Civilian Morale During the Second World War: Responses to Air Raids Re-examined

Abstract: The impact of air raids on civilian morale during the Second World War has been the subject of much dispute. Official histories concluded that the mental health of the nation may have improved, while panic was a rare phenomenon. Revisionist historians argued that psychiatric casualties were significantly higher than these accounts suggested because cases went unreported, while others were treated as organic disorders. Using contemporary assessments and medical literature, we sought to re-evaluate the psychological effect of bombing. There is little evidence to suggest that admissions for formal mental illness increased appreciably, although a question remains about the incidence of functional somatic disorders, such as non-ulcer dyspepsia and effort syndrome. The fact that civilians had little to gain from hospitalization in part explained why dire predictions of mass air-raid neurosis failed to materialize. In the event, civilians proved more resilient than planners had predicted, largely because they had underestimated their adaptability and resourcefulness, and because the lengthy conflict had involved so many in constructive participant roles.

Civilian Morale during World War Two: Responses to Air-Raids Re-Examined, (with Jones, E., Woolven, R. and Wessely S.), Social History of Medicine, Vol.17, No.3, pp.463-479, December 2004

A question of fear, not chemistry

‘Many of the concerns about chemicals can best be described as conclusions in search of data.’

On 24 September 2004, the Council of the European Union permanently banned a family of organic chemicals, known as phthalates, from use in toys and childcare items. This ‘political agreement’ finally brought to an end five years of debate about the toxicity of these compounds. During that time, the European Commission maintained a rolling series of temporary emergency bans, despite the scientific research evidence that consistently and increasingly opposed this official view.

Banning phthalates, a family of organic compounds used to soften PVC, appears unexceptional in its own terms. After concerns had been raised as to their possible toxicological impact upon infants, it perhaps seems reasonable to pursue a course of caution and further research. Phthalates’ removal from the marketplace is unlikely to generate much immediate economic pain, even for those companies that produced them.

But concerns about phthalates reflected a growing cautionary climate and helped pave the way for a new European chemicals regulation strategy – REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals). Now, thousands of chemicals that have been in regular use for over 20 years have to face a battery of toxicological tests, despite our having billions of hours of exposure data as to the consequences of their use.

Again, it may seem sensible to make such testing mandatory. It could surprise some people to find out that chemicals in use prior to 1981 are unlikely to have been subjected to toxicity and carcinogenicity tests. But the tests are unlikely to resolve matters.

The tests have been described as both unfeasible and unnecessary by the UK Medical Research Council Institute for Environment and Health. This is because – as with phthalates before them – the tests are to be performed on a precautionary basis. There is no evidence of any harm. Rather, it is our contemporary culture that demands constant reassurance at any cost that may be the most harmful. REACH will require vast resources, not least in terms of animal testing, but it will be unable to address all possible concerns, and it will drive consumer fears rather than assuaging them for a period in excess of 50 years.

It is important to understand these developments as shaped more by political context than scientific evidence. In the early 1990s, the European Commission and its scientific services went through major physical and cultural reorganisations in the aftermath of the BSE (‘mad cow disease’) debacle. A new cautionary outlook was adopted which effectively advocated pre-emptive strikes in situations of uncertainty. This ‘precautionary principle’ required the use of worst-case scenarios in scientific decision-making.

These developments both reflected and amplified broader trends in society. A proclivity to speculate about what might be, now dominates over examination of what actually is. Caution requires extrapolating from uncorroborated or anecdotal evidence – just in case. This has allowed rumour and myth to abound and increasingly to shape our lives. Hence the growing calls to regulate, not just chemicals, but all manner of other products and activities, both new and old, from conkers to vaccines.

But the real driver behind our growing insecurities has more to do with the political disconnection that now dominates contemporary life. As ordinary people no longer form part of active networks as they did in the past, so their tolerance and trust in all forms of authority, whether political, corporate or scientific, has waned. Subjective impressions of reality go unmoderated and grow into all-consuming worldviews not open to reasoned interrogation.

This process has been facilitated by the political, corporate and scientific elites who, lacking any vision or direction of their own, have willingly repackaged themselves as societal risk-managers. Sensing their growing isolation from those they depend upon for authority, leaders now offer to protect us from our fears. An alienated and fearful public is the flipside of an isolated and purposeless elite.

Accordingly, the specifics of any particular issue are only a small part of what shapes the debate. Campaigners’ complaints about minute traces of persistent chemicals found inside their bodies are driven more by their sense of alienation from the decision-making process than by any real grasp of chemistry. They extrapolate from experiments upon rodents, which not only have different metabolisms, but which are also subjected to huge doses of chemicals for protracted periods of time, precisely to see the worst that might happen.

Many of the concerns, such as those regarding so-called ‘endocrine disrupting chemicals’, can best be described as conclusions in search of data. Despite the Royal Society report that notes that such chemicals are just as likely to be beneficial, and despite the evidence that there are millions of times as many of such substances in our foods as in any chemical we are likely to be exposed to, the decision to assume the worst now drives policy.

It is the authorities themselves that are in the vanguard of driving the agenda. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) may act as catalysts, but it is the European Commission, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and even many chemical producing companies themselves who, desperate not to lose face in relation to what they assume to be public opinion, are prepared to push through the new cautionary policies.

Far from stabilising matters and reassuring the public such actions will drive public concerns and also shape a far more unstable regulatory environment. Rather than challenging the public with the evidence, the new elite, lacking any purpose of its own, is happy to appear to provide protection by pandering to social fears.

Our obsession with preventing the unthinkable lends itself to distracting us from more likely sources of risk, thereby diverting social resources from more plausible sources of threat at the same time as alarming people needlessly. But the drive to be seen to be taking precautions now determines all. It has allowed groups to pose as champions of consumer welfare, of animals, the environment or future generations, despite their being unelected and unable to represent the dumb, the inanimate or the unborn.

By raising problems at a time when these are in decline, and by positing widespread tests that are neither desirable nor achievable, the authorities make matters worse rather than better. And by adopting politically expedient, yet ultimately intellectually cowardly policies, they display their ultimate contempt for those that they claim to be fighting for.

First published on spiked, 16 November 2004

Hunters in the House

There’s little point securing institutions from the outside, if they have failed to win the loyalty of those on the inside.

The invasion of the chamber of the House of Commons by a handful of pro-hunt campaigners last week led to the usual debate about security at public buildings.

Much of the discussion focused on the anachronism of allowing ‘men in tights’, rather than the Metropolitan Police, to dictate security arrangements at parliament. The fact that in recent years the police have failed to stop Greenpeace activists from scaling Big Ben and a self-styled comedy terrorist from getting into Prince William’s birthday party at Windsor Castle seems to have been forgotten.

But there is something more interesting going on here than a typical security blunder. Whether or not the protesters who got in through the relatively obscure Speaker’s entrance were, as suspected, directly aided by somebody inside – an MP, a researcher or a contractor – they clearly benefited from insider knowledge about the layout of parliament.

There is little point securing institutions from the outside, with CCTV, concrete blocks or armed guards, if those institutions have failed to win the loyalty of those on the inside. Many of the individuals employed in the House in the past will have disagreed with decisions taken in the chamber; but they would also have had a sense that their own private political persuasions were not sufficient to trump the significance of a public institution.

Of course some would have had to sign a piece of paper declaring that they were not politically motivated (although for obvious reasons the same could not apply to MPs and their researchers). But there would have been a clear divide between private morality and public action, which no longer seems to apply today.

This became evident earlier this year when former Privy Council member Clare Short – who threatened to resign, then stayed, and was finally dismissed for her views on the legality of invading Iraq – chose to go public and break the Official Secrets Act in relation to the UK’s role in spying on UN officials. This suggested that, for some in public office, personal moral conscience can take precedence over issues of public security.

Short, like pro-hunt activists, could have made her views known in public and tried to win support for them. That is the political process. Her willingness to bypass such a process reflected her own intellectual incompetence, and her contempt for the public. She was not alone. Throughout 2002 and early 2003, many ‘secrets’ relating to the forthcoming invasion of Iraq were leaked from within the Pentagon. It was well known that senior military staff were not happy with the proposals coming from within the White House. But again, rather than trying to win the argument behind closed doors, they went to the media.

The images from inside Abu Ghraib prison were also leaked by elements within the US military, rather than having emerged as the result of investigative journalism or Iraqis protesting about their treatment by coalition forces. Across the developed world, key social institutions seem unable to hold the line on what they are for. They fail to win the hearts and minds even of those they employ. It is this internal uncertainty that can give rise to breaches of security.

Real security derives from the quiet confidence of knowing who you are, what you stand for and where you are heading. And that is a political question, about how to cohere a consensus around social aims and values.

A journalist remarked to me during a recent radio interview that it was hardly difficult to infiltrate the House of Commons considering how many of its functions have now been outsourced. Catering, building, even security and IT are regularly performed by contractors. It’s a wonder, he said, that they haven’t outsourced the MPs themselves.

Funny as it was, this example also reveals something fundamental about what is happening today. Nobody wants to take responsibility for anything – because they don’t really believe in it. And this process starts at the very highest level of society. For example, there are more mercenaries and private security contractors in Iraq than there are British troops.

If the establishment wants some real security then the least it could do is take responsibility for its actions, and try to win the support of those individuals it employs.

First published on spiked, 24 September 2004

Animal-Rights Terrorism and the Demise of Political Debate

Winning over the many may be difficult but remains essential for defeating the few.

This summer, the United Kingdom Home Office launched a crackdown on animal-rights protestors who intimidate or harass people associated directly, or indirectly, with experiments on animals. The move followed action against the construction of an £18 million biomedical research
facility at South Parks Road in Oxford.

This had led the main contractor, Walter Lily & Co Ltd, like the concrete suppliers RMC before them, to pull out of the project to replace and update the university’s animal-testing facilities.

Both companies are subsidiaries of Montpellier plc, whose executive cars had been damaged with paint. The parent company’s investors had also received spoof letters purporting to come from the senior management team, and advising them to withdraw their interests in the company or risk being identified on a website run by activists. Why anyone would think that a company would threaten its own shareholders is not evident, but this led to a 20 per cent drop in the share price as some investors bailed out.

Read the full article (pdf format)

First published in World Defence Systems Vol.7, No.2, Autumn 2004, pp.202-203

Review: Cellular Phones, Public Fears, and A Culture of Precaution

Risk analysis today falls broadly into two opposite, methodological camps. Those who appeal to scientific evidence to explain or critique what they consider to be exaggerated public fears, and those who focus on sociological data to highlight people’s perceptions and hence seek to justify a more precautionary outlook. While most recognize that risk contains both a material element and a perceptual element, there is rarely a meeting of ways in their methods of analysis.

This is where Adam Burgess’ contribution to the debate is to be warmly welcomed. Rather than falsely comparing the statistical risk of one activity with another, as many in the scientific camp are prone to doing, Burgess, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Bath has produced an explicitly sociological analysis. But rather than taking people’s perceptions at face value he seeks to explain how these perceptions came to be constructed in the first place, thereby, challenging these and critiquing precaution.

Read the full review (pdf)

Cellular Phones, Public Fears, and a Culture of Precaution, Risk Analysis,
Vol.24, No.4, August 2004, pp.1066-1068

Facing the possibility of bioterrorism

Abstract: The possibility of bioterrorism has been met by significant financial outlays to map out public health responses. These have included comprehensive audits of potential agents, as well as exploring mechanisms for counteracting their impact. Psychological intervention and communication have been identified as key areas requiring further work, as fear of infection could pose a greater strain on social resources than the pathogens themselves. Bioterrorism provides a powerful metaphor for e´ lite fears of social corrosion from within. Accordingly, a broader historical and cultural perspective is required to understand why individuals and societies feel so vulnerable to what remain largely speculative scenarios.

Facing the Possibility of Bio-Terrorism, Current Opinion in Biotechnology, Vol.15, No.3, pp.264-268, June 2004