Risky media sensationalizations and my African death risk

13th February 2010

What do risky media sensationalizations and my African death risk have in common? They are the remaining mental imprints of the two lectures I have attended so far in the Darwin Risk series at the University of Cambridge. In the first lecture titled, “Trying to quantify our uncertainty” by Professor David Spiegelhalter, I learnt a wonderfully horrid word – “micromorts” – meaning a unit of risk measuring a one in a million probability of death. In the second on Science and the Media, Dr Ben Goldacre gave a very captivating presentation on how health risk reporting can be sensationalized in the media.  As always I try to relate this to Malawi, where I am from. Read more at My BMJ Blog

An old lady called Elizabeth

Last night I met a traditional old lady called Elizabeth. She spoke in proper clipped Queen’s English – each word carefully measured and pronounced, with pauses in the right places, no wasteful useful of language, and sentences punctuated with phrases like grand, lovely, and dear.

Her heritage spoke of generations of Cambridge scholars. I can imagine her as a small girl in India when her father was in the military service or a young lady in Nigeria teaching economics, or a middle aged woman in Zambia when it was still Rhodesia extolling the virtues of trade links, or in Eastern Asia prophesising the growth of the tiger economies. She choose a scholar’s life – teaching, researching and writing about economics, never marrying but instead adventuring out to native colonial lands. I pictured her family home in Cambridge a large Victorian styled manor with a sweeping staircase, a music room with a grand piano, family portraits and large antique oil paintings of gentlemen fox hunting, precious figurines and dollies on all the furniture, stacks of battered books in fine oak book shelves and dusty papers stacked high in the study. I also pictured an old woman sitting quietly by a dusty window, drinking her Earl grey tea, and eating her cucumber sandwiches, while petting Archibald, her cat. Alone with her memories.

Dinner with Jack

I vied for his attention, fought hard for intelligent things to say to impress him but at the end of day Dr. Jack Mapanje, is typical of a favourite Uncle. Continuing where he left off from a last visit long ago although it was our first meeting, with a warmth and passion that draws people near, filled with mirth and cheer, stories to make you laugh and tales to make you cry, and a curiosity that will even cause you to soberly reflect.  I know I ate but I can not recall any tastes. I spent my evening with all my senses engaged in his story telling, enraptured by his narratives. Early that evening he had read colourful poems some political – Beasts of Nalunga, some humourous – Civilization, some amusing stories – Justine Copps. I admit poetry is not my passion although I won three years running the verse speaking competition in high school but that probably had more to do with my ability to memorise the lines and speak clearly and confidently in front of an audience.

At dinner we talked about complex issues like the state of Kenyan politics and the mundane annoying things like the voice of the GPS navigator. The evening sadly went by too quickly, I was left with so much more I wanted to ask.

Cambridge: cycle city

Cambridge is UK’s cycle capital, it has the most bicycles in the whole of the UK outstripping York and Oxford. A Cambridge City Council report shows that in March 2008 over a12 hour period 20,000 cyclists crossed the River Cam which represents 18% of traffic flow and in the last ten years pedal cycle use has had the most increase compared to cars and buses.  Surely there must be more bikes than people in Cambridge. It is a wonder that people can still be seen walking but maybe those walking have their bike parked not too far away.

SDC10222Big, small, cheap, expensive, all colours, sizes, sizes, sport or mountain, for child or adult  – there is one for everyone! They even have specially designed bikes like trailer bikes or tag-alongs for towing children, tandems which are bikes with two seats and two sets pedals so that two people can ride the bike, or trailers at the front or rear end of the bike for seating little children or dogs. Fat people, skinny people,  old people, young people, women in skirts and high heeled  shoes, men in suits and ties, parents taking their children to school, all whiz around the narrow streets of Cambridge. They ride like they own the road, not afraid of motorists, who are extra cautious.  They hurriedly race past surprised pedestrians on the pavement, often not indicating and oblivious to the highway code. They scramble for “parking space” carelessly parking their bikes on street lights and on historical buildings.

Cycling in Cambridge has its advantages – traffic is a nightmare and the public transport system is mediocre but cycling is prohibited in some areas in the city and even more important concerns are the  safety of the rider and security of the bike.  A report by the Transport Research Laboratory speculates 150,000 cycling accidents occur in the UK every year but there is no cause for worry as this figure is an approximation which includes both minor and major injuries.  A proper analysis by the Department of Transport has revealed that although the number of cyclists have increased in the UK, there has been a decline in the number of fatalities with one death for every 30 million kilometres travelled as of 2005.

Security on the other hand is a much bigger issue for riders. In 2005/6 it was estimated that in the UK, 439,000 bicycles were stolen. In Cambridge city, police reports show an average of 200 bikes are stolen every month, with some months like October, when students start the new academic year, having more thefts.

Back at home to be seen riding a bike to work or school or in town would be laughable. Bikes are either for children or for the daring men who carry live goats or stacks of charcoal piled precariously who ride along the busy motorways intersecting the towns of Malawi, courageously vying for space with mad minibus drivers. Bikes are not for students, professionals, or the educated. I had a bike not too long ago which I gave away,  not because I was ashamed to ride it, it was just that my less than developed muscles could not manage to ride up the slopes of hilly Blantyre. But wouldn’t it be faster for the students at Chancellor College to hop onto a bike to get into Zomba town or would not the bank manager get healthy by riding his bike to the golf game or would not it be cheaper for a teacher to ride rather than take public transport? Maybe if we cast a sexier, cooler image of riding in Malawi maybe more people would ride.

The arrival

London welcomed me with surprisingly mild temperatures and a sunny blue sky. I placed my head on the coach window and felt the warmth of the sun’s rays. I would have enjoyed basking in the sunshine if it had not been for the coach’s air conditioner freezing the interior of the bus.

over the river

A view over Mathematical Bridge, Cambridge

Wolfson College, my home for the next few months, unfortunately my first impressions were taken over by the less than organized welcome I received in the absence of an information packet. The packet is a lifeline that insures your existence at Wolfson College – use of phone, connection to the internet, meals, laundry, how to get around, without it you are walking blind and hungry after a 24 hour trip.

A fire drill this morning got the residents awake at 7am. I applaud anyone who can sleep through the blaring siren. It did not wake me up as I had already been up for a few hours. My body is till stuck on Perth time which is seven hours ahead.

An extremely charming porter, David, came to my rescue on Monday, paid for my breakfast, assured me that everything would be under control and renewed my confidence in Wolfson College. At breakfast I looked around me and felt here I am sitting in a room with some of the greatest minds in the world. I only hope their brilliance can rub onto me.