The uses of science fiction

Science has been applied to the persecution of smokers; it could be better employed in curbing groups more worthy of intolerance.

By the most curious of coincidences an unnamed French psychiatrist unwittingly offers comfort to Lord Harris of High Cross, economist, dedicated pipe smoker, libertarian, chairman of pro-smoking organisation Forest, and all-round good egg.

In his foreword to a Forest publication, Smoking: The New Apartheid, which reveals how employers persecute smokers, even to the extent of ruling them out as suitable job applicants, Harris adds a few bêtes noires of his own to the Lord High Executioner’s list of “society offenders who never would be missed”.

“My own list,” he writes, “would include people who like garlic, eat on the Underground, exude BO, chew gum, munch popcorn – sometimes all more or less simultaneously. And then there’s teenagers who wear short mini-skirts and ageing playboys in jeans. I don’t like it. I seriously wish they wouldn’t do it. But should they – like smokers – risk losing their jobs?”

He knows his plea for tolerance will be ignored: partly because anti-smokers have the glint of zealotry in their eye, but also because they believe they have science on their side. Equal opportunity employers who boast their blindness to race, colour, disability, sexual orientation, and so on, have no qualms about discriminating against smokers because science has shown that “environmental tobacco smoke” harms others.

In truth, science has done no such thing. A dispassionate look at all the available evidence shows that the risks of passive smoking are illusory, if not downright fictitious. But in a society in which fewer and fewer people have studied science to any level the one-eyed mountebank is king. And so smokers are fair game.

Which brings us back to the unnamed Frenchman and Lord Harris’s little list, or rather my little list, which, when added to his, becomes quite large. I am irritated by people who cradle a telephone between the head and shoulder: it is a pose, an affectation, and usually quite unnecessary, but there’s nothing to be done about it. Or there wasn’t until the Frenchman damn near killed himself. After spending almost an hour on the phone with the receiver wedged between his ear and shoulder, he suffered temporary blindness, a pulsing ringing in his left ear and had difficulty speaking. A pointed bone in his skull had penetrated a carotid artery causing a minor stroke.

So with science on our side, there is nothing to stop us from banning the cradling of telephones in this way. People who persist in transgressing should first be made to do so outside in the rain, and later, if necessary, be declared unemployable. I know that passive cradling has yet to be discovered, but that’s easily arranged. The important point to grasp is that we are dealing here with a proven health hazard and on no account should anyone be permitted to take risks. That is the firm policy of this and previous administrations and is entirely in accord with Community law and the wishes of our European partners. Moreover, there is ample precedent for firm action, from the compulsory wearing of seat belts to the prohibition of beef on the bone.

And so to others in the list. It is not beyond the ingenuity of science to demonstrate that garlic, gum, and popcorn whether consumed jointly or severally are injurious to health; that tight jeans have deleterious effects on the wearer’s gonads; and that harmful eating and dressing are a danger on the Underground.

It would be a boon to mankind, too, were the World Health Organisation to produce studies showing that the wearing of sunglasses on the top of the head damages the brain. Excellent work in a similar field produces new evidence daily of the harm done by mobile phones to their users. Neurologists claim that radiation emissions from handsets may cause Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease. If ever there was a ban crying out for enactment, this is it.

Drinking lager from the bottleneck is plainly unhygienic as well as carrying the risk of choking, possibly at the hands of a crazed onlooker driven to despair by public displays of modish affectation.

Driving a car with an elbow stuck out of the window will surely, when subjected to close scientific scrutiny, be shown to cause inflammation of the tendon, heart disease, panic attacks, damage to the unborn child, and broken marriages. Anyone known to practise elbow abuse should therefore be considered unsuitable as an adoptive parent.

Surprisingly, the health risks involved in crooking a little finger while drinking a cup of tea have long been overlooked. Age-old suggestions that the practice could stunt growth and cause blindness, once dismissed as old wives’ tales, are now shown to be grounded in scientific fact (See Dr JM Wyscowski, Myopia in Undersized Dowagers, Potters Bar University Press,1997).

As I said at the outset, Lord Harris is a libertarian. He would not, I feel sure, want to see people with BO banned from the Underground, even if it could be shown (and science, if it puts its mind to it, can show anything it chooses to) that environmental BO can be treated only by counselling. Even so, those of us with little lists can but dream, though for how much longer heaven knows. Dreams can be harmful, you know.

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