Mark Riley vs. Tony Abbott:

John Shailer writes: Re. “How shit happened for Tony Abbott” (yesterday, item 2). Any fair-minded Australian should be appalled at Channel 7’s Labor-leaning journalist, Mark Riley, attempting to score cheap political points over a remark by Tony Abbott regarding the tragic death of  Lance Corporal Todd MacKinny, and bringing fresh grief to his widow and family.

The Defence Association spokesman supported Abbott and confirmed he was quoted out of context.  At the time the Australian Commander agreed with his remark, and Todd Mackinny’s widow has also supported him.

No one has been greater supporter of our troops than Tony, and this is simply gutter journalism at it’s very worst — Channel 7 should be ashamed of itself!  (As should the Herald in inciting the soldier’s father to vent his grief and anger against Tony Abbott)

NSW People’s Parliament:

Chris O’Mara writes: Re. “A People’s Parliament or a News Ltd experiment?” (yesterday, item 17). It may well be that News Limited are seen to be using the forthcoming State Election as an opportunity to push its self interest and sell more copies of the Tele. What I think News limited have done, very cleverly, is recognise the absolute disgust the voters of NSW have with the Labor government. News Limited have for some months very blatantly, usually on the front page, reflected what the public feel. Is this opportunism for News Limited or is this a local paper doing its job and voicing the concerns of the community?

There aren’t too many countries in the world where such freedom to express opinion exists. You only have to look to New Limited’s interests in Fiji for an example of what happens when you speak out against a government that imposes its own set of rules and isn’t answerable to the people.

One of the real issues we have in NSW is that the government has a 4 year term. We wouldn’t be in this mess if we have 3 year term for government. Four years is too long between elections for a government to become at best complacent and at worst corrupt.

The People’s Parliament is a good initiative and further reflects community feelings of wanting to send a real message to the current government and a warning to the incoming.

Australia’s carbon task:

Geoff Medley writes: Re. “Any way you look at it, our carbon task just got much harder” (yesterday, item 11). Yesterday’s article by Giles Parkinson, outlines the authors ideas on Australia’s response to human induced climate change.  Interesting indeed!

However if Julia Gillard wanted to show some real leadership on the issue she would come out and scrap any idea of a carbon emissions trading scheme in any disguise whatsoever.

She would declare that the status quo remains with Australia’s long term reliance on coal fired power generation assured until nuclear could take over.  And she would say to the world that Australia contributes three-fifths of five-eighths of not much as far as world emissions are concerned so the rest of the world can go jump.

Now that would show some real leadership!


Niall Clugston writes: Re. “Egypt: judicial reckoning looms for Musharraf” (yesterday, item 15). Charles Richardson misrepresents the recent history of Pakistan.

Firstly, Pervez Musharraf might have been involved in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, but it seems unlikely.  The fact is she courted the assassins, by not only making a public appearance (which Musharraf never did) but doing so by travelling slowly along a publicised route.  No security detail could have stopped a competent terrorist squad in those conditions.

Secondly, for all the armchair criticism, Pakistan’s forces have captured more high-level “al-Quaeda” operatives than the American-led forces in Afghanistan.  Rather than being “soft” in Richardson’s words, Musharraf was performing a delicate balancing act, trying to avoid pushing hardline Muslims into the terrorist camp.

Thirdly, Bhutto’s claims to power were as dynastic as “democratic”, and she was no more “secular” than Musharraf.

Fourthly, rather than being Bhutto’s natural enemy, there is no reason why Musharraf could not have been her ally.  After all, his only motive in launching his coup was to prevent his own sacking (and presumably imprisonment or exile).

Finally, America’s support to Musharraf wasn’t as a “bulwark against democracy”, but as merely a friendly government.  I doubt America would want to destabilise any Pakistani government that supports their war.

Cannabis & schizophrenia:

Michael R. James writes: Re. “Why pot really is making kids sick: the new scientific line” (yesterday, item 9). The article by Sophie Cousins was too emphatic in accepting the conclusion from the newly published study. Schizophrenia (SZ) is a terrible disease particularly as it afflicts adolescents and young adults but these strenuous attempts to place blame on a single environmental factor seems misguided.

Readers should understand that this paper has not generated new primary data but is instead a meta-study of previously published data. A meta-study attempts to extract analyses of greater statistical significance from as many published studies as can be found to meet specified eligibility criteria. Meta-studies are used when there is confusion or conflicting conclusions from individual studies, usually over a long period of time. They are often employed, or resorted to, when statistical power of individual studies is inadequate. Thus, by definition the hypotheses being tested are not easy to prove and the phenomena being examined are complex and poorly understood. Disease of mental health fit this bill to an extreme.

Clearly any attempt to increase power by pooling data from different studies is itself susceptible to problems, perhaps none more so than in mental health research. The meta-study must attempt to establish rules that pool appropriate data and exclude incompatible data. In this case, of 443 relevant published papers examined 354 of them were excluded from the meta-study. So 80% of papers were excluded for the various reasons given by Large et al. For example only those were retained that reported time of onset of psychosis rather than time of first treatment. These exclusions were an attempt to remove potential confounding issues that may have previously hidden significant associations. But excluding 80% of data raises the risk of ascertainment bias or publication bias, notwithstanding the authors’ statement “There was no statistical evidence of publication bias.” Statisticians try to take care of such nuisances but this scientist hardly ever believes their claims.

Personally I am not going to be persuaded by studies like this. There are too many other possibilities, for example an ascertainment bias caused by susceptible teens being over-represented in the drug user group (or starting earlier, or smoking more). There are contrary studies suggesting that cannabis use may actually ameliorate psychosocial effects in SZ.  I also find the effect described (cannabis use advances disease onset by 2.7 y) suspiciously high especially since it comes from all users, not, say, high users. The authors reported that heavy use caused a greater effect but was not statistically significantly separable from light users; there is almost the hint in the paper that single use may be enough!

More worrying is how enthusiastically politicians and some in the medical profession will grasp onto conclusions like this. Indeed, there is the money to perform these kinds of studies because cannabis is the third most commonly used addictive drug, not because it is the third most harm inducing drug. (That honour will lie with drugs like Prozac or Stilnox and other prescribed behaviour-modifying drugs our society is overdosing itself on.) Like the hysteria over ecstasy (on average one death per year compared to 12,000 alcohol-related deaths (2006 data, all ages) or log orders lower than youth alcohol consumption or dozens of other things kids use or do) the harm from cannabis is self-evidently not easy to find or we wouldn’t need to spend so much research money searching for it.

And as a Crikey commenter noted “about 20 people under 25 experience early onset of schizophrenia and have smoked marijuana at least once” are not compelling numbers. Total abstinence is not going to make much difference to SZ prevalence—maybe none if, as is likely, all such people will still suffer SZ a few years later — or have much public health impact at all really.

But even if we give the benefit of the doubt to such studies or the hypothesis, I doubt anyone seriously believes the “solution” is more draconian prohibition. And good luck on counseling kids on preventive measures for a disease which less than 1% of them will suffer. If anything these studies suggest that decriminalization and regulation of the product (THC levels etc) would be the way to go. But then commonsense never applies