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.

Just because something happened before it, doesn’t mean it caused it.

Just because a footballer forgot to bless himself before a game, doesn’t mean that’s why they lost the match.

Just because a screaming sound was heard in the middle of the night, doesn’t mean your granduncle is going to die.

Just because a vaccine was given doesn’t necessarily mean it caused a sickness at a later date.

Other things: a virus, an infection, the ageing and growth process, genetics, a stressful situation, other people, might have caused it too. 

Trying to figure out root cause is really, really difficult, but if you rush to a conclusion about cause, without doing the hard work, chances are you are going to be wrong.

The hard work, trying to figure out causes? We call that science.

And that is why you need to bring in scientific voices and scientific studies when you are discussing issues like vaccines, because they are the only people who have done the work to assess root cause.

Let me reiterate that. They are the only people who have done the hard work. They are the only people who must take the emotion out of it, who must control for bias, who must look at all the data, who must go about it the right way, in order to be taken seriously. They get penalised for taking short cuts, something that doesn’t happen when we give our opinions or talk about our experience.

If you exclude the scientific consensus and scientific voices from a discussion on vaccines, or if you think it’s “just another opinion”, then you are biasing the discussion. No ifs, no buts. 

If you exclude the scientific consensus, you are not looking at the whole picture. And, you might be scaring people without just cause.

And called an idiot.

Turns out I may not have just an army of one after all. 

Thank you to the many friends I can call upon if this story goes further.

Here’s a short story.

Once upon a time people used to get sick a lot. Everything would be fine one day, then bang, the next day you were dying. Young kids mainly. They were lucky to still be alive at age five. Every now and then a big plague would roll through and randomly take lots of people away. A small wound could fester and kill you. Life wasn’t easy.

Doctors weren’t much help. They had this idea that sickness had something to do with too much blood. Often, their treatments were a lot like torture. And no painkillers either. Back then, people rightfully believed that if the sickness didn’t kill you, the doctors most certainly would.

Then, a doctor noticed something odd: something to do with not washing hands. People with dirty hands tended to make other people sick. Another doctor discovered that a small dose of good pox tended to ward away smallpox, that in its day, killed millions. Another man discovered that vitamin C could prevent scurvy. Another man came across a way to reduce pain during surgery. Small, incredible steps, but still lots of kids were dying. Nobody had an answer for it.

Tiny little creatures, smaller than you could imagine. They turned out to be a big part of the problem. Kill them and you could ward off hundreds of diseases. It took a while, but finally doctors found effective remedies. We call them antibiotics. Because of them, we don’t see so much TB or cholera these days. They used to kill lots of people too.

We discovered that our immune system had evolved to find the tiniest of invaders and destroy them. Prime it properly with tiny doses and you could prevent many diseases before they took hold. In this way, vaccines were invented to control deadly diseases such as measles and polio and whooping cough.

Other drugs were found and refined. Drugs that could treat some cancers. Drugs that gave greater pain relief and a better quality of life. And not just drugs, but therapies, health advice, early warning indicators, surgical procedures, and lots more.

And you know what? The number of children dying has been slashed. People don’t often die from simple cuts. Cancer is not the death sentence it once was. We are living longer, healthier lives with fewer bedridden days, choked up in pain.

This progress was achieved, not so much by some great idea, but because of many smaller ones, and something else: the learning that came from lots and lots of mistakes. Too much, too little, saw it too late, hit the wrong thing, gave up too soon. All these hard lessons helped doctors find better ways, to refine their techniques. That’s what medicine is: the sum total of what we know, through experiment, failure and hard experience, about what approaches work best when our health is at risk. Not perfect, but compared to 200 years ago, utterly amazing. It’s possibly the greatest achievement of our species since we started walking on this planet.

So why is it, that so many people want to ignore all this, or pretend it doesn’t matter? Why do they hark back to these earlier times, when so many people died? Perhaps it’s because medicine has been too successful, so it’s taken for granted? Perhaps it’s too technical, too elite, therefore creating suspicion? Perhaps there’s a longing for simplicity and simple solutions: a Donald Trump approach, as it were? Perhaps the complexity and messiness of medicine is too much for some? Perhaps it’s a demand for perfection; we cannot abide not knowing? Or maybe it’s all about show and celebrity and charisma these days, and not so much the pedestrian advice of your family GP?

All this is just conceit: at the core is a celebration of ignorance over hard earned knowledge – that our opinions, no matter how poorly thought out, are just as deserving of respect. It’s a voice of privilege, a voice from the comfort zone, ignorant of a time when knowledge, any knowledge, would have been a blessing. We live in strange times.

If we listen too much to the charlatans and ideologues and the crafted media voices, a time may well come where these wrongheaded beliefs take primacy over empirical knowledge. In which case, life could quickly regress to being nasty, brutal and short. With outbreaks of old diseases from communities that refuse to accept modern healthcare, we’re already seeing it. Hopefully it’s not a signpost to the future.

There is a broadcaster in Cork, Neil Prendeville, who has no problem promoting pseudoscience and instilling fear into people during his radio programme. He regularly invites a guest, Michael O’Doherty, whom he calls a healthcare professional, onto his show to expound on vaccines and antibiotics. O’Doherty has no medical qualifications. He is a quack healer whose shtick seems to be that natural is good, that the body is capable of healing itself without the need for modern medicine. 

This stuff is dangerous. It is simply not true to say that our bodies are able to deal with every illness that comes along. The flu, a common disease, kills millions of people every year. Before modern medicine, deaths from smallpox, measles and TB were common. They are much less so now because of vaccines, antibiotics and antivirals. Where is the evidence for the great natural panaceas they keep talking about? In the face of an invader, eating berries and taking exercise won’t always cut it. That’s not how human physiology works. 

Another pernicious lie that’s promoted is that when you get sick, it’s your fault. If only you had been thinking properly, or meditating the right way, or drinking the correct drinks, or eating the right foods, you wouldn’t have fallen ill. Sure, some lifestyles are decidedly unhealthy, but healthy people still get sick, all the time, through no fault of their own. Telling people that they are responsible creates unnecessary guilt while scaring them away from treatment options that might save their lives. It’s awful.

Prendeville says he is not anti-vaccinatipn, yet he regularly promotes anti-vaccination views. He promotes a culture of suspicion around medicine and medical practitioners. On a regular basis, he lays into the medical profession while promoting some of the worst pseudoscience imaginable. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he’s endangering people’s health. 

Sure, if you are fool enough to believe him, the argument could be made that it’s your fault. But what of your children or elderly and incapacitated adults that might depend on you? What of innocent bystanders whose kids you might be putting at risk because you won’t vaccinate your children?

But what to do about it? 

Write a strongly worded letter to Red FM? Send a complaint to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland? What will that do, exactly?

Complain to my local TDs? What will that achieve, exactly?

Blog away like I am doing, to the 20 or so people who read this blog?

Write to the Irish Medical council and other healthcare agencies to let them know what he’s up to?

Is it a free speech issue, so better off being left alone? Do I keep quiet and suck it up?

I don’t know. All I do know is that a radio personality is abusing his power and influence to scare people away from practical healthcare, and it feels like nobody cares about it, except for me and my army of one.

Update: here is a link to the show in question. The Gardasil / vaccine discussion starts about 50 minutes into the show.

Update 2: I have amended a statement that Prendeville tells people not to vaccinate their kids, which is not correct. I have also had feedback that he introduces O’Doherty as a healthcare professional. I have corrected this also.

Another day, another speech by a cleric, frustrated that all their historic entitlements are fading away.

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/dismantling-catholic-ethos-of-schools-would-leave-moral-vacuum-1.2628509?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

“The alternative is a vacuum that can express itself in nihilism and the growing phenomenon in our schools of self harm,” he said.

Fuck nihilism. It’s a trope used against atheists for so long, you would think it should be given an honorary peerage at this stage.

As an atheist for over 25 years, I feel about as un-nihilistic as it’s possible to be. I find meaning in so much: my friends, my children, my thoughts and my many different enthusiasms. The idea that this life is meaningless to me is laughable.

The truth is that meaning is not exclusive to the pious. There is so much wonder and fascination in this world that it would be impossible to get through it all in a lifetime, nay, twenty lifetimes. Finding meaning in things is what we all do, whether that be helping kids, building Lego towers, watching football or blogging random thoughts. 

The non-religious life can be as rich in thoughts, emotion and meaningful achievement as anyone wearing the sunglasses of a faith. It just comforts some people to think otherwise.

The diminishment of religion in our schools will not herald in a life without meaning. The doors to a life of curiosity, fascination, purpose and love have always been open to us. You don’t have to believe in a deity to appreciate this fully.

A conversation this evening with my daughter as we drove through yet another rain storm.

“Dad? What’s a hundred year flood?”

“It’s a flooding event that is meant to take place every 100 years, but nowadays we experience it about every 10 years.”

“Why is that?”

“Because the climate is changing. The world is warming up. It’s making our climate wetter and windier. And this is only the start. Some day soon, all this place may well be under water.”

“Why is the climate changing?”

“Because we’ve been busy over the past 100 years pumping more and more fossilized carbon into the atmosphere. Stuff that’s been in the ground for millions of years, it’s all being burned off in an instant. We’ve known for decades that this is a bad thing, but instead of trying to deal with it, to invent and perfect technologies that would have maintained our standards of living while reducing the carbon levels, a powerful group of influential idiots decided that the best course of action was to pretend it wasn’t happening at all. Their obstinate refusal to listen to the scientists will result in deaths and dispossession on an unimaginable scale.”

“What are we going to do about it?”

“More like what are you going to do about it. Our generation, and the ones that came before us have screwed everything up. We have left behind a mess that you, your children and their children will be faced with cleaning up. When you are my age, schoolchildren will be amazed at how we drove around in filthy fume creating vehicles, and how we were so careless with our environment. Mark my words: we’ll be cursed, and deservedly so.”

“Is it hopeless?”

“I don’t think so. You’ll have your work cut out for you for sure, but you are going to be better people than we ever were. You won’t be plagued by these insane false arguments that we constantly had to deal with. Instead of talking about change, you’ll make it happen. That gives me a lot of hope.”

Today marks the centenary celebrations of the 1916 Rising, when a small group of Irish people occupied prominent locations across Dublin; declaring Ireland a free country, independent of Britain. Within days, the centre of Dublin was bombed to smithereens, hundreds were dead and many of the leaders of the Rising were executed by firing squad. Militarily, it was a disaster; but it set in motion a chain of events that lead to de facto independence for most of the country within six years, and actual independence somewhat later. It is credited with being the spark that lighted the torch of Irish freedom.

It’s a big day, worthy of commemoration, but I’m conflicted about it. It happened in the middle of World War I, when thousands of Irishmen were fighting and dying in Gallipoli and the Western Front; when Ireland had already won Home Rule from Britain: its implementation delayed until the war was over. It’s hard to see the Rising as anything less than a deliberate act of treason; given its declared overtures to Imperial Germany and its opportunism while the British government’s energies were focused elsewhere. 

There’s clear evidence that some of the leaders of the Rising saw it in romantic terms: a futile struggle that would inspire future Irish people. I’m conflicted because what I see here is the glorification of violence; the idea that violence is noble and beautiful. Patrick Pearce never fought in the trenches, so he never experienced the horror of war: the death, the screaming, the suffering and terror. I wonder would he have been so wrapped up in noble ideas seeing his comrades while shitting in his trousers as his comrades were pulped by artillery shells? The glorification of war is still here today, as if it was all worthwhile. It may have lead to the Irish Republic, but it also inspired the Troubles and the IRA.

War is an obscenity. It should never be glorified. It destroys lives, creates unacceptable pain and suffering, leaves a legacy of hatred, fear and damage that can take generations to undo. We lose a part of our humanity when we think of it as a viable option to be used on non-combatants. After the Brussels bombings this week, we had people talking about bombing Muslims. I honestly despair when I hear this. People who say this are deliberately ignorant of what such actions might mean. I make no apologies when I say that warmongers should be treated like child abusers. 

But I’m conflicted because, so long as there are people willing to resort to war to achieve their political ends, we need men and women to stand up to them. We need soldiers and police and armed forces. These are people who put themselves in harm’s way so that our hard won freedoms can be maintained, so that peace can be enforced and bloodshed stopped. They have my undying respect.

So on the day where we commemorate 1916, I have little thought for the instigators of the Rebellion. To me, they were fanatics who fetishised violence and set Ireland down the path of militarism – the effects of which we have yet to fully dispel. However, I also see men and women in uniform, who have opted to face danger and death in Lebanon and other parts of the world. I am thankful that they exist. I wish they didn’t have to do what they do, but I recognise their necessity; their importance in an unstable world.

Today makes me feel old. Really old.

When I was growing up we had this low level terrorist war going on. Awful stuff. Every day, more bombs, more killings, more coffins. Every day, more excuses, more whatabouts, evasions, mistruths. And hatred. We Irish were hated. Just for being Irish, having that funny accent, suspected of supporting the people who committed these atrocities, even if nothing could be further from the truth. Despite this, and barring a few exceptions, it did not descend into indiscriminate bombings of civilian areas, of mass deportations of civilians, of detention or execution without trial. 
We need to remember this today. How it felt to be despised and feared. Just for being born in the wrong place, having a strange accent or the wrong surname. How targeting us for these things would have made a bad situation immeasurably worse.
You don’t crack such problems with a sledgehammer when what’s needed is a scalpel and a longer strategy. Blaming and targeting a whole group of people might make you feel better, but it doesn’t solve anything at all. We Irish, of all people, aught to remember this today.

Against my better judgement (as tomorrow is an incredibly busy day for me) – I heard there might be auroras around, so I ventured out to my favourite place and.. I was not disappointed.

Aurora - P1090310

It was a subtle enough effect. With the naked eye you might not have seen much, but with a camera set to 40 seconds exposure, the sky came to life.

Aurora - P1090307

I was expecting to see green, but not red.

Aurora - P1090305

Our atmosphere clearly got hit by something big tonight! A big explosion on the sun is usually the reason for such beauty.

Aurora - P1090310

Most of the time, Cork is too far south to see anything of value. Not tonight.

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