Alcohol abuse, the imperfect subjunctive and a sense of history
One of the advantages of giving up alcohol for Lent is that is gives you carte blanche to sound off about the government's fixation with the demon drink, without feeling that you are being merely self-serving.This weekend has seen a torrent of such stuff.
In one paper today was an article about how GPs were going to be paid extra (that is to say, in government euphemism, "incentivised") to talk to us all about our consumption any time we went to visit them, and about how alcohol (limitation of consumption thereof) was to become a regular topic in any general health check-up. "The evidence suggests that this actually works" said one leading medic.
I have several reactions to this, and all of them negative ones. I know perfectly well what the safe limits are said to be (though I have never heard a clear explanation about why these ARE designated safe limits, rather than a few units more or less); I know whether or not I am exceeding them; and I know exactly what to do if I want to cut down. The last thing I want is to fetch up in the surgery with an ingrowing toe-nail and to get the alcohol speech, simply because you -- Dear Doctor -- are getting an extra tenner if you can tick the box saying that you have delivered it. In fact, knowing that you have been incentivised in that way erodes my trust in you and your judgement. And it makes me far less likely to show up in the surgery for any kind of regular health check up.
I have a nightmare fantasy of how this approach might look, in my neck of the woods, if we thought that quite a lot of students were having trouble with the imperfect subjunctive. We could "incentivise" us all, and give us an extra fiver (we're rather cheaper to bribe, I imagine than very well-paid GPs) each time we dwelt on the imperfect subjunctive for at least five minutes in a supervision.
I am sure (as the leading medic claimed for the alcohol approach) that this would "work", in the limited sense that there would probably be a better knowledge of the imperfect subjunctive on display in the language papers in Tripos. But what of all those students who actually wanted to discuss Thucydides' view of the Peloponnesian War, or really needed to refresh the gerundive instead? And what of all those who might have needed some help with the imperfect subjunctive, but whose trust in our teaching was destroyed because they thought we were only covering the damn thing because of that extra fiver?
Sounds silly maybe. But that's exactly what I feel about this medical proposal. I want my GP to talk to ME, not to go through his lucrative tick box routine. (The fact is that if he doesn't know that I know exactly what the current advice is on the alc, he's far less smart than I thought.)
But there was something else curious on this subject this weekend -- a chart in the Independent on Saturday, plotting the consumption of alcohol in the UK since 1900 (in terms of pure alcohol consumed per head per year). What is clearly showed was that consumption was now lower than in 1900, and that it was World War 1, followed by World War 2, that cut it .... and that it has been creeping up ever since (but is not yet back at the pre WW 1 level).
I couldn't get the link to work, but I found what was probably the source of the graph in a Report of the Academy of Medical Sciences, entitled "Calling Time" (you should be able to get to a pdf from here -- it's Fig 1; there's another version as Fig 4.3 here). It shows that people were then drinking more than 11 litres of 100% alcohol per annum, and we're still at under 10.
Now just because people drank more in 1900 of course doesnt mean that we shouldn't try to cut down. But I would like to have a bit of historical analysis on this, and not just be constantly given the extreme impression that we are at record levels. I would like to know about the health impacts of early 20th century boozing. Did we just not notice them because the poor guys got mown down in the war anyway or by the flu epidemic? Or what? And what's the effect of changing patterns of consumption... less beer and more wine? Does that make a difference?
To put it another way, when will the government ever learn that if you treat the nation like idiots, they'll see through you and not listen.. even when it might be a good idea!