I’m just back from a wonderful week in Northern Ireland. I used to work there in the 1990s, but it’s over 20 years since I was last there.

I had my kids with me, so I wanted to share with them how remarkable a place it is, what life was like back then and to see how things have changed since.

Day 1: Belfast

Our first day involved a bus tour around Belfast. There are a ton of tour companies advertising trips around the city on a step-on, drop-off basis. There are a ton of things to see, from the new Titanic Quarter to Stormont, the West Belfast peace walls and the flashy new shopping area in the centre of the city.  Right beside the Titanic exhibition are the film studios where Game of Thrones is produced – that went down very well with my elder teens. Even though it’s such a long time since I lived there, I was surprised how familiar it all seemed. Once I got my bearings, I could relate so well to the place – that magnetic accent, the effortless humour, the dark mountains in the distance.

IMG_7165

Titanic Quarter

IMG_7173

Game of Thrones Studios

IMG_7181

Victoria Square

IMG_7193

Belfast City Hall

 

Day 2: Belfast and Donaghadee

After a trip to Stormont and a walk through Queen’s University, we drove out to Donaghadee, Co. Down. In the distance, you can see Scotland and the Isle of Man.

Given all the trouble in the world – in Nice, in Munich, in Turkey, and further afield in Syria and Afghanistan, this place seems one of the safest places to be. Years ago it was not like that, but I saw no appetite for a return to the bad old days.

Version 2

Carson Face Palm

IMG_7229

Queen’s University

IMG_7235

Statue in QUB

IMG_7257

Donaghadee

 

Day 3: North Antrim Coast

One of the most beautiful parts of the island, if not the whole world, is the north Antrim coast. In a small area you have Ballintoy Harbour, the Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge, the Dark Hedges, the Bushmills Distillery, Dunluce Castle and, of course, the Giant’s Causeway. This is Game of Thrones country for real: massive dark basalts covered the area 60 million years ago, creating a landscape utterly different to the rest of Ireland. I so much wanted to return back here again.

IMG_7283

Antrim Coast

IMG_7374

Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge

IMG_7392

Ballintoy

Version 2

Giant’s Causeway

Version 2

Dark Hedges

Day 4: Coney Island

On and on, over the hill and the craic is good
Heading towards Coney Island.

What a day Tuesday was! One of the hottest days of the year, hitting 30 degrees in some places in Ireland. We travelled south towards the Mourne district, stopping off briefly in Downpatrick then bathing in the cool waters around Coney Island, just by Ardglass. I can see what Van Morrison saw in this place.

And all the time going to Coney Island I’m thinking,
Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?

Version 2

Mourne Mountains

IMG_7627

Downpatrick

Version 2

Coney Island

Version 2

Mourne Mountains

Day 5: Derry and Malin Head

Travelling the Glenshane Pass between Belfast and Derry, you get this strange feeling of deja-vu. There are uncanny similarities between it and the road between Cork and Killarney, just by the county bounds.

Derry has a very different character to Belfast – this walled city, looking over the Bogside and the Inishowen peninsula. It is a crucible for many of the key events in Irish history – dating from the early middle ages to living memory – the civil rights marches and Bloody Sunday, 1972. I really like this city. Friendly to a fault and dripping with character.

From there we headed out to the walled hill fort of Grianán Aileach, then travelling north to the very northern tip of the island, Malin Head. Driving rain cut our journey short, but it was a trip worth taking.

Version 2

Derry – looking down to the Bogside

Version 2

Grianan Aileach

Version 2

Inishowen Peninsula

Version 2

Malin Head

 

It takes an extraordinary person to go after a global pseudoscience network and dismantle it, piece by piece. The network involved is the Genesis II cult, whose schtick has been to promise “miracle” cures to parents of autistic children. If they would only drink bleach, or have it forced up their rectums, their children would be cured of autism. These people have made their fortunes by selling industrial bleach to vulnerable parents. They couldn’t care less who got hurt in the process. Despite negative publicity and widespread condemnation, they seemed unstoppable. Business is business, right?

Then someone – a parent of autistic children – took them on. Working with concerned parents in other countries, she got the media to take note. By contacting the papers, independent journalists, TV stations, radio stations and networks, she brought the church’s tactics into the light. Documentaries were commissioned, special investigations produced, exposing Genesis II for who they were. At this time, the cult and their associates are in disarray. The light of publicity has not been kind to them. Some of the perpetrators are in prison, and more criminal convictions may soon follow.

The person who helped to make this happen is Fiona O’Leary. Fiona is an extraordinary person who I’m proud to know. Based in West Cork in Ireland, Fiona spends hours each day following up leads, talking to people around the world, reaching out to parents and victims – all the while getting the message out about the bleacher cult and their tactics. Fiona herself is on the autistic spectrum, which perhaps contributes to her tenacity. She is courageous to a fault; she has a strong sense of justice and she won’t easily give up.

Enter Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield is notorious in pseudoscience circles, having been responsible for perhaps the greatest health scare in recent memory. The story of Andrew Wakefield is as bad a tale of professional misconduct as it is possible to find. After the publication of a now discredited and retracted paper that associated the MMR vaccine with bowel and brain damage, a public health crisis emerged that resulted in old-diseases making an unwelcome return, with avoidable injury and needless deaths following in their wake. Wakefield’s medical license was revoked after he failed to disclose financial conflicts of interest and ethics violations.

Wakefield has been working hard to restore his disgraced reputation. His latest attempt is “Vaxxed“, a documentary that attempts to create a parallel history of what really happened, while scaring the bejesus out of parents. The Guardian noted how the documentary ignores contradictory evidence, while rehashing utterly discredited claims. The documentary film-maker Penny Lane commented “this film is not some sort of disinterested investigation into the ‘vaccines cause autism’ hoax; this film is directed by the person who perpetuated the hoax.” The Washington Post said it should come with a warning label: “May cause irrational anxiety, especially if taken with an empty head.” Variety Magazine called it a “scientifically dubious hodgepodge of free-floating paranoia, heart-rending imagery and anti-Big Pharma conspiracy mongering.” 

As far as I am aware, none of these highly reviewers received a threat of legal action from the producers of the movie. However, last week, Fiona O’Leary did. According to the legal notice sent to Fiona “We will ask for punitive damages and financial compensation for all losses to our business directly resulting from your actions.”

What utter cowards these people are. Fiona was within her rights to alert people to the vast problems inherent in the documentary – the facts left unsaid, the real story about what Wakefield had done, the treatment of his critics. “Vaxxed” is a piece of dangerous propaganda with a direct public health impact. By attempting to rekindle the mythical link between vaccines and autism, it puts needless guilt on parents of autistic children, implying – when there is no empirical evidence to back it up – that somehow they are responsible for what happened. If you were a parent and you knew the damage that such allegations could wreak, wouldn’t you be anxious to criticise them too? Clearly, Cinema Libre, like a classic bully, prefer to go for the small people first.

So, instead of accounting for the massive problems in their worthless and dangerous pseudo-documentary, Cinema Libre took a campaigner with a distinguished record of defending autistic parents and they threatened her with legal action. Honestly, I hope this move backfires on them utterly. They deserve every piece of bad publicity they get.

Further reading:

Makers of ‘Vaxxed’ Threaten Lawsuit Over Valid Criticism

Vaxxed distributor threatened Fiona O’Leary – they’re afraid of facts

Cinema Libre Studios and Andrew Wakefield’s Vaxxed team threaten autistic autism mom

http://www.harpocratesspeaks.com/2016/07/cinema-libre-bullies-critics.html

US film studio threatens to sue Cork autism-rights advocate

 

I’m not so worried about Donald Trump becoming the next president of the United States. 

Back in 2012, Barack Obama’s campaign was not in good shape. Obama had just presided over four of the toughest years in America since the Great Depression. Unemployment was high. Morale was low. Obama could not call on the magnificent rhetoric that brought him to victory in 2008. He had a record of tenure now, and the indications were not good.

The Republican Party, sensing blood, organised a well resourced campaign to throw him out of power. Their candidate, Mitt Romney, was a fair choice, as he had a better chance of appealing to swing state voters than anyone else on the ticket. The Republicans threw everything at Obama. They fueled their core voters. They tried every trick in the book to dissuade potential democrat voters from turning out. They sent millions on clever attack ads. It was a masterpiece of campaigning and it failed. Obama regained the presidency by a comfortable margin.

In the aftermath, it was clear what lost the Republicans the presidency: demographics. The Republican core vote, appealing to white, self-employed, evangelical, rural and libertarian voters, was no longer enough to win, compared to what was now a majority of minority groups. The Democrats, with their particular appeal to urban, multi-ethnic and well educated voters, had the numbers. Republican Party strategists sensed this. They talked about making their message more appealing to a wider cross section of American society. 

None of this happened. Instead, they got Trump.

Donald Trump is the most divisive candidate America has seen in the last 50 years. His only real achievement, since starting his campaign, has been to crystallize a large segment of the Republican base into a red-hot mother lode of fury. He has alienated, not just the target Democratic constituency, but many Republican and evangelical voters, to the point that many of them may well stay home on election day.

Meanwhile, the demographics continue their glacial shift away from the Republican worldview. Bad and all though the numbers were in 2012, it’s worse for them now. They have done nothing to reverse the decline, in fact the opposite is the case. Despite Hillary Clinton’s apparent weaknesses as the Democratic candidate, she has not alienated potential voters in quite the same way and she has given waverers little reason to vote Trump.

It’s hard to see it any other way: the Republican Party are going to lose on an epic scale this year. A Democratic House, Senate and Presidency? It’s on the cards.

So here’s the story: a few days ago, Cara Augustenborg wrote an article for the Irish Examiner about Glyphosphate, the active ingredient in the the herbicide Roundup.

http://www.irishexaminer.com/business/do-we-really-need-glyphosate-for-safe-secure-and-affordable-food-408302.html

This raised some red flags with me and I said so on Twitter. What followed was a strong back and forth among me and some friends, and people who supported the article.

Cara has written a blog article in response, but in it she doesn’t really address the criticisms we had, and mainly restates her original points.

http://www.caraaugustenborg.com/latest-news/a-round-up-on-monsanto

In her response, my suggestion that she went on a Gish Gallop is mentioned, alluding to a rhetorical style of proving one’s case through quantity of arguments rather than quality.

The thing is, I do care whether Roundup is rigid and dangerous. If the science weighs in that direction, I would be happy to see it being restricted and banned. I have absolutely no skin in this game as I really am not a farming or food expert, nor do I care either way about Monsanto.

The only thing I do know for a fact is that there is considerable debate in the scientific community about glyphosphate and it appears that the author is taking a position that is actually out of step with our current knowledge about the product. Minority views are fine within science, but they need a strong evidence base themselves in order to change minds on the matter.
The second thing that I noticed about the article was that it failed to give a hearing or acknowledgment to the scientific consensus. It’s a style thing, but it comes across as polemical and self serving. The entire article supports the view that glyphosphate is bad. It uses studies to support this, but there are more studies pointing in a different direction, and these are entirely ignored. It’s a style thing as it comes across as cherry picking, i.e., here’s my position, now here’s everything that supports my position, therefore my position is right. This is flawed logic. 
The last thing is that it doesn’t really address the food security question. If we remove it, what do we replace it with in order to ensure we can safely feed people? Honestly, if we get to a situation where we don’t need to spray crops to keep weeds and pests at bay, I would be very happy, so long as people have enough food. My understanding is that glyphospate is an important tool in the armoury. Let’s not replace it with something that’s worse for the environment, or something that puts global food supplies at risk.

Dear Britain,

Last week, you were asked the question if you wanted In or Out of the European Union. You voted Out.

Since then, the Pound has crashed, shares have plummeted, you lost your credit rating, Scotland has threatened independence, both major political parties are in turmoil, companies are threatening to pull out, other companies are putting investments on hold. A full blown recession is on its way.
European citizens have been threatened on the streets. Racists chant their slogans, write graffiti, leave notes and fly their flags. People are terrified.
A fragile peace in Ireland could fall apart. The UK – a Union more intermingled and intermeshed than anyone can possibly imagine, might fall apart. History has shown that such breakups are fraught with pain, injury and death.
The campaign leaders for Leave lied through their teeth. They promised none of this would happen. They were wrong. They laughed at those who urged caution. They were wrong. They admitted they had no plan beyond the referendum. This is incredible.
So here’s what you need to do. Ignore it. Drop it. Put it on ice. Kill it. Do not sign Article 50.
This was a non-binding referendum. Your people spoke, but the answer they gave threatened the very stability they wished for. In fact it did the exact opposite. It’s clear now, to anyone with half a brain, that an exit, without a properly worked out plan, would be suicide. You don’t need to go this way.
This will cause deep, deep upset, but it’s the right thing to do. Given what’s happened, I’ll bet more than a million people have since changed their mind, so a majority will breathe a huge sigh of relief if it were to happen (or not to happen, to be more precise).
Some voters may be driven to the extremes, to UKIP and the National Front; many politicians might soon lose their seats: but if there’s proper leadership and a proper explanation, this might be surmountable. Bring your best leaders to bear on this issue. Work to heal the wounds. Your politics will no doubt be colourful over the coming years, but it’s better the fights take place in parliament than on the dole queues or at the barricades.
Referendums may die as a useful political tool for a generation, but what of it? They often get side-tracked into peripheral issues anyway. Most ordinary people are not politicians: that’s why we have a parliament in the first place. Let them do the hard work of thinking and debating in the national interest. That’s what they’re paid to do.
You asked the question and you got an answer you didn’t want. In other words, you blew it. You demonstrated to the world that mistakes can happen at the highest levels, involving millions of people. So what? Eating humble pie, no matter how unpalatable, is far preferable than knowingly walking into disaster.

You might not want us, but lots of us want you. We need you. Come back from the brink. Please.

There’s been a lot of doom and gloom over Ireland’s fortunes in the event of Brexit, but I think we need to take a breath here.

Britain is not about to disappear into the Atlantic ocean. Nor is it at war with us. Nor is it about to become desperately poor and unable to trade with anyone. It will remain an actively trading nation on the edge of Europe, no further away from the continent than it was yesterday, or 200 years ago. Trade, commerce and business will continue to be important to it, as will good neighbourly relations with its major trading partners. It has no big empire to call on any more, so it will have no choice but to deal with the European countries surrounding it.

As one of Britain’s most strategically important neighbours, they will depend on Ireland and we will continue to depend on them, come what may. We have extremely strong historical, cultural and personal connections with each other. Extremely strong. These links are unlikely to diminish, not now, not ever. Frankly, we’ve been through much worse together and somehow muddled through. This talk about customs points and border checkpoints and needing a visa to travel to the UK is complete guff, because people on both sides won’t let it happen.

A few years ago, both countries achieved something magical: the ending of a nasty protracted conflict on this island that left over 3,000 people dead before their time. The agreements that brought this horror show to an end are unlikely to be tampered with, lest the tamperers want blood on their hands. Which brings up another point: we have ways to talk to the UK, whether the EU wants us to talk to them or not. We already have a special arrangement in force concerning the management of Northern Ireland. The status of Northern Ireland cannot be ignored in any discussions on Britain’s future, which gives us some breathing room when it comes to negotiations on our future relationship.

I do not think that an isolationist Britain will ever become a reality, because frankly, I don’t think its people will let it happen. 48% of its electorate are livid about yesterday’s decision and, for reasons outlined in my last post, they are unlikely to take the emergence of a “Little Britain” lying down. Though it looks somewhat unlikely right now, common sense is likely to win out. When the weight of economic reality dawns on the Brexiters, those much maligned experts will be welcomed back into the fold and given plenty of latitude in the future direction of the country. Jingoistic ultra-nationalism was never that much of an influence in much of British politics throughout the last century, so why should it some to the fore now?

Furthermore, bad and all as it might get for Britain, we’re unlikely to do so badly out of it. Ireland is something of a Singapore to Britain’s Malaysia – a business friendly island with good relations across the globe. We now become even more interesting to American and other foreign multinationals, if we are to become the largest English speaking country in the EU, with the added benefit of close connections to Britain itself. Britain may even see a greater need for us, with all our connections into Europe and around the world, helping to grease the wheels, as it were.

I’m not saying it’s going to be a walk in the park. There could be some real pain ahead, but we’re tied by a shared history. The links that join us won’t easily sunder. A clichéd Irish expression says it all: “lookit, we’ll sort something out”. We should have hope.

Yesterday, English nationalists won a victory in the UK. They voted to leave the EU, to kick the immigrants out of their country, to sacrifice UK cohesion, economic health and a hard won peace to achieve what they call “independence”. They voted to keep the pound and to burn up long-standing agreements with their neighbours. They voted to throw social protections into the bin, to smoke indoors and to revive steak-and-kidney pie as the national meal. If they want to call people of a different appearance by their traditional nicknames, they expect they’ll be able to do that too.

One of the major worries now is that other countries will take heart and follow suit. Nationalist movements in the Netherlands, Poland, Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary and across Europe will be emboldened by this. The re-emergence of a fractured, hateful Europe raises its head, should politicians take their collective eyes off their ball.

People have asserted that this harks back to the 1930s and the rise of a new kind of fascism. But let’s pause. There is a big difference. The revolutionaries are not in the prime of their youth. It is a revolution of the elderly. A counter-revolution populated by people who are, themselves, on the way out. True, old people will be replaced by more old people, but the values sustaining them will not be as strongly felt as they are right now. To borrow a quote from Max Planck, societal change, as with science, advances one funeral at a time.

We see signs of this counter-revolution everywhere. Poland, Hungary, Russia, Turkey, the United States and now England, as elderly authoritarians attempt to roll back the clock against the steady march of liberal values. 

Equal rights, equal access and opportunities for women, LGBT people, brown people, black people, foreign people, Muslim people, non-believers, people with physical and mental issues, people with intellectual disabilities, children, traveling people, poor people, the marginalised. Food standards, health standards and living standards for all, not just the privileged few. It’s not just about people: clean water, waste reduction, carbon neutral living; sanctions against polluters and those who would be cruel to animals. This has caused great upset to some people. As change becomes becomes more evident, their annoyance only deepens.

So they fight back. They organise. They campaign. They vote. Donald Trump’s rise as a serious political force in the US is a sign of this. So too is Brexit.

But we also must remember that backlashes often create backlashes of their own; particularly if they are sudden and powerful, like what happened yesterday. With hard work from those of us who believe in progress, they will find implementing their wishes monstrously difficult. They will encounter problems and roadblocks at every opportunity. They will me made to look foolish, craven and incompetent at every turn. Theirs will be a record of failure, allowing people of goodwill a chance to make genuine change when their opportunity comes along. We might yet look back on these times and reflect, not on the breakers, but on the efforts of those who repaired what was broken.

Brexit is a setback. An enormous one. But let’s not forget that it’s happened because the march of progress has been overwhelmingly in the direction of liberal values. Those who oppose this are organised, but they are not, in the main, young. They may have their day in the sun, laughing at foreigners and trumpeting their national values, but the road is much longer than them. If we fight back, our values will win in the end. 

A few days ago, I shared this photo of a Zeppelin that passed us by when I was on Lake Constance.

IMG_4503

It was part of an iPhone burst, so I had the idea to create an animated gif file of the experience. This was a little trickier than expected however, because I was on a boat at the time, so the degree of shake was pretty serious!

I took 22 shots from the burst and, patiently working with Affinity Photo, I stabilised them as much as I could. Here’s the result.

Zeppelin.gif

Just in case you are asking – the two small dots in front of the Zeppelin is a plane carrying an advertising banner.

Over most of the expanse of human history, populations have been limited by the availability of food. Famines and starvation have dogged humanity from the very beginning.

Until, that is, we figured out ways to make food abundant. Now famines are not so common. With every year, the memory of great starvations is waning into the distant past. Once commonplace on our TV sets, those tragic pictures of skeletal mothers and crying babies with distended stomachs and flies dancing over their faces, have been consigned, we hope, to history.

This would be a good thing, except that more and more people seem to think that this age of pre-abundance was some sort of golden era. A time without pesticides, herbicides or GMOs. A period in tune with nature, free of cancer, diabetes and obesity. The small organic farmer versus the big impersonal cooperative. An era they say, of health, wholesomeness and happiness. 

They forget the starvation bit. 

Curious, that.

I’ve been interested in scepticism since I was a teenager. That’s about 30 years, reading up on science and understanding the boundaries between science and pseudoscience. I have always found the sceptical analysis more compelling, more logical, and profoundly more satisfying than mystical or ideological viewpoints.

More recently, I started blogging about it, talking about it and bringing people together to discuss issues of common interest. Now, though, I’m starting to wonder why I bother.

I mean, it’s ridiculous, isn’t it?

I don’t earn a penny from all this. My blogging and my talks are done for free and the meetings I organise are often run at a loss, with me picking up the tab for any overruns. From speaking to other organisers, it’s all low budget, net loss stuff there too.

Contrast this with the groups who are often the focus of our criticism. Many are in business for themselves, and some are making very tidy sums indeed. They profit primarily from people who are desperate for answers, cures and solutions. For such quests, there will always be a ready market.

Our targets are often well resourced, sometimes able to pay lawyers or launch legal actions at the slightest provocation. Us? We have to take great care, in case we upset the wrong people. We have little recourse should our targets get malicious. After all, we pose a challenge to their income streams, so they will defend themselves with venom, if the truth threatens them too much.

And then there’s the abuse. The constant, gnawing opprobrium designed to hurt. The spamming, the trolling, the dirty tricks. Sceptics I know have had calls made to their employers, FOIA requests made against their work, meetings disrupted, websites attacked. And it’s not always the targets who give us such heat, but their customers and supporters who have become invested in the hogwash peddled by them. 

We’ve all lost friends over our scepticism. Nobody likes being told they might be wrong, but often there’s no easy way to say it. No matter how polite and sensitive we try to be, relationships will never be quite the same afterwards. You don’t win friends by bursting their precious balloons.

And there’s the research, the poring over websites to find the flaws, the searching through studies to get more definitive answers, trying to be as correct and as well informed as possible. And what for? To engage in pointless conversations with people who could never be convinced anyway? Frequently, it feels more like work than fun. Often, it feels like wading through treacle.

Then there’s the endless nature of it all. Despite decades of thorough debunking, creationism and homeopathy are still going strong; as is global warming denial. The only things we can reasonably expect are new members to this ghastly choir: such as the gluten-free craze and anti-chemical fad. No matter how well you do on day 1, you’ll be having exactly the same arguments on day 2, and indeed, day 10,000.

What do we get from it? Why do we do it? It’s not for the money, for sure. Neither is it because arguments with opponents leave us with a warm, happy feeling. Many of us suffer from depression and anxiety, so it’s not as if it’s even that great for our mental health. For good reason, a lot of people have moved on, as over time, it can just get too much.

Perhaps we do it because we are passionately interested in the raw truth and concerned about people being taken for a ride. More so, we worry, that if it were not for people like us, nobody would be holding up a mirror to these people; exposing the quacks, ideologues and charlatans for the damage they cause. Without active scepticism, I often wonder if it’s the destiny of this culture to be eventually swallowed by a tsunami of ideological bullshit. 

I’m not sure what I am looking for from writing about this. Maybe a better understanding perhaps, or at least an acknowledgement that this lonely, tiring work is in some way worth the effort.

Or maybe I just need a hug. Hugs are nice.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 291 other followers

%d bloggers like this: