Thursday, September 27, 2012

Use Your Loaf: Poor Quality Discussion Over Bike Helmet Legislation

Today during my drive home, I heard Professor Chris Rissel of the University of Sydney's School of Public Health giving an interview on ABC Radio. 

Professor Rissel said that he had been conducting research into whether legislation that requires cyclists in Australia to wear helmets is beneficial to public health. He said that there is evidence to suggest that the reduction in fatalities and brain damage achieved by the legislation is outweighed by its contribution to other health issues relating to obesity, through the decline in the rate of bicycle usage in the Australian population.
Yesterday, according to The Drum he cited statistics indicating that the number had of bicycles had grown only 21 percent between 1986 and 2006; a period in which the Australian population grew by 58 percent. In his radio interview today, he said there were many studies internationally citing Australia as an example of "what not to do to encourage cycling." 

The interview was followed by another interview with a Professor of Medicine, who was asked to give a detailed description of the kinds of brain injuries that can take place during bicycle crashes. This he did, in rather graphic detail.

Many radio listeners called after that and gave descriptions of injuries they had sustained themselves and stories of how bicycle helmets had saved their lives. The only slight interruption to this narrative of 'helmet as savior' and 'bare headed rider as irresponsible' was a single caller who described how he survived a bare headed bicycle crash into the back of a car and was told afterwards by a surgeon that had he been wearing a helmet he would have certainly been either dead or paralysed, based on some form of wedge effect that may or may not be applicable to other such cases.

There was no discussion of the public bicycle stations around Melbourne, the possible nature of a relationship between the helmet requirement and rates of usage, the actual rates of bicycle related head trauma and other conditions or changes therein since the introduction of helmet legislation. 

Now my aim here isn't to argue either way. All I would like to point out is that the outcome of the discussion occurred, whether right or wrong, had far more to do with the rules of newsworthiness than it did with any actual understanding of the research that had been conducted. How so? I shall endeavor to explain. 

Imagine for a moment that Professor Rissel's interview had been followed by an interview with a heart surgeon and the journalist (in this case it w as Libbi Gorr, but let us not blame her for the nature of her occupation) had asked him to describe, in graphic detail, the effects of various heart conditions upon a person't well being and the gradual process of one's internal organs being overwhelmed and choked with fat until they are no longer able to function and we die. Imagine then, if a number of people suffering from obesity were to have called and given testament to the debilitating effects of their condition and their constant fear of death through heart failure or diabetes. After all, as a report later in the evening pointed out, one in four Australians are obese and those are two of the most common health risks to the population, with numbers vastly greater than the incidence of those particular cycling related head injuries that could have been survived through the use of a helmet. Would that have left listeners feeling rather differently about it all? Might the percentage of listeners who spent this evening thinking 'well, perhaps professor Rissel may have had a point' have been somewhat larger?

Maybe, maybe not. After all, people do have other means of forming views on such matters. What is very clear is that we are far, far less likely to hear the kind of radio broadcast I just described than we are to hear shows that run something like Libbi Gorr's effort. Slow and gradual processes cannot compete for news worthiness with the immediacy and impact (if you'll excuse the unfortunate pun) of a head hitting a hard surface. Complex social relationships with multiple causes have no chance against the obvious causality of a simple, blow by blow description of a physical event. A disease is relatively shrouded in mystery when compared to physical trauma. This means that inevitably public sentiment must be distorted. It means that a first hand description of an evocative but statistically inferior (perhaps statistically inferior: Professor Rissel didn't get a chance to tell us whether or not he was able to identify a statistical correlation between helmet legislation and obesity) can influence what we think more than the presumably careful and meticulous work of a researcher over several years. Professor Rissel has been looking into the matter at least since 2010 which is the date given on his public profile for 'Safer cycling: A partnership project to better understand cycling patterns, hazards and incidents' and probably for longer. Though it is right that journalists should question what he is saying and compare it to other sources, the treatment that actually eventuated in this case, and in many such cases where the complex seeks to be heard amid the chorus of simplicity that dominates mainstream media (even the ABC) was dismissive and misleading. 

Prof. Rissel's profile on the University website can be viewed here:

A relevant ABC article can be viewed here:

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Saturday, September 08, 2012

VC and PM Have Heartwarming Public Talk about Education

  "He said that Victoria needed the “best higher education, secondary and vocational education we can offer”"  (See linked article)

This is very true. So why are our state government refusing to honor their election promise to make Victorian school teachers the highest paid in Australia? Why are universities still facing financial pressure and reducing staff numbers? All this rhetoric is heartwarming, but there  seems to be somewhat of a gap between the rhetoric and the reality of the situation. Getting the federal government on side is a great start, but they need help (rather than hindrance) at a state level and university governance also needs to be improved.

Universities need to invest more in pure research. It's always easier to get funding for applied research, but most of that relies on pure research that has been done before. We need social theorists in this country too. At the moment there really aren't any. There are many scholars who do social research, but the theory theories they study come predominantly from Europe, the UK and the US. Politicians can easily see the link between developing certain skills in graduates and the economic benefits they provide in the workforce. They can also see the benefit of applied research because it leads relatively directly to new industrial processes and practices. It is far harder to demonstrate that the original concepts being applied are a finite resource and that replenishing that resource also requires investment, as does the building of the expertise for doing so, which has been all but lost.