A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Friday, June 19, 2015

From Raif Badawi to Charlie Hebdo - The noxious influence of Saudi Wahhabism

I spent the first 10 years of my life in Saudi Arabia - watching the current cruel treatment of Raif Badawi brings a lot of memories into focus. In this blogpost, I wanted to talk not only about the case, but Wahhabism, the odious strain of Islamic puritanism which fuels untold hatred, and to touch on why the mantra that "beliefs must be respected" is fundamentally misguided... 

Saudi Arabia is a a paradox difficult for an outsider to fathom– an oil rich nation with gleaming modern cities and comforts that  yet maintains a religious orthodoxy which makes medieval Europe look enlightened by contrast; The shocking on-going treatment of blogger Raif Badawi is a gruesome  illustration of this very point - Badawi’s sole  crime has been to eloquently express his thoughts on secularism, stating on his blog that “Secularism respects everyone and does not offend anyone ...” .

For these thoughtful words, Badawi lies physically and mentally broken by cruel lashings. Hopes this week for a quashing of his sentence in the face of global pressure have been dashed by an unrepentent Saudi, standing firm despite the pleas of other nations for leniency. This is unsurprising - Saudi Law is notoriously harsh on critics of religion, even those as eloquent and inoffensive as Badawi, with the penalty for apostasy carrying an automatic death sentence by beheading or cruxifiction  . As the Badawi case focues world attention on Saudi’s atrocious human rights record, it’s worth examining the how the distinctly Saudi strain of puritanism has deep implications far beyond the kingdom; whether it’s the horrendous massacre of Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris or horrific actions by ISIS.

Such extremist actions have prompted much conversation about religious sensibility – despite much of these awful events being carried out ostensibly in Islam’s name,  the vast majority of Muslims worldwide condemn the attacks in Paris and beyond. But what fuels such furiousity by a persistent fringe? As other commentators have already stated eloquently, it is absolutely ridiculous to place blame for such attacks on Muslims collectively – this is akin to the blood libel that Jews have persistently been subjected to.  But having made this vital observation, it is important to look at factors driving such extremism – In a recent piece for the Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole points to the odious influence of Saudi Arabia on the propagation of Islamic fundamentalism; having grown up in Riyadh, this is something I can attest to. Saudi is the cradle of Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative puritanical strain of Islam that simply does not tolerate the existence of other beliefs; it is strictly mandated, and worship of other religions forbidden with terrifying penalties for those who would dare defy that ruling. Wahhabism’s petulant intolerance extends beyond conflicting faiths; it declares even other Muslims as takfirs (apostates) – a crime punishable by death.

This this not merely idle posturing; it is rigidly observed. There are few things as terrifying as an encounter with the Muttawa, aggressive enforcers dispatched by Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a somewhat Orwellian moniker. Their brief is to stalk the streets, looking for breaches of Sharia law and meting out whatever punishment they deem sufficient. These infractions might include not correctly wearing the Abaya (covering) or being out in public without a male relative if female, behaving contrary to Islamic morals, or even just socialising. To describe women are second-class citizens would be an understatement: They are banned from most jobs, driving , and even being out in public without male guardians, and these restrictions are aggressively maintained. In response to these archaic decrees, Saudi poet Hamza Kashgari sadly observed that Saudi women will never go to hell, because "it's impossible to go there twice" . Torture and capital punishment are frequently doled out on the flimsy of evidence , in the grim spectacle of public execution. Unsurprisingly perhaps, human rights in Saudi consistently rank among the “worst of the worst” . 

Nor are Foreigners somehow exempt from the whims and rule of the Mutaween; Ali Hussain Sibat, a Lebanese television presenter of a supernaturally themed show was detained and sentenced to death for sorcery, and only spared after relentless pressure from the Lebanese government and human rights groups . Foreigners account for roughly half of all executions in the Kingdom - Religious freedom does not exist; it is expressly banned, even in private dwellings, and this is aggressively enforced- In 2011, Christians in Jeddah were raided whilst praying in a private dwelling, where they were beaten and threatened with death. Many Westerners ex-patriates can easily cite instances where they’d been accosted or abused by the exceptionally zealous and often frightening Muttawa over some perceived transgression– I have a vivid and frightening childhood memory of a Muttawa berating and man-handling my mother in a shopping centre because one of her ankles were visible, his face contorted with unadulterated malice – a horrifying spectacle mercifully shattered by my father physically intervening. 

Nationals fare even worse; in 2002 a fire broke out in a girl’s school in Mecca; rather than assist, Muttawa actively impeded their safe evacuation on account of the girls being improperly covered and the belief of the Islamic police that this would result in sexual enticement. Doors were bolted and civil defence teams held back by the Mutaween, with both firefighters and school girls beaten. This positively medieval stance lead to the deaths of 15 girls. Despite convincing testimony from survivors, civil defence members and reporters, an inquiry absolved the religious police of any wrong-doing. This is not surprising, as the Mutaween are largely untouchable; in 2013, they rammed a car carrying brothers Saud and Nasser Al-Qaws off the road for playing patriotic songs; both brothers died, and footage of the ghastly event went viral. Despite this, a Sharia court dismissed any charges against those responsible. 

The extraordinary power of religious forces in Saudi are an artifact of its history, wrought in the uneasy alliance of the ruling house of Saud with the militant successors of 18th century puritan Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. The immense complexity of this situation is far beyond the scope of this short post, but Robert Lacey’s works are especially illuminating regarding the labyrinth of hidden power struggles that shape modern Saudi. To many western observers, hearing recently deceased King Abdullah praised for being progressive seems absolutely bizarre, unless tempered with the realisation that progressive is an incredibly relative term in this case; the house of Saud’s ability to modernise is opposed clerics, who resist stubbornly any move to modernise and enjoy immense support. Abdullah’s predecessor, King Fahad, once opined privately that "If an election were held here tomorrow, Bin Baz [then Grand Mufti ]would beat us without leaving his house."  As an incredibly oil rich Nation, Saudi has spent billions on exporting its hard-line views, founding mosques and Islamic cultural centres across the world, preaching the same profoundly fundamentalist and often intolerant views. 

So how should we react, when confronted with a twisted spectacle of bare-faced hypocrisy by the Saudi Authorities, condemning the Charlie Hebdo massacre on one hand whilst torturing citizens for thought crimes with another? Worse, as O’Toole explains, the interpretation of Islam that led to the Charlie Hebdo massacre is not a “weird aberration” – it has sprung forth from the Draconian influence of Saudi Clerics, whose deep pockets have allowed their doctrine to creep, despite the tiny fraction of Wahabbists around the world. It is perhaps no coincidence that the most enthusiastic practitioners are the disenfranchised, like the Koucahi brothers – the core of the Saudi Mutaween is similarly composed. Whether it’s the horrors of attacks in New York or Paris, or the brutality of ISIS, the noxious influence of Wahhabism runs deep. 

Saudi also illustrates another fundamental problem we often glide over -  the persistent simplistic mantra that all beliefs should be respected. This is well-meaning but nonsensical at best and actively damaging at worst; people, not beliefs, deserve respect. This should be obvious, but it is frequently inverted; in the outpouring of shock and grief after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, there were those who tried to rationalise the attack, implying or outright stating that while they decried the murders, the publication was racist and offensive. Charges of racism are poorly founded, based on out of context cherry-picking by Anglophones and has been dismantled comprehensively elsewhere. But more telling is the implicit victim-blaming, a rationalisation on the grounds that ‘muslims’ were offended. Not only does this reasoning elevate belief to some undue platform, it is staggeringly reductive and utterly vapid; Muslims are not some homogeneous bunch – there is a world of difference between a devout Wahhabi and a liberal Muslim, an Iranian Shia and a Berber immigrant. It is patronising and insulting to assume their various beliefs, stances and experiences can be unified as a single entity (Zineb el-Rhazoui, the French journalist of Berber origin has penned a wonderful piece skewering the reductive approach which is well worth a read) or that one’s beliefs can somehow justify the taking of human life. 

It is intellectually vapid to place a belief beyond criticism or ridicule solely because it is religious in nature, yet such entitled demands are common, and not solely from Islam by any means; earlier this year the Pope declared that "You cannot make fun of the faith of others." This strain of religious exceptionalism is precisely the problem; While people should be welcome to hold whichever belief they desire, unthinking deference to belief and fear of offending facilitates abuses, particularly when these beliefs place barriers on social integration and equality, or condones abuse or subrogation of others. The problem is that many beliefs are simply toxic, and religion cannot continue to shield for criticism. People have the right to hold them, but when these beliefs infringe on others, the fact that criticism may cause offense should not stop us from doing so. As the Saudi state tortures Raif Badawi, it is vital we remind ourselves that the consequences of respecting belief over respecting people cannot be entertained, and equally important that we recognise Saudi's ugly role in perpetuating  extremism at home and abroad. 

Raif Badawi - appeal here - https://www.amnesty.org.uk/giving/raif-badawi-eappeal 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Disgusting behaviour at the Black Swan, Oxford

Sorry in advance - off topic post.... Science stuff will resume shortly!

In the world's mind, St Paddy's day is now deeply associated with the noxious national stereotype of the Irish as heavy drinking flagellants. Before we condemn the world for typecasting, it's probably fair to point out we're often a little too willing to live up to this role. While it's fantastic in one respect that the world celebrates the national holiday of a tiny western European nation, that this appreciation is often expressed as a dangerous level of intoxication probably isn't so great. In that spirit (pun not intended), I witnessed something Paddy's eve in Oxford that absolutely appalled me. I genuinely have no idea if what I saw was common or not, but it was almost certainly not legal and deeply ethically dubious. I have no idea how to parse it, so I'm writing this as an off topic blog-post and would welcome feedback from anyone on this.

Contrary to national expectation, this Paddy's night was a relatively sober affair for me - I spent the evening with the brilliant people at the COPE consortium (who do absolutely amazing work on organ donation and preservation - do check them out)  giving a talk on Science Media and bad statistics in the rather stunning settings of Balliol college. After the talk and chat it was about 11pm, and I headed off to meet my fellow Oxford Irish friends, Fiona and Leonie with the vague ambition to maybe get a drink in before bed.

Now, if you're familiar with Oxford pubs you'll know getting a drink in on a Tuesday night after 11 isn't all that easy. One of Fiona's contacts suggested that we go to the Black Swan pub, off Cowley Road for a drink. This was only a mild detour from my route home, so we met there. Of course the place was packed and near closing but we got in  and got a round in. The evening was drawing to a close, and the music stopped. One lady stood out - she was middle aged, heavily intoxicated and not firm on her feet. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her hit the ground hard with a degree of aplomb. She had fallen right in the doorway, and people started stepping over here to leave. A little aghast at this, Leonie and Fiona motioned to the two doormen in case they had somehow had some bizarre ocular condition which rendered the upended woman in the neon top a metre away from them invisible. They ignored her, shrugging.

Annoyed by this, we slipped through the crowd and tried to get her up. She was pure dead-weight, and it took quite an amount of effort to maneuver her to a chair. Fiona asked for her name, and tried to find out who she was with. I went to look for her bag and belongings. She was upset, unable to remember where she lived. Her bag and coat were gone, possibly misplaced or stolen. I went up to a member of the bar staff and explained the situation. They didn't seem particularly concerned, and I resumed my sweep of the pub for the rest of this ladies belongings. I didn't know this at the time, but Leonie had also explained the situation to the bar staff who seemed unconcerned.

At this stage, the pub had cleared out. The bar staff remained, plus a contingent of 3 or 4 drinkers at the bar who were obviously friends of the owner or bar staff, as they weren't being herded out the door by the bouncers like the rest of us, and were still being served. The only others in the bar were Fiona, Leonie, the lady and I. It now appeared she had been robbed, was unable to stand or remember where she lived. She was also on her own and quite emotional. At this stage, an older member of the bar staff roared at us to get out - I re-iterated that this lady needed some assistance and appeared to have been robbed. "That's not my problem is it? " she sneered dismissively and continued sweeping.

Now, I get that they're tired - I get that drunk people can be incredibly annoying. But you know something? This lady didn't get herself into such a state by wishful thinking - she had been supplied all night by this bar, despite the fact she was clearly in no fit state to be supplied. I did that laser-focused thing I did when I'm annoyed - "Actually it is your problem - you have a legal responsibility and duty of care to this woman. She's not even able to stand, can't remember where she lives, and has likely been robbed.". Suddenly, the chorus of favoured drinkers at the bar cocked their heads over and chimed in. A woman at the bar (who we'll call Scrappy in this story) yelled "Woz your facking problem you American cunt?" and got out of her bar stool, shaping up to me and prodding my ribs with her finger.

I ignored her provocation and continued engaging the woman whom I assumed to be the most senior staff member there due to her authoritative tone and age. Scrappy continued to prod and kept trying to get in my face. Scrappy's partner was now joining in, and his friends. Scrappy repeated the "American cunt" line louder again. I glared at her and said "I'm Irish, kindly get your fucking hands off me" , and then turned to walk off, realising this was a waste of time. That's when it all kicked off - Scrappy's partner lunged forward and threw a punch at me as my back was turned. It was a cowardly, sly and calculated move, and I would never have seen it coming only one of the girls yelled 'look out' quick enough for me to duck so the punch didn't land. Still, the follow through knocked me forward. I spun round to see him and his mates all standing up looking for a fight. One bouncer stepped in front of them and the other grabbed me, throwing me out the door. He then flung the girls out too.

Given my new-found friends were aching for a fight and we had no intention of becoming statistics, we retreated to a safe distance. We had lost the lady in the melee, but we did know she'd been ejected on her own into the freezing night unsteady on her feed with only a flimsy top, no money and no idea where she lived. We called the police and told them what had happened. On Paddy's night this must have been pretty low priority, as were were told the cops would arrive within the hour. Chiefly, we were concerned about that poor lady and worried about where she might be. I entertained the idea of going back around the pub and looking around there, but given those folks were still drinking at a lock in a police escort seemed more sensible than getting my head kicked in by a bunch of guys in an alley, so we waited.

90 minutes later, while still waiting for the cops, Fiona spotted the lady staggering out of a side street. I ran over to her - she was absolutely freezing, shivering with the cold. I wrapped my jacket around her, and Leonie grabbed a coffee while Fiona talked softly with her. She'd sobered up a little, and was able to tell us more; as soon as she was ejected from the pub, she staggered disorientated down Crown St and had collapsed on the road, where she remained for over an hour, with no thermal protection whatsoever and an unhealthy amount of booze in her system. I was outraged - she genuinely could have died, and the Black Swan in Oxford couldn't have cared less; they're also apparently happy to have lock-ins with people who try to start pub brawls but I digress...

The cops arrived 25 minutes later. By this stage it was nearing 3am - there had been freezing mist all evening and without a jacket I really was feeling it. The cops were polite, and the lady genuinely grateful - she kept hugging us and saying thank you, but she needn't have - any semi-decent human would have done the same. If I had gotten myself into a state for whatever reason, I certainly would hope someone might help me rather than leave me in a situation where I run a very real risk of death or disablement. The police checked her over, and she remembered her address at that stage. They insisted on getting her medical attention first as she was incredibly cold and that is never a good combination with alcohol. We got home a little after 3 am, sober as judges who don't partake in alcoholic exuberances.

But genuinely - what the actual hell is that? That lady should not have been served the amount she had, and the fact the pub were happy to take her money but nonchalant about the risk to her appalls me. All they had to do was keep her in a corner until she sobered up, or call the police about her stolen bags and let them take it from there. SURELY that is an operating hazard of the job? Simply kicking someone out who can't stand without their belongings is a violation of duty of care? How the hell does a dive like that even get a bar licence? The story ended alright, but realistically it could have been a lot more tragic. I'm sorry this post isn't as flippant or fun as usual, but I'm genuinely fluxxomed by this - did the pub break the law? Or were they without the law but still utter bastards? What kind of establishment does lock-ins with people who try to start fights?  I would plead with any of you in Oxford to avoid the place like the plague - there are plenty of good pubs in Oxford that don't engage in this sort of thuggish behaviour.

EDIT - Someone pointed out the me the actual Owner of the Black Swan was done for dealing cocaine recently. I don't know if the ownership has changed since - story here 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Note on the 2014 Maddox Prize

As those of you who follow me on twitter or Facebook might have seen recently, Dr Emily Willingham and myself were the joint recipients of the 2014 John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science; This is a huge, humbling and unexpected honour. The award  "rewards an individual who has promoted sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest. Its emphasis is on those who have faced difficulty or hostility in doing so" and is awarded jointly by Sense About Science, Nature, and the Kohn Foundation. It is named after John Maddox, an inspiring figure who edited Nature for 22 years and consistently encouraged scientists to engage with the public and present the scientific case, even when controversial.

rewards an individual who has promoted sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest. Its emphasis is on those who have faced difficulty or hostility in doing so.  - See more at: http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/john-maddox-prize.html#sthash.ocZyUsfZ.dpuf
rewards an individual who has promoted sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest. Its emphasis is on those who have faced difficulty or hostility in doing so.  - See more at: http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/john-maddox-prize.html#sthash.ocZyUsfZ.dpu

 I am genuinely delighted and grateful to have been recognised in such a way, and really want to thank you, my regular readers, for your continuing support over the years - as you probably gather from my frequent tetchy asides, communicating the scientific consensus can often be somewhat thankless, especially on issues where evidence is at odds with passionately held beliefs. In these instances, writing about the subject often feels like painting a target on one's back, but I do try and reassure myself those who write personal slurs or angry messages are a small albeit loud minority. I delivered a short speech last week at the Sense About Science annual reception, and some of you asked for the text of that so I offer it here;

"I never had the pleasure of meeting John, but I've been inspired by his brilliance; in 2012 I published an academic review with the subtle title “Proposed mechanisms for homeopathy are physically impossible” ; in that paper I discuss his inspired move as editor of Nature to enlist the magician James Randi to investigate a paper which claimed to have found evidence of homeopathy. Their subsequent investigation showed this claim to be unfounded, and showcased for me John's unerring commitment to scientific scepticism . It is a huge honour to be awarded in his name.
Presenting the scientific case can be a seemingly thankless task; we live in an era where instantaneous access to the wealth of human knowledge is at our very fingertips, and yet the paradox of our time is that this same freedom allows odious misinformation and complete falsehoods to perpetuate further and faster than ever before.

Yet while challenging dubious science often feels like a Sisyphean task, it is vital that we in the scientific community continue to engage and support evidence-based discourse, because the problems we face as a society are more than merely academic.  If we are truly to find pragmatic effective solutions to the towering problems facing us today, we will need to encourage evidence in the public sphere.
Curiously perhaps, one of the greatest challenges in conveying  science  is human psychology. The psychologist Leon Festinger observed that "a man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point."  Or, if you prefer Paul Simon’s sentiment  “All lies and jest, still the man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”.  Frequently, personal convictions are impervious to any evidence.

Yet in arenas as diverse as politics to medicine, ideological positions devoid of any evidence often condemn us to meander aimlessly around suboptimal solutions. Yet we cannot afford to forget that reality doesn’t care one iota for what we believe - If we persist in disregarding evidence to bolster misguided ideology, we all suffer for it and this is something we should all seek to challenge not only in others, but ourselves too. Whilst some will never be swayed from their position by any volume of evidence, we can only hope that the silent majority are more reasonable.

Perhaps inevitably, when you challenge beliefs that people may hold dear, some will resort to attacking the messenger and this is never  pleasant to endure. On a personal note, I’d like to thank the people who have supported me through the nastier moments; my fantastic parents and brother , my wonderful girlfriend Mathilde, and my long-suffering friends. I’d also like to thank my colleagues in the University of Oxford and Dublin City University, in particular Prof Enda McGlynn and Dr. Mike Partridge, and my editors at the Irish Times and the Guardian. 

And finally, I’d like to extend my gratitude to the inspiring people at Sense About Science, who have demonstrated that engaging more with the public to counter scientific misunderstandings can in fact benefit everyone .   I am deeply humbled and honoured my contributions to public discussion have been recognised by such pioneers. Thank you, and goodnight. 

-David Robert Grimes, Monday 27th October 2014" 

Prof Enda McGlynn, Myself, Danny "Teegan Murray, Prof. Susan Bewley and Prof. Colin Blakemore at the Sense about Science annual reception.

I'll wrap this up here to keep it short, but thank you all again for your enduring support and for reading my outpourings. If you don't already follow the work of Sense About Science, you might want to check them out as their "Ask for Evidence" campaign launches today.  Massive congratulations again to Dr Emily Willingham, whose work (especially on the autism debate) is excellent and can be checked out here. Thanks again folks - and do keep reading!  Dave

PS: If you're curious about that homeopathy paper... 

PPS: I had a chat with the inimitable Nick Cohen last week, and he has written an excellent piece on why evidence matters which is worth a read

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Anti-biotics, Fluoride, tumours, alcohol and rhetoric - a wide-ranging round-up!

Whenever I start to write a blog-post, I find myself feel guilty over the litany of excuses I produce for my tardiness - Apologies for the delay in updating; much has been afoot -I've been somewhat side-tracked with academic work, teaching and even a sneaky holiday home to go hiking / play guitar, and as usual I've neglected to blog - I have, however, not been totally idle and figured I'd give you good folks who come here despite my lethargy an update of recent events, articles and radio / TV work - as a result, this blog-post will probably be all over the place but there should be something for everyone!


 Response to the Open Letter last Month 

 Despite the absolute inanity of the subject, the anti-fluoride movement continues apace - further to my open letter to Dublin City Council a few weeks back, the council decided that facts and evidence are pretty much a nuisance and can be disregarded and replaced with vapid scaremongering and anti-science sentiment; in their infinite wisdom they voted to remove fluoride from the water supply. This isn't particularly shocking - I've written before both here and for the Guardian the mindless populist politics that drive such a decision, but it is a shame our elected representatives fixate on shallow posturing rather than considered health policy. I should make an exception to my harsh words here however  - several members of Labour, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael replied to my e-mail and told me they would most certainly not vote to remove fluoride. However, no one from Sinn Fein, who pushed the motion, even bothered to reply to the email or letter. Quelle surprise.

Of course, in some respects the whole thing is academic, in the loosest sense of the word - Dublin City Council have no more authority to remove fluoride from water than I have to stage a wet t-shirt contest in the House of Commons, which might lead one to question why exactly the assembled genii of Sinn Fein pressed a vote on it, especially as their similar stunt in the Dail last year fell flat on its face. I debated TD Brain Stanley about this at the time and wrote up my understanding of their position here, but still the whole daft thing rumbles on.

It may be an unsuitable venue for wet t-shirt contests, but if anyone wishes to dunk Cameron in ice-cold water you won't hear any objections out of me.... .

Frankly, the whole fluoride thing bores me to tears; instead of presenting nuanced arguments or actual evidence, the anti-fluoridation lobby in Ireland continue with outlandish assertion, half-baked conspiracy theory and badly-made meme images in lieu of an actual argument. Like some bizarre hydra of hysteria, no sooner have you debunked one myth when three more get flung up in its stead. More than that,  as I've mentioned before it's an area which attracts a very dedicated, angry contingent with severe conspiratorial fixations, and the sheer volume of insulting, aggressive or plain unhinged correspondence it generates is exhausting;  In a textbook demonstration of ad-hom approaches,  I've been accused of being everything from a big pharmacy shill to a bloody member of the Illuminati. The only reason I persist in stating the scientific case is that if the anti-fluoride campaigners were to actually succeed in their position, it would not only set back public health, but would send an alarming message that evidence doesn't matter, and baseless assertion is enough - remember, as Geoff Lillis explained recently, the same lobby group are resoundingly anti-vaccination (and obviously, anti-science) and my real fear is that reversing fluoridation would encourage them rather than appease them. Anyway, I digress....

New Articles

Moving on from the seemingly endless fluoride debacle,  I've also written quite a few pieces over the past few months which are mercifully unrelated to fluoride. In no particular order, topics I've covered recently are...

Anti-biotic resistance  - Antibiotic resistance is a huge encroaching danger to our collective health, and risks rendering us helpful in the face of once curable diseases. If we're to avoid this grim conclusion, we need to take steps to moderate and innovate our drug use. (Opinion, Irish Times)     

Debate, rhetoric and logic -  With the advent of the Internet, we're constantly surrounded by discussion, argument and flame wars masquerading as debate. However, often logic is jettisoned when we fall prey to bad arguments and non-sequitar reasoning. These dubious rhetorical traps are ubiquitous in everything from politics to newspaper pieces, and serve as a vehicle for dodgy reasoning. In this piece, I present some common logical and rhetorical fallacies, and discuss how we can avoid being caught out by them - or worse still, engaging in them  (Irish Times, Features)  

Libertarian ideology and science  - In my previous pieces I have constantly lamented the jarring disconnect between science and ideology; science by definition changes its conclusions in the light of evidence, whilst too frequently ideology denies evidence to preserve its dogma. In this piece, I look at the clashes between economic libertarianism and scientific issues like climate change and gun control, re-iterating the research that suggests ideology blinds us. (Guardian, Science / Opinion)  

Obesity Myths and fad diets - There are entire publishing houses dedicated solely to doling out the latest trendy celebrity endorsed diet plan or supplement, yet the best medical evidence indicates these not only won't make us any thinner, they can actively damage us. Despite incredibly strange dietary fads, it appears that humans, like the rest of the cosmos, are still bound to the laws of thermodynamics and people will put on weight when their energy consumption exceeds their energy requirements, regardless of that hawkers try and cell  (Opinion, Irish Times)

Alcohol and date rape drugs -  If media coverage is in any way indicative of risk, then drug-facilitated sexual assault (DFSA) is alarmingly common. However, public perception is often wrong and in this piece I discuss how research indicates that if any drug deserves the moniker of date-rape drug, it is alcohol that steals this dubious crown. (Guardian Science Blog)

Radio / Television contributions 

I've also done some panel work with BBC and was a guest on BBC World Weekend a while back. I've also been on subsequently with a radio essay on climate change and politics - you can listen to it below

Academic work - Oxygen consumption dynamics

It's been busy on the academic front too - Dr. Alex Fletcher, Dr. Mike Partridge any myself recently had a paper published in Royal Society Open Science, the brand new journal from Royal Society. In this paper, we focus on the mathematics and physics of oxygen consumption in some common models tumour models, and investigate the effects of different oxygen consumption terms. The paper is open access and you can view it here if you're so inclined!

We also made the cover image of the journal, with a 3D rendered tumour spheroid, which you can see here. Turns out Mathematica can render pretty well, if you tell it where the light is coming from!

Our RSOS cover...

Because it was a first issue, we were also interviewed by the journal. If you're curious, you can watch us explain it here!

Right - that's enough for one blog post! Some of you have asked me about the PLOS One guitar paper, and I promise I will try and write a stand-alone blog post on that soon!  Until next time amigos -DRG.

PS: I've fixed the bloody contact form on my academic website - apologies if you couldn't get me there before.. 

Also, I've set up a public facebook page, as I had a few problems with slightly dubious people trying to get info from my private one and had to lock it down (long story) - please do feel free to like, and engage there too - I'll post my updates there in future! 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Holy fluoride, Batman! An open letter to Dublin City Council

 A short open letter to Dublin city council members, ahead of their vote on water fluoridation on September 1st, 2014

Dear Dublin City Councillors,

    I write to you as a scientist and journalist to respectfully request that you allow best evidence to guide your decision on water fluoridation this week - I know you're busy people, and so am I (well technically I'm only a person, singular , but I digress) and it's unlikely you have time to trawl through Pubmed to read study after study on the safety and efficacy of fluoride and that's fair enough. The "too long, didn't read" version of the medical findings on fluoride are pretty clear: it has been hugely beneficial for our collective dental health and one of the few health measures which actually saves much more in dental / medical costs than the relatively puny amount we pay for it, and there's damn few health measures that can be said about. From a social perspective, it provides some modicum of base dental care to every tier in our unequal society.

But what about the terrible things you've heard from campaigners on the issue, insisting it causes everything from depression to cancer to bad haircuts and traffic jams? As politicians you probably try to respect the concerns of your constituents or perhaps more cynically hope they'll reward you with votes in exchange for a quick populist move in their favour.  But the truth is you're giving certain elements way too much credit - the case against fluoride is nothing more than vapid scaremongering, based on a flammable mixture of dubious assertion, spurious correlation, poor reasoning and often a smattering of jaw-dropping dishonesty.

You'll excuse me, I hope, that I'm penning this with a palpable sense of weariness; as a science writer I've covered this topic before and am heartily sick of it - I wrote about it for the Irish Times last September and more recently, the Guardian in April. The title of that piece, "Politicians should stop pandering to anti-fluoridation campaigners" should make my frustration (and indeed, the weariness of many of us in the scientific and health community) clear; In it, I outline the facts and dismiss some of the fictions; as with all Guardian Science pieces it's fully referenced and filled with hyperlinks to medical sources and supporting evidence should you wish to explore further. Similarly, Science journalist Gerry Byrne makes an eloquent case debunking many of these myths you can read here.

The fluoride issue is driven by a vocal minority with an almost religious fervour - many of you have expressed on social media that you've been inundated with emails from anti-fluoride campaigners both in Ireland and abroad and I have sympathy for that - they can be a damn intimidating bunch; I've been verbally abused, threatened and insulted for having the audacity to point out their assertions are simply untrue. I've had a prominent anti-fluoride campaigner and his followers write to my employer and make a series of accusations about me - I've been accused of being in the pocket of big pharma, the Rockefeller foundation and even accused of being a member of the Illuminati (I'm afraid not - a shame, as I hear they have lovely business cards and great child-care facilities) and I agree 100% it's damn unpleasant - I've written about it here if you'd like to see the kind of tactics anti-fluoride fanatics in Ireland use. In fact, I'd urge you to read it, because it gives some background to the facts and fictions you might find useful. It also may give you some insight into the kind of people who've been lobbying you on this topic.

Fluoride conspiracy theories are nothing new - they've been around in their same ludicrous form for decades and even Dr. Strangelove ripped the royal piss out of them back in 1963*. After decades of investigation, their claims are simply without merit. I know they can be an intimidating and loud but it is nothing but sound and fury, and to entertain it would be to allow pure pathetic populism trump good health policy. The anti-fluoride crowd are loud, but it's a safe bet that the vast majority of the county would prefer a health policy based on best evidence rather than ideological scaremongering.. Remember also,  we've been on the anti-fluoride merry-go-round in the past - and in a gesture of appeasement we set up an independent expert body to examine the safety of fluoride; they've continued to find it beneficial for our dental health and have slammed the misinformation from the anti lobby. Similarly, Irish dentists support water fluoridation, and the WHO recommend a level of 1 mg/ L for optimum dental health.

It is scientific bodies like these, and the decades of peer-reviewed science upon which their conclusions are based, that should be underpinning your decision on Monday. Otherwise you're giving a public statement that you're willing to let angel-healing anti-vaccine activists dictate health policy and that cynical populism trumps the health of your electorate. I am personally sick of this topic, and if I'm honest it's not something I feel any great passion about - I almost resent having spent a chunk of my day off having to write about this nonsense again, but there is a principle that matter - if we allow dishonest or misinformed lobbying to displace one of the few positive preventative health measures we have, that is detrimental to everyone and sets a worrying precedent that evidence is simply unimportant in public discussion and policy.

I hope you've found this quick note useful, and  I truly hope tomorrow you'll make the decision to be guided by evidence and not scaremongering.

Best Wishes,

   David Robert Grimes

PS: I will be very interested in your replies, and may publish them here - I think it's important that politics is transparent and I'm sure you agree, though I will be happy to check with you first as a courtesy. 

..pretty much how I feel every time this comes up. Like Batman.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Turning a blind eye...

I don’t make a habit of writing here about personal or non-scientific things, but on my last trip back home to Dublin something happened that I feel might strike a chord with some; it certainly did with me – There will soon be LOTS of pieces about Science and media coming up (Seriously, I’m half way through a series of monster posts so this is somewhat of an aside! ) so if you’d prefer to wait for them do check back soon! This piece is a little about intervention and turning a blind eye, and how this is something we should perhaps strive to avoid.

I’m just back from an excellent and sorely needed holiday in Dublin, and write this just over 24 hours after it happened before I start to forget things – I had a meeting in Town yesterday and grabbed a train from Skerries to Dublin Connolly. I had about 25 minutes to acquire something resembling food and wolf it down before crossing the Liffey. I was longing for a Chicken Salsa wrap, a bizarre craving exacerbated by a barely suppressed hangover from the Dionysian eve before. McDonalds may not be classy, but it ticked both boxes so I popped into the establishment beside the spire. In the queue directly in front of me to my left were two Russian students – baby faced and clearly in their teens. They ordered their food politely in clear but halting English. Immediately in front of me to my right was a woman with a thick inner-city Dublin accent and another younger lady in a Polka-dot belly top whom I presumed to be her daughter. The two dubs glanced over to the Russians and the older one poked the daughter and hissed “watch this now”. 

A typical Russian according to Hollywood - the gentlemen in question were not quite like this

 She proceeded to bump into the Russian beside her – out of basic politeness, he immediately apologised despite not having done anything. The older Dub kicked up a loud stink “Ah me bleeding back! Ah Jesus, would you watch it!”. The Russian teen apologies profusely, as the mother shoots a sideways snigger at the daughter. “Me back is fucked now, I’ll be getting me fookin’ solicitor after ya!” – The Russian teens look at each other, a little confused. “Da Lawyer” the daughter interjects. They guys know this word, and look quite panicked, apologising again. She's now milking it like a rotten ham; “Sorry isn’t good enough – yiss should be giving me money for that. I need a doctor”. This exchange is happening right in front of me, and I’m just waiting for the older woman to burst out laughing and exclaim she’s only winding them up. Only that doesn’t happen – in full view of everyone there, and within earshot of everyone in a 100 metre radius (at a charitable estimate) she proceeds to demand money. Within a moment she’s snatched a tenner from evidently distressed Russian student, bemoaning it’s not more. Lots of us are watching and I keep waiting for the moment she hands it back to him, laughing that she wound him up so much. But that doesn’t happen - her and the daughter snatch their food off the server and steam off giggling.   

The two Russian guys look genuinely shaken and distraught. “Excuse me guys – do you know that lady?” I ask. No. They don’t. And yes, she took their money. They’re just teens, language students over for a course. I was mortified that anyone in my country, especially a guest, would be treated that way so publicly and feel compelled to apologise profusely. They shrug, unhappy but thank me for my kind words. The others who’d watched the whole scene dissipate and say nothing. 

I stood there for a moment and tried to concentrate on navigating my chicken wrap, but my anger at what had transpired gnawed at me. I glanced over to the Russians who were sheepishly eating their meals, visibly uneasy. What kind of introduction to Ireland is that? What must they have thought of Irish people? I decided in that moment that my mere commiseration wasn't enough - I ambled over and asked them to wait for a second - now the McDonald's near the spire is a monstrosity of a building that sprawls over 3 stories, but I eventually found the odious pair on the very top level. While I damn well knew they were fully aware of that they were doing, I figured it might be possible to disarm them by playing dumb - channelling my best bumbling Hugh Grant-esque shtick, I approached the Gorgon nest gingerly.  

"Excuse me ladies - awfully sorry to bother you during lunch, but I'm afraid the little joke with the Russian students might have gone a little far - perhaps you could return their money and clear up the misunderstanding?"

I'm not sure what I was expecting, but the response was probably inevitable - the senior Medusa reared her shrivelled head and roared "Who the fook are you, you nosy little prick?" as the daughter shot me daggers - all the others diners spun around facing the source of the commotion like Antelope startled by a lion attack. My strategy of disarming discretion was now firmly out the window - she continued with a stream of interesting yet repetitive expletives directed at me.  I locked her gaze and outlined the problem to clarify the scene for the now captive audience in the hope public exposure might have some effect on her - "You threatened a young man, a visitor to this country, and intimidated him out of his limited money. You should be ashamed of yourself." Others around nodded in subtle agreement. "Fook off ya nosy fookin' bollox - he almost fooking killed me, me fookin back is in bits - that's my money now, should have taken a fooking hundred for the fookin' pain I'm in .I haven't done anything wrong so fook off ya ****".

Good cop, bad cop, Hugh Grant - a poor strategy for negotiation...

Despite my annoyance, I did my best to keep my tone calm and even and mainly succeeded -  "Listen, you Queen fucking Harpy - spare us the act. I was right behind you in the queue and saw your entire pathetic confidence trick - that boy didn't so much as glance you - incidentally, given you can't act to save your blessed life, you should give it up. And don't you dare pretend that what you did was in anyway justified - You extorted a scared kid, a pure shake-down - and the kid is just off the damn boat - what a fucking fantastic ringing endorsement for Ireland you are". 

"Fook off ya prick - what the fook are ya you nosy little bollox? Get d'fook outta here". I was glaring now and hadn't averted my gaze once through the entire exchange. I'm fairly sure I may have been emitting steam at this point but I bit it back - "There's a GardaĆ­ station on this very street. I suggest you give that gentleman back his money or I will go to them instead". She sneered with contempt to the gallery "Go get the fooking Guards. I did fookin nothin' wrong. They can arrest that little prick for breaking me fooking back".

I shook my head and walked away, to the sound of the junior kraken mouthing off -  "he's off now, ya fooking showed him!". Problem was, I was in a bind - while what had happened was clearly extortion and textbook hustling, I was sceptical whether the police could in fact do anything about it. I walked down the stairs, passing the Russians and the crowd of rubber-neckers who were listening in. "Back in a second, sorry - stick here" I muttered to the bemused pair as I exited the building and jogged up to O'Connell St Garda station. I outlined the situation to the duty officer, who agreed it was disgraceful and that he'd send a patrol immediately. I thanked him, but figured that this might be a polite fobbing-off for an event that simply didn't have the priority to making it a pressing concern.

I returned and apologised again to the Russians, assuring that them the vast majority of Irish people were not like this. I joined my long-suffering ladyfriend for my now frozen wrap. She asked if the police were coming, and I answered that it was very unlikely they would arrive in time if they did come - they probably just didn't have the time and resources for such things and sadly this time the nastiest person won. I had no sooner outlined this theory when it was immediately falsified by a triumvirate of Boys in Blue making their way up the stairs. I filled them in, and pointed out the victims and the culprits. One cop approached her and politely asked if they had taken money from the students. “What the fook is that *** after saying?! Who the fook are you?!” she yelled at me. “I’m the fucking pope as far as you’re concerned” I shot back, immediately realising that response made bugger all sense, except maybe in some surrealist way. Still it made me feel better and temporarily stunned her so there was that. The cop took charge and reiterated his question.  She admitted to having the money but said she’d go to her lawyer and that the cop could sod off. He calmly clarified -  “You extorted money under duress. Now are you going to give it back or do I have to arrest you?”. Bizarrely, she refused to give it and he shook his head as he popped out the handcuffs “Seems rather odd to me you’re willing to get arrested over a tenner” he mused philosophically, with the patience of a saint on Xanax.  

At this point I returned downstairs to see how the Russians were doing. A few seconds later one cop re-appeared with a grin and a tenner between his fingers. He handed it to the Russians, and apologised for their experience. “Where ya from lads, Russia? Jesus you lot aren’t popular the moment! Be safe now, and don’t let ones like that push you around”. He turned to me and informed me that he hadn’t enough to hold her on once she surrendered the tenner, but that I might want to get out before her to avoid another verbal exchange - “She’s not happy with you at all” he grinned. The two students were very grateful, and I assured them the vast majority of Irish people were alright. One told me in halting English that “You..are Irish. They are…” … “…scangers most likely” I shrugged, as they smiled bemused and mystified by the unexplained interjection Irish slang. I bid them farewell, and prepared to beat a hasty retreat before the Krakens awoke. 

Full disclaimer - I feel obliged to point out at this juncture that I am myself a born and bred Northsider...

Now, if you’ve stuck with me this far, you might wonder what the point of this whole story was – a tenner isn’t much, and even though the behaviour of the two wagons was appalling, it wasn’t anything so bad that the guys wouldn’t have eventually shrugged it off when they realised the vast majority of Irish people are nothing like that. Nor is it particularly brag-worthy – liberating a half-score from some awful people isn’t going to feature in “Tales of Heroism” anytime soon. This is all true, but what happened next was the part that genuinely affected me – as my ladyfriend and I prepared to leave, an older black lady who had been quietly watching the whole thing turned to me and said “Thank you” so sincerely it took me off guard – I smiled but mentioned I didn’t really do anything more than I felt was right– no one deserves that nonsense, and I’d hope anyone who sees it would call it out. She smiled wistfully and told me that she’s been living in Dublin 15 years, and lost count of the amount of times that she’d been on the receiving end of abuse and no one has lifted a finger to help. “I wish there were many more like you” she said softly.

And at that moment, I felt a surge of something that took me completely by surprise. I understood exactly why I had gotten so enraged by what I saw; it wasn’t just the bad behaviour of the cantankerous crone and her crony (pun five) that had irked me – that was almost tangential to the issue. No, what had really made me fume was how so many other people saw exactly the same thing I had and did absolutely nothing. They saw someone vulnerable clearly upset, bamboozled, and exploited and still chose to turn a blind eye. And it was that mentality of “someone else’s problem” that struck a chord with me – while it’s long in the past, I’ll never forgot the numerous times I got the living daylights beaten out of me by a gang of thugs and people –older people, groups of adults, other teenagers - would just stroll past and pretend it wasn’t happening. I’ll always vividly remember one time I was covered in blood, held down by four or guys whilst the remainder of the gang took turns using my face and ribs for kicking practice,  and still being able to resolve the spectre of people scurrying past trying to remain oblivious to what was transpiring in front of them.

That wasn’t the worst beating I ever got by any stretch, but it wasn’t the attacks that stayed with me – I had been a soft target, but with time I got tougher, more assertive and streetwise enough to avoid the idiots looking for trouble. I was resilient and well supported by loving family and friends that I shrugged much of it off – but to this day I will never be able to understand how people can see all manner of obvious injustices being perpetuated in front of them and resolve to pretend it isn’t happening. And I suspect part of me will always be angry when people shirk their basic obligation to assist those in need of help or protection, even if that assistance is something as easy as calling the police and reporting an incident, or talking to a victim.  

That being said, I do understand why people don’t always intervene directly – sometimes we may not know all the facts, sometimes we’re scared of what the consequences might be. This is especially understandable in situations where physical violence is a factor - I remember a friend and I trying to stop a man who was punching a woman on O’Connell Street (Note to self: Avoid O’Connell Street) , only to get slapped around by the very woman he was punching. Indeed, had the villains of this story been two large men instead of two women I could bench-press I may have convinced myself direct intervention was a poor choice – but even in these situations, something as simple as getting the police can make a huge difference to the victim and the outcome.  If nothing else, it’s a simple human act that can make someone realise they’re not utterly on their own when bad things occur.

I’ll try to quit the rant now it’s out of my system, but if you ever see people being abused in any fashion, anything you can do to get them a little assistance will be far more appreciated than you’d ever realise – whether it’s directly intervening, getting them help or even just asking if they’re alright. We as humans do not exist in a vacuum, and while it’s tempting to dismiss such things as none of our business or not our problem, even a minor intervention can be enough to make a huge difference, and if nothing else it might help you sleep easy at night.

As an aside, I would like to point out that my experience with Irish cops has always been absolutely brilliant, whether I’ve been put face first through a window or gotten my car jacked - it’s a damn tough job and hats off to the cops yesterday who responded so quickly. I'd also like to assure non-Irish readers that in general, Dublin and indeed Ireland is a very friendly place to visit, and such events are rare. Science stuff will resume in the next post!    

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