Daryl Ilbury

Archive for the ‘Fools’ Category

Let’s exorcise anonymity from social media

In Eish!, Fools, media on March 31, 2016 at 1:10 pm

freddy-krueger-vinyl-mask

‘CrispySkin69 has sent you a friend request’

It’s one of Shakespeare’s most enduring lines: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose”. Perhaps it’s time mainstream media did their best to exorcise unnecessary anonymity from social media.

I have a love-hate relationship with social media. I love the fact it’s encouraging change in the media landscape, but I hate that it’s driven by people generally unqualified to sit behind the wheel; especially mysterious people with unknown qualifications. In fact, I find that quite scary, because in the media a name is important.

This is especially so for a young journalist, because there’s no bigger thrill than when they first get their name in a byline – that part of an article that carries the name of the person by whom it was written.  It’s not a given for a journalist that every piece they write will automatically carry their name. That right has to be earned through an initiation of anonymity. 

They will have to bloody their notebooks, scribbling their way up through the ranks from, say, ‘staff reporter’ through being attached to a ‘beat’ such as ‘court reporter’, before finally cracking sufficient acknowledgement to be anointed with their own name in the byline.

It’s only at that stage that, it could be argued, they become recognised by their peers as qualified to carry the mantle ‘journalist’.

The name is important not only for the purposes of recognition, but also for accountability. For all the titles I wrote it was made clear that if my name was on the byline than I was accountable for what I wrote. It was the same when I was in radio – my name was on the show, so I was on my own. If someone took sufficient umbrage with what I said, legally the station would step back and let me take the fall.

Such is the responsibility for being a ‘name’ in the media.

But social media has changed all that. There seems to be the belief that anonymity goes hand in hand with ‘democratisation’, that not only is it permissible to opine without restraint, but that this should be done behind a curtain of secrecy. No names and clear head-and-shoulder shots on the byline taking full accountable credit for what was said; instead commentary should wear the scab of mysterious characters shielded by fictitious epithets and avatars.

And this is my beef: if you want to play the media game, you play by the rules; and one of those rules is the issue of accountability. If you want the credit for what you say, have the balls to attach your real name and image to it.

So what can the grown-ups of mainstream media do? Exorcise the anonymity. Don’t give credit where it’s not due. If you’re going to publish a comment or pull one off social media and put it on-air, online or in print, only choose those by people playing by the same rules as yourself. So you don’t quote ‘DragonMistress’ and ‘KnobHead69’; only real people. And you make this clear in your media guidelines. It should be carried above your comments section, on your website and mentioned on-air.

Anonymity has a place in social media: the damp and fetid dungeons of the dark web.

 

 

Advertisements

Another sad day for science journalism

In Eish!, Fools, media, Science, Uncategorized on March 30, 2016 at 11:47 am
GastrointestinalDisorders_900

Where the nasty little fekkers like to play

I was recently faced with two events that animated the science journalist in me, opportunities to write compelling stories for the South African media consumer; but instead I chose to walk away. Actually I used another phrase; but more about that later.

The first was when I recently caught an Uber to the airport. I always make a point of chatting with the driver, and on this occasion he was a final year software development student. Interestingly, he had just won a competition to secure an internship with Google at their Googleplex HQ in Mountain View, California. He had designed a piece of software for the iOS platform that could help identify when people using a certain dating site were lying (“I’m an astronaut, nearly 2m tall and built like a Greek god”). My head almost exploded as the story started to scribble away amongst my synapses. In the 15 minutes it took to get to the airport I pommeled him with a barrage of questions.

He was generous with his answers and seemed genuinely excited that a journalist was interested in his story. Importantly for me, he was humble about his achievements. I started making a mental note of people to contact to verify and develop the story, how the narrative could be framed, what emotive triggers I could use to help the reader connect with it, etc. All I had to do was get his number and start with a proper interview over a cup of coffee. But I didn’t ask him for his number; instead I thought, “Nah, fuck it”.

The second was more recent. After my family (including our two dogs) were rendered ‘man-down’ with a rather virulent bout of gastric nastiness I suspected something was amiss, and interrogated a local pharmacist. If this was a bigger issue, there would be a run (‘scuse the pun) on diarrhoea and antispasmodic medication. She confirmed that suspicions were about that a pathogen – possibly an algal toxin – had found its way through Cape Town’s water-supply filtration mechanisms, and was running amok within the gastric passageways of the city’s citizens.

My mind started running like a fishing rod reel feverishly releasing line to a hooked marlin (I do so love my analogies). This was a big story. The implications, if the suspicions were true, were vast. Thousands of people – especially the elderly and very young – were at serious risk: diarrhoea can be a killer. I knew I’d have to contact the local health authorities, speak to a couple of specialists I had in my contacts list, and…then I thought, “Nah, fuck it”.

The unfortunate truth is that I have lost the promethean spark of science journalism that used to burn in my brain. The gradual evisceration of science coverage in the South African printed media*, which I have touched on previously, and which reached a nadir in September last year, has effectively extinguished any interest I have for contributing to the intellectual evolution of the South African media consumer. It seems the lifestyle choices of mindless celebrities and the self-serving machinations of political half-wits are their preferred fodder.

I know this is part of a bigger picture – the evisceration of highly skilled and experienced journalists from mainstream media; but where pseudoscience and misrepresentation of science is spreading like a virus through social media, there’s an urgent need for qualified science journalists to calm things down and provide evidential insight. I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

So, if such stories as the two I have mentioned here pop onto my radar in the near future, begging to be written and shared, unless there’s a sign mainstream media have changed their minds about science, I know what I’ll say to myself.

[*Before I left my position as Media Coordinator for SAASTA, I facilitated a meeting with Combined Artists (the producers of Carte Blanche), which is one of the reasons for the increased coverage of science on the programme. Most credit must go to them for grabbing the ball and running with it.]

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.

Anti-vaxxers make science journalists rabid

In Eish!, Fools, Free-thinking, Science on August 4, 2015 at 8:47 am

Handicapped with polioThe science journalists I know are not prone to violence, but I wouldn’t trust many of them around an anti-vaxxer, especially when there’s a blunt instrument nearby.

Science journalists like myself  hope that when presented with sufficient evidence humans will tap into that sliver of common sense they should have running through them and develop a better understanding of the world around them. I know it’s a little naive, but it’s what keeps us digging into science and presenting it for human consumption.

However, what anti-vaxxers (people who oppose vaccination) teach us is that often otherwise intelligent people will reject clear, scientific evidence to embrace absolute nonsense. In retrospect the proof of such ridiculous behaviour is continually punching us in the face: the propensity for humans to desperately hang on to a religious belief despite the fact that such a belief competes with thousands of other religious beliefs for any claim to legitimacy; oh yes and that fact it is based on zero evidence.

So what makes anti-vaxxers the focus of so much journalistic ire? After all, are they not entitled to their beliefs, no matter how bizarre they may be? The answer is cradled – increasingly sickly – in their arms: their children. Immunisation is designed to give children the immune tools to fight off up to 14 diseases that would otherwise cripple or kill them; and a parent depriving them of that right is tantamount to child abuse.

According to NPR thanks to a reduction in parental willingness to immunise children, vaccine-preventable diseases are on the rise. Last year, for example, the U.S. witnessed three times as many measles cases as the previous year. It’s becoming increasingly clear that people propelling this resurgence in child-maiming diseases are not responding to common sense.

Research seems to support this. According to IFLScience, providing information that attempts to undermine misbeliefs about the supposed dangers of vaccination can actually backfire and strengthen negative attitudes. The solution it seems is to use more emotive cues including images of infants with the infections; hence the image above of a beautiful child handicapped by polio.

I live in a country with a shockingly low level of understanding of science, and so ignorance of science can – to a certain degree – be forgiven. However, if you live in the U.S. or U.K., where you should have a better understanding of science, not immunising your children is not unforgivable, it’s criminal.

My responsibility as a journalist is such that I am expected to present something of a balance. So here it is: http://howdovaccinescauseautism.com

Cecil the Lion in Apocalypse Now

In Eish!, Fools on August 1, 2015 at 4:01 pm

apocalypse_now_by_darkman20-d33safoWhen I first saw the Twitter hashtag #CecilTheLion and followed the link to see a global news story taking shape around an animal, I was taken back over 35 years to a moment watching Francis Ford Coppola’s brutal epic Apocalypse Now.

There was a scene (here, at 1 hr 55 mins) where marines approach a boat carrying a Vietnamese family. The marines, on edge, aim their rifles and machine gun on the boat. The family, understandably, is terrified. When a woman in the boat runs towards something, the marines panic, open fire and massacre the entire family. One of the marines then leans towards where the woman had been running and finds a puppy. Another marine grabs the puppy up by the scruff of its neck. The puppy yelps. I remember the scene so well because the entire audience in the cinema erupted with a sympathetic ‘aaah’. They had just watched women and children being massacred and didn’t make a sound, but cried when a puppy yelped.

If there’s something I’ve learned about media consumer behaviour it’s this: people have a soft spot for animals, but only certain animals. Top of the pile are puppies and kittens, working down through older dogs and cats and other domesticated furry beings – not goldfish, they’re flushable. There’s a special place though for animals featured in animated films, largely because such films portray these animals as cute; especially so when the highly profitable merchandise machine rolls out stuffed toy characters.

And I would hazard a guess that for most people who reacted so strongly to the killing of Cecil the Lion their exposure to lions is limited to The Lion King and the odd TV documentary. They haven’t seen – as I have – a lion rip open the stomach of a screaming baby impala.

Let’s be honest. People reacted strongly not because someone had killed a lion, but because someone had killed a lion that had – arbitrarily – been given a human name. Cecil was Simba from The Lion King; and that’s ridiculous.

I do not condone hunting, although I understand that professional hunting can serve a role in animal conservation. But it’s not a sport unless the playing field is level, that means the hunter must also be the hunted. If you want to hunt a lion, strap an animal carcass to your back and walk around the lion’s territory.

But human sympathy for animals is highly selective – people will proudly drop a coin into a collection box to save the rhino while munching on a McDonald’s Happy Meal that required someone further back in the food chain fire a bolt gun into the brain of a cow. They will justify this by telling themselves that some animals are bred to be consumed while others are allowed to roam freely – as if it’s the reality of some sanctioned genetic lottery; and that’s fine.

And it is, as long as you don’t profess a moral standpoint on it, because then you risk coming across as a hypocrite.

It’s not one of those days, dammit!

In Eish!, Fools on June 4, 2015 at 4:04 pm

PaddyOByrne

“Today is International Hit Someone With a Rolled-Up Newspaper Day”.

My mind isn’t what it used to be. There’s a lot more in it; it’s just harder to find what I need. But scattered around inside it are gems of insight, some mine, a lot from other people. There’s also a remarkable amount of what some might consider clutter – stuff I’ve read or heard – including the above quote. It was made by the late broadcaster Paddy O’Byrne, and there is absolutely no value in it other than the fact it is gloriously prescient.

One of Paddy’s ‘things’ on air was to allocate a certain importance to each day. This was done with tongue firmly in cheek. On this particular day he announced at the start of his show that it was International Hit Someone With a Rolled-Up Newspaper Day; except it wasn’t. In those days (a long time ago), dedicated days were few and far between. There was Christmas, Easter and a couple of public holidays and one or two made-up days to keep the greeting card industry busy – Mothers’ Day and, rather unenthusiastically, Fathers’ Day.

Nowadays things are different, every day is some or other day. There are the serious days, normally dedicated to one or other nasty medical condition, such as the recent World TB Day and World Multiple Sclerosis Day, and a whole host of days that respected international organisations such as the United Nations deem worthy of your focus. Some are pretty obvious, such as Wold Press Freedom Day; others – such as World Poetry Day – are, in my opinion, stretching the United Nations’ mandate just a tad; some are silly, like International Day of Happiness; and there are those – such as International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People – that associate the United Nations with violently divisive issues.

But then there are those days that are just arbitrarily created by uninvited, and quite possibly, unwelcome, self-appointed persons and organisations. No one seems to know who they are. Here are some examples that should worry you; and they’re are just in the U.S. and just for the month of June!

But what really crunches my nuts is that these days are often embraced by the media. Radio stations will announce, “Today is International Cleavage Day” – without even questioning the source of the declaration – and create programming content around it. This gives the day credence in the minds of the listener and encourages other organisations to make up their own ridiculous days.

Yep, Paddy my friend, you were way ahead of your time.

If he were still alive, I’m sure he’d agree there’s only one day the world should celebrate: Star Wars Day on May the 4th…be with you.

Food can kill you!

In Eish!, Fools, Science, Scoundrels on April 14, 2015 at 4:49 pm

Derp of the DayI have followed with detached interest the rise and fall of Vani Hari (yes, as in Mata Hari), a.k.a Food Babe – ‘detached’ because to engage with her and her doting acolytes would send my blood pressure sky high, and ‘interest’ because what she’s doing worries me. For those who don’t know, Hari is an American self-appointed arbiter of food safety. Her qualifications for such are zero.

OK, that’s a little harsh; she does digest food. The point is she has no academic qualifications. She’s certainly not a dietician. [This is a good point to emphasise the difference between a dietician and nutritionist: essentially dieticians are registered and belong to a regulated body; nutritionists not necessarily so]. She calls herself an ‘activist’. Translated: she makes a lot of noise about something; and you know the saying about what makes the most noise…

The thing about lots of noise though is that attracts attention, and as traditional media battles social media for the minds of media consumers, lots of noise on social media tends to be picked up by a reluctant traditional media. And that makes food companies scared. Hari’s ’cause’ for activism is what’s in food, specifically food that is prepared or packaged for consumers. For her, unless it’s organic it probably contains poisons, and she presents as evidence the varied scientific-sounding additives and preservatives found in most prepared foods. One of her biggest nemeses is azodicarbonamide (sometimes referred to as ADA), a chemical substance approved for use as a whitening agent in cereal flour and as a dough conditioner in bread baking. She has made a noise about it also being used in the manufacture of yoga mats. True, but then the zinc found in spinach is used in the manufacture of car batteries (we’re made of chemicals, people!) She selects as a source the website of an organic food disciple, Max Goldberg, who in turn quotes a WHO report that “links ADA to respiratory issues, allergies and asthma”.

So let’s go there: The report says: “Evidence that azodicarbonamide can induce asthma in humans has been found from bronchial challenge studies with symptomatic individuals and from health evaluations of employees at workplaces where azodicarbonamide is manufactured or used”. Sounds scary. Loosely translated: people who show a sensitivity to it should avoid it, especially those who work with it.

But this is true for any chemical, including something found in almost all prepared food – a chemical so dangerous that symptoms of toxicity to it can include dizziness, changes in blood pressure, abnormal heartbeat, convulsions, coma and eventual death. It’s called sodium chloride – yes, common table salt.

At long last science is beginning to stand up to Vani’s narcissistic (she presents herself as evidence her activism works) scaremongering. Mainstream media is finally getting the message. But what has really made my day is to see scientists take her on via her media platform of choice: blogging – meet Science Babe.

The dangers of anti-science

In Eish!, Fools, Science on April 13, 2015 at 11:52 am

NGM2015_MAR_CV2-275x400When I turned 10 my estranged father (my parents were divorced when I was young) bought me a science text book – Science For Your Needs (yes, I still remember the title). 

I devoured each page, revelling in the images of explosive geysers, giant crabs and all manner of scientific artefacts. I didn’t understand a lot of it, but the fascination it inspired held true for many years thereafter. In fact, it was the seed of my current passion for science. 

I have to take this into account whenever I try to understand why so many people, it seems, are distrustful towards science. Are they really against science, or am I just overly enthusiastic towards it.

This wouldn’t matter if a resistance towards science was unproblematic, such as a resistance towards, say, football. But football doesn’t examine and affect every single element of our lives. Science does. So when people are against science I find it puzzling; when they employ anti-science rhetoric to negatively influence the lives of other people, I get angry. Here are some cases in point:

  1. The anti-GMO lobby who sit in their cosy homes, shrilling about rural African farmers who choose to embrace safe, tested GM seeds to bolster their harvest;
  2. The rapidly dwindling club of climate-change denialists who steadfastly refuse to accept the vast multidisciplinary research that shows climate change is a reality, because they believe to do so invites interventionist regulation by big government, which is anathema to their political beliefs;
  3. Anti-vaxxers who continually quote a discredited research paper as evidence of the dangers of vaccinating their children, in the process endangering not only their children’s lives, but those of others;
  4. Blind devotees of the myriad different religions who each claim sole verity, but reject scientific certainty, claiming because they are religious they have that right. They don’t, especially if it affects other people. If you reject a blood transfusion for your child and that child dies, you should be charged with homicide. If you condemn the use of contraceptives because you believe every sperm is sacred, you sentence the faithful poor to a life in poverty.

Special mention must go to those who cherry-pick from science to suit their needs but aggressively reject the same science when it nullifies their fundamental religious beliefs. Example: ‘Answers in Genesis’ (AiG) creationists who’ll rush their children to hospital for an emergency medical procedure, but brainwash those same children into believing that Adam and Eve shared paradise with dinosaurs. If you’ve got a bit of time, here’s the famous debate between Bill Nye and AiG’s Ken Ham. National Geographic carried a feature piece in its March 2015 edition called ‘The War on Science’. Here’s a brief snapshot. 

Science doesn’t know everything. If it did, as I’ve said before, it would stop. But science is defined by evidence, so if you’re going to challenge it, bring the evidence.

The malignancy of the wasted brain

In Eish!, Fools, Free-thinking, Science on March 5, 2015 at 3:03 pm

color_nimoy_headshot

I shed a silent tear when I heard of the death of Leonard Nimoy. He was no relation and I never knew him, but his passing was tragic for me. As Spock, my favourite character in Star Trek, and as an actor and poet, he displayed a wondrous capacity for balancing logic and creativity, and a remarkable empathy for his fellow man. He also unveiled the vagaries and limitations of human thinking.

If you’re looking for evidence of such vagaries, you only have to follow the rapid rise in Islamic fundamentalism; and before Christians and Muslims say “yeah, exactly”, let’s not forget that they’re just as guilty. The fact that religion hasn’t been pushed to the fringes of human frivolity to hide alongside astrology and the belief in fairies, is not only puzzling, from an evolutionary perspective it is downright worrying.

Let’s for a minute use just a smidgen of logic: religions are different belief systems that influence – or control – a lot of human thinking and behaviour. They all differ in their fundamental constructs. Each different belief system is furthermore riddled with internal competitive dissension, with each offshoot claiming to be the correct interpretation of its parent construct. This is not only highly illogical, it is obviously impossible; ergo they are all flawed.

Being religious therefore requires the continued suspension of disbelief. It means that contrary to all obvious reason that central tenets of a belief system are irrevocably flawed, people still adhere to them. From an evolutionary perspective, the inability of individuals within the human species to understand this and therefore reject such nonsense shows their inability to adapt. It is a weakness.

However, such illogical religiousness is so widespread it’s fair to say that this is not a failure of individuals, but of the human species as a whole; especially when you consider the remarkable capacity of the human brain – as displayed in extraordinary individuals such as scientists – to boldly pursue the depth and level of thinking made famous by Nimoy’s Spock. If it weren’t for religion, just think how advanced the human species would be.

Religion is indeed a malignancy of the wasted human brain.

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.