Archives for category: opinions

Over the last few weeks, I have been listening to Neil MacGregor’s terrific “Living with the Gods” BBC podcast. It has helped me to reconsider some of my views on religion and belief.

The podcast is wonderful, in that it brings you on an audio journey to places and peoples across the world. You name it, it’s there – from the dank caves of southern Germany, to the sacrificial pyramids of Aztec Mexico, to the great Kumbh Mela festival in India. Newgrange is mentioned, as is the Angelus that booms out on Irish radio each day. It considers the symbolism in religion, the common rituals, the public displays and private moments, and the relationship of religion to the exercise of power. It takes all these disparate elements and synthesizes them into a concrete, powerful narrative.

What I hear from all this is that religion is core to who we are. In all religions, our own nature is echoed back. It is a mirror, reflecting our greatest fears, our greatest needs and our hopes for the future. If you bypass the specific details of any one religion, you find the same needs there. These great longings are familiar to so many of us.

Religion doesn’t even need gods or supernatural agencies. We’ve seen in the last century the damaging power of secular belief systems gone awry. It seems that people will reach out for anything that gives them a sense of security, purpose and answers. God is just one alternative among many.

Such a pity it is that the details become so important. People will kill and die over the minutiae of their own faiths. Wars have started over trivial differences, people executed and tortured for not adhering to the orthodoxy of the day. Even today, so many people take delight in disparaging other people’s religions (and I’ve been one of them) to the point that demagogues can exact discriminatory laws and great injustices can take place with nary a whisper. Behind the details, we forget that at the core of much belief is something entirely understandable: something quintessentially human.

Such a pity that more people don’t reach out to understand religious practices elsewhere around the world, because the impression to be formed is that no matter where we are or who we are, there is a commonality that runs through us all. Having no religion or being inquisitive within one’s own religion, may be advantageous in this regard.

Thought is given in the podcast to life without religion. This is possibly the least satisfying part of the series, as it suggests that it’s unsustainable in the long run. At the end of the series, MacGregor makes the bold statement that we run the risk of society breaking up completely – this is something I would have wanted to understand more. Personally, I see many people making a good fist of living without gods or the traditional rituals of yesteryear. I don’t see how humanistic societies can’t operate for the success and happiness of their peoples: the record of countries like Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands is a case in point. Even Ireland is a happier place now that we have allowed God to fade into the background. Perhaps such states of affairs are unsustainable and perhaps communities are in peril, but at least a counter argument can be made in a world where we don’t now have to rely on revelation and traditional authority alone for matters of truth and belief.

Please give the podcast a go and let me know what you think.

I have a small problem with the idea of ‘stories’ and data when it comes to data visualisation. To me, a story is a construct – a neat beginning, middle and end that enables us humans to relay information to each other. The power of stories in human communication is extraordinary. They inspire, they motivate, they change lives. But narratives have a flaw. They don’t need to be right. They don’t need to be accurate or true. The only requirement is to be packaged in a way that makes the audience sit up and listen. This is the reason why TED talks have been so successful, yet so criticised. They are brilliant as a means of conveying information to the audience, but in creating the story behind the presentation, so much may be left out. The audience legitimately might ask ‘that seems almost too perfect. What are they not telling us?’.

Such it is with presenting data. Data is messy. It’s often wrong or inaccurate. It may be tied to a particular question, which is different to the question you are trying to ask. It may show answers that are unintuitive and inconvenient. Data is at war with narrative, or more precisely, it doesn’t care about narrative.

So when presenting your data, be sensitive to the clash between the story you would like to show and what the data is saying (or not saying). As a rule, when presenting data honestly, you should start with everything. Give your audience a chance to see the bigger picture in all its glory and chaos before you dive into the detail. Allow them to ask questions, and work at creating a consensus. Where you see something interesting, gain agreement with them that they can see it too. Be alert to questions from them that might lead to new investigations and new interpretations.

Your job as a data presenter is to show signals in noise, not to eliminate the noise completely. By eliminating the inherent messiness of data for the supposed benefit of the audience, you might just insult their intelligence instead. You also step down a path of deception – careful editing of information – so uncomfortable questions need not be asked. 

That’s the problem with stories and data. Balancing the clean and packaged with the messy and inconvenient. To tell data stories properly you should be prepared to take people on a journey whose end is undecided, whose conclusions are tentative at best. Give your audience a chance to find their own meanings and be sensitive for differing interpretations.

On a walk today with my teenage kids, I found myself talking at length about science and astronomy: meteor impacts, dinosaurs, evolution, genetics, putting humans in space, the prospect of alien life. I was on a roll. This is the kind of stuff I have been interested in since I was a kid. The whizz-bang story of how we got here and where we are going. Like a great opera, the story of our universe stretches across spacial dimensions and time scales that are literally incomprehensible to the human mind. This is the stuff of dreams, of awakening, of wonder.

It got me thinking: as an occasional sceptical communicator, am I doing it wrong? Are we, as skeptics, sometimes doing it wrong?

Important though scepticism is, there is an unavoidable negativity about it. We are in the business of bursting balloons, raining on parades and exposing emperor’s clothes, when the science and evidence tell a different story. We are the debunkers, the critics, the nay-sayers. We play the bad cop, leaving ourselves open to anger, ridicule, smears and legal threats. We lose friends and find ourselves isolated, simply because we dare challenge an orthodoxy that is based on nothing more than wishful thinking. Conflict is inevitable, because many people have built reputations and fortunes on magical thinking and delusions. 

I greatly value scepticism, but I didn’t arrive at scepticism from day one. First came the wonder; the amazement that came with science and discovery. Astronomy was my passion, and remains so to this day. The scepticism appeared later, when I started to appreciate the importance of science, how it was being misrepresented and how easy it is for us to be fooled by empty rhetoric and soothing words. Scepticism is incredibly important, but without a sense of wonder it can be a very difficult message to convey.

Maybe as a sceptic, I need to spend more time talking about the things that got me into science in the first place, and less time, at least up front, pointing out the flaws in other people’s thinking. Persuasion is rarely accomplished by enemies or rivals. It’s easier to accomplish when you are a friend. So much science is accessible and uncontroversial, that this should be the main ingredient of science-based conversations. Give people a chance to feel your passion; to sense your humanity. Then you have a much better chance to open their minds to other ideas and help reconsider their beliefs.

The most powerful science communicators talk about their passions first and foremost. They are successful communicators because people have a sense of affection for them. Their thoughts on scepticism come later, often only when trust is long established. 

There is a lesson here for me: to talk more forthrightly about my passions, to give the listeners a chance to get to know me and to allow respect to flow both ways. It’s easy, it’s fun and there is a better chance that they will take on board the important messages we need to convey.

Is it because liberalism is feminine?
 
Is that what it is?
 
Not enough red meat? Not enough guns and bar room brawls? Not enough “telling people like it is”? Not enough Page 3, dog whistles and giving them one?
 
Too much namby pamby “talking”? Too much pussy talk about looking out for other people? Too much acceptance of difference? Of sharing feelings? Of giving people a chance in life? Of praising facts and expert views? Of a fucking education?
 
Is that what it’s all about?
 
Is it?

This election has been the most amazing one in my lifetime. From day one, the Trump campaign has been extraordinary, with regular candidates tossed aside like bowling pegs, one after the other. I do not yet know the outcome of today’s election, but I’m hoping fervently that Hillary makes it across the finish line today – finally stopping this runaway dumpster truck from seizing the highest office in America.

Normally, the dissection of a political battle involves picking through what the winning candidate did right and what the losing candidate did wrong. Should Clinton win, the story should be about how she fought an effective media battle, how she decisively won the debates, how she courted celebrities and rock stars, fought a well-financed ground war and made effective use of analytics. It should be about the long succession of Trump scandals, fiascos and unforced errors, from the Khans to Pussygate, to his atrocious debate performances; his alienation of Latinos, African Americans, women and Muslims; his unedifying spats with his fellow Republican politicians. In ordinary times, you could write a story of these last few months in terms of what was done right by Hillary and wrong by Trump. But these are not ordinary times. The real story of this campaign is how, despite all the errors and disasters, Trump remained in contention and how seemingly smaller setbacks and mistakes sent Clinton’s campaign into a nosedive. Trump survived a video laying his misogyny bare for all to see. He survived a leak which suggested that he paid no tax for decades.  He survived, despite being called out on lie, after lie, after lie. Any one of these should have been enough to put paid to his political aspirations. And yet, when Clinton suffered a bout of pneumonia, or called his supporters ‘deplorable’, or had the FBI resurrect the email investigation, she quickly found herself on the back foot, fighting a desperate battle to maintain her lead.

The story of this election was how, among a large number of supporters, Trump was treated like a demigod, while Clinton was treated with extreme scepticism, bordering on disgust. Trump effectively used hatred, anger and his charisma to marshall powerful forces in his favour, sending out a clear signal that America is extremely vulnerable to demagoguery. How the country recovers from this frightening state of affairs will be a whole other story.

Voters in most countries elect politicians to work in the national interest. This means taking strategic decisions that advance the cause of that country, whether that be economically, politically, culturally, scientifically, you name it. Politicians, and particularly senior politicians, are put there to make the right moves; not necessarily the popular ones.

And then we have Brexit. A constitutional referendum in July returned a wish by a majority of voters in England and Wales (but not in Scotland or Northern Ireland) for the entire UK (including Scotland and Northern Ireland) to leave the European Union. The Tory Party in the UK, currently in government, has promised to make good on this wish and is threatening to pull the rip cord in 2017.

I ask myself how any of the following predictions are really in the UK’s national interest:

  • Scotland’s departure from the UK. The Scottish National Party are the largest political party in Scotland. They have already tried once to break their links with the UK. Under Brexit they would almost definitely do it again. And they would almost definitely win this time.
  • UK banks fear that they may lose “passporting” or ability to trade freely with the EU.
  • The CBI in the UK are reporting a significant year on year drop in sales in September.
  • London may lose its top spot in banking to other cities, including Singapore, New York and Zurich.
  • A European army might come into existence following a UK exit from the EU, contrary to British wishes.
  • Dramatic fee increases are on the cards for British university students as research funding becomes uncertain.
  • A consensus is forming that a hard Brexit would knock off 9 billion pounds in value from investment banking and capital markets.
  • New border posts could be required in Ireland, threatening a hard won peace. 

These are just a smattering of headlines from the last few weeks.

Flight of capital, brain drains, breakup of the UK, decline of strategically important industries, trade tariffs reimposed, worsened security situation: that’s one hell of a price to pay for restricting the number of Polish and Romanian migrants to England and Wales and putting one over on Johnny Foreigner.

If this is working in the national strategic interests of the UK, then I’m a Dutchman.

Goede Nacht.

Hundreds of years ago, people believed that the devil lived among them. Fearful people would witness their crops fail, their children get sick and die, their livelihoods destroyed by fire or flooding. They would look around for a cause of such evil. Particular attention would be paid to the convenient scapegoat – perhaps an old women, a stranger from out of town, or a Jew. Maybe these people were heard saying something, or maybe they were seen doing something just before the calamity struck. For the medieval mind, this was all that was needed. The devil was afoot, and because these people had done something suspicious beforehand, they had clearly channeled his evil for their own malevolent purposes.

“Because it happened beforehand, it caused it”. It’s called the’post-hoc fallacy’. Because the witch had cursed an official, she had brought on the sickness. Because the Jew had refused to give a loan to the alderman, he had been responsible for the great fire. It’s nonsense, right? It may have been a coincidence or a distortion of fact, but this, to the medieval mind, was beside the point. It happened before, therefore it caused it, therefore the witch is guilty.

The same medieval thinking persists today, except now its not witches and the devil. It’s vaccines and Big Pharma.

“Because my child received the HPV vaccine and subsequently got sick, the vaccine caused the illness”. The only evidence is a co-incidence, but to a fearful mind, this is enough. Why not other childhood vaccines like TDap, or MenC? Why not a genetic predisposition, or a viral illness? No. It was the witch, or should we say, the HPV vaccine. And the great evil behind it all: Big Pharma.

It’s the job of science to show that there is a correlation between two events. It’s the job of science to find cause amongst hundreds of probable causes. And the scientific results to date are clear: there is no connection between the vaccination and subsequent illnesses. Kids get ill at the same rate, irrespective of whether they have been vaccinated or not.

To the fearful mind, all this evidence is too much. Get away from us with all your studies and numbers and percentages. Let’s just burn the witch and be done with it. Why choose a rational course when ignorance and emotion will do?

Our medieval tale tells us something else. When the cause of the fearful is taken up by officialdom, by well-known celebrities and by politicians on the make, when fear overrides fact as official policy, things quickly get much worse. The fear is legitimised, stifling the voices of reason amid censure and threats. Official sanction permits it to metastatise into other areas of policy, thus multiplying the fear. In the case of HPV, perhaps we will not burn witches, but we will burn away our options, so that a now preventable cancer can continue to wreak damage on young lives.

Politicians, journalists and opinion formers must stand up, not for what’s popular, but what is true, based on the very best science and expertise. Following the route of least resistance and aligning with the fearful is not leadership. It is the opposite of leadership. We’ve seen these patterns before and the chaos they have caused. We cannot afford to repeat them.

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.

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.

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

 

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