Daryl Ilbury

Archive for the ‘Free-thinking’ Category

How to turn science into a bestseller

In Free-thinking, media, Science on August 31, 2017 at 10:22 am

IMG_2731One of the problems with writing about science is that few people care; it’s something all science writers have to contend with.

It’s still puzzling though, and more than a little frustrating. If I was writing about something that doesn’t really affect anyone, it would make sense; but science affects everyone.

In fact there is no part of anyone’s life that isn’t examined by science. But that doesn’t seem to make any difference; people would prefer to live in a land of make-believe where events are defined by spirits and fictional characters given life by centuries of wild storytelling. There’s another word for that fairytale place: ignorance.

Science, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, is a candle to the darkness of ignorance; but ignorance is also a state of bliss for those uncomfortable with the thought of delving into the unknown. The job of a science writer is therefore to hold their hand and show them the wonder in the unknown; and the best way to do that is to hook it onto the known.

This is why after the publishing of my first book with Penguin Randomhouse – A Fox’s Tale – and I was asked by my publisher what was next, I immediately suggested a book about a controversial scientist with a high public profile: Professor Tim Noakes. They loved the idea, obviously: controversy sells. But for me it was an opportunity to write about science, specifically the context within which the controversy around Professor Noakes has played out: how media consumers make sense of science in a highly disrupted media landscape.

My strategy was simple but difficult: get a book about science onto the Current Affairs section of leading bookstores in South Africa. According to my research, this has never happened.

When the book was released, what I hoped would happen happened – there was a flurry of media attention, and a series of interviews with various radio and TV stations where I used the opportunity to talk about the main issue of the book. I had also prepared a series of excerpts from the book my experience told me would resonate with the media. That made my publicist happy and helped get the book enviable cover in the press and online media. Here’s an example from the Saturday Star, and here’s one in the Sunday Times where they asked me to write more about my shrewd idea to get people to read about science.

The result: passing by a leading retailer the other day, I noticed Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick sitting on the bestsellers shelves, in the company of two authors I admire – Richard Dawkins and Thomas L. Friedman.

And that’s cool.

 

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Science and prejudice

In Free-thinking, Science on August 28, 2017 at 10:45 am

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I’ve been asked by a number of people about the suspicion towards science taking root in Donald Trump’s America, especially around vaccination and climate change. As an explanation, here is an excerpt from my latest book Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick, from the chapter titled ‘Newton, we have a problem’:

“We are not born distrustful of science, we are taught it. Like racism, homophobia or any other prejudice, it is the outcome of the opinions – or ignorance – of parents, teachers and communities, and the complicity of religion in this regard cannot be overemphasised. The shaping of attitudes towards science is not limited to the community-level preaching in churches, temples and mosques, or the propaganda taught in the schools they control, it’s in their continued influence at state level.

This can be overt, as in the control of Iran’s Islamic theologians over the election of their Supreme Leader, the deceptively quaint symbiosis between the British monarchy and the Anglican Church, or the more dissembling claims of separation of church and state in the US while the command ‘In God we trust’ still holds court in their legislative chambers and courtrooms. Or it can be covert – on a subtler level, acquiescence to the dictates of religions lies in the national celebration of religious holidays and the invocation of deities in national anthems, South Africa’s Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika being a case in point.

Yet, science is the only way of accurately understanding our natural world, anything else is make-believe. The unequivocal proof thereof is in the replicable application of science: technology. So much of what we take for granted as part of our modern world has been realised only by using science to understand – and thoroughly test – the underlying hypotheses. Bolts of lightning, formerly considered portents of doom or the designs of sorcerers, can be recreated in a laboratory. Heavier-than-air craft take to the skies daily because of our clear understanding of pressure differentials produced by the shape of a bird’s wing, not because those aboard all pray to the powers of an omnipotent being.

Despite Christian Scientists believing that a child’s fever, headaches and stiffness of the neck emanate from that child’s impure thoughts, modern medicine’s understanding of germ theory, and the technology it has produced, means we can do a simple test for meningitis, and if that is proved the case, treat the child with antibiotics. Of course the parents would probably disagree, refuse medication in accordance with their beliefs, and let the child die in excruciating pain while they stand beside his or her bed, their heads bowed in deference to the imaginary.

In his book The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan explains this with typical eloquence: ‘Microbiology and meteorology now explain what only a few centuries ago was considered sufficient cause to burn women to death.’”

I never thought I’d ever say this, but…

In Free-thinking, media, Politics, Scoundrels on January 27, 2017 at 11:05 am

150826_donald_trump_2_gty_629.jpgI never thought I’d say this, but here goes: Since Donald Trump took office, I have developed a grudging respect for politicians. The very statement irks me to the point I feel nauseous. I have interviewed so many politicians, and found them, without exception, to be self-serving, and flexible with the truth. They revile me. They live in a filter-bubble of their own construct; they have to if they want to survive. And that’s why Trump won’t.

I once interviewed President Jimmy Carter. No matter what question I threw at him, he either delivered a brief, punchy answer, stepped to one side and deflected it, or spun it, creating the opportunity to talk about a pet project. It was a demonstration of the skill of a seasoned politician.

But all that comes with experience in dealing with the news media, who can be obstreperous at the best of times. They have to be. Part of their job is to hold politicians to account – tackle them at every turn, ensuring they do what’s right for the people, not for themselves. A successful politician is one that knuckles down, keeps their nose clean – or at least away from the media – and plays the game: remain sufficiently high profile to show they’re doing their job, but away from the spotlight when they’re not. And on those occasions when they fail, and they will fail, they need to endure the inevitable media backlash and, often brutal, public rebuke. It hurts; but if they stick it out, they’ll toughen up, even become impervious.

What they can not be, is thin-skinned. This is why successful business people usually make bad politicians – they are used to blind acquiescence from those lower in the hierarchy and selective accountability to a familiar higher authority. Being publicly challenged by a mainstream media with a mission to find fault is, for them, unsettling and annoying.

Donald Trump is the wrong person for the position of US President, for reasons already suggested: he is arrogant, selfish, bigoted, misogynist, ignorant, and delusional; hell, I’d venture to say he’s batshit crazy. But it’s his inexperienced, reactive, ill-tempered response to criticism in the media that will be his undoing.

The question is, how many people will suffer on his way down?

 

 

 

Could a return to freeform radio be the answer?

In Eish!, Free-thinking, media on March 24, 2016 at 12:14 pm
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Legendary radio DJ Meg Griffin, from the documentary ‘I Am What I Play’

As radio stations battle an ever-crowded media space to remain relevant to an increasingly ‘connected’ media consumer, could an answer to their predicament lie in the return to an early concept of radio entertainment now considered ‘radical’?

It’s called ‘freeform radio’, and it’s a style of radio that recognises the host* as a music authority and therefore qualified to dictate the music content of the show. Importantly the music played is interlaced with speech that, together, provides the show with a narrative. This is critical, because without a narrative the show is simply a random collection of songs. The added advantage of a narrative is that it holds the attention of the listener, as any good story (and radio show) should.

Freeform radio was the foundation of today’s commercial radio. It started in the U.S. and parts of Europe in the late 1950s and early 60s, and typically featured radio DJs (as they were called then) playing singles and album tracks of their choice, and adopting the role of music authority. Importantly, they helped expand the music experience of their audiences.

Unfortunately many of these DJ’s became vulnerable to the approaches of record companies and their packed wallets. The resultant payola scandal in the U.S. devastated freeform radio in that country. Programming measures were put into place to wrest control of the music from the DJs. However, freeform radio did continue at certain stations, and their key hosts became ‘legends’ of the medium, mainly because they ‘bucked the system’. There’s a film out at the moment (but on limited release), titled ‘I Am What I Play‘, which salutes four of these legends and the importance of freeform radio.

The very idea of freeform radio is anathema to today’s radio industry, packed to the rafters as it is with hyper-formatted music stations, where presenters stray from the music scheduling at the risk of immediate suspension. However, this strict programming is now running the risk of becoming redundant. The core content – music – is now available and easily accessible elsewhere beyond competing terrestrial radio stations – think online radio stations, YouTube, Vimeo, SoundCloud, iPods and MP3 players, smartphones, etc. These can all provide expanded selections of music, mostly without advertising.

It’s a foolish programme director that thinks listeners still believe traditional radio presenters choose the music they play. Listeners are now shopping around, looking to have an experience with the music they consume, and the best way to do that is for them to believe there is a purpose behind every piece of music a radio host plays on his or her show.

I believe there’s an opportunity for the reintroduction of freeform radio. The question though is, do we have the radio talent with the discipline and authority to champion it?

*Although terms are often used interchangeably, generally a ‘host’ is normally someone who ‘anchors’ a ‘show’ (which has a defined structure); a ‘presenter’ is someone who provides links and content between scheduled songs on-air; and the term DJ is now more commonly used to refer to someone who plays (recorded) music in clubs.

TRUE freedom of expression – not a reality on SA radio

In Eish!, Free-thinking on August 26, 2015 at 9:06 am
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Thinking carefully before opening mouth

The question I am most often asked is, “Why did you leave?” It seems it’s still something of a mystery why I just ‘walked away’ from a highly successful career in breakfast radio. The ‘successful’ part is true – by the time I left East Coast Radio at the end of August 2009, my show delivered the bulk of the station’s 2 million listeners (the highest ever), helping make it the biggest English-medium independent radio station in Southern Africa.

It’s the ‘career’ bit that was a little wonky. The reality is I didn’t see a future in an industry threatened by the suppression of the freedom of expression.

Now that may surprise those who believe South Africa’s constitution champions the freedom of expression. It does, it’s just its citizens that don’t; they believe rather in what Mick Hume, in his brilliant book Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech, calls “freedom of expression, but…”. In short: a freedom of expression, but with restrictions. So, in effect, not free.

Case in point: Last month the Acting SRC President (of the Vacation Committee) at the University of Cape Town (UCT) made some disparaging remarks about gays on her Facebook page. In reaction to the US Supreme Court ruling that same-sex marriages be legalised, Ms Zizipho Pae posted the following: “We are institutionalising and normalising sin! Sin. May God have mercy on us.” I found her comments puerile, her sentiments towards gays archaic, and her invoking of a deity pathetic, but I respected her right to say what she felt. I also knew exactly what was going to happen next.

Sure enough, a Twitter-storm erupted, which was good; again – freedom of expression. Ms Pae was pilloried for being homophobic (arguably true), out of touch with the university’s policies around discrimination (debatable – she wasn’t discriminating against anyone), or engaging in hate speech (inciting violence? I don’t think so). Ms Pae would’ve received a brutal reality check; and things should have stopped there. But she was then kicked out of the SRC. Why? Because they found her comments offensive?

Tough! Because that’s her right, just as it was the right of others to challenge her.

That’s what most people seem to forget about the freedom of expression. Because opinions are diverse, expressing them invariably means crossing paths with people who think differently, even running the risk of offending them. So saying something that others may find offensive is interwoven with the freedom to express oneself. This is democracy in action.

Ms Pae’s case reminded me of my own brush with public rancour in February 2003. Sri Lanka had just knocked South Africa out of the Cricket World Cup in a controversial, rain-shortened match in my home town of Durban. In a misplaced act of national pride I went on-air the next day and made disparaging remarks about the Sri Lankan teams’ names and the size of the manhoods. In retrospect it was infantile and not my style of broadcasting at all. One of the listeners who phoned in hit the nail on the head; he said I had ‘crossed the line’. Worryingly, I was widely misquoted by people who never even heard the broadcast; and that did a lot of damage.

The fallout did me the world of good though: it pegged me down a notch or two, and I was genuinely distressed that I had clearly upset a lot of people. In the station’s defence they took me off-air until things died down, then put me back again, acknowledging, as the BCCSA later found, that I was simply exercising my freedom of expression. I saw out the end of my contract, went on a sabbatical, started focusing on my writing, and spent a couple of years in talk radio.

I returned to East Coast Radio in 2006, leaner, meaner and a lot more mature; but by the latter part of 2009 I was acutely aware that the radio industry was about to undergo fundamental change, forced by the growing empowerment of the media consumer through social media. I knew that if it were to survive, radio would have to engage directly with its listener; meaning more talk.

I was prepared for that, in fact I was looking forward to it, but I knew that in an immature democracy where everyone seems to lay claim to the status of ‘victim’ based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, culture, or whatever, South African listeners were not prepared to embrace true freedom of expression.

And I didn’t want to be part of that.

Where Women’s Day fails

In Eish!, Free-thinking, Politics on August 8, 2015 at 9:53 am

National_Women's_DayThis is, and is not, one of my favourite times of the year. Every year in South Africa 9th August is National Women’s Day, and it’s a public holiday. It commemorates an important day in the country’s history when approximately 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to petition against the country’s pass laws that required South Africans defined as “black” under The Population Registration Act to carry an internal passport – known as a ‘dompass’.

The event is considered so important that the entire month in which the date falls is declared National Women’s Month. To be fair, the Government should be commended for trying to lead the country towards normalcy. There is a balanced representation of women in the cabinet, arguably far more so than in most other countries. Moreover women command key positions such as Minister of Science and Technology (Naledi Pandor), Energy (Tina Joemat-Pettersson), Environmental Affairs, (Edna Molewa) and State Security (Ellen Molekane). The media may claim their performances are patchy – as the Mail and Guardian’s infamous annual report card attests – but this is purely representative of the ANC’s rather dodgy selection of leaders in general rather than an indication of the performances of women versus men.

However, by recognising women as natural leaders the Government is addressing a critical failure in traditional African culture – a still fiercely patriarchal mindset that regards women as second class citizens best left behind at home to bear children and cook food. (A litmus test for this is the number of women allowed to drive minibus taxis – in all my years driving I’ve seen one). This is compounded by a strong religious undercurrent that draws on the many biblical references that portray women in this way (not to forget original sin, which, according to Ecclesiasticus 25:24 was all Eve’s fault!) I have written about this before, and, as you can expect, it found me no friends amongst my fellow men.

However, where I get frustrated is how the media and commercial sectors portray Women’s Day. It seems to be all about the femininity of women (search ‘Women’s Day’ in Google Image and see what I mean). An example is the South African iStore that sent out its ‘Celebrate Women’s Day’ mailer that included links to apps it felt were suitable. These were limited to apps for changing hair colour, shopping, and monitoring the menstrual cycle (called, I kid you not, Period Tracker). Such things, in my opinion, risk entrenching the stereotyping of women – in accordance with cultural and religious mindsets – as shallow and weak.

Women’s Day and Women’s Month, should not be about celebrating femininity – it should be about correcting historical and current imbalances in the mindset of men. The South African government should be lauded for trying, we now need the country’s men to step up to the plate.

Atheists really are nice people

In Free-thinking, Politics on August 5, 2015 at 3:51 pm

Atheists-Have-Nothing-to-Die-ForWith the inevitable pace of interest in the US Presidential elections picking up pace as more and more politicians throw their hats into the ring, and anticipation grows of when Donald Trump will implode, discussion around dining room tables will invariably turn towards the qualifications of each candidate. A key component of qualification will be their religious affiliation, for no other reason than it seems to be necessary for a candidate to be religious.

Comedian and TV host Bill Maher recently tapped into this rather strange phenomenon. He went on to say, “Poll after poll shows Americans would elect almost anyone before they elect an atheist”. He then added rather contentiously, “They would probably elect a pedophile before an atheist.”

How correct is he? A recent Gallup Poll suggests that maybe, just maybe, Americans are beginning to step out of the Middle Ages and join the rest of the civilised world in realising that atheists aren’t evil. According to the poll, although an atheist as a presidential candidate would enjoy broad acceptance from those who don’t identify with any religion (understandable), 91% of whom say they would support an atheist for president, this drops to 47% among Protestants, and is not much higher among Catholics (58%). As a result, the overall percentage who would vote for an atheist stands at 58%.

That’s not very high, but it’s a lot higher than it was back in the late 1950s when a similar poll said only 18% of Americans would vote an atheist in as President.

What does stand out in the poll though is that although people of various religions have varying levels of rejection of candidates who are gay or lesbian, evangelical Christian, Muslim, atheist or socialist, atheists themselves are a lot more accepting of any candidate, irrespective of their upbringing (with an understandable disinclination towards evangelical Christians – there are enough of those anchored in the wings in the Tea Party dragging the country backwards).

The clear message here is that atheists really are nice people…ideal candidates for providing moral leadership to a country needing it.

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

Sometimes it’s easier to drink the Kool Aid

In Eish!, Free-thinking, Politics on June 1, 2015 at 3:31 pm

Jonestown17I’ll never forget the images of the bloated corpses rotting in the tropical sun. I was 16 years old when it happened; and that’s possibly why, nearly 37 years later, my wife often catches me shaking my head and sighing, seemingly for no reason.

In the oppressive days of apartheid when South Africa was excommunicated from the rest of the world, Scope magazine was a refreshing distraction. It was best known for the scantily clad women that adorned its cover – and many of the pages inside – always with stars stuck over their nipples (the Calvinistic government of the time though the sight of nipples would invoke all manner of ills, natural disasters not impossibly among them). But there was another reason Scope was so popular: it featured cutting-edge photo-journalism from around the world.

On this occasion the main feature story was the Jonestown Massacre. It was so shocking that it had kicked the pretty young lady off the front cover. The story inside was unbelievable: Over 900 devoted followers of a charismatic preacher called Jim Jones had unquestioningly followed his instruction to commit mass suicide. The images showed their corpses littered around a compound cut out of the jungle in Guyana, South America. What upset me most were the images of entire families lying face down, their arms around each other or lying protectively over babies.

But it wasn’t a clear cut case of suicide. The children and the dogs were force-fed grape-flavoured juice laced with cyanide. They had been killed. The parents and adults then followed, drinking the concoction before lying down to die. The Revered Jim Jones skipped the drink, choosing instead to blow his brains out. The drink was called Flavor Aid, but was often misreported as Kool Aid – the trademark name of a similar drink sold in the U.S. In a rather macabre salute to the massacre, the term ‘drinking the Kool Aid’ has emerged – mainly in the U.S. – as a figure of speech for anyone steadfastly holding on to a doomed belief without critically examining it.

I like to use the term not only because I remember the massacre, but because as a journalist I have been encouraged to examine everything with a critical eye, to be cynical in the absence of firm, corroborative evidence. This is liberating because I don’t get sucked into stupidity; I am not influenced by any of the myriad diverse religions that somehow each claim sole legitimacy and demand unquestioning submission. But it’s also tiring, because every day in the news I am bombarded by the actions of people who are more than willing to do unquestionable things in the name of religion – in the Middle East, in the Ukraine, in the U.S. or anywhere else where religion warps their world view.

So that’s why I continually shake my head and sigh. Perhaps it would be easier to just drink the Kool Aid.

The malignancy of the wasted brain

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

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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.