The world of Policy and the Salzburg Statement

With his recent elevation to Taoiseach, something Leo Varadkar (who was supposed to work with me when I did a locum in Tallaght in May 2007… but he was occupied with some election or other) said in the late 1990s got a fair bit of coverage. This was to the effect that as a doctor you can help a few people, but as Minister for Health you can help millions. While at first glance this seems like a truism, it has for some reason got under my skin. There are various reasons for this, not all of which I will get into. Perhaps I am jealous of a road not travelled! (I am pretty confident I am not)

In a way it sums up a particular seduction – the seduction of the World of Policy. Get interested in any field – from the natural world to technology to medicine indeed – and sooner or later the siren song of policy will be heard. Wouldn’t it be great to Make A Difference not just on the piecemeal, day-to-day way, but on a grander scale? Increasingly I think not. Clearly someone needs to formulate policy and to think about things on a broad scale – but they should do so without illusions and with a certain humility. People have a habit of behaving in a way that the enlightened policy makers don’t foresee.  The circuit of conferences and “networking” can become an echo chamber of self congratulation. Doing good, perhaps, is best done on a smaller scale.

These thoughts are occasioned by reading about the Salzburg Statement. This is something I heartily approve of – a call for action to ensure all children enjoy the right to play in a nature rich space within ten minutes of their home.  The statement is made up of eight key actions:

Eight actions to transform cities for children

  1. Ensure children of all ages, backgrounds, income, and abilities have equitable access to nature and play regularly and in meaningful ways to promote good health and wellbeing.

  2. Embed nature in everyday places used by children, such as schools, backyards, parks, playgrounds and city streets, to make the city into a natural outdoor classroom.

  3. Involve children in designing and planning natural spaces for recreation, education, inspiration and health, to give them ownership and pride in their local communities, schools and parks

  4. Build curiosity, wonder, and care for nature in children (for example by greening school grounds and involving children with community gardens).

  5. Protect natural features across cityscapes and create an equitably distributed network of accessible green and nature-rich spaces that all generations can reach on foot.

  6. Connect cities with the broader ecosystems in which they are embedded, creating corridors for people, plants and animals to move safely across the city and into its surroundings.

  7. Establish more urban conservation areas to increase access to nature and connect cities to the broader protected area network.

  8. Work together through cross sectoral and multi-level partnerships to build an inclusive culture of health in cities.


There’s nothing there I would disagree with, though as with all these kind of interventions I would like more robust dissection of what, say, Item 3 would mean in practice.

I am always a little wary of dressing up worthy activity in the mantle of Health. What Resting a case for nature on the vagaries of purported health benefits can be a dangerous and debunkable game – especially with the media. This visual  handily shows how media can seize on single studies to generate headlines:statins.png

One can easily imagine a Katie Hopkins-ish journalist seizing on the inevitable ambiguities of research to “debunk” the claims for health benefits of nature.

I should state very clearly I have no reason to think that the Salzburg Statement is a wonderful initiative I look forward to hearing more of. But I am a little wary of the siren call of the World of Policy.

Anthropologizing Environmentalism – review by E Donald Elliot of “Risk and Culture”, Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavksy, Yale Law Review, 1983

Recently I have been posting  on the cultural theory of risk developed by Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky. This is a PDF of a review of Douglas and Wildavksy’s 1982 book “Risk and Culture” by E Donald Elliott adjunct professor of Law at Yale.

The review summarises Wildavksy and Douglas’ thought very well, and gets to the heart of one issue I struggle with in their writing ; their oft dismissive approach to environmental risk:

Most readers will be struck not by the abstract theory but by its application to the rise of environmentalism. This emphasis is unfortunate. The attempt to “explain” environmentalism makes a few good points, but on the whole this part of the book is crude, shortsighted, and snide. On the other hand, the sections that consider the relationship between risk and culture on a more fundamental level are sensitive and thoughtful.

I think it unfortunate that cultural theory of risk has ended up so much overshadowed by this “crude, shortsighted, and snide” discussion of environmental risk (Wildavksy, if I recall correctly, was revealed to have taken undisclosed payments from the chemical industry) It remains a powerful explanatory tool, and in clinical practice and team working one finds that different approaches to risk are rooted in cultural practices.

Elliott’s review focuses on the environmental realm, but serves as a good and sceptical discussion of the more general focus of cultural theory of risk – and an introduction to what is sometimes a less than lucidly explained theory.

“Development is always going to destabilize a fragile balance of social forces.”

Via the work of John Adams, I have had some familiarity with the Douglas-Wildavsky Cultural Theory of Risk. Like this reviewer, I find the Douglas/Wildavksy treatment of environmentalism rather crude, while their overall cultural typology of risk stimulating. As the reviewer points out:

Most readers will be struck not by the abstract theory but by its application
to the rise of environmentalism. This emphasis is unfortunate. The
attempt to “explain” environmentalism makes a few good points, but on
the whole this part of the book is crude, shortsighted, and snide.3 On the
other hand, the sections that consider the relationship between risk and
culture on a more fundamental level are sensitive and thoughtful.
Even at its best, Risk and Culture is not entirely successful at explaining
the paradox of risk-the problem of managing the unknown-but
parts of the book deserve to be read seriously by people interested in the
problem of risk, including environmental lawyers.



I am now reading Mary Douglas directly, in currently her Culture and Crises.: Understanding Risk and Resolution  Although she has a prose style that sometimes grates, and I am wary of possibly being unaware of technical anthropological issues that may be taken-for-granted, there is much to enjoy and think about.

Here is a brief quote from one essay – Traditional Culture, Let’s Here No More About It, which follows a passage about the occasional pitting against each other of development and “traditional culture” (usually, under western eyes, to the detriment of traditional culture):

Development is always going to destabilise a fragile balance of social forces. The people are understandably reluctant to do the gruelling hard work and accept the diversion of resources if the resulting prosperity will only line the pockets of outsiders. Furthermore, if it going to erode the community’s accumulated store of trust, and dissolve their traditional readiness to collaborate, the well-being of the community may be worse after development than before. There certainly is inherent ambiguity about the moral case. At least we can say that what stops development is not cultural traditionalism so much as the way it arrives, how it is organised.

This applies – in spades – to the many many “cultural change” / “transformation” etc projects that health services become the subject of. The suspicion that sacrifice and hard work on the part of staff will benefit only a narrow few (the Minister getting good headlines, various outside consultancies, higher management) surely underlies some at least of the cynicism about such projects that is undoubtedly prevalent.


Leandro Herrero – “The best contribution that Neurosciences can make to Management and Leadership is to leave the room”

A while back I reviewed I Know What You’re Thinking: Brain Imaging and Mental Privacy in the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, and discussed a couple of studies which illustrate the dangers of what could best be called neuro-fetishism:

In 2010, Dartmouth University neuroscientist Craig Bennett and his colleagues subjected an experimental subject to functional magnetic resonance imaging. The subject was shown ‘a series of photographs with human individuals in social situations with a specified emotional valence, either socially inclusive or socially exclusive’. The subject was asked to determine which emotion the individual in the photographs were experiencing. The subject was found to have engaged in perspective-taking at p<0.001 level of significance. This is perhaps surprising, as the subject was a dead salmon.

In 2007, Colorado State University’s McCabe and Castel published research indicating that undergraduates, presented with brief articles summarising fictional neuroscience research (and which made claims unsupported by the fictional evidence presented) rated articles that were illustrated by brain imaging as more scientifically credible than those illustrated by bar graphs, a topographical map of brain activation, or no image at all. Taken with the Bennett paper, this illustrates one of the perils of neuroimaging research, especially when it enters the wider media; the social credibility is high, despite the methodological challenges.

I am becoming quite addicted to Leandro Herrero’s Daily Thoughts and here is another. One could not accuse Herrero of pulling his punches here:

I have talked a lot in the past about the Neurobabble Fallacy. I know this makes many people uncomfortable. I have friends and family in the Neuro-something business. There is neuro-marketing, neuro-leadership and neuro-lots-of-things. Some of that stuff is legitimate. For example, understanding how cognitive systems react to signals and applying this to advertising. If you want to call that neuro-marketing, so be it. But beyond those prosaic aims, there is a whole industry of neuro-anything that aggressively attempts to legitimize itself by bringing in pop-neurosciences to dinner every day.

In case anyone doubts his credentials:

Do I have any qualifications to have an opinion on these bridges too far? In my previous professional life I was a clinical psychiatrist with special interest in psychopharmacology. I used to teach that stuff in the University. I then did a few years in R&D in pharmaceuticals. I then left those territories to run our Organizational Architecture company, The Chalfont Project. I have some ideas about brains, and some about leadership and organizations. I insist, let both sides have a good cup of tea together, but when the cup of tea is done, go back to work to your separate offices.

It is ironic that otherwise hard-headed sceptics tend to be transfixed by anything “neuro-” – and Leandro Herrero’s trenchant words are just what the world of neurobabble needs. In these days of occasionally blind celebration of trans-, multi- and poly- disciplinary approaches, the “separate offices” one is bracingly counter-cultural…

#OceanOptimism, powerlessness, hope, and change.

The current BBC Wildlife Magazine has a fascinating article by Elin Kelsey, of the Ocean Optimism Project, on how media-fuelled environmental despair and nihilism ends up demoralising people to the degree that positive action seems impossible. She cites much research on the “finite pool of worry” and the paralysing effect of despair, and the power optimism to reverse this trend. The article isn’t available online, but in the post below from my other blog I highlight relevant passages from a Kelsey piece in Smithsonian Magazine on similar themes.

This article is obviously focused on ecology, but is all too true of our healthcare systems. For similar reasons to those Kelsey ascribes to environmentalists who are wary of being overly focused on good news, frontline workers in the health service naturally tend to focus on what is wrong, what is proving impossible, what needs to change. This is necessary, but can become an overwhelming counsel of nihilism, fostering cynicism and very often helping to entrench negative practices.

This is very relevant to the various themes on valuesmorale, “blame culture”, and possibility of positive change within not only the HSE but any healthcare organisation.

Séamus Sweeney

The current issue of BBC Wildlife Magazinehas a fascinating cover story by Elin Kelseyon hope and optimism versus despair in how we think about they environment. Essentially, much media discourse on the environment tends to be gloomy, doom, and generally despairing. Kelsey cites a wide range of research on how this negativity effects how we think about the environment and our beliefs about what can be done – and therefore what is done – to improve things. The full article is not available online. This article from Smithsonian Magazine is briefer, but captures her idea:

Things are far more resilient than I ever imagined. Me, green sea turtles, coral reefs blown to bits by atomic bombs. In a twist of fate that even surprised scientists, Bikini Atoll, site of one of the world’s biggest nuclear explosions, is now a scuba diver’s paradise. Bikini Atoll located in the Pacific’s…

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Hype, The Life Study and trying to do too much

A while back I reviewed Helen Pearson’s, “The Life Project” in the TLS. I had previously blogged on the perils of trying to do too much and mission creep and overload.

From the original draft of the review (published version differed slightly):

Pearson is laudably clear that the story of the birth cohorts is also a study of failure; the failure of the NHS to improve the inequality of health incomes between social classes, the failure of educational reforms and re-reforms to broach the similar academic achievement gap. Indeed, the book culminates in a failure which introduces a darker tone to the story of the birth cohort studies.

Launched in January 2015, the Life Study was supposed to follow 80,000 babies born in 2015 and intended to be a birth cohort for the “Olympic Children.” It had a government patron in David Willetts, who departure from politics in May 2015 perhaps set the stage for its collapse. Overstuffed antenatal clinics and a lack of health visitors meant that the Life Study’s participants would have to self-select. The optimistic scenario has 16,000 women signing up in the first eighteen months; in the first six months, 249 women did. By October 2015, just as Pearson was completing five years of work on this book, the study had officially been abandoned.

Along with the cancellation of the National Institute for Health’s National Children’s Study in December 2014, this made it clear that birth cohorts have been victims of their own success. An understandable tendency to include as much potentially useful information as possible seemed to have created massive, and ultimately unworkable cohorts. The Life Study would have generated vast data sets: “80,000 babies, warehouses of stool samples of placentas, gigabytes of video clips, several hundred thousand questionnaires and much more” (the history of the 1982 study repeated itself, perhaps.) Then there is the recruitment issue. Pregnant women volunteering for the Life Study would “travel to special recruitment centres set up for the study and then spend two hours there, answering questions and giving their samples of urine and blood.” Perhaps the surprise is that 249 pregnant women actually did volunteer for this.

Pearson’s book illustrates how tempting mission creep is. She recounts how birth cohorts went from obscure beginnings to official neglect with perpetual funding issues to suddenly becoming a crown jewel of British research. Indeed, as I observe in the review, while relatively few countries  have emulated the NHS’ structure and funding model, very many have tried to get on the birth cohort train.

This situation of an understandable enthusiasm and sudden fascination has parallels across health services and research. It is particularly a risk in eHealth and connected health, especially as the systems are inherently complex, and there is a great deal of fashionability to using technology more effectively in healthcare. It is one of those mom-and-apple-pie things, a god term, that can shut down critical thinking at times.

Megaprojects are seductive also in an age where the politics of funding research loom large. The big, “transformative” projects can squeeze out the less ambitious, less hype-y, more human-scale approaches. It can be another version of the Big Man theory of leadership.

Whatever we do, it is made up of a collection of tiny, often implicit actions, attitudes, near-reflexes, and is embedded in some kind of system beyond ourselves that is ultimately made up of other people performing and enacting a collection of tiny, often implicit actions, attitudes, and near-reflexes.


Review of “Casebook of Psychosomatic Medicine”, Bourgeois et al, IJPM 2011

The above review from the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine follows on from my review of The Physician As Patient in the same journal. Both books were excellently written, and as time has gone by I appreciate their approach more deeply. As I say in the first paragraph, evidence based medicine and what could be called experience based medicine are often driven into a false dichotomy. Both these books possess wisdom in abundance, and wisdom based medicine is perhaps what we should all be aspiring to practice.