than fifty items now.  It’s only a selection of my work – if you want my best stuff, you’ll still have to buy it – but I can see that the page is starting to get unwieldy.  I may need to reorganise it.

Open Access material

Visitors to the blog will see there is a new page, headed ‘Open Access material‘. I had a section in the previous page on ‘Publications’ which listed some of my work that was still available online. I have just added to that very substantially. First, I have managed to obtain the reversion of rights on two more of my books, and now there are three available freely for download, on a Creative Commons licence:

  • Stigma and social welfare, originally published by Croom Helm, 1984
  • Principles of social welfare, originally published by Routledge, 1988
  • Poverty and social security: concepts and principles, originally published by Routledge, 1993.

The books are available in PDF and ebook formats.

Second, the Robert Gordon University’s Open Access repository, OpenAir has asked me for pre-print versions of some of my published articles (their selection is based on the permissions they have from publishers, rather than the merits of the article!) As of today there are nine papers posted; ten more should be added over the next two weeks. Do, please, tell me if there are problems with any of the links.

I’m a firm believer in open access, and I have hopes of adding to this as time goes on, particularly for items which are out of print. It doesn’t, however, include most of my work or the things I’ve done that I’d personally say were the best. You’d have to pay for them, or get them from a university library.

The Curse of Wikipedia

I’ve not finished reading the Leveson report yet – Lord Justice Leveson is not a man to use one word when fifteen will do, and I have two volumes still to go. I was amused to read that the report has been led astray by Wikipedia, treating it as a reliable source without any attribution. This is the sort of thing I tell my students off about. The names of the founders of the Independent had been tampered with by someone from California, and Leveson used the adulterated list.

I contributed to Wikipedia myself a few years ago, adding to articles on the welfare state, social security, the Poor Law and such like, but I haven’t touched it for some time. The sticking point was the article on “Socialism”, which took it for granted that socialism was equivalent to Marxism. I put in five alternative definitions of socialism, with appropriate academic references; it was all deleted. (There is a short version of this on my website.) So I put it up again, puzzled, and it was deleted again, by people who were not prepared to accept that anything apart from their belief should be included. Then I put up a flag to say “this article is disputed”, and that was taken down too. There was no effective system for moderation, and I gave up. Wikipedia’s article on socialism is still desperately misleading. I have no idea whether this happens very widely, but it says something about ‘the wisdom of crowds’ – and the reliability of Wikipedia as a source.

For what it’s worth, the alternative definitions of the ‘welfare state’ have been taken down, too. US contributors find it difficult to understand that in much of Europe, the “welfare state” is not simply run by government.

How copyright threatens academic communication

Wikipedia has announced that it will shut for a day, in protest about threatened restrictions in the USA which will enable rights-holders to shut down sites that breach copyright. My website, like the rest of my writing, is scrupulously referenced, but I have considerable sympathy for Wikipedia’s position. The laws on copyright present a serious obstacle to learning, communication and intellectual development.

As a writer, my work is often used by other people without any form of recognition. Students, journalists and some academics routinely borrow from, copy or plagiarise what I have written. This may rankle, because it’s rude and incompetent, but for the most part I have to put up with it. To publish a work is to place it in the public domain. I expect – or hope – that my work will be read, discussed, and disseminated. The most disappointing experience is not when my work is cited without payment or acknowledgement, but when it sinks under the waterline. I’d much rather that people read and used my ideas than that they didn’t, and I’ve never encountered an academic who thinks differently.

The laws do not work in the interests of people like me; they work against us. The main effect of current rules about copyright, for any teacher, researcher or writer of non-fiction, is to restrict the ability to cite, illustrate points and argue with positions. I can’t use extended quotes from historic figures like Keynes or Beveridge. I’m barred from duplicating some texts first published in the sixteenth century. I can’t afford to use any photos in my books – the standard fees for two or three photos will consume all the royalties for eighteen months’ work. Many respectable peer-reviewed journals insist on full assignment of copyright, without payment. The primary function of the copyright laws is to defend, not the creators of intellectual property, but the interests of the businesses who have secured the rights.

Laws have to be developed to permit the free flow of information. The main rights that need to be protected are the rights of commerce – that people cannot present themselves as someone else, and people should know what they are buying. The laws go much further than they need to do to make that possible. The current rules on copyright, related to the time of death and some bizarre rules about assertion of rights, make it fiendishly difficult to decipher what is available for duplication, what isn’t, and who owns the rights. There’s only one kind of restriction that stands a chance of being understood and respected – that is, as we have with patents, a right to exclusive production for a limited, fixed period of time following publication. And that’s not what the law says or does.