Daryl Ilbury

Archive for September, 2015|Monthly archive page

South Africa takes a further step back into darkness

In Eish!, Science, Scoundrels on September 17, 2015 at 12:02 pm

CandleWhat do the following have in common: cheese, butter, coffee and oral sex? If you’re a science journalist you’ll probably know. The answer: they’ve all been ‘linked’ to cancer. The word ‘link’ is contentious at best.

The list is by no means complete. It’s a long one and includes such gems as air fresheners, bras, hot dogs, talcum powder, and…well, Ross Pomeroy, the author the blog Real Clear Science, has attempted to track them all down.

I was reminded of this because of two recents events, coincidentally linked. The first was the Mail & Guardian’s decision to drop its science desk as part of a series of retrenchments in the face of a cashflow crisis. I learned about this – the day before it happened – when chatting with the title’s (now former) science editor, the award-winning journalist Sarah Wild. It couldn’t have come at a more absurd time – Sarah has just published a book that champions the work of South African scientists, expertly putting science into context for ordinary South Africans.

The second was a piece in the Daily Maverick by one of the few journalists still bothering with employing an investigative eye – Ivo Vegter.

Ivo’s point, and it’s an oft-ignored one, is that science doesn’t know everything (if it did it would stop), and that it’s not so much a repository for knowledge as a process for learning about our natural world. More importantly science acknowledges this (as opposed to religions that claim to know the absolute truth), and so it’s quite comfortable with making mistakes along the way – after all, as I’m sure your mother told you, ‘we learn by our mistakes’.

Now this wouldn’t be the problem if more people knew this when reading the paper or going online. Instead they’ll read a ‘science story’ and just believe it, because a) it’s in the news, and b), well, it’s science.

Editors know this, which is why they like ‘science stories’ that ‘link’ something everyone fears (cancer) with something that everyone consumes or does (coffee…sex…etc.). It’s also why science journalists – real science journalists, not inexperienced journalists given a science ‘beat’ – are sorely needed. They can expertly cut through the research clutter and correct the claims (the ‘links’) editors want to make. That’s how they get in the way of tabloid content dressed up as ‘science’, and why they’re often the first to go in any title’s shake-up.

But in South Africa there’s an added reason why science journalists are needed, but paradoxically not: We’re a nation that still believes in spirits, ‘throwing bones’ to diagnose maladies, and that a man who calls himself ‘Doctor’ can help you win the lottery while making your penis bigger. This would be quaint if it weren’t culturally protected under the title ‘traditional healing’. So any journalist that forces uncomfortable questions about the merits of cultural claims, is, in such a politically and culturally sensitive media environment, bound to get in the way.

The Mail & Guardian’s decision to drop the science desk – claiming the decision is a purely economic one – risks dragging the country deeper into ignorance; and that’s not only short-sighted, it’s wholly irresponsible.

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Why the destruction of Palmyra is a good thing

In Eish!, Fools on September 2, 2015 at 1:36 pm

UNITAR-UNOSAT imagery shows the Temple of Bel seen on August 27 (top) and rubble seen at the temple's location on August 31 (below) [AFP]

UNITAR-UNOSAT imagery shows (top) the Temple of Bel seen on August 27 and (below) rubble seen at the temple’s location on August 31 [AFP]

OK…it’s not, unless you see the more uncomfortable big picture.

According to the Wall Street Journal, satellite images released Monday by the United Nations confirmed that the main building of the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel in Syria, one of the Middle East’s most important archaeological sites, has been destroyed by ISIS.

[If you’re going get editorially anal about the current name this terrorist organisation calls itself, believe me when I say I don’t give a fuck – I’m certainly not going to agonise over it].

Like many leading titles, the WSJ has been rather breathless (in it’s own way) about the destruction of the temple’s iconic main building; suggesting in no uncertain way it’s a bad thing.

I think otherwise.

Firstly let me underline something in case it’s not already clear: As a freethinker I object to oppressive ideologies dressed up in the guise of ‘religion’, and so I certainly have no sympathy for the cause of religious extremists. Does this mean I’m expected to add to the clamour of objection to ISIS’s destroying of a culturally treasured building?

No, I see it more as an opportunity for us to step in to the arena they have cleared and debate the merits of ideological justification. Sometimes it takes something this unsparing to expose hypocrisy.

According to Hassan Hassan, a Middle East analyst and co-author of the book “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” ISIS see what they’re doing as erasing signs and artifacts that represent ideas outside their strict interpretation of Islam. If that is the case then it’s justified – it’s justified through the lens of their ideology.

And there’s the rub – if we condemn them for something their ideology deems right, should we not do the same for other oppressive ideologies that consider their destructive behaviour justified? If someone claims what they do, or what they believe in, is legitimate – irrespective of how it impacts others – because it’s their religion, should we not challenge it?

For example, if a Kentucky state town clerk refuses to issue a marriage licence to a gay couple  because through the lens of her religion to do so would erase the ‘sanctity of marriage’, should we not challenge her?

If a father allows a knife to be taken to his newborn son or preteen daughter, despite their rights not to be violated, because through the lens of his ideology cutting around his child’s genitals is deemed necessary, should we not object?

And yet if we do, they’ll kick up a fuss and claim their beliefs are inviolable; more importantly others will rush to defend them.

And that’s when I smile, because you can’t condemn the destructive beliefs of one religion and claim persecution when someone challenges yours.

And if that makes you uncomfortable, then it’s a good thing.