Friday, 26 March 2010

Friday Links

Election compact on mental health: take action

Four mental health organisations have, together with the All Party Parliamentary Group on Mental Health, released an Election Compact (PDF) on mental health.

It's supported by the leaders of all three major parties in the Commons and can apply to prospective candidates and their campaigners and supporters at all levels of government. Despite this, none of the three parties seem to have (so far) said anything centrally about it, so it appears that they're all leaving the decision as to whether to sign up to the compact to individual candidates.

I'm therefore sending the following letter, or a slight variation, to each of the local candidates (so far, Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and UKIP).

Dear [candidate],

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mental Health, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and the charities "Rethink", "Mind" and "Stand to Reason" have recently released an "Election compact on mental health". The full text is available as a PDF at

This compact is an undertaking to not stigmatise, slur or discriminate against anyone with a mental health problem, to challenge negative attitudes towards mental health, and to represent the interests of all your constituents regardless of their mental health. It is supported by the leaders of all three major political parties, and is open to candidates at all levels as well as their campaigners supporters to sign up to.

Will you, as the [party] candidate in [constituency] for the coming general election, be signing up to this compact and requiring your campaign team to follow it also? If so, will you make a public announcement of this? If you will not be signing up to the compact, why not?

Yours sincerely,


If I get any replies I'll mention them in the comments. I'll also, obviously, be carefully watching election publicity to see if the parties follow the compact or not, regardless of whether they formally sign up.

I encourage you, if you're in the UK, to write to your own candidates - ask in comments if you need help finding out who they are or how to contact them - to ask them to sign up too, if they haven't already.

Rethink also have a petition related to this to ask the next government to take action outside the campaign too (UK residents only).

Those of you outside the UK - is there anything similar available in your elections? If so, do many candidates sign up to it, and do they stick to it if so?

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Tuesday, 23 March 2010

In 1950, crisp packets contained no crisps

According to the BBC, some researchers have analysed the size of the plates in depictions of the Last Supper between 1000AD and either the 1700s or 1900AD (the article gives both as dates for the most recent painting analysed).

This research is not, as might be expected, found in an interesting journal of art history, but in the International Journal of Obesity. I don't have access to the full text of the research, so I can't tell how good it is. However, the news article is not hopeful.

The Guardian article gives slightly more details, including the source they used to find the paintings (which are mostly Western European and Russian in origin, judging by the Amazon's index).

So, flaws in at least the reporting, and possibly the research too:

Firstly, the differences in style between eras of European painting are ignored. Pre-renaissance painting was largely symbolic, for instance, and the pursuit of a "realistic" style has varied considerably over the centuries. The Last Supper, as one of the major events of Christianity, has a lot of associated symbolism. That starts to make comparisons based on a simple head:plate ratio less valid (though not as invalid as they would be from a larger selection).

Neither of the researchers is an art historian by speciality (Reuters describes what they do specialise in), but without the full text I can't tell if they asked someone who was or not.

Secondly, the use of plates may have changed over that time. Was every plate depicted a plate of comparable function? Without the source material and a better knowledge of the technology I can't tell. There is a risk, though, of comparing side plates to main plates. Similarly, changes in numbers of courses may have had an effect - if the number of courses being eaten increases, the average plate size for a course will probably decrease, and vice versa.

Thirdly, the reporting seems to be linking this to "portion sizes are getting bigger so there's an obesity crisis!!!". Since the phrase "super-sized" appears in all three news articles, despite them otherwise being very different in wording, I'm guessing this was introduced either by the press release or by Brian Wansink.

The major problem with this is that the range 1000AD to 1900AD was not characterised by any sort of obesity crisis whatsoever. It was characterised by major famines, general malnutrition, and other problems related to lack of food (especially for people outside the nobility, and especially towards the start of the period).

As farming and storage technology improved, and as European nations invaded large parts of the rest of the world to bring increased prosperity at their expense, it probably is true that over those 900 years the amount of food available to Europeans generally increased. This may have had a general effect on the size of plates and the amount of food on them in artwork - that's entirely plausible.

The conclusion, however, that some people seem to be drawing, is entirely unfounded. From the BBC article:

Charlene Shoneye, an obesity dietician for the charity Weight Concern, said: "I'm really not surprised by these findings because the size of our plates and food portions has increased.

"Twenty years ago, for example, most crisps used to come in packs that were 20g. Now they are 30g, 50g or even 60g, and we are still eating the whole pack.

"This super-sizing has changed our perception of normal."

But she said it was not too late to reverse the trend and that individuals, society and the food industry should look to smaller portions.

So, this person is not surprised at a general increasing trend between 1000AD and 1900AD because of a separate trend between 1990AD and 2010AD1? This is fairly typical of some of the "science" behind the "obesity epidemic", but not being able to tell the difference between a trend based on the slow eradication of malnutrition and a trend based on marketing decisions is not a good sign.

Widespread malnutrition probably would stop most people from being above the government-mandated weights, but it's not a great policy idea. The whole "obesity epidemic" panic, though, seems to be predicated on a "wasn't everyone healthier when they were borderline-malnourished" idea - with "so let's put them on diets to induce this state" the obvious conclusion.

It's a conclusion that can only be drawn when you have the privilege not to be able to personally or culturally2 remember widespread and unavoidable malnutrition.

1 Further on the crisps point - yes, the packs do vary in size (you can even get 100g and 150g packs of some brands), but the cost varies with the size. A 50g bag of crisps is more expensive than a 30g bag of crisps. The 30g bag of crisps is probably more expensive (after correcting for general crisp-related inflation) than the 20g bags were.

2 There are people, and groups of people, of course, even within the Western European and Northern American countries currently worrying about the "obesity epidemic", who don't have enough food. Society and privilege make them sufficiently invisible to many "obesity researchers", though.

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Monday, 22 March 2010

Season's Greetings

The first daffodil of spring is finally flowering in our garden...
(photographic evidence)
...though it looks like there might be another long wait before the second.

In the UK, "Season's Greetings" is often used as an apparently non-religious statement around Christmas time. It perhaps provides an alternative for those culturally-Christian atheists and agnostics who don't actually want their card to explicitly mention Christmas, but of course the default of "Christian" (cultural rather than theological) ends up reinforced because you can only get "Season's Greetings" cards for winter. And only the start of it, around the Christian and secular celebrations of Christmas and the nearby secular celebrations of Gregorian New Year.

So, Season's Greetings, those of you who are also experiencing a temperate climate's northern hemisphere Spring.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Strange graph

As the General Election approaches, the parties are increasing the amount of not-quite-election-publicity sent out, to get as much as possible out before the campaign expenditure limits begin. So that explains the second leaflet this week from the local Lib Dems.

As is traditional for the Lib Dems in a close second place, it includes a bar graph encouraging voters not to vote for the third party (in this case, the Conservatives). They may be strongly in favour of PR but that doesn't (and shouldn't) stop them pointing out the obvious tactical votes under first-past-the-post.

As is also sadly traditional for UK politicians, and something that nationally the Lib Dems are especially infamous for, the bar graph has no respect for scale, and overestimates their share of the vote compared with a linear axis.

PartyVote (%)1Height of bar (mm)Ratio (mm/%)
Liberal Democrat401142.85

1 At the last general election

In an unusual break from tradition, however, they actually overstate the Conservative share more than their own. Using an average 2.74 mm/%, the Conservative bar should only be 24mm tall - so it's almost double the size it "should" be.

The net effect is that the gap between the Labour and Lib Dem votes is only 9mm, which would only make up 2 of the 9 percent of the Conservative vote. What I'm wondering is why? Surely for a "Conservatives can't win here" approach they'd want to make the size of that bar as small as possible.

I can think of four semi-plausible explanations:

  • Shrinking the bar to its "real" size would have made it difficult to actually fit the label into the bar. There's not a lot of spare space now, and it would look a bit unusual at the smaller font size required.
  • They want to overstate the level of Conservative support so that the remaining Con-LD swing voters who haven't already swung to the Lib Dems (and indeed Conservative core voters) feel that there's a bigger chance of them getting rid of Labour if they vote tactically.
  • They're aware of the usual "dodgy graph" criticism the Lib Dems get, and want to have at least reasonable doubt for a "it's not supposed to be to scale" argument.
  • They're all genuinely unaware of the concept of linear scale in the local Lib Dem office.

On the bright side, none of the last three Lib Dem leaflets I received repeats the ageism I complained about, so that's an improvement.

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Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Quotas in Parliament

The upper house of India's Parliament has recently passed legislation reserving a third of the seats in the national Parliament and state legislatures for women. Which seats were reserved would vary between elections - they intend to keep a strict constituency link. It's excellent news, and should very quickly raise them from joint 127th (I count placings differently to the IPU) to at worst 16th and possibly into the top 10 in the proportion of women in Parliament rankings.

One of the issues raised in Shakesville comments on the news is the possibility that the places will go disproportionately to higher caste women. A similar complaint - that the places go disproportionately to white middle-class university-educated women - has been raised around the all-women shortlists used by Labour in the UK.

The obvious solution to this (as Melissa suggests) is just to add some extra quotas, but this gives some tricky problems with most electoral systems. They aren't (mostly) insurmountable, though, if you're willing to make sufficiently large adjustments to do so.

Single-member seat electoral systems

Multi-dimensional quotas reallly require multi-member seats. Otherwise, in a sufficiently diverse society (but one in which the default people have enough over-representation to make quotas useful or necessary), the total quotas may add up to more than 100%.

If the quotas are being applied in the Indian model - all candidates for seats A to H must be female, all candidates for seats I to K must be disabled, etc. - then if the quotas add up to more than 100% (or even close to 100%, if you want to leave a few seats open for default people to possibly get), then you (as the chief electoral administrator) have to do one of two things:

  • Decide that one or more of the quotas is less necessary than the others, and drop it entirely or reduce its size until everything fits, and hope that the people elected in the reserved seats are sufficiently diverse that the originally wanted quotas are met anyway.
  • Assign more specific intersectional quotas - this seat must be filled by a disabled woman, this seat by an LGBTQIA working-class person - controlling the overlap but in a potentially contentious way.

Another option, and one that is used in several countries, is to require that parties' candidate lists meet the quotas, but not place restrictions on where these stand. If you have a problem with discrimination among the electorate, as opposed to discrimination in the selection process, this is likely to end up with the set of elected candidates (as opposed to the set of all candidates) being less diverse than the quotas required.

A third option, as used successfully in Rwanda, is to create non-constituency seats for specific groups. This runs the risk of the constituency seats being far less diverse than they would otherwise have been (though in Rwanda, this does not appear to be the case), but also requires either expanding the constituencies significantly, or expanding the total size of the legislature. Rwanda's Parliament, with the reserved non-constituency seats, is still a very manageable 80 seats total. Adding sufficient extra seats to make a difference to the UK Parliament would mean increasing its size by a few hundred MPs or significantly increasing the constituency sizes.

Multi-member seat electoral systems

Multi-member seat electoral systems are generally better anyway, because they can be proportional to the political views of the electorate, allowing smaller parties more influence, and requiring the governing party or coalition to have the support of at least half the population. There have also been suggestions made that they directly improve representation and diversity, by giving electoral incentives to field a relatively diverse group of candidates to appeal to the broadest possible part of the electorate (rather than needing merely to get a bigger minority than anyone else).

While many electoral systems can be adjusted to use multiple seats, only two that I know of are actually proportional: list systems and Single Transferable Vote.

In these systems, it is easier to apply quotas, as rather than reserving specific seats, it's possible to state that X% of all those elected (rather than all those standing) must be (e.g.) women.

The usual way in which quotas are applied is that the election count proceeds normally until the point (which may never come, depending how the votes are cast) where it would be the case that electing another man (for instance) would make it impossible to elect another woman. At that point you declare that all the remaining men failed to make quota, and carry on the count with whoever is left (transferring votes as necessary in STV).

Where this goes wrong is with overlapping quotas. You can end up in a situation where you technically meet all the quotas, but go significantly against the spirit of them1. Imagine a situation where at least 10% of those elected have to be LGBT people, at least 10% BAME people, and at least 10% disabled people. It's quite possible, applying quotas in the usual way, to have the first 90% elected be non-disabled white heterosexual people, with the remaining 10% having to simultaneously be LGBT, BAME and disabled. As more quotas are added - especially if you break down the quotas into finer detail, the situation can arise where the final places have to be filled by people who weren't standing in the first place despite there being enough diversity in the candidates to theoretically meet those quotas easily.

In STV, this problem is especially severe, because the manipulations to meet quota can skew the original proportionality of the system. Parties can take advantage of this to get more seats for themselves by promoting their default candidates more heavily (because they'll be elected early or not at all) and if there are "suggested preferences" as some STV-using countries have, putting their default candidates further up. It's even possible, especially in a close election, for the order in which the quota effects are triggered to make a difference to who gets elected.

This, of course, as well as breaking proportionality, makes the intersectionality problem above even more likely, and even if it doesn't hardly encourages the parties to promote their candidates.

In practice, therefore, a list system must be used if multiple quotas are needed. I'm not as keen on list systems compared with STV, because they do disadvantage independent candidates significantly, as well as making it impossible to register a lack of support for a particularly bad candidate while still supporting their colleagues in the same party, but as a long-term temporary measure while society is equalised enough not to need the quotas and we can switch to STV, it's not a bad system - and at any rate, is significantly better than most of the electoral systems currently in use in the UK.

A list system with quotas

In a list system, parties put forward lists of candidates, and then are allocated seats in proportion to their number of votes. Exactly how the proportion is determined varies. The method used in UK elections to the European Parliament (except in Northern Ireland which uses STV) is D'Hondt. The first person on each list is given a value of "total votes for that list". The second person on each list is given half that, the third a third of that, and so on. The candidates with the highest values are then elected.

Fictional election.
PartyVotes for listHalfThirdQuarter
Liberal Democrat5100265017001325

Candidates in this election would be elected in the order: Con-1, Lab-1, Con-2, LD-1, Lab-2, Con-3, Lab-3, Con-4, LD-2. List systems need a good number of seats for proportionality to work best - if only three seats were available, the Lib Dems would be a few hundred votes short of their first seat.

In a "closed list" system, the parties decide what order their lists are in. In an "open list" system, candidates are voted for as individuals by the electorate, and their order on the list depends on the number of individual votes they get, and the list gets their combined votes. "Open list" is far more democratic, which is why the UK uses "closed list". For the purpose of applying quotas, it doesn't matter, though - one way or another, we get an ordered list at the end with the top candidate on each party list being the most preferred (either by the party or the electorate), and each list having a number of votes for it that will determine how many candidates in total it gets.

  • Start by excluding from consideration entirely all candidates on a list that didn't get enough votes to have even one candidate elected.
  • Then continue by picking the smallest quota. Go down the candidate list in order of election until someone who meets that quota is found. Declare them elected. This may involve going past the normally elected candidates - if it was an eight seat election on the above figures, but the first candidate to meet this quota was Lab-4, they would be elected, and one of Lab-1 to Lab-3 (probably Lab-3, at this stage) will miss out.
  • Keep going until this quota is filled, and then pick the next smallest quota. Hopefully some of the already elected candidates will have partly filled this already. If at any stage sufficient candidates have been elected from a party to meet its entitlement, exclude the remaining candidates. So, if meeting the quotas so far required electing Lab-1, Lab-3 and Lab-4, then Lab-2 cannot be elected even if they'd meet a future quota.
  • Your final quota is "100% of elected candidates must be candidates", which neatly fills the remaining spaces from the highest people on the candidate list.

Two things can go wrong with that simple method and need dealing with:

  • The quotas applied add up to over 100%, and the people initially elected weren't diverse enough to fill them so the current quota is unmeetable. This is far less likely if the smallest quotas are started with, but could still happen. In this case, I think the fairest thing to do is to find the first unelected person who meets at least two quotas (including from parties which are already at their limit), promote them up their party list to the lowest possible position which would have resulted in them being elected earlier, and restart the count.
    With particularly overlapping quotas, you might need to move up to "at least three quotas". Applying this enough will do one of two things: it will either give you the filled quotas with the most preferred candidates possible to do so, or it will show that it is not possible to meet these quotas at all. In the latter case, treat it as the situation below.
  • There are insufficient candidates standing in the parties that got at least one candidate to meet a particular quota. If any independent candidates remain who should be elected but haven't been yet, elect them anyway.2. The remaining places on the party list are vacant pending an appointment by the party of someone who fits the quotas needed for that place.
    This essentially pretends that the party had put that person on their list at the bottom (or with no individual votes) all along, and hopefully encourages them to do this in the first place next time.

Because we're using a list system, the party proportionality is preserved (though the people elected from each party may not be those originally preferred by the party or electorate). This is much less of a problem than the political skew that STV could introduce.

Quotas, categorisation, and the inevitable mess

One of the problems with quotas that a properly-designed electoral system can't solve is the categorisation problem. People do not generally come in neat categories; marginalised and unprivileged people especially often do not fit the kyriarchy-approved boxes.

Policing of identity is a problem. The seats reserved for trans* people, for instance - are they reserved for anyone who identifies as trans*, or only for those who've jumped through the relevant government-approved medically-certified hoops first? It should be the first, but it'll probably end up being the second, because the rules are set by the existing legislature, who are probably all cis and almost all lacking in clue. Similarly, are all trans women going to be eligible to be elected in the "women" quota? They should be, but it probably won't end up like that in the legislation.

Missing out a quota entirely is another problem. If, for example, disability is missed out as a quota, then disabled people count as "default" for the quota system, which potentially gives them greater difficulty being elected than they would if there were no quotas. (The quota system does this for genuinely default people as well of course, the point of having one being to negate their existing advantage). This can also apply to sub-quotas. A quota based on gender is a good idea, but no actual national implementations so far explicitly reserve spaces for non-binary people.

These problems are not a reason not to use multi-dimensional quotas3, but they are a reason to make sure that the quota definitions are set with full and representative input from the people they're trying to serve. How this is done when by definition if you need the quotas your legislature has too many default people is a tricky practical problem: the legislature doesn't know what "representative" looks like well enough to assemble the group of people that could tell it. Hopefully it can get close enough to approach a solution incrementally, such that at least some people are elected who can fix the problems with the previous definitions and quotas enough to get a properly representative legislature.


1 Probably less likely is that everyone elected under the quotas differs from the default in exactly one way, and intersectionality is mostly ignored. It's unlikely to be quite that extreme, though, with a reasonably large constituency size. It may also not be a problem in practice - the ratio of "female BAME Labour MPs":"female Labour MPs" is similar to the ratio of "BAME Labour MPs":"Labour MPs". It's not a very representative ratio in either case, but the partial use of all-women shortlists at least doesn't seem to have made BAME representation in Parliament worse.

2 Variant: elect the independent candidates at the start of the count since you'll have to elect them anyway, and so potentially make meeting the quotas easier.

3 These problems also potentially apply to single-dimensional quotas - the "missing quota" problem was the start of this post - but managing them becomes far harder as the quota space fills, especially if it exceeds 100%.

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Monday, 8 March 2010

Sceptical Intersections

This guest post at Liberal Conspiracy, is in many ways an excellent example of the "Sexism in the atheist community" described by Amy Clare.

It describes the "Skeptical Voter" project, which is asking MPs the following questions:

  1. Do you support the use of public funds to provide unproven alternative "treatments" such as homeopathy?
  2. Should schools be allowed to teach creationism as an equivalent theory to evolution?
  3. Do you believe that religious belief should be legally protected from ridicule?
  4. Should an independent government adviser whose views in their area of expertise conflict with government policy be able to express those views publicly without fear of being sacked?
  5. Should Sharia law be allowed as an alternative system within UK law?
  6. Do you agree that testing on animals (within strict criteria) is a necessary part of the development of medicines?
  7. Should policy-makers trust scientific evidence even when it appears counter-intuitive?
  8. Do you think that abortion time limits should always be determined by the current scientific and medical consensus?
  9. Should religious leaders be entitled to vote in the House of Lords?
  10. Do you support the reform of English and Welsh libel law to allow a stronger 'public interest' defence?

Presumably the answers an MP totally in line with their views would give are "Yes" to 4, 6, 7, 8 and 10, and "No" to the others.

Here we have the example, because some of these questions could quite easily be given an answer other than the expected one by someone who was nevertheless in favour of science-based policy and a secular society. There seems both to be an anti-religious attitude (rather than a secular one) and (at best) a lack of understanding of privilege.

Question 3 is not completely clear, because of the way this question is sometimes tied to similar questions about sexuality, and might end up tied to similar questions about other axes of oppression should the Public Order Act be extended further. An MP might reasonably conclude that such a provision was a compromise worth making in exchange for similar provisions on gender, appearance, sexuality, disability, and so on. If removing the "avoidance of doubt" clause in 29J was the price to remove the far more problematic one in 29JA, it might well be worth paying.

Question 5 is extremely worrying. The group seems (from comments at the LC post) to be in favour of banning faith-based arbitration. I really don't see what it has to do with them if two people mutually agree to arbitration under particular terms, even if those terms are religious. Furthermore, while the group seems to be in favour of banning faith-based arbitration generally, the question and most of their efforts are towards Sharia-based tribunals rather than the longer standing (but less subject to recent tabloid panic) Beth Din.

Even without the discriminatory notes of singling out a particular religion's method of arbitration, the whole question seems more anti-religion than secular. With the focus on Sharia specifically, it seems to tie in to the general Islamaphobic racism present in the UK today.

Question 8 is another extremely worrying one. The recent debate on the time limits for abortion provision (England, Wales and Scotland only, with two doctors approving) was mostly framed around how likely it was that premature babies born after X weeks gestation would survive, with '24 weeks' being "reasonable chance" with current technology, and '20 weeks' being "extremely unlikely indeed" with current technology (but claimed to be "also a reasonable chance" by many of those pushing for a lower limit).

While it's true that those in favour of reducing the limit were misrepresenting the science, I don't think an answer of "Yes" to this question is a particularly pro-choice stance either, because it accepts a very dangerous - and inevitably losing - frame for the argument. At some point medical science will probably advance to the stage where the "uterine replicators" of science fiction are possible. Their existence will not be a good reason to ban abortion. Closer to the present, when medical science does advance to the point where a baby born after only 20 weeks gestation does have a reasonable chance of survival, this won't be a reason that abortion of an unwanted fetus shouldn't be allowed to 24 weeks (though, it will probably be used as one).

Viability of premature babies provides another (slightly fuzzy) dividing line to go along with conception and birth, and being currently somewhere in the middle, it's an obvious one to use for many people (including myself, before I actually thought about it a bit more). That doesn't mean it's the right line to use.

Question 9 is not as clear as they seem to think, either. Yes, the appearance in the House of Lords of the Anglican bishops is a historical anomaly and not a desirable one (but then, the appearance of people in the House of Lords whose sole qualification for membership is that their great grandfather was there too is also an undesirable anomaly).

However, several proposals for reforming the House of Lords involve making a chamber of representatives from various sectors of society. It wouldn't be unreasonable in that case to have a few representatives from the major UK religions (and of course in that case there should be some form of representation for atheists and agnostics too). Religion is a major part of many people's lives, and some representation for it in government seems fair (especially for those of religions other than Christianity, who in the UK at least are subject to more discrimination than atheists)

Any other problems I've missed?

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Friday, 5 March 2010

Friday Links