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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.

It’s hopeless. There is no hope.

It’s hopeless imagining that white people will be the only people at the table, that other races will go back to doffing their caps to their supposed betters. That women will know their place and stay quiet behind their male superiors. That church authorities will rule over their wombs and their life choices. That love’s province must return exclusively to male with female.

There is no hope whatsoever that these days will return.

There is no hope that oil and coal will continue to power our lives and choke our lungs. No hope that we can persist in a myth of continuing to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and our oceans with no consequences. No hope that polluters will not be judged harshly by history.

Those days are gone. They will never come back.

There is no hope that the young will simply fall silently in line with the edicts of a dying generation. There is no hope that the eager and educated across the world will remain content with second best. No hope that the way to compete with all this is to withdraw behind a high wall.

We are entering a new world. A world of racial and sexual equality. A world that increasingly sees itself as a single group of people, utterly dependent on the environment around them. When I look at teams of old rich religious white men wanting to set back the clocks, I see despair in their eyes. They are a minority of a minority of a minority of a minority, and they know it. Their only answer now is division, authoritarianism and bloody war. It’s pathetic. A futile attempt to turn back time.

I don’t know what the future will bring. I know that some nasty twists await as this story plays itself out. War, extremism, violence, repression, terrorism. It’s all there. It’s all possible. It’s not going to go smoothly.

But I know this. We’re not going back to the way it once was. It’s impossible. There’s not a hope in the world.

Airport arrivals, the point of transition. From a world of cramped spaces, endless queues and tiresome inactivity, now life can begin again. It is a place where worlds come together. In this spot, each day, a thousand mini-stories get told.

Witness the anticipation, the young woman hiding behind the sign. The father and daughter wearing outrageous, unkempt wigs. The small children sidling up to the doors, furtively looking down into the hallway. The expectant stares, the worried looks, the checking and re-checking of panels, counting the flights that have landed. What’s keeping them? Why is it taking so long?

Then the joy, the elation. The moment of recognition. Passivity suddenly replaced by pure joy. The children racing around, soon to be whisked into the arms of a loved one. The young woman jumping from behind the sign. The cries and grasps of delight. The older traveller feeling like a small helpless child, now reunited with a person long missing from their lives.

The embraces. The looks of sheer love and relief. The passionate kisses. The tears. For a moment, all is well with the world. For a moment, emotions are laid bare, differences forgotten. The importance of these people, being here, in this place, at this time. Nothing else counts.

The grabbing of the bags, the gifts handed over, the hands clenched tightly around each other. The small children raised aloft, like tiny trophies after the journey. Here, this way. Let’s go. You are with us now.

The story ends, to be replaced in seconds with another tale. Then another. And another. The arrivals hall. If there is such a thing as magic, you will find it here.

It’s 2017 and vampires, werewolves and witches are no longer that scary. Been there, done that.

Here are some things that should really frighten the bejeezus out of us this year.

Scary Insect

This from news that insect abundance has fallen by 75% over the last 27 years.

Scary Icecap

Whether its icecaps, or sea-ice or huge shelves of ice ripping free from Antarctica, it’s all a depressing picture.


Scary Super Bug

Scary Antibiotic

The top two pictures are related – improper use of antibiotics over the past few decades has created new bugs that are resistant to almost all known bacterial killers. At the same time, new antibiotics have failed to keep pace. The world is finally waking up to this huge crisis.

Scary Flu

One hundred years ago, a flu pandemic killed between 50 million and 100 million people in a period of months. Smaller pandemics have happened since, but it is a matter of time before a virus of similar lethality makes it’s comeback.

Scary AntiVax

And it’s not only a damaging flu that could make its presence felt. Old diseases like measles and whooping cough are coming back too, due to different pressure groups who believe, despite decades of medical evidence, that vaccines don’t work and are harmful. Some kids depend on the rest of us to be vaccinated in order to be protected against these diseases.

Scary Acidification

Kind of a hard one to draw, but there is increasing evidence that our oceans are becoming more acidic. This is having detrimental impacts on shellfish and other ocean organisms, which then propagates up the food chain.

Scary Nuclear

We thought that common sense had finally prevailed against the use of nuclear weapons as an option in international politics. We thought wrong.

Scary Paranoid

The rise (and seeming acceptance) of extremist hate groups is particularly worrying, given that the world has been there before and the consequences were so disastrous. Both media and politicians have been stoking up this hatred for quite a while.

Scary Brexit Black Hole

For us on this side of the pond, we’re still waiting to understand how Britain will prosper from a withdrawal from the EU – particularly if, as expected, there is no deal. Pro-Leavers are great on rhetoric, but thin on the details of how Britain is expected to thrive economically when leaving a successful partnership that gave us 70 years of peace in Europe. The only thing we have seen so far is an increase in xenophobia and companies deciding to move out.

Scary Politician

And finally, the biggest ongoing threat to all our lives and livelihoods – the ongoing destruction of democracy and democratic values by politicians on the make.

Now these, to me, are scary as hell.

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.

Among the things I think about sometimes is how we got here as a species, and where we’re going.

We tend to think of ourselves as a young species, having only discovered writing (and with it, history itself) in the past 5,000 years, and civilisation (with its permanent monuments) 5,000 years before that. Earlier than this, our history as a race of humans goes quite dark. Archaeology tells us a few things, but the further back we go, all we have are fragments from our past. We can quite easily forget that we are a very old creature indeed. How long ago was it since we discovered language, since we started singing, since we started praying, since we discovered a sense of humour? It’s hard to say, yet it’s quite probable that such traits predate homo sapiens, going back through multiple ancestral species. Were we to travel back a couple of million years, maybe we would still see ourselves in our austrolopithical forebears.

I remember reading a book some time ago, that one group of our ancestors (or possibly close cousins) spent over a million years fashioning an early stone tool with practically no development in all that time. That’s tens of thousands of generations just hammering away with little sense of innovation. They were rooted in the animal world – lives full of fury, struggle and passion, but not one given to legacy or creative accomplishment. Maybe there were stirrings there. Maybe, every so often, one of them came up with an idea, but they were quickly hit over the head, or eaten by a lioness, before that idea (or their genes) had a chance to spread. 

I ask myself if that’s where we’re ultimately going back to. If anything has been successful in the long term on this planet, it’s been that patient toiling away with little progress through the generations. Among all the animals, a sense of constructive wonder seems to be selected against. In the single case where it has succeeded, it’s lead to an exponential increase in technological development, resulting in a potentially untenable situation full of nuclear weapons, over-population, resource depletion, multi-species extinction and the prospect of disastrous climate change. Maybe our ultimate fate (if we survive this time at all) is a return back to the animal realm. Maybe, 90,000 generations hence, our distant children will be back in the trees, or scurrying around in holes, or hammering again on rocks with little thought for art and music. 

I think about the last person in that line, looking around at her species and wondering about it all, before death finally takes her away and the universe once again becomes dim and distant to humanity.

On holidays in the UK when it happened. Hadrian’s Wall. I had no idea something big had occurred until I got back into the car for the trip back to the rented cottage in the Lake District. 
We picked up the thread of events from BBC radio. It still wasn’t clear whether the attacks were over or still ongoing. How many planes overall? Were there more horrors yet to unfold? Reports were coming in from Pennsylvania. Another plane, burning in the woods. Further collapses at the WTC. Who, what, why: unknown.
I remember that sinking, horrible feeling of powerlessness and fear; mystified at the depths to which humanity will go. Like staring into the abyss. I had felt this before, but never with such intensity. Thousands dead. How many thousands? They didn’t know. The journey was one of silence, interspersed with the occasional expletive. 
It was late that evening before we saw the TV images. The fires, the collapses. Images nailed into our collective consciousness forever.
I remember thinking: if this is what religion is capable of, I’ve had it with religion. I’ve since extended this to all kinds of political ideologies. A curse on all their houses.
I wish we could say this was the worst thing we would ever witness, but the catalogue of horror remains an open book. 

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.
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.
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.

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:




Just because something happened before it, doesn’t mean it caused it.

Just because a footballer forgot to bless himself before a game, doesn’t mean that’s why they lost the match.

Just because a screaming sound was heard in the middle of the night, doesn’t mean your granduncle is going to die.

Just because a vaccine was given doesn’t necessarily mean it caused a sickness at a later date.

Other things: a virus, an infection, the ageing and growth process, genetics, a stressful situation, other people, might have caused it too. 

Trying to figure out root cause is really, really difficult, but if you rush to a conclusion about cause, without doing the hard work, chances are you are going to be wrong.

The hard work, trying to figure out causes? We call that science.

And that is why you need to bring in scientific voices and scientific studies when you are discussing issues like vaccines, because they are the only people who have done the work to assess root cause.

Let me reiterate that. They are the only people who have done the hard work. They are the only people who must take the emotion out of it, who must control for bias, who must look at all the data, who must go about it the right way, in order to be taken seriously. They get penalised for taking short cuts, something that doesn’t happen when we give our opinions or talk about our experience.

If you exclude the scientific consensus and scientific voices from a discussion on vaccines, or if you think it’s “just another opinion”, then you are biasing the discussion. No ifs, no buts. 

If you exclude the scientific consensus, you are not looking at the whole picture. And, you might be scaring people without just cause.

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