Archives for category: scepticism

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.

This is the fifth and last part of my overview of QED 2016. To see the previous entries, please check out Part 1Part 2,  Part 3 and Part 4.

This is my final write-up from QED 2016. I know I’ve left out a ton of stuff – inevitable given that there were so many simultaneous tracks. I also realise I haven’t written much about the awards or the Saturday evening activities, but as I wasn’t taking any notes, my writings would be purely from memory, which is highly dodgy at the best of times. I will note however that the QED Award to Crispian Jago was thoroughly well deserved. Crispian has been a force of nature over the past years, bringing satire to a whole new level and crystallising how so many of us felt about pseudoscience. This has not been an easy time, as he has been afflicted by cancer in the last year. He was inundated by well-wishers throughout the conference. I wish him the very best in the months ahead.

Of Mousetraps and Men

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The penultimate speaker on the main stage was broadcaster Michael Blastland, with a talk about how seemingly trivial things may form the most important part of life for all of us. We are brought up to believe in simple stories, that A causes B, and so if we implement seemingly simple solutions to complex problems, the outcome will be predictable. Of course this is not what happens. Life is more like a Heath Robinson machine with things constantly going wrong and taking different paths. Just because A happens, B might not.

We are lazy storytelling machines.

He talked about great artists and great achievers – Darwin and Lennon for example – who might not have achieved greatness were it not for serendipity. He looked at chain smokers and red meat eaters who lived to a hundred years old, despite the odds. He discussed studies where teenage delinquents from similar backgrounds had massively different life outcomes.

Science is all about the average, the aggregate, the loss of individuality. But what if it’s the particular that drive the cause?

He talked then about prescription drugs, such as statins and heartburn medications, where the lifetime benefit to people on the medications vs those not taking additional medications, while scientifically significant, is somewhat marginal. What we know at a global level may often tell us little at a local level.

Some big effects will almost certainly never affect you. But some little fuckers almost certainly will.

So what? Well, apart from some suggestions on getting into the details, adapting and experimenting, we are left with far more questions than answers. We all know that life is hugely complex and that chaos and complexity dominate our lives. We all know that we cannot predict our individual futures, but we can extrapolate some general trends, and these trends are important, no matter how chaotic the raw data. The fact that some people will beat the smoking lottery is not an argument for telling people to keep smoking. The fact that some unvaccinated kids will be mildly affected by measles if they get it, is not an argument for telling everyone not to get immunised. The fact that we can’t predict next week’s weather over Slough or Cleethorpes is not an argument against climate change. Is his argument that science is shit just because it cannot predict individual outcomes in every situation? But then again, when did science ever make such claims?

Here’s Michael Blastland talking to the RSA on a related topic.

The Deadly Dowsing Rod

If you were asked what the most dangerous pseudoscience is, the answer is unlikely to be water divining. It’s first cousin, however, is certainly way up there. When the art of water divining is extended to bomb detection the cost in human lives is enormous, as the people of Iraq unfortunately discovered.

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Meirion Jones is an investigative journalist who reported this incredible story to the world.  He handed us a small, cheaply made dowsing rod that looks eerily similar to a retractable antenna on old TV sets attached to a hand-grip. During the Iraq War, this device  – the ADE 651 – got approved by armies around the world without a shred of evidence that it actually worked. The mastermind behind the device was Jim McCormick, a small time crook who became fabulously wealthy as the devices, costing up to 40,000 dollars each, sold in staggeringly large quantities.

It does exactly what it’s designed to do. It makes money.

Jim McCormick

Meirion asked around, and eventually found a whistleblower who was able to provide parts for the device. The device was tested by scientists and was shown to be completely inert, unable to detect anything. It turned out that the British military had a role in facilitating its distribution, so they were disinclined to help the BBC investigation.

Speaking as a professional, I would say that’s an empty plastic case.

Sydney Alford, engineer who tested the device.

McCormick and his accomplices were arrested and tried. McCormick was convicted of fraud in 2013 and is currently serving a 10 year sentence. The device has been withdrawn from most militaries, but clones and similar devices that claim to detect HIV and other diseases continue to pop up on a regular basis.

 

And that was it!

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All that was left were the many thanks to everyone involved – the organisers, speakers, volunteers and panelists who did such a good job over the weekend. Hopefully see you all again next year.

Further Reading

David Gamble discusses Susan Blackmore’s talk on Out of Body Experiences. 

Dr Marieanne reviews QED

Clairewitchfiles review of QED

Britt Hermes recaps some of the best moments of the conference

Hayley shares her thoughts on the conference

Caroline Watt’s recap of the conference. 

Some further notes from David Gamble. 

 
 

 

 

 

This is the fourth part of my overview of QED 2016. To see the previous entries, please check out Part 1Part 2 and Part 3.

The March of Unreason

Taking a break from the formal talks (and I am sorry I could not see Paul Zenon), I went to a panel discussion discussing the forthcoming British exit from the EU and the “post factual” age we are now apparently in.

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The discussion featured NHS Campaigner Emma Runswick,  journalist Hugo Dixon, Max Goldman from Sense About Science, broadcaster Michael Blastland and law professor Michael Dougan. The panel was chaired by Geoff Whelan of Manchester Skeptics.

“A lie can run around the world before the truth has a chance to get its boot on.”

Emma observed that on complex political issues people tend to follow the advice of friends over experts.

People are more likely to trust their friends over experts, because they think that experts don’t have their interests at heart.

Michael Dougan broke the Brexit lies down into four parts –

  1. Telling lies about the here and now: According to the media now, the referendum was won by the working class of northern England. This is not true. The southern English middle class vote was by far the most important.
  2. Fantasies about the future: Boris Johnson is still being dishonest about “special deals” that Britain will get upon exit.
  3. Rubbishing anybody who disagrees. The message being put out at the moment is that anyone who disagrees is anti democratic.
  4. Debasement of parliamentary democracy. A referendum only used when you can’t get what you want in parliament.

Max observed that fact-checking was relatively new to UK politics.

Are we in a “post truth society”?

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Hugo Dixon made the point that demagoguery was a direct result of the financial crisis. When politicians don’t seem to be up to the job, voters start looking elsewhere.

In the land of the liars, the authentic liar is king.

Michael Dougan expressed a concern that once people find a way to get their views accepted in the mainstream, it’s only a matter of time before they seek a new target. What next? Global warming? Women’s rights?

Michael Blastland felt that a lot of the post factual talk was a direct result of scandals within the expert community.

There is nothing so damaging to the domain of evidence than the preacher who sins.

 

The conversation could easily have gone on for a few more hours. It was a packed room and at one stage, about thirty hands went up when the moderator asked for question from the floor. As was clearly evident from the panel discussion, Brexit is causing considerable anxiety to skeptics, scientists and rationalists in Britain and everywhere. This story has a long way to run yet.

Last piece coming up.

This is the third part of my overview of QED 2016. To see the previous entries, please check out Part 1 and Part 2.

This post covers some of the talks on Sunday. Matt Parker did a fantastic job as MC for the QED conference. Matt, who did a talk on maths some years ago, was uncannily witty and able to manage any situation effortlessly. Who knew that a maths training could lead to such important skills?

That video

Hot off the presses is the video of the event. It was shown for a second time on Sunday morning with a very subtle modification for the second day.

Mermaids and Crappy Science TV

The headline speaker on Sunday Morning was Cara Santa Maria. Cara is known to many in the skeptical movement as a new co-host on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast. She talked about her upbringing into a Mormon family, and her mental health challenges during her early career in media.

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It’s clear from her presentation that she is passionate about science and science communication. She has huge experience negotiating the American media landscape and  has a few thoughts on it’s merits and downsides.

The Discovery Channel has really shit the bed recently.

The American science media landscape is very different to Europe. There is a strong culture of anti-intellectualism and there are few incentives from government to provide quality, honest programming. In the past, news programs and factual programs, though not profitable in themselves, were funded from game-shows. Nowadays everything has to show a profit. This has lead to a race to the bottom: and lowest common denominator programming is the result with ratings beating truth each time. Recent examples include speculations about the continued existence of mermaids and megalodons on popular science channels.

Would you be opposed to dinosaurs still being alive in the Amazon?

Unnamed Discovery Channel executive after pitching a science show.

There are no easy answers to the problem, but Cara believes that it can be tackled through strong science role models such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, fighting back against the worst excesses of bad programming, creating popular DIY content, financial supports for good content and demanding change in the industry. It will be a long war.

Stop trying to sound so goddamn smart.

Cara has some thoughts on good science communication:

  1. Know your audience.
  2. Never underestimate the intelligence of your audience, but always underestimate their vocabulary.
  3. A big effort in communicating science should be put into the process of thinking, not the spouting of facts. Teach people to think critically for themselves.
  4. Be yourself. If you are pretending to be someone you’re not, people will disengage.
  5. Meet people where they are. We need to understand the cultural background and unchallenged assumptions that people have before we can talk to them meaningfully.
  6. Stop trying to sound so goddamn smart. The best science communicators talk to people in their language.

Here’s Cara talking about GMOs on the Dave Rubin show.

Duck Vaginas? Yes. Duck Vaginas.

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You had to be there. Sally LePage’s presentation was mind-blowing. Sally is an evolutionary biologist doing a PhD in sexual selection in Oxford. In a marvellously entertaining talk, she talked about the history of study into animal sex organs, noting that Darwin was really the first person in two millennia to take an academic interest in the field.

When a male has lots of sex it’s called sex. When females have sex, it’s called promiscuity.

She contrasted the research done on male animal genitalia to female animal genitalia, noting that the former category had been studied much more than the latter. Which is a pity, because without understanding the female reproductive organs, it’s difficult to come to conclusions on the variety of male sex organs. The duck is a case in point. Everyone knows that the duck has a corkscrew penis, but far less people (at least until this weekend) would have been aware that the duck vagina is even more elaborately shaped, allowing the female to decide which of the prospective males will become the father.

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A beetle’s penis. Just in case you were asking.

Even eggs are much less passive than sperms. Where conventional wisdom has the active sperm penetrating the egg, recent research shows that chemicals in on the surface of the egg actively collude in accepting the male DNA inside.

Sally delivered a master-class presentation here. She is a clear, entertaining presenter with a marvellous sense of humour and timing. Great work.

Here’s Sally talking about the Tragedy of the Commons.

Not done yet…

This is the second part of my overview of QED 2016. The first part is here.

The Future, Jim, but not as we know it.

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Mark Stevenson is a futurologist, a term he himself is not particularly happy with.

The only qualification for futurologist is to write something with future in the title.

Mark runs a network of thinkers and gives talks and insights to different people and corporations around the world. While none of us can predict the future, it’s likely to be an interesting place. Mark’s presentation was furious, frenetic and content heavy, presenting about one new idea every 3 minutes. Every idea could have been a whole topic in itself. It was almost impossible to keep up with what was a massive stream of possibilities and directions, many of which may not come to pass, others of which might happen in an unexpected way, and others that might literally change the world.

He quoted Douglas Adams, who himself was massively future-orientated.

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Douglas Adams

We were shown a car, rushing around an obstacle course, with a screaming passenger inside. The passenger was screaming because the car had no driver. The technology  maturing rapidly.

Here’s the video, by the way

He talked about the 3 million truck drivers who’s livelihoods might be at stake and the insurance companies who might need to rethink their business models.

He talked about bionic limbs and Olympic games. He talked about genome sequencing advances outstripping Moore’s law. He talked about cells that never die, and how ageing might be reversed.

If people say to me “ban all GMOs”, then what do we say to diabetics?

He talked about genetically modified products that eat crude oil. He talked about extracting carbon directly from the air. He talked about the end of the oil age, the solar power revolution and a “complete solar” economy in twenty five years time. Even today, Saudi Arabia is turning its attention to solar power as the wealth generator of the future.

The Stone Age did not end for the lack of stones.

Sheikh Zaki Yamani

He talked about blockchain: an “unhackable currency”and questioned the purpose of banks.

He talked about 3-D printing at a macro and nano level and forecasted the first 3-D printed 3-D printers.

He talked about the changing definition of wealth and the extreme wastefulness of current methods of farming and food management.

The environment is starting to send back invoices.

He talked about an “Enernet”, like an internet for Energy. He talked about open-sourced drug discovery. He talked about trucks being driven on liquid air.

Then he ran out of time.

Whew!

Where do you even start? The only thing he left out was the Singularity. The future might well be a scary place because of the inadequacy of our institutions and governments to keep pace with technology. He is optimistic, but there are real dangers, particularly where new technologies drive more and more wealth into fewer hands, while potentially rendering millions of unskilled workers redundant. This has been a refrain for two hundred years, but I wonder if we are moving into new realms here.

Here’s a video in the same vein featuring Mark Stevenson.

Paleo-diet eating climate deniers with chickenpox!

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Next up was Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, or just Dr. Karl, one of Australia’s best known science personalities. Dr Karl gave a talk on some of science’s greatest achievements starting off with some videos and pictures of his trips to the Antarctic and the Australian Outback. (Ireland and the UK look teeny tiny compared to the Australian continent – don’t rub it in, please).

The talk was wide-ranging to say the least, covering everything from vaccines to global warming to science illiteracy to the paleo-diet.

On vaccines, he had a lot to say. Australia seems to have a comprehensive program against chickenpox, whereas we are still in the dark ages on this side of the globe. While adverse effects of chickenpox are rare, they can be very serious. Stroke is a side effect, as are congenital defects when it hits pregnant women. I also didn’t realise how many people contract shingles in their lifetime – a result of chickenpox in childhood. Our governments should be doing more.

Everything, no matter how boring, always looks better under an electron microscope.

He did a great job dismissing the claims of the paleo-diet people. Some people believe that all the ills of our world, the cancer, the diabetes, the heart problems, all stem from a change in our diets around 10,000 years ago, when our species started to move away from hunter-gatherer type diets to more wheat-based diets. He discussed how this is such a simplification – different hunter gatherer groups have wildly different diets even today, and when most hunter gatherers were dead before 40 anyway, diseases of ageing would have been something of a minor problem to them. Dietitians, he says, have voted the Paleo-diet the joint worst diet of them all.

He also spoke about global warming deniers – a crafty lot indeed. They’ll take a warming curve, then select a piece of data from a larger data set that seems to suggest that warming is going down, then clap themselves on their backs for their cleverness.

Dr Karl also spoke about how IQ is getting higher each year (and no-one knows why). He also briefly discussed Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, where civilised behaviour seems to be on an upward curve. Long may it continue.

For many in the audience, we would have come these topics before, but nevertheless these are really interesting areas of discussion and activism, very well recounted by Dr. Karl.

Here’s Dr. Karl’s YouTube video “Great Moments in Science”.

Now on to Part 3

QED is the UK’s largest conference on science and scepticism. It’s a get together for people who are passionate about science and evidence in contemporary culture and current affairs. It takes place yearly in Manchester and it’s now in its sixth year. This is my fifth year attending. As ever, it was a wonderful conference. We were really spoiled for choice this year with many tracks taking place simultaneously, so until I am able to master bilocation or out-of-body travelling, this is my account of just a small sliver of events happening over the weekend.

YouTube Debunkery!

The intro video this year was really superb, with production values in the stratosphere. It became clear how this was done when the speaker for the conference, Alan Melikdjanian aka Captain Disillusion, gave us an insight into how he makes debunking videos for YouTube. It was an incredible presentation, complete with audience polls, interpretive dance, hater comments, bad 90’s Powerpoint, arguing with himself on video, all done flawlessly with maximum comedic effect. The slides looked beautiful too.

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In terms of technical presentation skills and using the different types of media to communicate a message, this was one of the best I have ever seen. Really, truly excellent.

Here’s one of his videos.

Good Advice, Bad Advice!

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The next speaker was Petra Boynton, an advice columnist with the Telegraph. She showed how advice columns are a very old and venerable part of print media for over 300 years, and in many ways, they have not changed that much. It was interesting to hear how careful columnists needed to be, as context is everything. She very much sees this as a kind of public service, particularly when access to professional help has been cut back in recent years.

Naturoquackery

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The next speaker was Britt Hermes. Britt had a very unusual story to tell. She thought she was a doctor, then found out she wasn’t. Britt studied naturopathy in Bastyr University in California, where she was indoctrinated in alternative medicine. Even though there was a small amount of medicine taught, everything was solidly encased in new age woo.

I’m taking down these notes and I’m thinking “Wow. These doctors are so stupid.”

During her studies, Britt went to Ghana. She learned to give intravenous injections of ineffective medicines to people who were very sick. She then went to Nicaragua where she dispensed homeopathic products to treat cardiovascular disease.

When she graduated, she started teaching in Bastyr. She moved to Arizona under Michael Uzick, which was where the wool was pulled from her eyes. Uzick appeared to be involved in a dangerous, so-called cancer drug called ukrain. She reported him to the authorities, with predictable consequences. She ended up leaving naturopathy, a profession which, by this time, she had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees.

I realised I was a fraud.

Britt found help and support from within the global skeptic community. She has since set up a blog to expose the practices of naturopathy to the rest of the world. It’s hard not to see naturopathy as a kind of twenty-first century cult, despite it’s veneer of medicine.

Naturopaths can basically say and do what they want. There is no standard of care.

Britt is adamant that naturopaths should under no circumstances be given the title of doctor. They should not be treating children as they get only 10% the training of paediatricians.

There is no doubt that many naturopaths have good hearts. But without a medical degree, they are nothing more than good hearted charlatans.

Britt has stared a petition “Naturopaths are not doctors” to raise awareness of the inadequacy of naturopathic care, and to stop naturopaths being licensed as doctors in America.

You have to fool patients and you have to fool yourself. So I am glad to say, I am one of the most unsuccessful naturopaths on the planet.

Britt has shown incredible bravery in admitting her mistake and then challenging the fundamental basis of naturopathy to a world audience. Britt got a well deserved standing ovation from the audience for her talk.

We’re not done (not by a long shot)…

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 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

 

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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