Letters: The oil spill

US hypocrisy over oil spill

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The hypocrisy of the American public in general, and of the otherwise estimable President Obama in particular, in relation to BP's oil spill is breathtaking (report, 10 June).

Of course, they are right to be angry at the terrible damage being done to people's livelihoods and the environment, but this is hardly a drop in the ocean when compared to the impact of America's contribution to the pollution of the atmosphere by greenhouse gases. At least BP has offered fulsome apologies, is compensating those affected and is making strenuous efforts to prevent further damage.

Twenty Nobel laureates meeting at the St James's Palace Symposium on climate change last year concluded that "Political leaders cannot possibly ask for a more robust, evidence-based call for action".

But if the US is responding in an appropriate way to the now well-established impacts of its energy profligacy on climate change and, in consequence, on the world's poor, it is making a very good job of disguising the fact.

Dr David Golding

Newcastle University

Steve Robertson's analysis of deep-water oil exploration off Shetland (10 June) was more than a little complacent about the risks involved. His assurance that the operators have ingrained health and safety cultures and will work to the highest standards is somewhat at odds with the fact that they include BP and Transocean who together are alleged to have taken shortcuts that may have caused the current disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

With operating costs so high, there will always be a temptation to take such short-cuts and, if this should lead to another accident, the environment around the Shetland Isles and North Uist is just as vulnerable as the Gulf of Mexico. For example, a major spill at the "wrong" time could have a catastrophic impact on some of the most important sea-bird populations of the North Atlantic.

Jonathan Wallace

Newcastle upon Tyne

The oil spill's effects are already devastating for the environment; people are out of work and millions more in revenues will be lost in the tourist industry. And it appears that diplomatic relations with the US could become strained also.

Recently the first economic evaluation of the UK's offshore renewable resource was published by the Offshore Evaluation Group – an informal collaboration of government and industry organisations. Even using the most conservative estimate, we could become a net electricity exporter.

Bearing in mind the environmental and political costs that arise from the exploration and production of oil, which is a finite resource, does it not now make more sense – both for the planet and our own energy security – that we invest in a technology which could result in over a hundred thousand jobs; generate the equivalent of 1bn barrels of oil annually, while at the same time result in carbon dioxide reductions of 1.1bn tonnes?

Mark Murton

Wallington, Surrey

Much to love in the nanny state

A nanny state is good, especially when it comes to smoking around children (Jeremy Laurance, "Warning: the nanny state can seriously improve your health", 9 June). If you act to make people safer, you get accused of introducing the nanny state. If you let people make their own decisions, you get accused of neglect. You can't inflict smoking on your colleagues at work any more. Why should we treat our children's health as a lower priority than our employees?

So, the next thing the government needs to do is bring in a ban on smoking in cars to protect children. Second-hand smoke has been found to be strongly linked to chest infections, asthma and ear problems in children and sudden infant death syndrome, or cot death. We have been calling for this ban for a year now. The last government said that a new law had not been ruled out, so what is the new government going to do about it?

Professor Terence Stephenson

President, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health,

London WC1

Lecturers' pay and pensions

In your education leading article (10 June) you call on the University and College Union to "get real" over pensions and pay and imply that we are naive in seeking to speak out against the huge cuts facing higher education. Well here is a bit of sobering analysis for you. Educational underachievement costs this country's economy £18bn a year according to the Prince's Trust, and anyone who thinks this can be addressed by putting thousands of vital teaching and support staff on to the dole is living in a dream world.

Far from being irresponsible, UCU has been pushing for over two years for a national framework to help guide institutions on how to deal with difficult issues and to promote job security. This would not only be good for employees, it would be good for the sector, and yet employers refuse to engage in a sensible dialogue. Time and again, it has only been our intervention that has stopped them from making unnecessary compulsory redundancies.

You praise Professor Malcolm Grant for taking a 10 per cent pay cut – but vice-chancellors last year awarded themselves a whopping 13 per cent pay rise – hardly a sign of restraint. University employees took a real-terms pay cut last year and similar seems likely this year.

Your attack on UCU's stance over pensions is also completely unwarranted. It fails to acknowledge that UCU has gone to its members and argued that we should pay additional contributions to ensure the scheme's long-term viability. We have offered to share the costs if further increases are required and come up with sensible and pragmatic response to the evidence that has been presented. By way of contrast, the employers' radical proposals are uncalled for and are a recipe for unnecessary inter-generational conflict.

Sally Hunt

UCU general secretary London NW1

The duty of health journalists

Jeremy Laurance devotes a whole column to criticising me for daring to point out when health correspondents get things wrong (8 June). He says that health journalists cannot be expected to check claims about a medical research paper, by reading that research themselves, because they are too busy.

This is a manifesto for failure. People buy newspapers because they believe the articles are written by people who have checked their facts. Reading an academic paper doesn't take long, and it should be well within a health correspondent's abilities: doctors can sometimes read them, and we're neither clever nor known for our slack diaries.

The damage to the reputation of journalism from assertions like Laurance's are one thing, but health is special: people really do make health risk behaviour decisions based on what they read in the papers. They trust journalists, and in the arena of health, when that information is incorrect, it causes unnecessary suffering and loss of life.

I can't judge how bad it looks when a newspaper repeatedly attacks one critic of their profession in such personal terms, and with so many bizarre inaccuracies (documented at badscience.net). But lives are at stake from flat misinformation about health in the media, so if reasoned criticism really does make you this nervous, I'll keep going.

Ben Goldacre

London SW2

Uses for a fuel allowance

The wonderfully civic-minded pensioners Martin and Maggie Gebbett, who wrote (letters, 10 June) to ask George Osborne to provide a way of returning their £250 heating allowance, could cut out the middle man and direct the funds them-selves. This would both help the economy directly and avoid the risk of their £250 being spent on MPs' garden furniture. Choices include charity, investing, or utilising local businesses, perhaps those with apprentice programmes.

Richard Marr

London SW15

New disorders

Like Joan McTigue (letters, 10 June), I have become baffled by the new medical conditions such as oppositional defiant disorder. A new one seems to appear every week. With each new problem comes the development of new drugs, new professionals and new research and pots of money for all concerned. As an added bonus there can no longer exist poor parenting skills or bad diet, only a childhood disorder which is nobody's fault. Is there any wonder we are becoming more cynical? Or have we all developed Disbelief in New Disorders Syndrome?

Angela Elliott

Spilsby, Lincolnshire

Cornish homes

The taxation of financial gains on second homes in Cornwall at the highest possible tax rate is met with unreserved support in the Cornish community. We are fed up with wealthy people exploiting our housing stock and decimating our communities. If this is weakened, as Osborne hints at, the Cornish will not forgive their Lib-Dem representatives for squandering a once-in-a-generation opportunity to restore a balance to our communities.

Timothy James


King who?

John Walsh clearly has a willie fixation. This is evident not only from his article "Naughty by nature" (10 June), but from the fact that he refers to the first two (King) Georges as Williams! Or was this a Freudian slip?

Paula Saunders

St Albans, Hertfordshire

Perspectives on penalty shoot-outs

It's best to do it blindfolded

Whatever those Exeter university psychologists claim to have discovered ("The science of penalty taking revealed", 8 June) it most certainly wasn't the true secret of Elfmeterschiessen.

Avoiding eye contact with the shot-stopper is, at best, irrelevant and at worst a million miles from the simple truth. That this motor skill – like so many others, such as concert piano playing – relies solely on total mastery of technique.

What this means is that the competent penalty-taker doesn't even have to have sight of the goal, let alone any of the antics of a goalkeeper. The master of the 12-metre shot should be able do it blindfolded.

That was the view of Manchester United's legendary penalty king Charlie Mitten, as he forcefully insisted to me when I interviewed him for his biography, Bogota Bandit. For him, the penalty kick was never about nerves, lady luck or even brilliant goal-keeping.

As Mitten put it: "It should be a certainty, this kick; it's the easiest of the match. Yet come the penalties, the players say they can't do it – it's the big occasion. But if you can do it automatically, you don't need to think about it – you can do it blindfolded."

A film crew for German television asked Mitten to demonstrate his technique at Manchester City's old Maine Road ground when they interviewed me for the first, 1996 edition of my book. Two of City's promising teenage players scored blindfolded from the spot after just five minutes' coaching from Mitten. I wouldn't have believed it, if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes.

Mitten's explanation for players at the highest level failing from the spot was lack of purposeful technique. If true, this must be football's biggest open secret: that even the best, highest-paid football stars in the world don't actually know how to take a penalty kick – a skill that Charlie demonstrated to me in the kitchen of his flat with an orange on the day the Germans arrived to film.

Richard Adamson

University of Buckingham

Don't aim high

If only previous England football teams could have benefited from Roger Scowen's coaching wisdom (letter, 11 June) regarding penalty shoot-outs.

Just think what would have happened in 1990, for example. With more practice; kickers – along with the directions of their kicks – decided in advance by the manager; and careful pre-match analysis of Germany's goalkeeper, Chris Waddle surely would have booted the ball under, rather than over, the crossbar.

Sean Cordell


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