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...

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