Knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing

The government seems hell-bent on destroying arts education in this country.

During the recession of the early 1990s, schools had their funding from government funding amputated and a musical education became a sign of a middle-class upbringing. During this latest period of financial austerity, the arts have once again been summarily dismissed as superfluous in straitened times. Conductor of the Bedforshire Youth Orchestra, Michael Rose, says music services in his area, Central Bedfordshire, are set to have budgets and teaching staff cut to zero.

More broadly, the arts are facing annihilation at the hands of a government that can only comprehend social goods in narrowly economic terms. The professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, A C Grayling, has urged the arts and humanities to "put up a fight" against these cuts, or else face destruction. But the coalition seems hell-bent on reducing policy formulation to a cost/benefit analysis, with the axe it has taken to the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) being a case in point. Rick Rylance, chief executive of the AHRC, said that we need to stop viewing the arts as simply costs to society. Rylance told the Times:

On the cuts issue, it seems to me that the mind shift we have to go through is to stop thinking about these things (funding higher education) as costs and start thinking about them as investments, because we are not going to get growth and a healthier society unless we invest in these things.

How are the arts of value to society? Several studies by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have explored the effects of art and music education on young children's learning. These studies showed that music instruction can help build intellectual and emotional skills, facilitate children's learning and strengthen numeracy and literacy skills.

A forthcoming study produced by the neuroscientist Professor Nina Kraus concluded that schools that fail to give music a central role in their curriculum are making a mistake. Music "fundamentally shapes" brains, and can help combat the learning difficulties associated with dyslexia and autism.

The report concluded that that "long-term musical practice strengthens cognitive functions and that these functions benefit auditory skills. Musical training bolsters higher-level mechanisms that, when impaired, relate to language and literacy deficits. Thus, musical training may serve to lessen the impact of these deficits by strengthening the corticofugal system for hearing."

Not only does music aid brain development, but it also instils discipline. Many people complain that children today have short attention spans. Learning a musical instrument helps them to learn to concentrate over long periods of time. Playing in orchestras encourages team work, which is deemed by most employers to be an essential quality. Learning a musical instrument gives children a sense of achievement. Acquired self-worth could have knock-on effects in other aspects of a child's life.

The government must re-evaluate the value that it places on the arts, for we are at grave risk of losing them. Sir Thomas Carlyle's critique of utilitarian man seems particularly apt:

Mechanism smothers him worse than any Nightmare did; till the Soul is nigh choked out of him, and only a kind of Digestive, Mechanic life remains. In Earth and in Heaven he can see nothing but Mechanism; has fear for nothing else, hope in nothing else: the world would indeed grind him to pieces; but cannot he fathom the Doctrine of Motives, and cunningly compute these, and mechanize them to grind the other way?

"In Earth and in Heaven he can see nothing but Mechanism..." Britain is at risk of becoming a society that only values that which can be crudely accumulated. Must this be an inevitable consequence of the financial crisis?

 

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.