I created this blog 10 years ago. I’ve been posting to it occasionally and regularly over that time. My blogging has been quite random, mainly covering the boundaries between science and pseudoscience, but it’s also been a place to post my photos.

The original name of the blog was “Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers”, shortened subsequently to “Sunny Spells”. A few years ago, I became aware that another blog of the same name had been created. This other blog has been quite successful. It talks bravely about the very important topic of depression, a topic indeed close to my own heart.

In order to avoid confusion between our blogs, and perhaps to give my blog a name more attuned to the things I write about, I have decided to move to a new site: passiveimpressions.com. Over the weekend, I will move all my content will there. Any hits to this blog will be automatically redirected there.

Stay tuned. If you are a follower of this blog, I hope to see you on the other side.

My thoughts on the Gardasil meeting in Ballincollig this evening. This is going to be a long post, sorry!
It was well attended, maybe 150 people there. A large audience in any case. 
The speakers were Jill, a lady who had cervical cancer some years back, Matt Hewitt, a consultant gynaecological oncologist in Cork, and Professor Margaret Stanley, emeritus professor of Ephithelial biology in the University of Cambridge. Jill talked about her own experience of cervical cancer. Dr Hewitt discussed the cancer itself, its treatment, its prognosis, and how current diagnostic techniques (e.g. smear tests) were inadequate. Professor Stanley talked about the vaccine, how it works and the evidence to date of its effectiveness and safety. The meeting was then opened for questions. Dr. Robert O’Connor, from the Irish Cancer Society, chaired the meeting.
The meeting was broadcasted on Facebook and a video of the meeting can be seen at this address. https://www.facebook.com/IrishCancerSociety/
I thought all the speakers did a very good job in presenting the case for the vaccine, although what the attraction was with Comic Sans font is, I will never know. Dr Hewitt was really matter of fact. Although he is often gratified by cases such as Jill’s, he has to tell one person each week that they will die due to cervical cancer. The prognosis after Stage III is really poor. He talked about how the smear test was not perfect and that, outside of the developed world, the infrastructure was simply not there to perform smear tests on women, so cervical cancer rates are still very high. A vaccination programme would address many of these issues.
Dr Stanley spoke about the vaccines and the science. She discussed the different strains of HPV, calling out HPV 16 and HPV 18 as the really bad ones. Over 80% of people will be infected by HPV at some time of their life, but only a small percentage of these will go on to develop lesions and cancer. HPV is not only responsible for cervical cancer, but also anal cancer, penile cancer, neck and throat cancers also, and of course, genital warts. She talked about how cervical cancer was particularly a problem for younger women under 35, as it is still difficult to detect and diagnose cancers in this age group. The current Gardasil vaccine hits four types of HPV, but trials are underway for a vaccine that addresses 9 types of the virus – addressing 90% of issues cause by the virus.
The vaccine is currently administered in 3 doses for people over 15, and in 2 doses for people under 15. Most girls in Ireland now get 2 doses. The variance in the doses is because children under exhibit much better immune responses than adults. Across the EU, Ireland is no different than other countries in the age at which young teens receive the vaccine. Results from Australia have been very encouraging, with big drops in cancers and warts. Now Australian boys are receiving the vaccine as part of the overall programme. To date 230 million doses have been given to 85 million people and the health outcomes continued to be monitored intensively by the various regulatory authorities around the world. 
There are 2 ways to monitor the outcomes – passively, by checking the self-reporting through individuals and doctors, and actively, by comparing vaccinated populations with unvaccinated populations, and checking if there is any overall difference between these groups. To date, regulatory authorities across the world are satisfied that the vaccines are safe. They will continue to review the data on an annual basis. Professor Stanley also mentioned that vaccines tend to have very specific side-effects, and the side effects being reported about Gardasil are not consistent with these. What is not at issue is that children do get sick during childhood and some illnesses are debilitating and long lasting. In some cases, children get sick after having had the vaccine, but the question is whether this is caused by the vaccine, or a co-incidence. Research, based on over 100,000 girls presenting to Emergency Rooms in America, then matched against when the girls received the vaccines, is that the vaccines are not causing the illnesses. 
One of the points made by Professor Stanley was that in all trials, all deaths are monitored for 5 years, whether they be from suicide, illness or car accidents. I think one woman in the audience thought that the vaccine was causing all these deaths. That was not at all what the Professor has said. Deaths occurred with equal likelihood whether people took the vaccine or not.
Q&A
One woman lamented Andrew Wakefield having being responsible for the re-emergence of measles. True, but somewhat off-topic.
Another woman was devastated that her daughter, who was very ill, had been given 3 doses of the vaccine instead of 2. Yes, this is called science. The vaccine schedule was changed when it was found that the girls did not need a third dose. She seemed to be of the belief that the 3rd dose was an overdose, which is a misunderstanding of how vaccines work. 
Then we had a shouter. This woman also has a very sick daughter and she started shouting about how the HSE does not show the information leaflet and shouting how if she had read the information leaflet she would not have allowed the vaccine to be administered. I could hear murmurs of agreement with her from the audience. “Let her speak, etc”. REGRET have made a connection between the information leaflet and the illnesses affecting their children, despite the face that information leaflets must show all reported side effects, whether or not there have been any studies to examine the linkages. She was shouting down the speakers and it took a short while to get further questions. 
Another woman asked about the Number Needed To Treat, suggesting that 250 to 300 vaccines needed to be administered to prevent just one extra HPV case. The number given by the doctors was 159. While this still seems like a very small number, it was pointed out that it’s higher for pre-cancers. In any case we should also remember that cervical cancer is not a common disease in the population, but nevertheless devastating to those people who do develop it. Paralytic Polio also had similar treatment numbers.
The next woman got very agitated about her boys getting the vaccine. To her, the vaccine seemed like an invitation for her 13 year old boys to have oral sex. Um… no.
Heather then spoke. Heather also had cancer. “If I thought I could have a vaccine, I would absolutely urge people to go for it”. Yay Heather. Big clap for her too. 
Jackie wanted to know if the Australian vaccine was the same as the one in Ireland. Yep.
Another woman asked about Gardasil 9 and whether it was available in Ireland. The answer is no, not yet. 
The final question was about bad reactions in animals. Dr O’Connor explained that the doses given to animals were often far greater than those given to humans and that there was no evidence of it being an issue. 
The Q&A then came to an end among more shouting, but also a very big clap for the speakers. REGRET did not have it all their way tonight, despite a clear attempt by Shouty Woman to hijack the meeting at one stage. Apparently there was far more disruption at the Galway meeting, bordering on a security incident.
I spoke briefly to Dr O’Connor and Professor Stanley afterwards. Very nice people. I didn’t see any of the REGRET people speaking to them, but they may have. Shouty Woman was holding court with some of her team towards the back of the room.

Imagine tending to a very sick patient who was about to die. Imagine having, on one hand, a doctor or nurse working with the patient to make their remaining time as comfortable as possible, and comforting the family in their grief. On the other hand, you have a preacher telling that patient that they must immediately convert over to Jesus before they passed away, unless they wanted to go to Hell. Who would you choose?

Or imagine going to university, taking geology or botany or zoology, and having two classes for each subject – one that presented the scientific view, and the other threatening students that they must deny evolution and accept an 8,000 year old Earth, in order to pass their final exams.

Not appropriate, right? But this is the problem we seem to be increasingly facing these days – one of ideology over expertise.

There was a debate on the radio a few days ago where there two worlds came clashing together in an interesting way. The subject was vaccinations. On the one hand, you had people arguing from scientific and medical perspective, while on the other hand, you had people with strongly anti-vaccination worldviews. (They prefer to call themselves “vaccine informed, but let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? In the end, it amounts to the same thing).

If you were a parent, concerned about nasties such as whooping cough, rubella, measles and the flu, whose advice should you listen to? Your doctor, who, has the training, clinical expertise and direct experience working in the community with patients? Or perhaps some random person with none of this experience who tells you to ignore or distrust the doctors, that they are all shills or dupes, that they have done all their research on the Internet and are therefore more knowledgeable?

This is the choice that people have. And it should be a no-brainer. In fact, for decades it has been a no-brainer. Most people wouldn’t even think about going for the ideologue over the trained expert.

But it seems this is not as much the case today. More people choosing the naturopath over their doctor, choosing detox over vaccines and choosing all sorts of fad diets so they can avoid cancer and live forever. In certain areas, ideology is starting to win over expertise.

Much of it is marketing. Ideologues are getting better at exploiting hopes and fears. There are certain messages they put across that have an emotional impact. Tell people Big Pharma is out to get them. Tell them they only care about profits and not health. Tell them that there are poisons and chemicals being injected into their children. Tell them there is another way, and that it’s being suppressed. Tell them about the brave lone pioneers who have been castigated for their views. These are powerful, emotive messages that can be applied to any situation. They do not need facts to support them, just half-truths, glimmers of hope and a large dollop of fear.

Experts are to be distrusted, according to the ideologues. Experts, particularly individual experts, can sometimes get things wrong, so the ideologues use that against them. Knowledge is often incomplete, as is the way with science, so ideologues will exploit the gaps in knowledge for their own purposes. Companies sometimes do unethical things, so ideologues will use this to portray them in the worst possible light.

But let’s not kid ourselves – when it comes to a fight between expertise and ideology, expertise wins. It has the facts on its side.  Just maybe not the marketing.

It strikes me that Hillary Clinton is going to have one of the easiest campaigns of any candidate for American President in modern history.

In normal times, elections often focus on policies and the decisions likely to be made should they rule the country. Serious politicians will have thought at length about unemployment and growing the economy. They will have detailed plans on social policy, helping the marginalised, crime, education, health, transport, environmental issues and defence. This is to convey the impression that they are ready for government, that they have new ideas and that their policies are better than the opposition. In serious elections with serious politicians, these issues will be teased apart from every angle imaginable. The politicians will get grilled on their grasp of the issues; they will be hammered for their mistakes. Attritional battles will be fought on many fronts, requiring super human energy from the candidates.

These, of course, are not normal times. Clinton’s policies are wholly subsidiary to the personality and sheer instability of her opponent. She could have a plan to introduce compulsory military service for twelve year olds, or to drill a hole through the centre of the earth, or to chocolate-bomb Djibouti, and no one would care. As long as it’s her in the Presidency and not the impetuous man-child who happens to be the only opposition candidate in town, how bad could it be?

So while he rants about walls and guns, political correctness and single mothers, while he insults military families and respected judges and while he threatens assassinations and insurrections, Hillary can sit back, knowing that she doesn’t need to defend her policies in any great detail.

And honestly, that’s a great pity. In the end it’s these policies that will have the greatest impact on the lives of ordinary Americans and the rest of the world. A credible opposition would at least be able to apply forensic scrutiny to her platform, giving us an insight into the type of Presidency she might have in store. We already know what kind of dystopian disaster a Trump administration might be, but with Hillary, well, we’re going to have to take her word for it.

A whole field of ragwort near the Two Mile Inn by Midleton / N25. Ragwort is classified as a noxious weed, capable of causing liver damage to any animal that eats it. Each plant produces 50,000 to 200,000 seeds, so this field will produce literally billions of seeds in the coming days and weeks. This is about as bad as I have ever seen.

For more information about ragwort:

http://www.ihwt.ie/site2/welfare-campaigns/welfare-information-tips/797-2/

http://www.independent.ie/business/farming/keep-your-land-free-from-fatal-ragwort-26647422.html

http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/time-to-weed-out-ragwort-and-japanese-knotweed-1.956953

http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1936/act/38/enacted/en/print

 

 

 

I’ve just finished reading a history of the Plantagenet kings. Even though I am fascinated by the late Middle Ages, it’s now apparent that I am woefully ignorant about the history of our islands during this time. This book by Dan Jones has given me a better understanding of the politics and personalities involved. These are remarkable stories of power, tyranny, conquest, betrayal and ignominious defeat. A constant theme throughout this period is the struggle by the nobility to exert control over volatile kings, starting with the Magna Carta and leading in due course to a whole body of laws and ordinances designed to place limits on authoritarian rule.

What strikes me most is that the greatest of these kings were often the nastiest. Henry II, Edward I and Edward III visited quite incredible levels of violence on their neighbours: the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish. It’s interesting to me why history calls them great, given the extraordinary amount of bloodshed and cruelty involved. Perhaps it’s because people see greatness in those rulers who go to great ends to protect their realms and defeat their enemies. England’s great nemesis was France, so to guarantee peace, the neighboring realms needed to be brought under military control using all means necessary. When people felt fearful and insecure, they didn’t want a ‘good king’. They wanted a tyrant.

To me, this is a lesson for the current times: given the right circumstances, great power is achievable, if you only sow fear. Make people frightened. Find an enemy and tell them how degenerate and evil they are. Paint a picture of woe and downfall lest the enemy win. Tell them they will soon win unless you are put in a position to protect them. Ergo Putin, Orban and Erdogan. Ergo Donald Trump. Tyrannical, hateful, dangerous, megalomaniacal- and wildly popular in their own countries. It’s not really because their supporters are ignorant or racist – though some surely are – it’s because they are fearful. The English Planagenet kings knew this, and so too do the presumptive dictators of today. The right circumstances – a widespread feeling of insecurity and gnawing despair – exists in Russia, Turkey, America and parts of Europe, and so these people are greeted with open arms.  We’re not so far from the people of the Middle Ages as we might think.

I’m just back from a wonderful week in Northern Ireland. I used to work there in the 1990s, but it’s over 20 years since I was last there.

I had my kids with me, so I wanted to share with them how remarkable a place it is, what life was like back then and to see how things have changed since.

Day 1: Belfast

Our first day involved a bus tour around Belfast. There are a ton of tour companies advertising trips around the city on a step-on, drop-off basis. There are a ton of things to see, from the new Titanic Quarter to Stormont, the West Belfast peace walls and the flashy new shopping area in the centre of the city.  Right beside the Titanic exhibition are the film studios where Game of Thrones is produced – that went down very well with my elder teens. Even though it’s such a long time since I lived there, I was surprised how familiar it all seemed. Once I got my bearings, I could relate so well to the place – that magnetic accent, the effortless humour, the dark mountains in the distance.

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Titanic Quarter

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Game of Thrones Studios

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Victoria Square

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Belfast City Hall

 

Day 2: Belfast and Donaghadee

After a trip to Stormont and a walk through Queen’s University, we drove out to Donaghadee, Co. Down. In the distance, you can see Scotland and the Isle of Man.

Given all the trouble in the world – in Nice, in Munich, in Turkey, and further afield in Syria and Afghanistan, this place seems one of the safest places to be. Years ago it was not like that, but I saw no appetite for a return to the bad old days.

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Carson Face Palm

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Queen’s University

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Statue in QUB

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Donaghadee

 

Day 3: North Antrim Coast

One of the most beautiful parts of the island, if not the whole world, is the north Antrim coast. In a small area you have Ballintoy Harbour, the Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge, the Dark Hedges, the Bushmills Distillery, Dunluce Castle and, of course, the Giant’s Causeway. This is Game of Thrones country for real: massive dark basalts covered the area 60 million years ago, creating a landscape utterly different to the rest of Ireland. I so much wanted to return back here again.

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Antrim Coast

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Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge

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Ballintoy

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Giant’s Causeway

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Dark Hedges

Day 4: Coney Island

On and on, over the hill and the craic is good
Heading towards Coney Island.

What a day Tuesday was! One of the hottest days of the year, hitting 30 degrees in some places in Ireland. We travelled south towards the Mourne district, stopping off briefly in Downpatrick then bathing in the cool waters around Coney Island, just by Ardglass. I can see what Van Morrison saw in this place.

And all the time going to Coney Island I’m thinking,
Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?

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Mourne Mountains

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Downpatrick

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Coney Island

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Mourne Mountains

Day 5: Derry and Malin Head

Travelling the Glenshane Pass between Belfast and Derry, you get this strange feeling of deja-vu. There are uncanny similarities between it and the road between Cork and Killarney, just by the county bounds.

Derry has a very different character to Belfast – this walled city, looking over the Bogside and the Inishowen peninsula. It is a crucible for many of the key events in Irish history – dating from the early middle ages to living memory – the civil rights marches and Bloody Sunday, 1972. I really like this city. Friendly to a fault and dripping with character.

From there we headed out to the walled hill fort of Grianán Aileach, then travelling north to the very northern tip of the island, Malin Head. Driving rain cut our journey short, but it was a trip worth taking.

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Derry – looking down to the Bogside

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Grianan Aileach

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Inishowen Peninsula

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Malin Head

 

It takes an extraordinary person to go after a global pseudoscience network and dismantle it, piece by piece. The network involved is the Genesis II cult, whose schtick has been to promise “miracle” cures to parents of autistic children. If they would only drink bleach, or have it forced up their rectums, their children would be cured of autism. These people have made their fortunes by selling industrial bleach to vulnerable parents. They couldn’t care less who got hurt in the process. Despite negative publicity and widespread condemnation, they seemed unstoppable. Business is business, right?

Then someone – a parent of autistic children – took them on. Working with concerned parents in other countries, she got the media to take note. By contacting the papers, independent journalists, TV stations, radio stations and networks, she brought the church’s tactics into the light. Documentaries were commissioned, special investigations produced, exposing Genesis II for who they were. At this time, the cult and their associates are in disarray. The light of publicity has not been kind to them. Some of the perpetrators are in prison, and more criminal convictions may soon follow.

The person who helped to make this happen is Fiona O’Leary. Fiona is an extraordinary person who I’m proud to know. Based in West Cork in Ireland, Fiona spends hours each day following up leads, talking to people around the world, reaching out to parents and victims – all the while getting the message out about the bleacher cult and their tactics. Fiona herself is on the autistic spectrum, which perhaps contributes to her tenacity. She is courageous to a fault; she has a strong sense of justice and she won’t easily give up.

Enter Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield is notorious in pseudoscience circles, having been responsible for perhaps the greatest health scare in recent memory. The story of Andrew Wakefield is as bad a tale of professional misconduct as it is possible to find. After the publication of a now discredited and retracted paper that associated the MMR vaccine with bowel and brain damage, a public health crisis emerged that resulted in old-diseases making an unwelcome return, with avoidable injury and needless deaths following in their wake. Wakefield’s medical license was revoked after he failed to disclose financial conflicts of interest and ethics violations.

Wakefield has been working hard to restore his disgraced reputation. His latest attempt is “Vaxxed“, a documentary that attempts to create a parallel history of what really happened, while scaring the bejesus out of parents. The Guardian noted how the documentary ignores contradictory evidence, while rehashing utterly discredited claims. The documentary film-maker Penny Lane commented “this film is not some sort of disinterested investigation into the ‘vaccines cause autism’ hoax; this film is directed by the person who perpetuated the hoax.” The Washington Post said it should come with a warning label: “May cause irrational anxiety, especially if taken with an empty head.” Variety Magazine called it a “scientifically dubious hodgepodge of free-floating paranoia, heart-rending imagery and anti-Big Pharma conspiracy mongering.” 

As far as I am aware, none of these highly reviewers received a threat of legal action from the producers of the movie. However, last week, Fiona O’Leary did. According to the legal notice sent to Fiona “We will ask for punitive damages and financial compensation for all losses to our business directly resulting from your actions.”

What utter cowards these people are. Fiona was within her rights to alert people to the vast problems inherent in the documentary – the facts left unsaid, the real story about what Wakefield had done, the treatment of his critics. “Vaxxed” is a piece of dangerous propaganda with a direct public health impact. By attempting to rekindle the mythical link between vaccines and autism, it puts needless guilt on parents of autistic children, implying – when there is no empirical evidence to back it up – that somehow they are responsible for what happened. If you were a parent and you knew the damage that such allegations could wreak, wouldn’t you be anxious to criticise them too? Clearly, Cinema Libre, like a classic bully, prefer to go for the small people first.

So, instead of accounting for the massive problems in their worthless and dangerous pseudo-documentary, Cinema Libre took a campaigner with a distinguished record of defending autistic parents and they threatened her with legal action. Honestly, I hope this move backfires on them utterly. They deserve every piece of bad publicity they get.

Further reading:

Makers of ‘Vaxxed’ Threaten Lawsuit Over Valid Criticism

Vaxxed distributor threatened Fiona O’Leary – they’re afraid of facts

Cinema Libre Studios and Andrew Wakefield’s Vaxxed team threaten autistic autism mom

http://www.harpocratesspeaks.com/2016/07/cinema-libre-bullies-critics.html

US film studio threatens to sue Cork autism-rights advocate

 

I’m not so worried about Donald Trump becoming the next president of the United States. 

Back in 2012, Barack Obama’s campaign was not in good shape. Obama had just presided over four of the toughest years in America since the Great Depression. Unemployment was high. Morale was low. Obama could not call on the magnificent rhetoric that brought him to victory in 2008. He had a record of tenure now, and the indications were not good.

The Republican Party, sensing blood, organised a well resourced campaign to throw him out of power. Their candidate, Mitt Romney, was a fair choice, as he had a better chance of appealing to swing state voters than anyone else on the ticket. The Republicans threw everything at Obama. They fueled their core voters. They tried every trick in the book to dissuade potential democrat voters from turning out. They sent millions on clever attack ads. It was a masterpiece of campaigning and it failed. Obama regained the presidency by a comfortable margin.

In the aftermath, it was clear what lost the Republicans the presidency: demographics. The Republican core vote, appealing to white, self-employed, evangelical, rural and libertarian voters, was no longer enough to win, compared to what was now a majority of minority groups. The Democrats, with their particular appeal to urban, multi-ethnic and well educated voters, had the numbers. Republican Party strategists sensed this. They talked about making their message more appealing to a wider cross section of American society. 

None of this happened. Instead, they got Trump.

Donald Trump is the most divisive candidate America has seen in the last 50 years. His only real achievement, since starting his campaign, has been to crystallize a large segment of the Republican base into a red-hot mother lode of fury. He has alienated, not just the target Democratic constituency, but many Republican and evangelical voters, to the point that many of them may well stay home on election day.

Meanwhile, the demographics continue their glacial shift away from the Republican worldview. Bad and all though the numbers were in 2012, it’s worse for them now. They have done nothing to reverse the decline, in fact the opposite is the case. Despite Hillary Clinton’s apparent weaknesses as the Democratic candidate, she has not alienated potential voters in quite the same way and she has given waverers little reason to vote Trump.

It’s hard to see it any other way: the Republican Party are going to lose on an epic scale this year. A Democratic House, Senate and Presidency? It’s on the cards.

So here’s the story: a few days ago, Cara Augustenborg wrote an article for the Irish Examiner about Glyphosphate, the active ingredient in the the herbicide Roundup.

http://www.irishexaminer.com/business/do-we-really-need-glyphosate-for-safe-secure-and-affordable-food-408302.html

This raised some red flags with me and I said so on Twitter. What followed was a strong back and forth among me and some friends, and people who supported the article.

Cara has written a blog article in response, but in it she doesn’t really address the criticisms we had, and mainly restates her original points.

http://www.caraaugustenborg.com/latest-news/a-round-up-on-monsanto

In her response, my suggestion that she went on a Gish Gallop is mentioned, alluding to a rhetorical style of proving one’s case through quantity of arguments rather than quality.

The thing is, I do care whether Roundup is rigid and dangerous. If the science weighs in that direction, I would be happy to see it being restricted and banned. I have absolutely no skin in this game as I really am not a farming or food expert, nor do I care either way about Monsanto.

The only thing I do know for a fact is that there is considerable debate in the scientific community about glyphosphate and it appears that the author is taking a position that is actually out of step with our current knowledge about the product. Minority views are fine within science, but they need a strong evidence base themselves in order to change minds on the matter.
The second thing that I noticed about the article was that it failed to give a hearing or acknowledgment to the scientific consensus. It’s a style thing, but it comes across as polemical and self serving. The entire article supports the view that glyphosphate is bad. It uses studies to support this, but there are more studies pointing in a different direction, and these are entirely ignored. It’s a style thing as it comes across as cherry picking, i.e., here’s my position, now here’s everything that supports my position, therefore my position is right. This is flawed logic. 
The last thing is that it doesn’t really address the food security question. If we remove it, what do we replace it with in order to ensure we can safely feed people? Honestly, if we get to a situation where we don’t need to spray crops to keep weeds and pests at bay, I would be very happy, so long as people have enough food. My understanding is that glyphospate is an important tool in the armoury. Let’s not replace it with something that’s worse for the environment, or something that puts global food supplies at risk.

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