Daryl Ilbury

Archive for July, 2012|Monthly archive page

Is religious instruction psychological abuse?

In Eish!, Fools, Politics, Science on July 31, 2012 at 9:52 am

The youth are susceptible to religious and political indoctrination

In 1984, because I had just completed my university and was a white male, I was conscripted into national service to help support a regime that used selective religious instruction to justify a policy of enforced segregation and open discrimination. I had three choices: do my two years, keep my head down and get out; openly defy my conscription and go to prison; or flee.

However, in effect, I had only one choice, because there was a problem: I had just completed my university education on a loan from the Department of Education, and if I didn’t do my national service and report for my four years of teaching thereafter, my parents would be liable to repay the loan immediately, and in full.

So I went. But here’s where things get interesting: because I had qualified as a teacher and school counsellor, like all the other recently graduated teachers I was sent for officers’ training to Infantry School in Oudtshoorn. I therefore had an opportunity to mix with other teachers and tap into the mindset of those responsible for educating the country’s (white) youth (at that stage schools were still segregated).

Context is important here: at that time, teaching was considered something of a calling for conservative Afrikaans men; and the position of onderwyser (teacher) in the Afrikaans community was one that commanded deep respect. In English schools it was a little different. Teaching was more popular with women. So, as a liberal, atheist, English-speaking teacher, I was viewed with a mixture of caution and suspicion; mainly so around my political and religious beliefs.

Religion, specifically the Calvinistic form of Christianity popular with the Afrikaans community, was a cornerstone of the military doctrine; so much so that the regiment’s dominee (pastor) held the equivalent rank of a full colonel, and his sermons were delivered without question. One day, when the entire regiment was assembled for parade and he was delivering one of his sermons, he presented a stream of selected passages from the Bible to justify the government’s policy of racial segregation. It was, in his word’s, God’s decree.

I distinctly remember this for two reasons: because it seemed so utterly bizarre it was laughable, and because most of the other men in my platoon – fellow teachers who’d go on to influence the thoughts of children – were nodding their heads in agreement.

This story popped into my mind this week when I read about how the psychological abuse of children is more common than thought in the US, and is often unreported. The report went on to explain the definition of psychological abuse and listed such factors as ridicule and isolation; but nowhere did it mention religious indoctrination.

Few are more susceptible to indoctrination than children, who look to their teacher for guidance and direction. Their entire construct of the world around them is shaped by adults and their peers; and they are taught to listen and not question the dominant belief system.

This is why science and critical thinking should be encouraged amongst children; and why those who seek to suppress such inquiry in favour of enforcing a scientifically unsubstantiated and disputed belief system, such as that which was used to justify apartheid, are, in my mind, guilty of psychological abuse.

When sustainability is literally in your hands

In Eish!, Science, Scoundrels on July 27, 2012 at 9:36 am

Sometimes we create the sting

I would hazard a guess most people watching the Olympics don’t see it the way I do – as both an environmental nightmare and an opportunity.

Wherever people get together in large numbers, there’s inevitably an unholy mess, and this year’s Olympics is no exception. But it can also provide those hoping to develop in consumers a mindset of sustainability a chance to capitalise on an event that has the world’s attention.

I have a problem with people who litter; I find them offensive and nauseating. But ‘littering’ has a sliding scale. There are those who throw stuff out of moving cars or who wilfully toss cans and wrappers on to the street whilst standing within walking distance of rubbish bins. They are the worst. They are purposeful litterers. They have no interest in contributing to a sustainably society. Evolution will take care of them.

But then there are those who don’t wilfully litter but who contribute to littering by over-consumption. They’ll take 3 or 4 sachets of tomato ketchup from a take-away food stall, when only 1 or 2 will do, then eventually throw the others away. They will collect flyers and other handouts given to them – because they see them as free – only to throw them away soon afterwards. They are unaware that their ‘enthusiastic’ consumption is contributing to landfill sites. In my opinion, they are littering.

Now, bearing in mind the money tied up in sponsoring rights, imagine the pure volume of promotional paraphernalia distributed at this year’s Olympic Games, that will be taken, casually examined and then discarded? Did the organisers think of that?

In their bid for the games, the British Olympic Organisation promoted the term ‘sustainability‘, as they should have done – but only if they were serious about it. It seems they have done quite a bit to ensure that the environmental impact of hundreds of thousands of people converging on one of the world’s biggest cities is minimised.

However, if an opportunity is to be embraced to encourage the concept of sustainability amongst consumers of the games, it needs to be brought closer to them.

Greener Upon Thames, a not-for-profit environmental organisation, has been pushing for a plastic bag-free games. That won’t happen in these games; but perhaps the best we can hope for is that people attending the games are encouraged not to mindlessly grab the promotional bags of goodies that are expected to be thrust in their direction.

Whether or not the games are sustainable is, to a degree, literally in their hands.

If every sperm were sacred, this would be impossible…

In Eish!, Science on July 26, 2012 at 12:26 pm

While Bob was sleeping, Nigel used his penknife to show his girlfriend what Bob’s trachea looked like

Recent news about a young man’s new windpipe made me think about sperm and how it’s supposed to be sacred. You may frown and think it a somewhat spurious link, but give me a minute or two to present my case; but be warned: I will use a term that some may find offensive. See if you can spot it.

The story is about 13 year-old Ciaran Finn-Lynch, who was born with a defective trachea (windpipe). It was so deformed that it prevented air getting to his lungs, causing them to collapse. Metal tubes were used to keep his airway open, but these caused other problems, resulting in Ciaran being rushed to hospital on two occasions with internal bleeding.

Eventually doctors decided to do a transplant. The obvious challenge: preventing his immune system interpreting a transplanted trachea as a foreign body, and rejecting it. The way they got around it was ingenious, and particularly brave. Using the trachea of a (dead) donor – a 30 year-old Italian woman – they stripped it of any remnants of her cells from the trachea scaffold. Then, using Ciaran’s own stems cells to coat the scaffold, the doctors were able to grow a trachea that wouldn’t be rejected by his own immune system.

But here’s the best part: it was grown inside him.

The story has appeared in a recent edition of the Lancet. Two years after completion of the operation, Ciaran is now a perfectly heathy teenage boy (I have avoided using the word ‘normal’ because no teenage boy displays behaviour that could be called ‘normal’!) You can read more about it on WebMD.

So…did you spot the offensive term? Here’s a clue: Third paragraph, final sentence.

Still no? I’m not surprised. I’d hazard a guess as a reader of this blog you wouldn’t be offended by it. The term is: ‘stem cells’. It normally gets radical pro-lifers and right-wing Christian fundamentalists all worked up, for reasons that are embedded in ignorance. They believe that the use of stem cells, especially embryonic stem cells, is immoral, because such cells have the capacity for human life.

This is true, but then the same could be said for sperm cells – it’s why the Catholic church remains adamant in its objection to birth control. Non-Catholic Christians are able to find this a little odd, and argue that such narrow-minded thinking is one of the reasons behind the high number of abortions. They may even joke that, technically then, male masturbation is mass murder. At times like this I find myself smiling and thinking about the brilliance of the ‘every sperm is sacred’ scene from Monty Python’s ‘The Meaning of Life’.

But here’s the twist, and how we return to the story of the young man with the new windpipe: Most fertilised eggs – the source of embryonic stem cells – are rejected naturally, before they develop any further. The reason being is that every fertilised egg contains foreign genetic material, identified as such by the the female’s immune system; after all, a fertilised egg contains half its genetic material from the male. It’s as if the female had received an organ transplant.

However, there seems to be this belief among many people who reject embryonic stem cell research that embryonic stem cells are somehow drawn from foetuses inside the mother, most probably using very large needles wielded by masked men who attended the Josef Mengele School of Medicine. The reality is that most embryonic stem cells are drawn from blastocysts fertilised in vitro, in laboratories, from material that has been donated.

There is also the belief that embryonic stem cells are somehow ‘human‘, even if mixed together in a petri dish. This is not the case. Even human foetuses that have survived the embryo stage and are weeks or even months into growth inside another human, resemble foetuses of other mammals (many of which are routinely slaughtered by humans for food) for much of their development. Their brain development is rudimentary – even reptillian. They only really become ‘human’ in the final three months, when their brain development is such that they will have the capacity for human thought.

So, technically, and genetically, yes, embryonic stem cells have the capacity to develop into human embryos, but the odds are stacked dramatically against them, and they are certainly cannot be considered ‘human’.  Similarly, stem cells have the capacity for new human life; but, as the case of Ciaran Finn-Lynch has shown, they most certainly have the capacity to save lives.

#Aurora killer’s actions explained

In Eish!, Politics, Science on July 23, 2012 at 10:47 am

The suspect in the Aurora killings. Not that inconceivable in his actions

Twitter has been abuzz with talk following the recent mass-shooting in Aurora, Colorado; mainly with messages of condolence for the families of the victims; the expected murmurings around the issue of gun control; a developing lobby to not give the suspected gunman what it’s thought he wants: notoriety – and therefore not to mention his name; and, finally, surprise as to why a seemingly normal young man would kill people.

The answer to the last point is surprisingly simple, and yet seemingly illusive to common logic: it’s a combination of human psychology and the law of averages.

If there’s one thing that the study of human psychology has unearthed, it’s the fragility of the human psyche. It’s estimated that in any given year in the US, 1 in 4 adults suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder. However, that doesn’t mean that the other 75% of Americans, are captains of completely logical behaviour.

They, like all other humans, are constantly faced with a myriad situations where they are emotionally tested. Who hasn’t lost their temper in an argument? Who hasn’t grown exasperated with shocking service? Who hasn’t felt the bitter sting of rejection and contemplated reaction? Who hasn’t been fired or laid off from work and vacillated between depression and anger?

Rational, civil human behaviour relies on the constant balancing of logic and emotion; and every now and then emotion wins over logic, and the result is an outburst of seemingly irrational, uncivil behaviour: having an argument with a partner in a crowded restaurant, shouting at a public official who has rejected an application, shredding an ex-boyfriend’s clothes, or publicly threatening a boss after being laid off.

Such behaviour, although shocking to observe, and seemingly irrational, is in fact – and here’s the critical point – normal human behaviour.

Now imagine if, during such a time of elevated emotional, and reduced civil, behaviour, a person has access to a firearm? It’s not something alien or inconceivable for Americans. Firearms are continually displayed in entertainment in the plethora of popular police and crime films and TV series; they are highly visible (CNN recently reported that in the US gun shops outnumber McDonald’s restaurants 8 to 1); they are highly prevalent (nearly 300 million privately owned guns in the US – approximately 9 for every 10 people); and their ownership is constitutionally encouraged.

But, the argument goes, people don’t like to kill people, so surely it’s safe to own a gun – it’s not as if everyone is a potential killer. That’s not entirely true. As any forensic psychologist will tell you, compared to the physical intimacy of stabbing, shooting someone is a crime of detachment. It’s arguably easier to pick up a gun and shoot someone than it is to stab them.

There’s also the issue of being disconnected from the outcome. Unless you have seen for yourself the damage done to someone who has been shot and killed, the most likely frames of reference are the fictional, often un-bloody, recreations on film, or, even worse, the excitement and thrill of first-person shooter games.

Now throw all this together: the percentage of Americans with a diagnosable mental health problem; the fragility of healthy, normal human behaviour; the accessibility of firearms and their ‘normalisation’ in American culture; and, finally, the psychological detachment and emotional disconnect in the act of shooting someone.

Suddenly the question as to why a seemingly normal young person would kill other people takes on a different perspective. In fact, it becomes almost irrelevant compared to the increasingly obvious, and pressing question: why don’t more seemingly normal people in the US kill other people?

Only they do. Here’s a list of just some of the reported mass shootings in the US since 2005.

I am not going to lecture Americans on the issue of gun control, I’m simply just going to say that they do need to have a serious debate about it. I can’t help noticing that neither Barrack Obama nor Mitt Romney have brought it up since the shooting. That’s because it’s a politically divisive issue.

But then so was apartheid. Just as the right to bear arms is a cornerstone of the American constitution, apartheid was an institutionalised foundation of the previous government. When it became increasingly clear to the power elite that it was an outdated legislation that was killing innocent people, tearing the country apart and taking it on the road to ruin, politicians put aside their differences and started talking. Change became not only inevitable, but urgent; and it happened.

Perhaps it’s something that Americans can learn from South Africans.

Coffee linked to homosexual behaviour

In Eish!, Fools, Politics, Science on July 20, 2012 at 10:44 am

“A little less coffee next time, Bob”

When you prod, as I do, at the craggy interface of science, economics and human psychology, you tend to tap into more than your fair share of hysteria. Those branches of science such as physics and astronomy which are beyond the understanding of most people, remain largely untarnished by the interference of those with agendas. However, the more ‘accessible’ sciences, such as medicine and environmental science, attract the attention of people who use emotion, lack of perspective, and an ignorance of the facts to justify their cause.

Case in point: Water Defense is a US-based anti-fracking lobby group, that has been highly successful in bringing hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to the attention of the general public. I am neither pro- nor -anti-fracking, but I am pro- accurate reporting. Unfortunately the language they use is highly emotive, and they misrepresent the facts by exaggeration. Here’s an extract from the page on their website under the title ‘Fracking‘:

“The toxic smog created from fracking contains large amounts of ultrafine particles, soot, ozone, and the carcinogen benzo-a-pyrene. In adults, these pollutants are linked to bladder, lung, and breast cancer, stroke, diabetes, and premature death.  In children, they are linked to premature birth, asthma, cognitive deficits, and stunted lung development.”

At a glance nothing seems wrong with this statement. In fact many of the pollutants listed above have indeed been ‘linked’ to various health problems. The problem though is in that word: ‘linked’. Given sufficient exposure to most chemicals could have a negative affect on your health. Sugar, for example, can undoubtedly be ‘linked’ to obesity. Does this mean that if you eat pudding every night, you’ll become obese? Of course not.

What about caffeine being ‘linked’ to homosexuality? Not heard that one? I am not surprised, because I haven’t told many people about it. But this seems the ideal opportunity to come clean about a misadventure of mine.

Many years ago, in my final year of clinical psychology, I conducted research on the effects of high levels of oxazepam and caffeine on rats. Oxazepam (marketed in South Africa under the brand name Serepax) is a sedative and is often prescribed for certain anxiety disorders; and caffeine is a stimulant that, as you know, gets you up in the morning. Like any good researcher I reduced the possible effective variables by using only male rats. Unfortunately, maths was never my strong point; and somewhere in the process of calculating dosages I misplaced a decimal point and ended up overdosing the rats by a multiple of 10.

To cut a long story sideways, all the rats overdosed with oxazepam remained immobile for a full two days…and those (only male rats) overdosed on caffeine…? Well, they couldn’t stop humping each other.

To use the language of Water Defense: “…caffeine is linked to homosexual behaviour…”

“Western Australia, we have a problem”

In Eish!, Fools, Politics on July 17, 2012 at 8:35 am

Listen, Jaws, if you don’t behave, you’re going on the barbie…

There seems to be a problem in Western Australia, and it’s all to do with the arrogance of man.

You may be aware that authorities in Western Australia are calling on the Australian Federal government to lift the ban on the fishing of great white sharks, which are currently a protected species. This follows the recent death of a surfer, 24 year old Ben Linden, near remote Wedge Island, which is about 160km north of Perth. This is the fifth shark attack off the Western Australian coast this year.

Let’s leave this story and its subtle, yet glaring guilty phrase for a second.

I grew up in Durban, a holiday destination on the balmy east coast of South Africa, where the warm waters of the Mozambique current make it a surfing paradise. It’s also an area that’s very popular with sharks. The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board invests its world-renowned research and conservation policies into finding a way that the locals and holiday-makers can enjoy the waters without being in any harm. The solution: a string of strategically-placed shark nets in those selected areas wherever people are allowed to surf and swim.

The shark nets have not been without their fair share of opposition, largely around their unfortunate catching of other species of animals. The KZN Sharks Board are open about what else is caught and are continually trying to reduce this mortality.

The trade off is that surfers and swimmers are not amongst those species killed.

Now let’s return to the story and that subtle, but glaring phrase that highlights the arrogance of the Western Australian authorities: “…near remote Wedge Island…”

Now whereas, like most people, the thought of someone being savaged by a shark fills me with fear and horror; and whereas, growing up as I did in a popular coastal town, I can empathise with the Western Australian authorities concerned with possible impact of another death on its tourism; I cannot lose sight of the fact that the sea is the wild reserve of the sea creatures, big and small.

When we enter the sea, like venturing into any wild environment, we should do so with respect. Just as we should never leave a vehicle in a remote part of the African bush and wander amongst wild animals, we should never enter the unprotected sea where wild animals are…well…wild.

It is the responsibility of the authorities of Western Australia to set up safe areas for swimming and surfing; but it is a display of both arrogance and naivety on their part of they think that the behaviour of all wild animals should fall under their mandate, that people should be allowed to enter the sea anywhere along their coast with impunity, and that wild animals that display wild behaviour should be punished.

A science journalist comes ‘out’…as it were

In Eish!, Fools, Politics, Science on July 13, 2012 at 1:02 pm

Sometimes science comes without a warning

“Hi, my name is Daryl, and I’m a science journalist.”

There you go, I’ve said it. I’ve come ‘out’ as it were. I admit that for many years my life has been something of a lie. I have been writing about science whilst posing as an op-ed columnist writing on socio-political issues. In fact I doubt very much if I would be able to write for most of the titles that I do if I pitched myself as a ‘science journalist’. But I am not entirely to blame for my subterfuge.

OK, this may all sound a little dramatic, but there’s a remarkable, albeit concerning, sliver of truth for my reluctance to brazenly announce my orientation. You see, for many years I have been operating under the rather bizarre belief, instilled in me by legions of editors, that readers don’t want to read about science.

However, as person who was schooled in the sciences, social sciences and humanities, I am acutely aware that such a belief is false. Readers are interested in science, they just don’t know it.

For the last nine years I have been covering issues around science without my editors and readers actually knowing it, and my columns have earned me both praise from my editors and respect from readers; but more importantly they have encouraged debate. In fact my most appreciated reward has been learning that a number of my articles have been included in school English and History exams to encourage creative writing and political argument.

But this is not a blog entry to fish for compliments, it’s to prove a point: to write about science, you don’t have to ‘write about science’.

There is a popular belief that ‘science is what scientists do‘. Although the statement is correct, it is not solely correct. Science is something we also consume and it is something that we are; so the secret to writing about science is to reconsider how it is presented and how it is framed.

Example: In April 2005 I wrote a piece that sparked a lot of column space on the letters page of The Star about the seeming futility of prayer (millions of people had prayed for pope John Paul II to get better, but he still died). However, I used it as an opportunity to suggest the psychological benefits of the act of praying.

In July 2006 I wrote in my column in the Saturday Star about the influence of the introduction of the iPod on radio. On the face of it, it was an article about the iPod, and how it would affect the radio industry (in which I was employed at the time). In retrospect it now seems quite prescient; but in fact it was simply an understanding of how advances in science and technology can radically alter consumer behaviour.

Around Valentine’s Day in 2009 I played party-pooper and scientifically corrected the public notion that it’s possible to love someone ‘with all their heart’.

I took a chance with this one in April 2011 where I espoused the virtues of science writers. That must have raised a few eyebrows!

And in February this year in my column in the Tribune I took the reader into the realm of conversion disorder – a psychiatric disorder – whilst masquerading it as a piece on the challenges of bringing up teenage daughters. Sneaky!

You don’t have to write under the banner of ‘science journalist’ to be a science journalist. You just have to hide in the closet and every now and then pop your head out and go “boo!”

Fracking – energy’s abortion debate

In Eish!, Politics, Science on July 12, 2012 at 10:30 am

The subtle subtext of the anti-fracking lobby

For someone such as myself, fracking – or to use its proper name ‘hydraulic fracturing‘ – is a great issue to discuss, because it’s such a messy issue. It’s controversial because it’s emotive. The question is: why is it so emotive?

For a country such as South Africa – where I live – it is emotive because it holds such promise, but at a cost. South Africa sits on the world’s 5th largest reserve of shale gas. Access to such a reserve would transform the country’s energy profile. According to Fin24.com, a study by Econometrix commissioned by Shell has found that it could contribute R200bn (about US$25bn) a year to the South African economy and create 700 000 jobs.

Whereas there is considerably debate around the enthusiasm of these figures, in the South African national psyche anything that could provide both income and employment is worth investigating.

And there’s another issue, a political issue, and something that has captivated the imagination of the country: the possible nationalisation of mines and expropriation of private land. It’s been an on-off debate for many years, given added impetus following President Jacob Zuma’s recent promise of a ‘second transition‘ – suggesting a more rigorous policy of addressing the seeming delays in economic transformation.

It’s an issue that seriously concerns two energy companies – Shell and Sasol – who are hoping to secure the rights to tap into the country’s vast reserves of shale gas. What if they succeed, only to have their operations nationalised?

But the controversy doesn’t stop there; because there’s also the very thorny issue of where the gas is: underneath the Karoo – a vast, largely unspoilt semi-desert that covers almost half the country’s interior, and which is dotted with national parks and farming communities. It’s an environmentalist’s dream, and therefore the thought of it being covered with fracking rigs is giving them nightmares. So environmentalist activists have been very busy painting pictures of destroyed landscapes and contaminated water resources.

So why don’t the energy companies go directly to the land owners in this farming area for the rights to prospect on their land? Because unlike, say, the US, according to South African property law, landowners do not hold the rights to the minerals beneath their land, the state does.

There is currently a moratorium on fracking in South Africa, as the various stakeholders take a breath and analyse the pros and cons; and while they do, the country seems split into two campls: those on the one side who support the country’s choice to determine whether or not it should tap into what’s in its mineral womb; and on the other, those who believe it doesn’t have the right to destroy what nature has given it.

And that’s why debate around fracking is so emotive – it really is energy’s abortion debate.

Moral watchdogs vs Science

In Eish!, Fools, Science on July 11, 2012 at 9:50 am

No, this is not a test tube

“I remember when Louise Brown was born.”

This statement is meaningless for an entire generation; which is a pity because it serves as both a cautionary tale and a case of ‘I-told-you-so’.

The Louise Brown in question was the world’s first baby born through in vitro fertilisation (IVF). The world at the time knew her as the first ‘test tube’ baby – so called because the world knew what a test tube was, but not a petri dish (her actual conception – the successful fusion of her father’s sperm and her mother’s ovum – took place in a petri dish).

I was 12 when she was born, but remember it distinctly, not because I was particularly interested in IVF, but because of the furore that surrounded her birth. Science called it progress, religious leaders warned it was ‘playing god’, and the media didn’t help by calling it a ‘miracle’.

At that age I was fascinated with science. My eternally absent father was a scientist and had left me a science textbook titled ‘Science for Your Needs’ for a recent birthday present. I couldn’t understand why a remarkable progress in science was ‘playing god’.

It was my first exposure to religious ‘moral watchdogs’ – the self-appointed, supposed guardians of all things pure and righteous. They see their role as holding a hand up to the advancement of science to encourage the moral examination of such new developments. Even at the tender age of 12 I saw them as getting in the way of scientific progress.

Louise Brown turns 34 later this month, is healthy, by all means completely normal, and herself a mother through natural conception. IVF has helped to become parents millions of couples who, for medical reasons, have battled to conceive naturally; and, with the exception of some die-hard religious fundamentalists, IVF remains an accepted medical procedure.

But that doesn’t mean that religious moral watchdogs haven’t stopped interfering in scientific progress. Their current focus of frothy ire – stem cell research (especially embryonic stem cell research) – is based on the belief that all life is sacred (except, obviously, that of the animals that they choose for food) and that using stems cells of blastocysts that would otherwise be destroyed is, again, ‘playing god’.

It is my opinion that issues of ethics are best left to philosophers – people of deep intellect and the capacity to entertain the rigours of multiple perspectives – not those who blindly base their judgements on ancient, disputed and politically sculpted texts.

Stem cell research – a development of IVF – has the capacity to completely revolutionise medicine, and help save the lives of people who are dying of diseases that current medicine cannot cure; religious moral watchdogs would prefer they die.

So who’s playing god now?

The two types of science journalism

In Eish!, Science on July 6, 2012 at 10:18 am

“This quasar’s bleeding snuffed it”

In my opinion there are two types of science journalists: the Dead Parrot Journalists and the Dating Journalists, and they both serve a critical function in capturing and  disseminating the wonders of the natural world; but in totally different ways.

Imagine a dinner party where most of the people don’t know each other. Conversation is polite, maybe a bit reserved, and it swirls around different issues. Then one person points to the roast chicken on the table and says, “This is a dead parrot”. Whereas most people will act bemused and a little confused, there will be a handful who will knowingly laugh, because they get the joke.

They are fans of Monty Python, and will possibly know, word-for-word, the famous Dead Parrot sketch. They will look at each other, gently nod, then connect, and then know that if they form their own group, they will be able to share anecdotes and ideas that will resonate with each other. They will invariably be similar in character and interests. Their role is to keep the energy and interest in Month Python alive.

But anyone who contributes to the discussion will have a tough audience, because there will be people in the group who may or may not know the Monty Python sketches better than they.

At the same, at the same dinner party there are other people meeting for the first time. They will spend most of the evening trying to connect and, carefully, even surreptitiously, project their points of view. Their role is to try and get people interested in them. They are essentially ‘dating’. They also have it tough because they have to sell an unknown topic to someone who may or may not be interested.

Science, like Monty Python, has a small but passionate fan base; and, although they may enjoy the exclusivity of belonging to an informal club, this fan base knows they have to keep its energy flowing and ‘spread the love’, as it were.

Science also suffers from popular ignorance. People either think science doesn’t affect them or, for cultural or religious reasons, reject science. They need to know more about science and its importance.

Science journalists are critical in fulfilling both roles.

Science journalists therefore either write for those who are interested in science, or they write for those who should be interested in science. The first type of journalists know they have a captive audience, and in writing for that audience are responsible for keeping the debate around science alive. They are the Dead Parrot Journalists.

The second type of journalists have to get people interested in science, and to build it’s support base. They are the Dating Journalists.

So…which one are you?