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

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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