Daryl Ilbury

Archive for January, 2015|Monthly archive page

Why ISIS and Boko Harum are right

In Eish!, Fools, Scoundrels on January 19, 2015 at 7:10 am

religious_discriminationThe report that Nigeria-based militant group Boko Haram kidnapped dozens of people in neighbouring Cameroon would no doubt have caused a murmur of concern throughout the Western parts of the world. This comes hot on the heels of other Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria, the killing of a reported 2000 people, and the terror attacks by Islamic-aligned militant groups in Paris. It’s fair to say that most people can’t rationalise why these militants are doing this.

Here’s the explanation: They’re doing what they doing because what they’re doing is right, and because they have ‘evidence’ that what they’re doing is right.

It is of course not right – and as a humanist I condemn it – but they believe that it is, and that’s an important clarification, and the explanation for that will be uncomfortable for many people. But here it is:

Imagine the biggest library in the world. It exists, it’s the US Library of Congress, the de facto national library of the United States. On a large table in the library sits a book. Just the one book. It is an ancient religious text. No-one knows for a fact who wrote it, and so nothing in the book can be verified. 

Understandably, millions of people in the world dispute the veracity of its contents. Nevertheless millions of other people around the world still believe what’s inside it to be true, absolutely, unequivocally true. More importantly they see it as their sole frame of reference for understanding the world and interacting with other people. In fact they see it as a book of answers to any questions they have – any questions whatsoever. 

And it can be, because with the guidance of self-appointed interpreters, all they have to do is find a phrase in the book and twist it to address their question or, more worryingly, to support their purpose, to be ‘evidence’ that what they’re doing is right – no matter how abhorrent it may seem to other people. 

This is possible because – like horoscopes – the wording is broad, often vague, and in many places even contradicts itself.

That book is of course…the Bible.

What? You were expecting the Qur’an? That’s understandable because it could easily be the Qur’an. But then it could also be the Torah, the Talmud, the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, the Guru Granth Sahib, the Dhammapada, in fact any one of many diverse and disputed religious texts.

Think about that for a minute: Of the over 158 million items in the Library of Congress, many people in the world take as their absolute doctrine the contents of just one book, the contents of which can’t be verified and yet can easily be interpreted to support any belief or purpose.

The militants are simply doing what millions of other people of all religions do every day: do what they do because they believe what they’re doing is right, and they have ‘evidence’ to prove it.

Oh, and by the way…humanists? They’re interested in what’s in the rest of the library.

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The anti-GM hypocrisy

In Eish!, Fools, Politics, Science, Scoundrels on January 15, 2015 at 6:05 am

figure6I am both fascinated and frustrated by people who use advances in science and technology to object to advances in science and technology – it reeks of hypocrisy; and I reserve a special frothy ire for those who use all the scientific and technical means at their disposal (such as social media) to object to biotechnology, especially around genetically modified (GM) food. 

The recent decision by the EU to allow its member states to decide for themselves whether they should allow GM crop cultivation, has shaken the anti-GM lobby from their slumber, and they’re beginning to make a noise again.

Unless you’re someone who understands the science of biotechnology and the context within which the research and development takes place, the chances are you’ll sway towards, at least, being cautious towards GM food, your head swimming with warnings of contamination, or fears that if you eat GM food you’ll give birth to a child with three heads. 

And yet, you still want the right to have children. Yes, GM food and your right to have children are linked.

First of all, as I’ve said before – content is king, context is King Kong; so first, a little context: Scientists suffer the popular misperception that they:

  1. Like to tinker with nature – they just can’t let it be;
  2. Think mechanically – they just can’t stand back and respect the aesthetics of nature;
  3. Like to play God – they just can’t let nature be;
  4. Like to retain an aura of exclusivity and mystery – they think they’re better than everyone else;
  5. Have evil designs on the world.

Every scientist I’ve interviewed – and I’ve interviewed a lot – does research for the same reason: they are deeply fascinated with the natural world (especially their focus area) and wish to contribute to the greater public understanding and appreciation of it; and where it’s applied to usable products (technology), how it can improve the human condition. And whereas one or two of the scientists I know may lack the social graces of writers and artists, they’re certainly not evil!

And yet the anti-GM lobby would have you believe scientists are evil, because it serves their agenda to drill into you one thing: fear (here’s a typical example of more tempered fear-mongering).

The reality is that you’re already eating food that has been genetically modified, but over thousands of years – it’s called evolution; and the developments in GM food – such as increased pest-resistance – would more than likely happen naturally, but eventually.  

That would take time, time that a rapidly growing, eternally hungry, increasingly urbanised human population, with limited resources at its disposal, doesn’t have. The anti-GM lobby – and I’ve met a lot of them – seem ignorant of this fact (and are certainly ignorant of the science of biotechnology) and are happy to live their own precious lives enriched with all the trappings of science and technology, content to denigrate the very same science and technology that has an eye on feeding the future.

King Kong and the eagles on stilts

In Eish!, Science on January 9, 2015 at 6:38 am

flat,550x550,075,fThere’s a saying that spins in my head every time I work with scientists: ‘You can lead a horse to water, but if you can get it to float on its back, then you’ve really got something’. In a way it sums up the challenge – and rewards – of getting scientists to tell their stories, and that’s a lot to do with the veracity of the scientific method.

I have spent almost 30 years in the media – as a breakfast-show broadcaster, writer, columnist, editor and science journalist – and now I use my expertise to help scientists communicate more effectively with the media. It’s not easy, but when it works out and we’re able to unlock the insights from their work, the results can be magical, as you will soon see.

But first, some background: That broad field of research known as ‘science’ is the collective input of hundreds of thousands of scientists each focusing on an incredibly specific area of research. For example, a biologist won’t just study a single virus; they will study a single component of the virus’s DNA.

The veracity of the scientific method demands that when they each publish their research it is critically examined and picked apart – sometimes shredded – by other scientists looking for errors. So, scientists have to be meticulous in their research. This is helpful – and not – when they sit down with a journalist. And here’s why:

  1. Because the scientist is a specialist, they will use specialised language, most of which will be completely foreign to a journalist. The journalist will therefore need to ‘translate’ the language into something the media consumer can understand.
  2. The scientist is focused on the specifics to do with their area of research; the journalist wants to know what the big picture is – why the research is important to the general media consumer.
  3. The scientist is ‘bound’ by the exacting, mathematical, demands of scientific integrity; the journalist has at their disposal the unfettered creativity of language.
  4. The scientist is interested in specific outcomes; the journalist is looking for a narrative.
  5. Before the story ‘goes live’ it’ll be clawed at by a sub-editor with no knowledge of the content, much to the frustration of the scientist and journalist.

The result evokes the most common complaint I get from scientists: ‘journalists always get what I say wrong’.

The solution as I explain to scientists is for them to take ownership of ‘translation’. They can do this by giving the media what the media wants, not giving the media what they want and relying on the media to tell it accurately. I drum into them a journalism mantra: Content is king, context is King Kong; and one of the best ways to provide context for the media consumer is to use imagery or analogies – this provides the journalist with a creative way to tell their story, helps the media consumer visualise the research focus, and often gives the sub-editor a catchy headline. So, if the scientists can provide accurate analogies, it reduces the risk of mistranslation.

And so it was when I worked with post-docs (scientists who recently completed their PhD) of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Cape Town. After I had guided them through the various ways of using imagery I asked them to select one key component of their research and explain it using a simile – they had to use the word ‘like’. They all looked at me blankly – I was taking them right out of their comfort zone – so I gave them some examples, and 20 minutes.

One of the post-docs was doing research on how the habitat of the secretary bird – a voracious raptor with a sweet tooth for snakes – can be used as an indicator of environmental degradation. When it was her turn to present her simile, she took a deep breath and said: “Like an eagle on stilts the secretary bird patrols the African grassland, jealously guarding its territory”. There was a brief pause as her colleagues looked at her with shocked admiration before exploding into cheers and applause. A grin burst onto her face as she saw the grin on mine. She had hit the nail on the head.

As I said: ‘magical’.

When bizarre medieval beliefs obstruct modern medicine

In Eish!, Fools, Science, Scoundrels on January 3, 2015 at 7:58 am

witch_tortureI don’t know of any other area where science and society clash more than around religion, which is why it interests me. There are so many areas of science where evidence has completely disproved religious belief, and where religion has eventually (albeit reluctantly) accepted such evidence (e.g. a helio-centric solar system as opposed to a universe with Earth at the centre), or where religion chooses to reject scientific evidence and hang blindly onto its construct (e.g. evolution vs creation).

However, what is of particular concern to me is where such religious construct clashes with science around civil liberties. A recent piece in The Atlantic is a case in point. It reports on research done in Catholic hospitals where doctors are not allowed to perform tubal ligations (tube-tying) – a routine procedure and one of the most common forms of sterilisation – requested by women who have had multiple children through C-sections. Such requests by women in these circumstances is understandable given that they run a real risk of harm if they are forced to undergo another C-section. This is of particular concern to doctors at these hospitals who face dismissal and legal action if they perform the procedure – even though it’s in the best medical interests of the patient. This is of course because of the Catholic church’s official objection to contraception. It is bizarre that the Catholic church still hangs on to the medieval belief so wondrously captured by the Monty Python team that every sperm is sacred (in which case, as the wry observation reminds us, male masturbation is mass murder).

What stands out for me is that according to the piece in The Atlantic, Catholic hospitals in the US are prohibited from providing sterilisation under the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, which are issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and enforced by local bishops; and yet these same directives claim that “Catholic health care ministry seeks to contribute to the common good [which] is realized [sic] when economic, political, and social conditions ensure protection for the fundamental rights of all individuals“. Since when is a woman’s decision about her own body not her ‘fundamental right’?

Let’s not forget these directives are handed down by a powerful organisation controlled entirely by men.