Archives for posts with tag: radio

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.

There is a broadcaster in Cork, Neil Prendeville, who has no problem promoting pseudoscience and instilling fear into people during his radio programme. He regularly invites a guest, Michael O’Doherty, whom he calls a healthcare professional, onto his show to expound on vaccines and antibiotics. O’Doherty has no medical qualifications. He is a quack healer whose shtick seems to be that natural is good, that the body is capable of healing itself without the need for modern medicine. 

This stuff is dangerous. It is simply not true to say that our bodies are able to deal with every illness that comes along. The flu, a common disease, kills millions of people every year. Before modern medicine, deaths from smallpox, measles and TB were common. They are much less so now because of vaccines, antibiotics and antivirals. Where is the evidence for the great natural panaceas they keep talking about? In the face of an invader, eating berries and taking exercise won’t always cut it. That’s not how human physiology works. 

Another pernicious lie that’s promoted is that when you get sick, it’s your fault. If only you had been thinking properly, or meditating the right way, or drinking the correct drinks, or eating the right foods, you wouldn’t have fallen ill. Sure, some lifestyles are decidedly unhealthy, but healthy people still get sick, all the time, through no fault of their own. Telling people that they are responsible creates unnecessary guilt while scaring them away from treatment options that might save their lives. It’s awful.

Prendeville says he is not anti-vaccinatipn, yet he regularly promotes anti-vaccination views. He promotes a culture of suspicion around medicine and medical practitioners. On a regular basis, he lays into the medical profession while promoting some of the worst pseudoscience imaginable. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he’s endangering people’s health. 

Sure, if you are fool enough to believe him, the argument could be made that it’s your fault. But what of your children or elderly and incapacitated adults that might depend on you? What of innocent bystanders whose kids you might be putting at risk because you won’t vaccinate your children?

But what to do about it? 

Write a strongly worded letter to Red FM? Send a complaint to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland? What will that do, exactly?

Complain to my local TDs? What will that achieve, exactly?

Blog away like I am doing, to the 20 or so people who read this blog?

Write to the Irish Medical council and other healthcare agencies to let them know what he’s up to?

Is it a free speech issue, so better off being left alone? Do I keep quiet and suck it up?

I don’t know. All I do know is that a radio personality is abusing his power and influence to scare people away from practical healthcare, and it feels like nobody cares about it, except for me and my army of one.

Update: here is a link to the show in question. The Gardasil / vaccine discussion starts about 50 minutes into the show.

Update 2: I have amended a statement that Prendeville tells people not to vaccinate their kids, which is not correct. I have also had feedback that he introduces O’Doherty as a healthcare professional. I have corrected this also.

Let’s say you were watching a programme on house building, but every time the builder spoke up about using concrete blocks, the camera panned afterwards to a person who believed that instead of concrete, Christmas tinsel should be a better building material.

Or, you were watching a motoring programme with a mechanic talking about putting oil in the engine to keep the parts moving. After he had spoken, the programme sought the views of a person who felt that Fanta Orange was a much better alternative than oil to lubricate the engine.

Imagine, in both cases, how the builder or the mechanic would feel about this. Imagine what they would think about the programme makers. “Short changed” would be putting it mildly.

With due consideration to the Christmas Tinselists and Fanta Orangeists out there, we might consider it completely mad for a programme to devote time to people who clearly were off the range as regards issues that are generally accepted as mainstream ideas. Not only that, but it would be seen by many as sowing confusion and distraction where no such thing was warranted.

The principle of balance is ingrained into most broadcasting organisations. To be fair to all sides, they will often invite people with different viewpoints to debate particular points. This is a good principle in the main. It minimises the chances that we are being excluded from hearing important contrary information when making your mind up about various issues. It also makes for good, entertaining TV and radio.

In the cases above, however, you can see that the principle of balance can be overextended, particularly when subjects are largely decided and incontrovertible. In many situations, therefore, the broadcaster is not required to create a “balanced” debate; they are perfectly entitled to represent the single accepted position and get on with it. This is the picture acknowledged by most experts in that field. It’s accepted because there is overwhelming support for it. Why create debate when there is none?

Take evolution for instance. There are people in this world who deny evolution, primarily for religious reasons. That’s their choice. It is a nonsense, however, to employ the principle of balance when discussing evolution, because unlike evolutionary scientists, creationists have no real evidence supporting their position. In the many decades since Darwin first published his ideas, creationists have utterly failed to provide reliable support for an alternative, while the scientific underpinning have multiplied in size. The scientific evidence is so overwhelming that it’s a complete nonsense to suggest that a debate even exists. Pitting a creationist against an evolutionary scientist – no matter how many people feel there is a debate to be had – is quite ridiculous. It only serves to elevate a faith based position to be seen as a plausible alternative to the scientific research – a position it does not deserve.

After so much debate and so much evidence, we are also entitled to question the motives of those who would continue – to this day – to promote creationism or intelligent design as credible alternatives on a par with evolutionary science. Since their positions have been refuted in so many ways and for such a long period of time, we can safely say that such people are no longer interested in an honest pursuit of the truth. Denial has a propaganda value. Thus, it’s not just false balance: anyone organising a debate between creationists and evolutionary scientists nowadays must accept that the creationists are not coming to the table with pure intentions, despite what they might say publicly.

Such is also the case with climate change. The vast majority of climate scientists are in agreement that a) CO2 and other greenhouse gasses are warming the planet, b) that intensive human activity is the major factor in this warming and that c) this issue needs to be tackled urgently. Deniers take issue with some or all of these statements, but their arguments have little scientific merit. Pitted against decades worth of evidence building and hypothesis testing, the denier community has come up short. They are losing and they know it. Having singularly failed to develop a plausible scientific alternative, they resort to sowing doubt and muddying the waters. It’s the Creationism vs Evolution debate all over again. Because it too has only got worse for deniers in the past years, we have to ask ourselves what the underlying motive for maintaining their stance might be.

It’s for these reasons that I don’t think it’s useful to be giving a platform to climate change deniers on broadcast media. Like Christmas Tinselists or Fanta Orangeists, they have no scientific argument to make and thus they are a distraction from the real issue. But more than this, just like creationists, I have a problem with their motives. When the evidence is so overwhelming, there has to be an underlying reason for maintaining their stance. An honest debate in such circumstances is impossible.

I want you too forecast the weather on the 21st of May next year. 2015. Off you go.

The options are quite few. Sunny, cloudy, rainy, showery, windy. Snow? Not so much. We’re talking about May after all.

Ken Ring predicted snow in May last year. Furthermore, he predicted regular quantities of snow for every month leading up to May. According to Ken, the first months of 2014 in Ireland would be bitterly cold. As it happened, we barely got snow in January, not to mention the fact that our winter was mild, as winters go. What’s worse, he failed to predict the intense winter storms of 2014. As predictions go, Ring’s analysis was well of the mark.

Here’s the thing. If the options are relatively few, then there is a good chance that some of your predictions will turn out correct. Even if you guess at random, you won’t get everything wrong. Sometimes you will predict sunshine, and you’ll be right. Ken Ring, who is wont to make a huge number of predictions, knows this very well. He’s made a career from crowing about his correct answers, all the while expecting that few people will call him out for getting it wrong. If they do call him out, he’s got plenty of stock answers to give. “Forecasting is an inexact science”, “It was partially right”, “I was out by just a few days”, “it wasn’t quantity, it was regularity” – special pleadings that allow him wiggle room from what, ultimately, was just guesswork.

If one prediction can be excused, a whole year of them is more difficult to explain away. That’s what one Irish blogger has done – taking his predictions and scoring him on each one for accuracy. So far, at just over 26% (and that’s being generous), he’s not doing that well, and is well short of the 80% accuracy he claims to have.

Ken Ring was on the radio a few days ago (96FM Cork Opinion Line November 14) and as usual he captivated his audience by giving specific predictions at specific locations for days many months in the future. When I was listening to this, I wondered why this guy didn’t have the ears of every major weather forecaster in the world? I can think of two answers to this. Either he’s right and they’re too arrogant, stupid and/or conniving to listen to him, or he’s talking – how can I say this delicately? – ah yes – bullshit.

Weather forecasting is a critically important field, affecting our lives in all sorts of ways. Bad weather can cause financial hardship, destroy livelihoods, ruin economies and cost lives. Flooding, storms, droughts, freezes and heatwaves all cause damage, sometimes into the billions of dollars.  If we knew for certain that an enormous hurricane was going to roll across our city in 3 months time, imagine what could be done to save lives and protect homes and businesses. Who wouldn’t want better, more accurate forecasts? According to Ken, the world’s met offices don’t want them. Maybe they want to keep such fantastic knowledge away from the public? Maybe Big Weather is in league with Big Pharma or the CIA or whatever you are having yourself, to ensure governments and insurance companies are on the receiving end of huge damages claims? The mind boggles.

A little bit of scientific understanding tells us that the atmosphere is hugely complicated, and that errors, even in the best prediction models, get larger and larger over time. Five to seven days is the limit these days, and let’s face it – it’s not bad. Governments and agencies will continue to push back this envelope as much as they can, because ultimately it’s worth it. The science of weather forecasting has, er,  a bright future, so to speak.

It is reasonable, therefore, to assume that Ken Ring is not a great forecaster, but instead, a crank. The type of crank who thinks he’s Galileo because he thinks he’s stumbled across something amazing, yet nobody who cares about their credibility will listen to him. There was just one Galileo. Cranks who think they are Galileo, or Einstein, or Steven Hawking? Thousands and thousands. Just ask physics professors, who are sick to the teeth of receiving unsolicited and unreadable manuscripts from armies of lone geniuses.

It’s a pity Ken gets such publicity. Clearly he’s answering a desire in people to know what the future holds. In this way, he’s no better than a fortune teller or astrologer. What’s bigger the pity is that media organisations line up to listen to his words of wisdom, all the while discrediting real weather forecasting organisations. All they would need to do is to measure him by his predictions.

Last week I learned how to download podcasts to my mobile phone. It wasn’t that difficult: it just takes time to set up and download. I needed first of all to subscribe to the website RSS stream, then I had to download the MP3s to the computer and after that (whew) I had to use Nokia’s file download facility to transfer the stuff via a Bluetooth connection to the mobile phone.

The quality of the podcasts is very good. I was listening to the Skeptoid series on the phone while I was in London for a day last week, and often I thought that someone beside me was talking to me. It’s like my own “on demand” radio series for listening to when nothing else seems worthwhile listening to, which is kind of cool. I also downloaded the “Lie of the Land” series from RTE about the history of map-making in Ireland. I’ve been listening to that over the last few days.

The amount of space available on my phone is tiny: only around 400 Mb, which isn’t much when I am trying to download a few radio series to the phone. I suspect I will need to delete early and often if I am to get any benefit from it at all. I then discovered a dreadfully inconvenient problem with my Nokia. It doesn’t have any “Forward” or “Rewind” functions. When listening to a 30 minute show, this can be irritating in the extreme.

Do you listen to podcasts, and do you have a favourite show that you listen to?

I’ve been listening to the excellent “Whistleblowers” series on RTE Radio 1. In the past it has featured interviews with Jeffrey Wigand (Brown and Williamson tobacco), Sherron Watkins (Enron) and Craig Murray (British Ambassador to Uzbekistan). Today the subject was Harry Templeton, a Glasgow printer who stood up to Robert Maxwell in the late 1980’s, and got duly shafted for his troubles.

Another story worth listening to is the tale of David Kaczynski, who discovered that his brother, Ted, was the Unabomber.

You need Real Player installed to listen to these programmes.

You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried..

On March 28th of this year, Richard Downes of RTE radio show Morning Ireland interviewed Councillor Colm Wiley (FF) of Clare County Council. Here is the interview (go down to “Deer causing havoc in Co Clare”. You’ll need RealPlayer), and here is the transcript…

Richard Downes: Next to County Clare and a problem with deer. Councillor Colm Wiley is on the line to tell us more about this. You’ve got a problem with deer in County Clare, is that right?

Colm Wiley:
Yes, good morning Richard. Yes, we have a serious problem. Deer have become numerous. Years ago they were a very rare sight to see one deer but now you can see up to as many as ten, fifteen, up to twenty, grazing on the land of farmers, and they’re doing terrible damage, utter damage of course, apart from the fact they’re eating the grass, they are also driving the cattle berserk and they’re coming out onto the roadways and they’re causing accidents to motorists and everything at night time.

Richard Downes: And you want them shot.

Colm Wiley: Yeah, we want them culled some way, and er, there are rangers there to do the job but they are so numerous they wouldn’t be able to come and get on top of them so I requested that the army come and be of assistance to us, but Minister O’Dea seemingly feels that they have more to do than coming out to help the people of rural Ireland and that is the fact.

Richard Downes: But I think the Defense Minister, Willie O’Dea said that the army actually had better things to do than going around the country, em, shooting deer. You can kind of see his point, can’t you?

Colm Wiley: I can but, what, what are they doing? The only thing I see of them going around the country is minding the money being transported to banks, other than..

Richard Downes: A couple of missions in West Africa don’t they, and in Central Europe, so they are actually very busy and stretched. So, the deer problem is so significant, you say down in County Clare, that this is the only option that you have, is it?

Colm Wiley: That is the only option we have because they graze at night time and early in the mornings and it’s not the easiest of things to do to shoot them, but you can get within a hundred metres of them. One time you wouldn’t get within four hundred metres of deer, but it’s come around they are a bit more domesticated and one can get within a hundred metres of them and you know, it’s possible to cull them, and we need assistance.

Richard Downes: And who owns the deer?

Colm Wiley: Who owns? Sure, the deer are wild. They live in the forestry and, in actual fact, they are doing damage to the forestation too because they are eating the barks of the trees, but then of course the grass is more palatable for them so they will come out and it’s well known that fourteen or fifteen deer – I was with a farmer last night over in Tulla and he explained to me that fifteen deer would eat more grass than twenty cattle, and you know, it is very serious.

Richard Downes: We have our own native species – the Red Deer – very small numbers of those.

Colm Wiley: Yeah the Red Deer, and the Fallow, yes it’s mainly Red Deer now we have here. Mainly Red. But of course again you might have a bit of crossing between Red and Fallow, but it’s mainly the Red ones. And, you see twenty, fifteen, sixteen of them, and we have a lot of forestation in Clare and they tend to shelter in the woods and come out then to eat and go back in again.

Richard Downes: Yeah – you were – er, am I, am I reading this correctly – are you worried about them interbreeding with cattle?

Colm Wiley: Yes. It’s possible that sooner or later, because in County Clare, most of our agricultural industry is related to the suckling industry, so people have cows and heifers way out in the fields, way out away from houses and its very possible that, at the end of the day, stags could come in contact with them. They are, stags are grazing with them, they are in mingling in between them every day and every night so it’s very possible that you could have interbreeding and if they did..

Richard Downes: Have you ever come across a case of interbreeding between cows and deer?

Colm Wiley: Well no, but I have seen some red weanlings and I thought myself there was a little bit of a strain in them so, they seemed to be very alert, so it’s very possible that if this comes in to being we could have seriously alert animals altogether.

Richard Downes: (laughing) Ok we’ll leave it there, Councillor Colm Wiley, thank you very much..

This interview caught my attention on the radio this morning: Richard Dawkins was pitted against David Quinn, a leading Irish Catholic writer. Dawkins has just written a new book called the “God Delusion” (definitely on my reading list).

It didn’t seem however as if Dawkins was terribly prepared for Quinn’s onslaught.

The main arguments coming from Quinn were that physical matter was evidence of God; that atheists could not explain free will (which was also evidence of God); and that atheists were just as responsible for fundamentalism and violence as religious people.

On the question of the existence of matter, just because scientists don’t know everything about the world, it doesn’t mean that “God” is immediately the answer. Quinn, quite unashamedly, invoked a false dilemma, and Dawkins didn’t pick him up on it.

Dawkins completely avoided the question of free will – which was curious because Quinn’s argument seems to be that atheists believe that we humans are completely controlled by our genes, and that we are therefore somehow mechanical in nature. I think he needs to read up on quantum theory, complexity theory, and the unpredictability and emergent effects that arise out of systems as complex as the human brain. It’s not necessary, in my mind, to invoke outside agencies to bring about decisions of free will – the billions of neurons in our brain are well able to yield complex and unpredictable effects when working in concert with each other. Another point about free will is that it appears to me to be a theological concept mainly – it’s never discussed by scientists terribly much. Maybe talking about free will is the equivalent to talking about the colour of the Angel Gabriel’s wings – i.e. a rather meaningless discussion in the first place. In any case, I was a bit surprised that Dawkins steered completely around the question, saying he wasn’t interested in talking about it. In doing so he dug a hole for himself that Quinn was quite happy to shove him in during the final seconds of the interview.

The last piece, on the subject of atheistic morality, Quinn made some good points – particularly regarding atheists who cherry-pick the worst that religion has to offer without balancing this against it’s more benign effects. However, Quinn tried to lump atheists in with some of the worst 20th Century dictators and their followers. He implied that, because atheists do not believe in God, that they often believe in some other weird or cruel world theory that is even more invalid. Shouldn’t a true atheist should be skeptical of everything unless there is proper evidence for it? So, just as an atheist would have problems with Islam or Christiantity, so too should he have problems with eugenics or extreme nationalism or Communist utopianism.

Maybe Dawkins was somewhat unprepared for Quinn’s rather aggressive stance, but he didn’t manage to get his point across very well in the short time allotted. I would have loved to have heard a longer debate on the subject.

It starts from about 8 minutes into the program, and you need Real Player to listen to it.

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