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

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Summer round-up - Cancer Myths, fluoride panics and a little aside on science (mis)representation

Salutations, blog-o-philes - As usual, I'll be prefacing with an apology for tardiness. It's been several weeks since my last confession  my last update, but in my somewhat lame defence I've been fairly productive of late and have had to keep my extra-curricular Internet ramblings to a minimum. However, I have been getting myself into trouble in different media, so without further verbosity, here's what has been afoot since last time I abused this medium*

A bit about better understanding of science - Irish Times
Science is an oft-misunderstood beast; there are many who consider it like a forceful authority, something akin to a religion where scientists decree something to be and that's the orthodoxy all must accept. But nothing could be further from the truth; science is a method for discerning the world around us - it is constantly changing in the light of new evidence. This is why the all too frequently bandied about comparison of scientists to priests is not just wrong, but showcases a blithering misunderstanding of the entire process. The only "god" in science is evidence. In this piece, I attempted to explain this, and more importantly why understanding what does and does not constitute science is vital.

"If we cannot do this, we will continue to believe absurdities, with detrimental and even disastrous consequences. As we face the reality of global warming and denialists try to cast doubt on the facts, one must hope that we have learned something from history."

This is not simple poetic license, or hyperbole - climate change is very real, and the consequences of denying it are too unpleasant to behold - but it is hard to address a problem when so many brush away the science behind it as nothing more than a subjective opinion. This is a topic that matters, and despite the abuse science writers tend to get for this (myself included) and I will return to it.

On the plus side, at least I'm not getting chewed out by religious conservatives over this one! 

Giant's causeway - Not actually built by giants..

6 persistent Cancer Myths - The Guardian
Precisely what it says on the tin - Cancer is a subject rife with misconceptions and conspiracy theories, and in this bit I attempt to address just a handful of them; as it's such an emotive subject there was a chance it would come off as cold and uncaring but I am assured it reads well - it is also the first piece I've written that has been syndicated so that's a first on the plus side - on the downside, it did attract the ire of some slightly unhinged individuals who think it's ok to write demanding opus-length accusatory letters to your place of work when you've already blocked them on multiple social networking sites but the positive feedback and kind words I received have more than made up for the one or two angry people. Sadly, the ubiquity of cancer means that 6 myths barely scratches the surface, but it's a start. 

Sharks do indeed get cancer, like most complex multi-cellular organisms. Shark embryos ALSO cannibalise each other in utero because Sharks are bloody scary killing machines

Fluoride conspiracy theories - Irish Times 
Many of my Irish readers have asked me to cover this topic for the last year or so - initially I resisted, as I was afraid they were so fringe and deeply conspiratorial that giving them air time would only encourage them. Sadly, Irish music magazine Hotpress has been giving profoundly unscientific scare stories free reign and there are a significant amount of people who have been scare mongered by bogus health fears over something that has done precious little harm and lots of good. Another reason for my initial reluctance to cover it was because it has long been the reserve of conspiracy theorists. 

 It also has given rise to one of the best parodies of conspiracy theories ever committed to celluloid

I wasn't quite prepared for the barrage of personal abuse and hate mail I received over this one - most of them pretty lazy ad hominems in lieu of more reasoned arguments. The comments are sadly typical; constant streams of misquoted studies, selective quotes and shoddy reasoning (plus some terrible chemo-phobia and rank chemistry fails). One encouraging thing was the small but well reasoned band of individuals who attempted vainly to counter the sound and fury - a noble enterprise but one doomed to failure; arguing with conspiracy theorists is kind of like playing whack-a-mole - knock one mistruth down and they'll simply substitute another unfazed. Or just repeat the original mistruth louder. And then of the ad-homs; Of course, the mods deleted some of the more vicious ones but some of the more gentle gems remain; 

That's actually a stipulation in my contract!

 Some of the comments were actually indistinguishable from advanced satire;


But the exchange of the day for me was this, between the comic duo of Matthew Carrigan and Ronan McManus - they deserve double kudos for countering much of the nonsense on the comments too.

Toxic waster pushers extraordinaire...

It turns out that Matthew's observation was not in jest; the reason the article (and me) had been hit by such an influx of traffic was because girl against fluoride had mentioned it to her 11,200 odd facebook fans... and yes, they did go down the "who pays the scientist?" route... 

If the Rockefellers WERE bank rolling me, I'd want a pay rise and hazard pay for this nonsense. Plus possibly a jetpack

On the plus side, the article was well received by dentists and medics, and at least countered the nonsense Hotpress have deemed worthy of uncritical coverage - scares sell, but the onus should be on a publication to validate what it runs and it irks me supremely that magazines can run such garbage and mutter "public interest" as if they somehow gives them carte blanche to scaremonger. Yet sadly, as we've seen from the MMR debacle,  that is precisely what happens. If my piece in someway helps to nullify that corrosive influence, then I'm happy - but that shouldn't have to happen; journalistic integrity and editorial responsibility should ensure that any self-respecting publication would put the lie to such nonsense. Sadly, given the Daily Mail continues to exist unabated, this is little more than idealistic dreaming on my behalf. 

I finally got some footage from the RTE debate I did with MEP Patricia McKenna way back at Christmas. I've been working on NOT flicking my hair as much. You'll also see the excellent Denis Duff of BENE on the same segment - Debate starts about 19 min into it if you wish to skip ahead!

So folks, that's the round-up for now; I will try to do a stand-alone blog in the near future if I get a second to myself but for now, enjoy! Thanks for reading - Comments are always welcome, and as usual you'll find me on Twitter @drg1985

*"Abusing a medium"  always conjures up an image of repeatedly tasering Derek Acorah...

Friday, July 5, 2013

Fun and frolics with the Iona Institute

Last week I had an Irish Times piece on the misrepresentation of research by religious conservatives, which generated quite a bit of a response. I am firmly of the belief that anyone is entitled to whichever religious or irreligious views they like - if someone is opposed to same sex marriage or abortion on grounds of their faith, I respect their right to feel that way and hold those beliefs. But I have little truck for those who try to force their beliefs upon others, and especially those who misrepresent research in a cynical attempt to scaremonger and fortify their religious standpoint. This is essence is what the piece was about; perhaps inevitably, I highlighted some Irish examples of this from the Iona institute. They have taken the liberty of replying, and this piece contains a retort to some of their points.

First off, the piece itself: as with any Irish Times thread relating to abortion or religion, the comment thread became a flame war; it hit 517 comments rapidly before commenting was suspended. It probably goes without saying that is an editorial decision by the paper - of course even if I was to know of the legal or moderation issues which lead to this decision, I would not be liberty to discuss it. Rather annoyingly, there were an awful lot who seem to think that *I* have the authority to demand that comment threads be pulled from a national newspaper: this is charming, but false. It didn't stop a barrage of e-mails, tweets, and facebook messages accusing me of all sorts. Like...

Oddly,  this same individual was on a DIFFERENT IT thread a few days later, telling everyone who would listen that I had got the comment section pulled because I was afraid of his brilliant arguments. *facepalm*

Ah my old nemesis anonymous egg - still unable to distinguish between a liberal / libertarian / librarian

Sadly, in reality I have no control over the bottom part of the Internet. I have a simple policy when it comes to comment threads on my articles: I try to keep my interactions to a minimum, and only comment to clarify a point if it is ambiguous or being deliberately misconstrued. Despite the abandoning of the comment section, the piece was popular and was retweeted by several high profile folks like Richard Dawkins and Dr. Jen Gunter. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the Iona institute responded not one, but twice: In a strange postscript to an unrelated article, Breda O'Brien wrote:

"PS. David Robert Grimes, in an article on Wednesday, accused me of misusing research by Dr David Fergusson into the effects of abortion on women’s mental health. Did he miss the clarification on Morning Ireland on May 9th by Cathal Mac Coille stating that Dr Fergusson expressed no unhappiness whatsoever with how the Iona Institute has presented his research? As for his allegation that David Quinn effectively misused research about the effects of different family forms on children, may I suggest he reads David’s article in the current issue of The Village? That will set him straight. "

This is laughable; I accused Ms O'Brien of both misrepresenting AND cherry-picking; Ferguson is on record as complaining about such abuses of his work and a legal statement from some Irish radio-host (who I never mentioned in the article, incidentally) doesn't change that one iota. All that suggests is the Iona institute have very good lawyers. Moreover, I accused Ms O'Brien of ignoring the scientific consensus, cherry-picking to suit her religious conviction, which she continues to do here with aplomb and merely re-iterates the entire point of my original article And why in Christ's name would David Quinn's opinion on family matter? Has he recently been conducting peer-reviewed research? No. Has he misrepresented research in the past? Certainly. This is precisely the problem I wrote about and it is one that continues unabated here. Even more bizarrely, John Murray (also of the Iona institute) dedicates an entire piece to me, but has insurmountable problems keeping even a semblance of logical consistency:

"He says her “championing of this study is textbook cherry-picking” that can’t stand up to “even a cursory examination”. Frankly, it is Dr Grimes’s accusation that doesn’t stand up to a cursory examination..Previously, Breda had correctly summarised the study in her column in this newspaper. Fergusson et al , she wrote, “decided to examine the research in order to ascertain whether there were any mental health benefits to abortion. The findings are stark: ‘at the present time there is no credible scientific evidence demonstrating that abortion has mental health benefits' ... So Breda never claimed this study shows “abortion damages women”. Dr Grimes should have checked his facts first."

Let's pretend for a moment Ms O'Brien has 'correctly summarised' the study (a charitable stretch, but play along with me for a moment here...): she has STILL used this to imply something which is at best irrelevant and totally misleading: Ms O'Brien's original argument (viewable here)  was an utterly disingenuous straw-man of an argument; the evidence suggests abortion is not damaging to a woman's mental health, but there is PLENTY of evidence that denying women a choice IS damaging, and it is something O'Brien ignores either out of ignorance or because she is aware it would fatally cripple her argument. Moreover, the vast majority of women who opt for an abortion do not regret it (Fergusson 2008, Munk Olsen 2011, JHU 2008, RCP 2011)  further eroding O'Brien's weasel words. Surely if the Iona institute were so concerned with research, they'd have quoted the 2012 Lancet study which found women in areas where access to abortion is limited actually have a higher proportion of abortions and far more unsafe abortions (Sedgh et al 2012)?  In either case such questionable reading of Fergusson's admittedly limited research IS cherry-picking. I'll include a definition here just in case anyone from the Iona institute bothers to read this. Murray continues, undaunted:

"Based on research to date, we simply cannot say with any real precision how children raised by same-sex couples are faring. Until sufficient good- quality research is conducted, we must withhold judgment and not even consider redefining marriage, which is so valuable as our most child-centred social institution."

Non-Sequitur alert: re-defining marriage for whom? Why would same sex couples getting married make an a modicum of difference to the marriage of others? Nor is this a point I ever made: I merely challenged Quinn for MISQUOTING research with the intention to mislead. Nor was I the only person to do so. The research to date is actually pretty convincing, with over 150 studies providing a good basis for comparison. What Dr. Murray is doing here is simply what other opponents of LGBT have done for quite some time. In any case, one twitter user hit the nail on the head;

Paul makes a good point: Most people in favour of same sex marriage do so on human right grounds.It is a happy bonus that contrary to Murray's assertion, the evidence is pretty clear that if children are involved, they fare equally well raised by same-sex parents. The whole "defending marriage" and "re-defining marriage" are poorly founded tangents betraying a certain attitude: marriage is not just about raising kids. This mindset is at the root of such contrivances. At the risk of repeating myself, I make this abundantly clear in the original piece:

If the Iona Institute want to oppose same sex marriage and abortion on religious grounds, I'm all for it - that is their right, and one I would never begrudge them. But I re-iterate, it is not alright to ignore the scientific consensus and misrepresent research to bolster their views and scaremonger people into supporting them. Surely if their religious conviction is strong enough, they don't require secular validation anyway? The scientific consensus is that abortion does not damage a woman's mental health and that the vast majority of women do not regret their abortions; similarly, the evidence to date suggests strongly kids fare just fine when raised with loving single-sex couples. Religious conservatives may still disagree with both trends, and that is their right - but when they engage in cynical attempts to paint the research as somehow bolstering their viewpoint, it erodes their own moral position drastically.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Dear John; We need to talk

Some of you may be familiar with the work of John Waters; he's an Irish religious conservative who is blessed with strong opinions, laced with increasingly toxic amounts of homophobia and misogyny. Seeing as John's gone and upset every one again this week, this is my open letter to Dear old John

Dear John – we need to talk.

      You’ve been writing since long before I was even born, and your prose has never been in question – but of late, I cannot help but notice the rosary clutching morally indignant Ireland you paint is not the Ireland many of us know, and I'm concerned about your grasp on reality.  I’ve always found the open letter format to be twee, and feel perhaps it would have been more appropriate to have such discourse with you online. But you have made your hatred of modern technology clear, and claimed on numerous occasions that bloggers and Wikipedia editors are idiots, I wouldn’t dare demean your evidently gargantuan intellect by suggesting such a plebeian thing without due cause; while you have of course demonstrated that your preferred medium for mal-content rants is in the pages of the national paper of record, I shall confine mine to this unworthy medium. 

Firstly, before we even begin, what, may I ask, is a self-styled Liberal? Evidently some breed distinct from externally styled liberals but further than this I am in the dark; this particular line graces many of your recent outpourings, but what does it mean? Meaning is a word you’re very fond of, but of late I must admit to seeing only empty rhetoric masquerading as something deeper.

Is the opposite of a self-styled liberal a conservative with a stylist? So that's your secret, you dapper stud, you....

Take, for example, gay rights - Now, you speak much of the gay agenda, which I am curious about - What exactly is the gay agenda? A secret ploy to induce the village people into the rock and roll hall of fame? A nefarious plot to hatch another sex in the city movie? Were it the latter I might rally behind you on basis of taste, but I suspect the entire homosexual community is - somewhat ironically perhaps - far from homogeneous. If by gay agenda you mean the idea that people should not be discriminated against on basis of their sexuality then I cannot see how one could argue against that without being an absolutely screaming bigot. You’ve said gay marriage is ” destructive to the fabric of Irish society” – this fabric seems very fragile, what exactly is it composed of? A less charitable man might feel you are you just making things up again to support an incredibly weak argument.  No one is advocating forcing people to marry within their own gender, merely allowing homosexual people who love each other have the same chance to be miserable as heterosexuals 

The gay agenda laid bare?! All credit to GraphJam

Of course, your pet subject recently has been abortion – and of course, that in itself isn't unusual; it is a subject that has room for a whole myriad of different views. While I respect your right to have an opinion, would it kill you to think before you speak?  Or even do the most rudimentary fact checking?  Perhaps, Mr Waters, you are not aware that many couples take the decision to terminate together, rather than it being some selfish women-being-uppity-gits thing, as you've claimed recently.  Relationships have more nuance than perhaps you are familiar with. You're concerned these women are depriving fathers of their hard earned sperm, but maybe we need to revisit biology 101; while a man and woman share 50% of the genetic input for a child, it is totally false to even try and argue our roles are the same; let's be honest here, our chief task in the act of conception is a "fire and forget" operation If you’ll excuse the visual - a cameo role in a show which quickly becomes a one woman performance which we can at best support.

The video-game of the male role in conception....

You have said that "In the culture we have constructed of recent times, the question of the child’s survival is a matter primarily for the woman." This is an easy mistake to make - You seem to have conflated culture and biology.  I can see how the confusion arose; doubtless it is the fact that biologists develop their own kinds of 'cultures', but I assure you that these are entirely nothing to do with what you think you are arguing. Unless the process of mammalian pregnancy changes drastically and women begin laying eggs, your central thesis is fatally undermined.  If you do have problems with biology, I suggest as a man of faith you direct your complaints to management because I’m afraid liberals and pro choice supporters have precious little influence over this matter. Besides, he’s more likely to listen to you than me, given I keep doubting his existence. 

Here's a culture I made earlier!

 Speaking of that, we really should talk about the whole religion thing; you’re on record as saying that people of faith are "funnier, sharper and smarter" than atheists, so perhaps you can excuse the dullness on the part of this extreme agnostic when I ask where exactly you draw this nugget of divine wisdom from? You are adamantly against secular education, stating that education without religion indoctrination produces mindless unquestioning robots – yet as you insist on a theistic status quo without a modicum of evidence, perhaps you are not a man in possession of a calibrated irony meter?

As an aside, wouldn't it be AWESOME if these actually existed?!

I wouldn’t ever wish to take away the beliefs that you hold dear, be they religious or moral.  But I would kindly ask you stop insisting the rest of the country subscribe to them. When the recent survey showed the Irish are quite irreligious, you dismissed it as meaningless and said religion “defies measurement... through media as limited as numbers”. Sadly John, democracy does have a keen respect for the will of the population, and no matter how holy you think your cause is, the numbers say you're barking up the wrong tree. 

This is the crux of the issue that in all your columns you fail to see; you bemoan how secular elements of Ireland have become without realising the majority of the country wants a place where all religions are accepted but none mandated for. No one is forcing you into gay marriage, abortion or any of the other things you rail against, but you and your ilk are trying to force the hand of the many others who do not share your beliefs.

Being an apologist for the Catholic church must be incredibly time consuming at this point in history, when the church are claiming moral authority while defending child rapists in their ranks,  but kindly stop presuming to speak for Ireland. Ireland can speak for herself. Whether you choose to listen is your call.



Sorry for that aside to anyone that came here looking for the usual science / medicine stuff, I will go back to ranting about that shortly!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Nukes, Guns, Mayans and Mayhem - a tigerific update

Before I even start, I owe an apology to the ~5000 a people a month who have very kindly kept checking out the site, despite the fact it's now been over 6 months since I last blogged - I am terribly sorry for this; sadly, real life just got in the way. Much as I love ranting about science and including funny pictures with sarky misanthropic commentary, I'd become so busy with my actual research and newspaper article stuff that I had quite simply lost track of this. One of the reasons for this is simple; while I seem to get more hits than I'd expect, very few people comment, which always makes me a little paranoid that I'm having long, drawn out conversations with myself - actually, scratch that, I *DO* have long, drawn out conversations with myself, but I try not to blog them for fear of immediately being committed into a special facility for people who have rather passionate arguments with themselves. Please, by all means, feel free to comment and share your thoughts, disagreements or creative combination of vulgar words and I'll endeavour to update this more frequently!

Right, so enough preamble -what's been going on ? Well I've managed to be allowed on Television, had articles in the Guardian and Irish Times and somehow was trusted to do a podcast. I'll try to do this in chronological order...

I look immensely self-satisfied here - which is odd, because at the time I was staring at a wall, trying desperately to not swear on live Television....

The Prime-time debate
Just before Christmas I was asked to take part in a Television debate for the Irish TV show prime time on the subject of nuclear power. This was a subject I've spoken about before numerous times, both here and for the Irish Times. My opponent was MEP Patricia McKenna, and the subject was a report from Sellafield. While twitter seems to think I won comfortably, I think I had the unfair advantage of (1) having actual facts and (2) not being a conspiracy wingnut.

I learnt some interesting things about live Television too

  • They can see you, but you CANNOT SEE THEM. Seriously - you get a little ear piece, about the quality of a very bad phone line and a voice goes "You're on!" - you spend the interview staring at a camera on a wall
  • The realisation that you are live on air and you could say ANYTHING is both amusing and terrifying all at once. If you actively try to think of things not to say, your brain will try and make you go there. Resist the urge.
  • I flick my hair a lot in the absence of social feedback. Mental note to not do this again. 

My friends, of course, reacted something like this;


So the world ended on 21st of December. But if you're reading this, you weren't on the guest list and missed it. So did I, apparently. Here's my piece for the Irish Times on the very subject.  The article was really about how myths get bound into the public consciousness, but that was slightly overshadowed by people's outrage at the title of the article - which is a shame, given writers rarely get to choose the damned headline.

Moral of the story - Always blame the subeditor

The wonderful Inkredulous ran out of guests, so they scraped the bottom of the Barrel and invited the wonderful Becs O'Neill and myself as guests. From the States, we had the sardonic and delightful Brian Thompson and his talking cat.  The episode was mainly about religious woes, throwing cats out of windows and weird freaky animal (and human) sex. I also learnt that imbuing a half bottle of rum during a recording can, in limited circumstances, improve the end product. This merely proves you can take the man out of Ireland, but you can't take the Irish out of the man.

The episode is here

BONUS: Andy and co were unprepared for how much the Irish can ramble;  there is an more outtake material here

Sense about science Media training
Sense about science are a fantastic organisation dedicated to promoting critical thought and appraisal of evidence. If you haven't before, I urge you to check their website here. Last month they ran a truly excellent course on how scientists can better engage with the media, and one I urge you to go on should the opportunity present itself.
Surprisingly for me, one of the individual I found most impressive was David Derbyshire; as a Daily Mail and red top science writer, he correctly summarised that most of us would dislike him by default.  Over the course of his talk, he completely blew our preconceptions out of the water - he was sharp, honest and gave a truly great insight into how stories can transmutate from the writer's copy to the printing press version.

Moral of the story - Always blame the subeditor - again. 

Every speaker was incredibly helpful and insightful - we learnt the value of the press release, and how to avoid some pitfalls when communicating research to the public. Crucially, we also learnt how to pitch - taking David's advice, I sent a piece to the Guardian, which lead to....

The NRA, guns, and the myth of protection
There's an old adage that claims  the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result - confusingly, this is also the definition of experimental physics. In such a case, trying to use 'facts' and 'evidence' with a hardened politically motivated gun crowd may well be the kind of action that can get you institutionalised, but I digress. I wrote a piece for the Guardian on why the NRA are utterly dishonest about gun crime. The reaction was more intense than I expected, but a good lesson - you'll find it here.

Interesting aside: At least 2 of my friends thought I was a girl in the head shot in that article.  

Climate change in the Irish Times
One of the reasons I've argued for nuclear so much in the past is that I am of the opinion that climate change is the greatest threat we face as a species. The unseasonably cold weather across Western Europe was the spring board for me to write about this, as this cold snap is directly related to Arctic air and jet streams. So the Irish Times ran this piece by me.

And you know something? I've written about abortion, secularism, homeopathy, nuclear power, vaccination, even gun - and I have NEVER gotten the kind of abuse I've got over this article. Granted the abuse came from global warming denialists and wingnuts, but still rankles somewhat. One of the annoying things about science writing is that you're trying hard to convey sometimes complex processes to the widest possible audience; this means you may simplify. But if you simplify, some will complain you haven't a clue what you're talking about. Equally if you're too technical, people will accuse you of blinding with science.

The balance is hard to get, and denialists love to nitpick - I wrote, as a simplification - "Arctic ice melted at record rates last year, releasing heat energy. This altered the fast-flowing air currents above our planet, known as the Jet stream, allowing cold Arctic air to travel much further south than usual." - "HAHA!" exclaims denialist number 1. "It takes ENERGY to melt ice, so the author doesn't know physics! Therefore climate change isn't real!" Indeed, it might look like this armchair physicist has got me, and I should hand back my degree and PhD. Only our pedantic friend's grasp of conservation of energy doesn't quite match his expertise in thermodynamics; It takes heat to melt ice - but that melted ice can no longer absorb heat energy, and consequently, the ocean gets warmer. The iceberg doesn't exist in isolation and all that trapped heat energy has to go somewhere, rendering this point moot.  

It has taught me that there are people that will distort what they can to justify denying the evidence, and it does worry me a little that such disingenuous thinking can exist and even prosper.Climate change affects us all, and history will judge those who tried to distort the evidence as harshly as we judge big tobacco now.

Anyhow - This was just a quick update; apologies again for the LONG delay in updating.  I'll get back to more regular updates, but I would LOVE your input and comments on this, or any of the old posts and comments.

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