The Spectator

Letters | 11 August 2012

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Beware the drones

Anybody with a cursory knowledge of pop culture can tell you what happens when automatons develop the intelligence to make ‘kill decisions’. The consequences are not pretty. (If you need reminding, watch the Matrix, or Terminator.) But it seems our cleverest engineers — and the people in power who pay them — are either unfazed by such concerns or nerdily eager to turn fantasy into reality.

Perhaps, in fact, the trouble is that people are too quick to think of fighting robots as existing within the realm of science fiction. We are so familiar with the concept of machines turning on their human makers — the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov wearily called it the ‘Frankenstein complex’ — that we dismiss our fears about real-life, actual drones and kill-bots.

Mark Wardrop


Sir: Speaking as a paranoiac, I have to say that your cover article about drones hasn’t helped. Now when an insect appears at the window I shall always be wondering: is that a fly or a spy? Seems a bit unkind but I may decide to err on the side of caution and swat it regardless.

Thomas Glass


The curse of statistics

Sir: Martin Vander Weyer identifies the greatest curse of modern statistics: their universal use in support of almost every argument (‘GDP figures tell only part of the story’, 4 August 2012). In observing that ‘the more detailed and authoritative the forecast, the higher the chance it will turn out to be a load of old cobblers’, he restates what, in June 1961, Dr E.F. Schumacher so succinctly described as ‘spurious verisimilitude’. Over 50 years ago Fritz Schumacher identified (in a lecture entitled ‘A Machine to Foretell the Future?’) the problem thus: ‘Once you have a formula and an electronic computer, there is an awful temptation … to present a picture of the future which through its very precision and verisimilitude carries conviction.’ Present manifestations of this tendency are absolutely endless.

Richard Wood-Penn


Sir: I agree with Martin Vander Weyer that economic forecasts are disproved at an alarming rate. It is worth noting that error margins, which are essential to any scientific measurement or calculation, are never given alongside the predictions. You can’t help but wonder if this is because, when dealing with such small percentages, a significant proportion of figures would be rendered entirely useless.

Carola Binney


Romney’s roots

Sir: Charles Moore is right that Mitt Romney is a Mormon because of his English ancestor Miles Romney (Notes,

4 August), but he is a kinsman of the artist George Romney (1734-1802) as Miles Romney was the son of Thomas Romney, the uncle of George Romney.

Miles Romney was among the first to be baptised in England as a Mormon in 1837. In 1841 he sailed from Liverpool to New Orleans and then up the Mississippi river to Narvoo, a Mormon settlement in Illinois, and worked on the Mormon temple there. He joined the exodus to Salt Lake city in 1850 and was later responsible for building the Mormon temple in St George where he remained for the rest of his life. According to the local paper he left 11 children and 57 grandchildren. The Mormon records show he had 11 wives, all of whom came from Dalton in Furness, Cumbria. If Mitt Romney becomes President of the USA, there will no doubt be many members of his extended family seeking out his roots in Dalton in Furness and a renewed interest in the artist George Romney, who was also born there.

John Entwistle

Chairman, the Romney Society, Cumbria

Health benefits

Sir: As someone who has worked with GPs for a number of years, as a PCT chief pharmacist and head of primary care, I was delighted to read Matthew Parris’s article on GPs (28 July). He observed how few referrals to specialists were made, and the GP’s suggestions to some patients that referral was not needed.

This is one of the great strengths, both clinical and financial, of our NHS. In contrast to almost all systems of private medicine, a doctor has no financial incentive to refer to a specialist colleague. In both the USA and several european models, there is a massive amount of unnecessary, expensive and occasionally harmful testing and investigation carried out. This is largely why their systems are so much more expensive than ours, while failing to produce any greater health benefits. Let’s celebrate our GPs and their willingness to engage in watchful waiting rather than knee-jerk referral.

Dr Brian Curwain


Bad education

Sir: Charles Moore (Notes, 28 July) asks if sex education is a form of child abuse. My answer is yes. As a 12-year-old boy at prep school in the early 1990s, I was once made to stand before a large class of fellow pupils and hold up a long prosthetic phallus, while a sex ed lecturer — a big, bossy woman in her fifties — slowly rolled a condom down it. All the other boys laughed and laughed, but my experience was mortifying. It has haunted me into adulthood. I still blush at the memory.

Jonathan Purchase


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