The dragon in the room: why British politicians need to stop ignoring China

Britain’s instinct with regard to China is first to ignore it, second to see it as a giant pot of money and thirdly to impotently complain about its human rights record. Given the country’s importance for our future we need to be more sophisticated than that.


During the run up to the General Election, David Cameron appeared to forget which football team he supported. At the time I took to Facebook to grumble “This story means the General Election will have generated more discussion about football than the rise of China”. If it was an exaggeration, it wasn’t much of one. The Labour manifesto said that: “As power and wealth continues to shift from West to East, our relationship with Asia will be fundamental to our long-term prosperity. Labour will set up an Asia Step-Change Taskforce to ensure a more strategic and effective dialogue with regional partners, including China, both in the commerical realm, and in other areas, from cultural exchange to human rights.”  It was the only reference to China in the document. It’s also the sole mention in any major party’s manifesto that China’s coming ascendancy might change British foreign policy. It’s mentioned a couple of other times but they are all to do with trade. Oh and UKIP make a random point about other countries including China burning cheaper fossil fuels than the UK does!

China just doesn’t come up in British political debates all that much. The media does talk about the country a fair bit but usually as a business story. And as the references in the manifesto imply that’s a lead politicians follow. Even when we acknowledge that there is more to China than money, we see unable to move beyond human rights issues. That lends political discussions of the UK-China relationship an air of unreality. Through our pressure we will apparently cajole China into freeing Tibet or being less beastly to the Falun Gong. In reality, China now has a larger economy, more powerful military and greater clout than the UK, so it is more likely they will influence us than visa versa.

This is in sharp contrast to the US. One of the tenants of Obama’s foreign policy is ‘a pivot to Asia’. This has included sending additional American troops to South Korea and setting up the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) a huge trade deal including nations that between them account for almost half of global GDP. The aim has been to strengthen the bonds between the US and its allies in the vicinity of China. Given that most of this originated from Hilary Clinton’s time as Secretary of State, it seems likely that the US will be pivoting for a while longer.

It is not only in official circles that Americans are discussing what China’s rise will mean. Gallup polling on which country Americans believe to be the US’s threat produces fairly erratic numbers. But China is always among the top three ‘threats’. The concern is sufficiently widespread that Donald Trump has sensed it as a subject on which he can demagogue. While Mexican and Muslims have borne the brunt of his xenophobia, China has also been a target.

There are legitimate reasons that Europeans would be less interested in China than an American. The kind of thing the US is trying to pivot away from – the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine – are on Europe’s border. The US also has larger Chinese and East Asian diasporas. And there’s the brute fact that what we do just matters less: the US navy might be able to turn back a Chinese attack on Taiwan, the Royal Navy clearly couldn’t.

That said we will increasingly see China playing a role outside its traditional sphere of influence. Let me illustrate that point using two issues.

Firstly, China is being gradually being pulled into the War on Terror. Since 9/11, China has being drawing a link between unrest amongst its Uyghur minority – who are mostly Muslim – and international terrorism. It’s hard to tell to what extent the Communist Party is conflating actual terrorism and peaceful dissent. However, if there wasn’t a link before, the clampdown on the Uyghur’s and their religious freedom has created a blacklash that has radicalised some young Chinese. ISIS now produces propaganda material in Mandarin and has executed a Chinese national. These kinds of trends are pushing China to, for example, becoming increasingly involved in Afghanistan and even conduct negotiations with the Taliban.

Secondly, let us consider the founding of an institution known as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). You will be unsurprised to find out that its stated purpose is to provide investment for infrastructure projects in developing countries – especially those in Asia. Its creation was a Chinese initiative and it was widely interpreted as being its attempt to create an alternative to the World Bank. This hints at what is probably the most profound impact of China’s rise. Since WWII, the institutions and rules governing the international order have largely been those created by Western nations. China is beginning to acquire the heft to change those. There’s a plausible argument that this might be a bad thing. For example, the US feared that the AIIB would reflect the poor standards of governance prevalent within China. That might mean less transparency or loans given without regard to the environmental consequences or potential for corruption. There was also a fear that China would use its dominant role within the organisation to turn it into a tool for promoting its own economic interests: say by pressuring the recipients of loans to use them to buy surplus Chinese goods. These fears led the US, Japan and Australia to boycott the institution.

What makes the saga of the AIIB particularly instructive is that European countries including the UK took more or less exactly the opposite approach to the US. They joined the AIIB and were thereby able to dilute Chinese control of the organisation. China now pledges the AIIB will match the World Bank’s lending standards and has stopped talking about it as a way of solving its ‘excess capacity’ problem. We will have to see how the AIIB performs in practice to judge whether European engagement or American wariness was wiser. Either way the issue has revealed the potential for China’s rise to strain the UK’s relationship with the US. The White House publically rebuked the UK for joining the AIIB and behind the scenes US officials complained that they hadn’t been consulted before Britain made the decision. I doubt that this will be the last time such divisions flare up. For the reasons already discussed it is a lot easier to take a benign view of China from London from Washington. This extends to public attitudes: Pew found 55% of Americans view China unfavourably compared to just 38% of Britains. Staying close to the US has been the overriding objective of British foreign policy since at least WWII. China’s rise may force Britain to re-evaluate whether that’s still desirable or indeed feasible.

Odd one out: Lib Dems and a progressive alliance

Labour can ever have an alliance of the centre-left alliance with the Lib Dems or an alliance of the hard left with the Greens and Nationalists. It can’t have both.

A couple of weeks back I wrote a post highlighting why I thought an alliance between the Lib Dems and Labour was unlikely. James King, a fellow Lib Dem and occasional guest poster here at Matter of Facts, has written a post tackling a similar subject: the notion of combining all anti-conservative forces in the UK together into ‘a progressive alliance’. Where I mostly relied on intuition, he’s found empirical evidence to show quite how hard this might be. This bit particularly caught my attention:

This post by Tim Bale, Paul Webb, and Monica Poletti is based on survey data which asked strong supporters of each major party to plot their own ideological position, along with that of their favoured party and the other parties, on a score from 0 to 10, with 0 being the most left-wing and 10 being the most right-wing. In principle, the closer the dots are, the greater potential for an agreement there should be between the parties.  Of course, this approach is far from perfect – the left-right spectrum, while widely used, is unsubtle and frequently misleading, and these values are the averages of a potentially very wide spread.  Nevertheless, it is an interesting starting point, and if anything underestimates any potential problems with the coherence of the ‘progressive alliance’.

With the help of MS Paint, I have visualised the outlook of each party’s supporters as a linear scale.  First up, Labour.

Labour political axis

A quick explainer: the pink dot is where Labour’s strong supporters put themselves, and the red dot is where they put their party.  Green is Green, Yellow SNP, Orange Lib Dem, and so on.  The thing that stands out here is how Labour voters see themselves as being in more-or-less the same space as the SNP and the Greens, with UKIP far out to the right.  The Lib Dems, on the other hand, are perceived as slightly right-of-centre, roughly equidistant between Labour and the Tories.  Any association of Labour with the Lib Dems will alienate these supporters; while you can see a pattern of a possible progressive coalition on the left there, the Lib Dems are the clear odd-one-out.  (It should be said that this data was collected immediately after the General Election, so there may have been a shift of the views of Labour Party supporters since then.)

I don’t think Labour voters are mistaken to perceive a gap between the Lib Dems and ‘the left’.

The different components of the Labour Party may have staggeringly disparate ideas about what it means to be on the left but in my experience what tends to hold them together is a visceral opposition to the right. This is referred to as ‘negative partisanship‘. This is also a potent force for the Greens who tend to oppose Labour out of a sense it’s made too many compromises with the right-wing forces in British society. And an association of England with Toryism provides nationalism with much of its fuel.

‘Negative partisanship’ is a much less powerful force for Liberal Democrats. This can be seen in its willingness to contemplate coalitions with parties of both left and right.

Underlying this is a fairly weak identification of Liberal Democrats with the left. Which is not to say we don’t incline left. Vastly more British Liberals understand themselves as being on the left than the right. A factor that becomes pretty obvious whenever self-consciously right-wing liberals try to exert influences within the party. But there are plenty of Lib Dems who prefer to define themselves as centrists or reject the whole notion that the left/right split is meaningful. A fair number – and this includes me – are an incoherent mixture of all three. The figures James presents do indeed show that Lib Dem voters tend to see themselves as closer to Labour than the Conservatives. But only a minority of that is because they place themselves to the left – they barely do. It’s mainly because they see the Conservatives as further from the centre. Or maybe that should be ‘saw’ rather than ‘see’ – Jeremy Corbyn may have changed this.

Essentially, it will be difficult to fit the Lib Dems into an alliance built on ‘negative partisanship’. Our anti-conservative leanings are not definitive enough to convince adamant left-wingers of our reliability. And we probably need some kind of positive alignment to really buy into the alliance.

Therefore, I think Labour probably has to decide between creating ‘a progressive alliance’ with the Greens, other far left groups and perhaps the nationalists that is based solely on the notion of beating the Tories, or alternatively doing what it did in the early stages of Tony Blair’s leadership and creating a sense that Labour and the Lib Dems are engaged in a shared ‘project’ with concrete policy objectives that go beyond anti-Toryism.

The most infuriating paragraph you will read this week

In  a reflection on why Donald Trump’s proclivity for making stuff up doesn’t seem to bother his supporters Anna Pluta of FiveThirtyEight highlights some research that is as depressing as it is annoying:

In 2000, James Kuklinski and other political scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign established an important distinction: American citizens with incorrect information can be divided into two groups, the misinformed and the uniformed. The difference between the two is stark. Uninformed citizens don’t have any information at all, while those who are misinformed have information that conflicts with the best evidence and expert opinion. As Kuklinski and his colleagues established, in the U.S., the most misinformed citizens tend to be the most confident in their views and are also the strongest partisans [Emphasis added].These folks fill the gaps in their knowledge base by using their existing belief systems. Once these inferences are stored into memory, they become “indistinguishable from hard data,” Kuklinski and his colleagues found.

This is not a new idea. Back in the 1930s Bertrand Russel wrote that:

“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt”.

This unfortunately tallies with research outside the political arena. For example, some studies indicate that parents who believe that vaccines are dangerous become more resistant to vaccinating their children when presented with scientific evidence that they are safe.

The best things I’ve read recently (08/01/15)

Fake news stories, Sunnis and Shias, and cultural appropriation.

10 Ways to Spot a Fake News Story by Melanie Radzicki McManus (How Stuff Works)

#1 the story makes you angry

Ever read a story that really made you mad? Or that seemed to tap into your innermost insecurity or fear? Maybe it was about the government secretly spying on you. Don’t automatically believe what you just read and pass it on. Many false news stories purposely play on our fears and anxieties, knowing that doing so will make people follow their emotions and not their brains.

One example of such a story concerned a Texas family of five diagnosed with the deadly Ebola virus. Because of the family’s diagnosis, the story said, the entire town where they lived was under quarantine. The fake story, published on a site called National Report during the height of the Ebola crisis, took off on Facebook, where hundreds of thousands of people read it, “liked” it and passed it on . Whether these are satirical sites or websites run by people with an ax to grind, if you find yourself getting pretty steamed, take a step back and re-evaluate.

Why Saudi Arabia escalated the Middle East’s sectarian conflict by Marc Lynch (Washington Post)

The Saudi escalation is above all driven by its fear of the potential success of the U.S. deal with Iran over its nuclear weapons program. Saudi Arabia views Iran’s reintegration into the international order and its evolving relationship with Washington as a profound threat to its own regional position. Mobilizing anti-Shiite sectarianism is a familiar move in its effort to sustain Iranian containment and isolation. The Saudis have been opposed to virtually every major American policy initiative in the Middle East over the last five years — not only the Iran deal, but also American support for Egyptian democracy and Obama’s resistance to intervening in Syria. The sectarian escalation likely is meant to undermine America’s primary strategic objectives in the region such as the Iran deal and a negotiated end to the Syria war by inflaming tensions in ways that make diplomatic progress impossible.

Oberlin’s Food Isn’t “Cultural Appropriation.” That Doesn’t Mean the Students Are Wrong by Aaron R. Hanlon (New Republic)

….academics, activists, and an outrage-driven media climate have failed students by using “cultural appropriation” so broadly as to dilute its effectiveness as an anti-colonialist term. Intuitive and intelligent students at Oberlin are searching for language to describe their disappointment with institutional choices to prize international students while accommodating them in name only, but they’re working with confused terminology.

These mistakes tend to happen when terminology moves from academic to popular discourse, which is why it’s so important for academics to take some responsibility for what becomes of our specialist language. For this reason I offer a clarification that I prefer when teaching about hegemony and colonialism. In the case at Oberlin, “cultural appropriation” would be the value-neutral practice of making a fusion dish that draws from Vietnamese ingredients among others; “cultural expropriation” would be making an authentic bánh mì and calling it the “Oberlin Sandwich,” without attribution for the Vietnamese tradition from which it was pilfered; and attempting to make a bánh mì without caring or understanding what that sandwich requires—which is what actually happened at Oberlin—is indeed a form of cultural insensitivity, but hardly a form of theft. If anything, the food controversy at Oberlin is more about savvy students catching the dining vendor—not the kitchen staff—in a halfhearted attempt to do the right thing by making respectable international dishes suitable for a diverse student body.

If we want fine distinctions between concepts—and we should—we need fine distinctions in our descriptive language. At this point, cultural appropriation is a meaningless term that allows no differentiation between innocuous or incidental appropriations and stealing. Cultural expropriation—stealing exploititavely from a marginalized culture—is the term we should be using to describe things like theWashington, D.C. professional football team, the “ghetto fab” halloween costume, or the performance style of Iggy Azalea (as opposed to the performance style of Eminem). Removing the baggage of “appropriation” helps us focus more clearly on a real problem at Oberlin: not that cultures are being stolen from or exploited through food, but that the institution is not serious enough about providing (and providing for) the cultural diversity it rightly values in its mission statement.

Joss Whedon surfaces

It’s no secret that I really, really like Joss Whedon and his work. And like most of his fans I’ve been a little worried about him recently. On the interview circuit for Avengers: Age of Ultron he seemed burned out by five years of intense work at Marvel and then beaten down by the lukewarm reaction to the film and a(n overblown) backlash at its depiction of women.

So it was quite reassuring to see this video of him speaking at the Oxford Union. He still sounds somewhat frazzled but he’s as articulate as ever and his sense of mischief seems intact. Plus he’s talking about new projects so yay for that!

Economic growth is about more than becoming richer

As a society moves from poverty to affluence, more or less everything changes. Just look at fast growing cities in the developing world.

2015-10-27 14.33.08.jpg

Luohan Si Arhat temple, Chongqing, China

When we discuss rapid economic growth in the developing world, the focus tends to be on China. Which is not unreasonable: its growth has been the fastest and because of its size the most consequential for the rest of the world. But it is happening in plenty of other countries too.

And when it does it changes everything. It’s not simply that people get richer. Economic growth relies on and itself triggers a massive series of social changes: families get smaller, people start living a substantial part of their life in retirement and governments get more democratic. However, none of these changes is as visible as urbanisation.

As an illustration of this, let me point you in the direction of this video from Radio Free Asia:

I was interested in it mainly because I’d been living in Hanoi for most of the past year. According to the video a quarter of a million people move from rural areas to the Vietnamese capital and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) each year.

When I first moved to Hanoi I felt that doing so must not have been unlike moving to Manchester during the industrial revolution. Now I think that’s wrong. Economic development in places like Vietnam is happening far faster than it did in Europe and North America. Even when the UK’s GDP per capita growth was at its fastest it still took decades to double. Vietnam recently doubled its in seven years. And of course this is visible in Vietnamese and Chinese cities. They are startlingly new. You may have a historic core – though that’s not a given – but around it will be suburbs where a twenty year old building looks venerable. And new suburbs continue to grow all the time. Part of this is the result of old buildings being pulled down but mostly it is simply down to the fact that housing a vastly larger number of people requires a vast amount of new construction. The result of this is that the impact of economic growth goes far beyond how much money they have, it can literally transform the physical environment in which they live.

More subtly it influences the tenor of a society. I remember one of my colleagues in Vietnam observing that even if people were in absolute terms much less well off than the ones we knew back home there was something invigorating about their confidence that tomorrow would be better than today. This tallies with an argument made by Benjamin Friedman in his book the Moral Consequences of Economic GrowthHe believes that if people feel their own living standards are rising they are likely to be resentful of others and won’t see the future as threatening. That’s likely to make them more open-minded and open to positive social change. Even if it’s not then living in a state of optimism is simply a lot more pleasant than the alternative. And you may get a new city into the bargain too.

American conservatives: not quite that stupid

No, they don’t actually want to bomb the country from Aladdin nor do they believe that solar panels will drain the sun.


Don’t imagine Republicans are like this

Recently the American anti-tax campaigner Grover Norquist tweeted that:

The fact that it’s not very funny shouldn’t obscure the obvious: it’s a joke. Nonetheless, some people with politics different from Norquist’s have a low enough opinion of him that they seemed to think he was serious.

This is a very small example of the tendency among people who are on the left and/or European to underestimate American conservatives. That’s admittedly difficult to do. It uses conspiracy theories to dismiss awkward science on matters like climate change and evolution. Its alarmism often reveals its insularity: one can only really believe that a small expansion of the welfare state will lead to a socialist dystopia if you don’t know much about countries that have larger welfare states. And as Donald Trump is revealing its ideology is underlined by some unpleasant prejudices.

But too often its opponents reveal prejudices of their own. Take, for example, the claim that “30% of GOP voters support bombing Agrabah, the city from Aladdin”.  This was gleefully shared on social media but probably didn’t merit the snarking it provoked. For starters it’s not from a very reliable source. It originates from a poll by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic leaning outfit with a poor reputation. Nate Silver has accused them of manipulating their results to match the results of other more effective pollsters. Their reputation for asking questions that produce amusing results that get a lot of media attention has earned it the nickname ‘the troll pollster’.

On this particular occasion, they got a stupid answer by asking a stupid question. The respondents to the poll filled it out online and therefore had no chance to ask for clarification. Plus there wasn’t an option for “that’s a stupid question why are you asking me about bombing a fictional place”. And most voters reasonably infer that if they are asked something by a pollster then it’s a reasonable question. So it’s not surprising that a fair proportion wound up being led to a nonsensical answer. It’s not just Republicans: 20% of Democrats also chose the yes answer. This is a story that says less about politics than it does polling.

A more blatant misrepresentation came when it was reported “a town in the U.S. has…blocked construction of a solar farm, in part due to fears it would drain the Sun’s energy”. Predictably that turned out to be a substantial embellishment. The claims about the Sun being drained of its energy came from two members of the public at a public meeting rather than from an official source. When the story was followed up by a reporter from Vox he found that the real concerns lay elsewhere. The town in question was extremely poor, felt it had been exploited by commercial interests and believed the company responsible for the solar farm would continue this exploitation. They appear to have been justified in that belief. They would not have received any financial benefit. It would, however, have used up land on which residents hoped to see developments that might help regenerate their town. Bizarre ideas about how solar energy work seem peripheral to the story and it appears tragic rather than funny.

We have got to stop misrepresenting American conservatives. The obvious reasons are accuracy and fairness. But there’s a more subtle one: it may lead us to underestimate our own proclivity for making mistakes. If Republicans make mistakes because they are uneducated hicks, then we can imagine that as well educated cosmopolitans we are immune to such dangers. If only that we true.

Instead, I suspect that the problem is selective blindness. It’s not that they don’t have information available or evidence a blanket rejection of rational thinking. For example, they are quite content with the majority of scientific findings: it is only those like climate change and evolution that contradict their ideology that meet resistance. I would suggest that a useful concept here is ‘rational irrationality’. This was devised by Bryan Caplan in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter:

“In standard neoclassical economics, people are assumed to be rational; the notion of systematic bias is considered to be a sloppy assumption. In many ways, Caplan agrees with this: most people are rational when it comes to choosing a job, buying milk, hiring employees, and selecting a business strategy. They can be wrong, of course, but a systematic bias rarely, if ever, occurs.

But the author argues they are only rational because it is costly to be wrong. A racist will still hire a qualified black person because going to the second best option will be expensive to the company. A protectionist will still outsource because he has to achieve as many advantages over his competitors as he can to stay in business. Someone who thinks a discount store is haunted will seriously question their conclusions when they find their budget to be tight.

Sometimes, however, it is virtually costless for the individual person to hold on to their preconceived beliefs, and people like those beliefs. Rational irrationality simply states that when it is cheap to believe something (even when it is wrong) it is rational to believe it. They refuse to retrace their logic and seriously ask themselves if what they believe is true. For some people, thinking hurts and they will avoid it if they can. This often appears in politics. Caplan argues that, “Since delusional political beliefs are free, the voter consumes until he reaches his ‘satiation point,’ believing whatever makes him feel best. When a person puts on his voting hat, he does not have to give up practical efficacy in exchange for self-image, because he has no practical efficacy to give up in the first place.”

So, for example, I think that deep down many Republicans know that more guns leads to more gun violence. I posit that they have banned federal research into gun control because they (at least subconsciously) know what it’s going to wind up saying. But it’s psychologically easier to avoid confronting that information than it is to change your belief system or admit that it has a cost. If they have to come at the problem from an unusual angle then their underlying rational beliefs can emerge. Take the NRA backed Texas legislator who warned that the US could not take Syrian refugees because it would be too easy for one of them to buy a gun and commit a terrorist attack. Or in the video below at 4:20 you can see a gun advocate argue that it’s not fair to compare rates of gun violence in the US and Australia because “the US has a very high number of guns, therefore, there are going to be more chances for people to get killed with a gun”.

The problem is that this kind of “confirmation bias” is a universal human tendency. It’s not peculiarly American or conservative. For an illustration of this, I would recommend a recent article by Jesse Singal in New York magazine on how there have been some egregious examples of people on the left trying to suppress research in fields like psychology and anthropology that contradicts their political beliefs. And why wouldn’t they? They are people and people like things simple and dislike changing their mind. So if you meet a Republican don’t expect someone who has just climbed out of a hole, expect someone fundamentally like you.

Chinese stereotypes of Europe

Bulgaria’s ‘milk-induced longevity’ is apparently a thing.

The map below was created by Foreign Policy who plotted “the most common Chinese-language Baidu query for each European nation” to get an insight into what the people of the middle kingdom think about Europe. Baidu is China’s largest search engine and it’s auto-complete function seems to work a lot like Google’s.

While are fair proportion of these are funny, I’m not sure as Europeans we should be laughing. I imagine a similar map of European stereotypes of Asian countries would not make for comforting viewing.

Fat shaming makes people fat

Support rather than stigma is what will help people lose weight.


This is a time of year when lots of people are thinking harder than usual about managing the weight. There’s no shortage of advice on this subject but most of it is aimed at the person’s whose trying lose or avoid gaining weight. But what about the people around them and the rest of society?

As an example of what not to do, allow me to invoke human straw woman Katie Hopkins who has said “I feel it’s my responsibility to point out to chubsters that they need to get up off their a**, stop costing me money as a taxpayer, and get out there and run a little bit more.”

This notion has a certain intuitive appeal. We don’t like being criticised. And if being fat will lead to being criticised then that will encourage us to not be fat.

But it probably doesn’t actually work like that:

….in a study published in 2011 in the journal PLOS ONE, Angelina Sutin and Antonio Terracciano of Florida State University College of Medicine tracked the weight of more than 6,000 Americans for four years, from 2006 to 2010; they also noted whether the participants reported being treated unfairly because of their size. The men and women who were overweight in 2006 and said they’d experienced weight discrimination were more than twice as likely to have become obese by 2010, as compared to the overweight participants who hadn’t felt discriminated against. Another paper published last year in the journalObesity came to the same conclusion: Fat-shaming appears to lead to weight gain. 

Both studies are observational, rather than experiment-based, so they can’t prove that one thing definitively led to the other — and if they did, why. But the association makes sense to Rebecca Puhl, the deputy director for the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, who has studied the impact of weight stigma for 15 years. “Stigma and discrimination are really stressors, and, unfortunately, for many people, they’re chronic stressors,” Puhl told me back in 2013. “And we know that eating is a common reaction to stress and anxiety — that people often engage in more food consumption or more binge eating in response to stressors, so there is a logical connection here in terms of some of the maladaptive coping strategies to try to deal with the stress of being stigmatized.”

And just today the Atlantic reports researching suggesting the opposite. That kindness helps people lose weight:

….187 women at a Canadian university were asked questions about their weight, ideal weight, and self-esteem. They were then asked if they had ever talked to their romantic partner or friend about their weight concerns, and if so, how that person reacted. If the friend/partner said something like, “your weight is fine,” that was considered a message of “acceptance,” while if they said something like, “you have a reason to be concerned,” or offered to help them lose weight, they were considered a contributor to the subject’s sense of weight-loss pressure.

The results showed that, for the women who were concerned about their weight, those who received supportive feedback in response to their worries were more likely to maintain or lose weight. Those who didn’t, gained.

Over the course of the nine-month study, women who received lots of weight-acceptance messages shed about .17 units of body mass index, or BMI, while the BMIs of women who received few such messages of acceptance ticked up by about .75 units.

There’s probably a wider message here about supporting people rather than stigmatising them. There’s also probably also one about the danger of thinking your sanctimony is helping people when it’s really just making you feel superior. And there’s definitely one about the merit of things Katie Hopkins says.

Tidings of logic and joy


[I forgot to include a spoiler warning. Apologises to anyone who read this and then regretted it]

The seasonal benevolence of the BBC is impressive. For Christmas, they gave us both more Dr Who and more Sherlock.

Even though the residents of 221B Baker Street were back they were not quite as we are used to seeing them. The update has been restored to its original setting. Well sort of. In the end it was all a dream. But that was justification enough to watch the actor/character combos we’ve grown to adore back in action.

It’s quite a romp. Things are allowed to be more knowing, strange and melodramatic than before. And for all of those things the baseline was already high. The freedom to be heightened produces some great moments. The new setting creates opportunities for lots of new comedy. And the return to the age of Conan Doyle allows Moffat and Gatiss to indulge their love for the author – even more than usual.

But that does come at a price. That looseness borders on indulgence and this episode just doesn’t feel as finely honed as a regular episode. The formulation of the various “dreams within dreams” becomes messy. By the end I wasn’t sure whether we were supposed to believe Holmes’ solution of the problem. For the first time in the show’s run the cinematography was distracting rather than impressive. And its style of repartee feels anachronistic coming from Victorian mouths.

This makes it a fitting choice as a Christmas Special: entertaining while it lasts but ultimately disposable. I like the kind of experimentation that characterised this episode and series 3. But after a stretch of it, I hope that Moffat and Gatiss will take things back to basic for series 4.


Which in a way was what Moffat did for Dr Who’s Christmas special. This was coming off the most ambitious series since the show’s resurrection in 2005. It tried out new types of episode like a one hander and was bolder with its themes and character choices. By contrast, this Christmas Special felt like it could easily have been from the Russell T Davies era.

I deduce that it was successful from the fact I didn’t hate it. I have an allergy to the Christmas specials that I tend to find cloying. That’s indicative of the fact that I tend to like my Who dark. I find it funnier when it’s not trying to be comedy and more affecting when it eschews sentimentality. I’ve also generally disliked the River Song story arch partly because I find Alex Kingston grating but mostly because it brings out the two worst aspects of Moffat’s writing: convoluted plotting and women written as fantasies rather than characters. So my not being upset about this episode is actually a significant achievement.

Sure it wasn’t great. It mistook goofiness for hilarity, leaned too much on us finding River a compelling character and had too many cameos from overrated comedians. But it had enough energy and weirdness to carry me through. And I liked the scene where we saw the Doctor bring the restaurant into existence. For dramatic reasons, we usually see what happens when his efforts to manipulate time go wrong or at least only succeed in desperate situations. So it was good to see him living up to his billing as a ‘Time Lord’ and effortlessly play with the course of history to do something special for a loved one.

Of course, I may start to look back on this episode with genuine fondness if it proves to be River’s last.

Whatever my misgivings about these two episodes they were both good pieces of television, and suggest that we’ll have plenty to enjoy when the main series return next year.