A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Friday, June 17, 2016

Brexit, immigration and the politics of hate

Some thoughts on the ugly tone of the Brexit referendum, and yesterday's horrific events. If you're looking for my more usual science-related rants, you'll find them at my Guardian profile here

The deaths of people I don't know rarely impact me greatly; I tend to feel rather uncomfortable with the outpourings of grief over celebrity deaths and had come to think of myself as something of a cynic on that front. But I can admit to being wrong; yesterday's brutal murder of MP Jo Cox shook me far more than I could have ever expected. The day before last, I had watched this brilliant young parliamentarian on the Thames with her family, admirably challenging the scare-mongering of Farage's Flotilla with a more positive message. Yesterday's news was so jarring I had to double-take – indeed, I spent all night thinking about it. I won't repeat the tributes, for there are so many already and it is abundantly clear is that we have lost an incredible woman. I don't wish to politicise this tragic loss, but a politician being murdered for their political opinion whilst in the middle of a fractious political campaign has an inescapable political dimension. The plea by her husband Brendan to "fight against the hatred that killed her" has not left my head all morning. His observation is an apt one; the furore over next week's referendum has brought something ugly and xenophobic to the surface of public debate, something I never thought I'd see here.

This toxic fringe has become steadily emboldened by the vicious rhetoric of the previous few weeks. The leave campaign has pivoted entirely on a modern iteration of the big lie doctrine; that one can lie with audacity and impunity provided they lie with sufficient force and magnitude. Facts are irrelevant, reality is whatever they insist loudly and often enough. The Brexit figureheads are completely unperturbed that each of their campaign soundbites has been thoroughly debunked; their flagship claims on EU membership costs have been rebuked and exposed several times over, ignoring the fact that EU membership generates much more than that we pay in. But their true expertise is scaremongering on immigration statistics, exploiting fears of an England over-run.

This not only demonises immigrants, it conveniently misses the crucial point that EU migration is only a fraction of total, and that millions of UK citizens live in the EU under the reciprocal nature of the arrangement. Even the hope of magical favourable trade-deals in the wake of a Brexit is a fiction, scuppered by economists and American presidents alike. This isn't policy making; it's wishful thinking and collective insanity. The entire campaign has been a naked appeal to nationalism, and to a hazy memory of a Britain that never was. A disenfranchised crowd have been whipped into in a frenzy, convinced by these circus-masters that the European Union is the cause of all their ills. That this assertion is complete nonsense does not seem to be enough to stem such vitriol.

And if they were to be successful, would the UK become their promised land of milk and honey? When pushed, the Brexiters admit to having absolutely no idea what will happen, but still maintain it will be good. The world's economists and experts don't agree with their rosy forecast, baldly stating that a Brexit would be a self-inflicted wound on UK economic health. And it's not only trade that will suffer - UK science will be massively damaged. There is a damn good reason that scientists and all universities have been begging people to vote remain; science truly is international, and a Brexit would not only massively impact funding but would damage science hugely. My office here in Oxford is truly international, comprising of cancer researchers, physicists and biologists from all corners of Europe. Yet if Brexit passes, we are in limbo; and already, feeling hugely unwelcome, and understandably nervous about their future - there is no contingency. Prof. Stephen Hawking, a man not given to hyperbole, summed it up succulently when he said it would be a "disaster" for British Science.

Yet the Brexiters still proclaim everything will be better, whilst completely refusing to state how. In this regard, they exhibit the same lunacy and dead-eyed conviction of Free-men on the Land who defend themselves in court with nonsense about being sovereign citizens - and invariably seem surprised when they lose their case. Again, truth doesn't seem to enter into it. Obnoxious 'leave' leaflets have relied on nothing more than scaremongering, lying openly with claims Turkey and Syria are about to Enter the EU, amongst a host of other mistruths. But it doesn't seem to matter how much these lies are contested, or exposed - a surprisingly large contingent simply don't care.

And this is indicative of a deeper problem; people seemingly do not trust experts anymore. Instead, there is a seething resentment towards them. A worryingly large segment of the British public is woefully misinformed on the actual realities of the situation, yet still stand steadfast in their convictions. Moreover, those supporting Brexit are almost twice as likely to disbelieve the scientific consensus on climate-change, and actively distrust scientists and other experts. This contempt for evidence has made the Brexit masses immune to reality. Nigel Farage is the epitome of this; when asked why we was smoking again a few days ago, he airily dismissed decades of research and a mountain of incontrovertible evidence to declare doctors had "got it wrong" on smoking. This is wilful ignorance, coupled with contemptible arrogance but it speaks volumes about the mind-set that underpins such a man, and seemingly infects many others.    

Nigel Farage is every inch a demagogue, and in this noxious contest there have been many of his ilk. They wilfully stoke the fires of discontent, fanning flames of hate, outrage and a particularly ugly strain of nationalism. His latest anti-immigration poster, unveiled yesterday, has rightfully been decried as horrendously racist, and deliberately reminiscent ofNazi propaganda. It's all characteristically wrong, supposed to imply migrants overwhelming Britain but is actually an image of refugees taken in Slovenia. It's yet another dishonest and deliberation conflation to drive outrage. This has been a hallmark of the leave Campaign, involving racist imagery and driving panic. Farage’s comments that “violence is the next step” have taken on a darker tone in this light.

Rather depressingly, it seems to have worked. Yet there are consequences for such behaviour; if one stirs up hatred as part of their political campaign, this all too often leads to terrible outcomes. As Alex Massie wrote eloquently yesterday, the demagogues of leave have blood on their hands in the wake of yesterday’s madness. So too do the vile red-top papers which have willingly buttressed an anti-immigration feel for years, and in doing so have painted targets on those that try to do any good. There's only so long you can scaremonger about breaking points and rising violence before it has a tangible and tragic impact we cannot deny.  

We've become normalised to this puerile level of discussion; for decades, tabloids have run outlandish and easily debunked negative press stories on the EU, alternatively openly mocking it or blaming it. The tone of discussion towards Europe in the UK media has long been awful, dismissive and entirely wrong, and precious few who have defended this collective or countered the falsehoods dripped from the gutter-presses. Myths about bananas and cucumbers overshadow the force for good that EU has been; the incredible contribution to prosperity and human rights it has brought with it, equal pay for women, protection from discrimination, environmental regulations, common trade and travel and protections for workers and customers are distorted or ignored in favour of having an external flexible bogeyman upon whom all blame can be pinned.

But perhaps the greatest strength of the European Union is not merely economic; it is the sense of community and enduring the peace it has brought. We forget our history to our detriment; only a century ago, my grandfather* was shot on the first day of the Somme, the bloodiest day in British Military History. A year prior, he took a bullet at Gallipoli. He was one of those lucky enough to survive; in those four bloody years, millions died over a squabble between nation states, a glorified row between Queen Victoria's grandchildren. He fought too in the Second World War, where racist propaganda and hateful rhetoric led to the greatest loss of life ever seen in a conflict, and the attempted extermination of entire ethnic groups. We live in one of the few epochs in history where our Nation-states haven't been involved in bloody conflict, and instead are partners, friends and allies. Have we learnt nothing from the past century? Nationalism is a disease, rooted in delusion. We know all too well where petty-minded exceptionalism leads, and when we see the openly racist propaganda from leave campaign, we should remind ourselves where that culminates.

The truth of the matter is that this is a referendum of immense importance; it is not a general election where a poorly-performing party can be replaced a few years later. It is an unwavering and stern declaration with incredible consequences. And right now, there's a worrying change that either a poorly directed sense of anger or genuine apathy might lead to a deplorable outcome. But maybe this is a chance for a positive re-assessment; for decades Britain has stood on the fence, half-heartedly involved. But it needn't be this way; the UK is better in the EU, but so too is the EU the better for Britain. I would dearly love to see the UK remain, and become an active player in shaping the evolution of the union. The challenges we face as a species, from climate change to geo-political instability are too much for individual nations alone. We're stronger together, and we cannot allow ugly demagoguery carry the day - nor tolerate the violent xenophobia it encourages.

I've already cast my vote by post, as on polling day I'll be meeting with European collaborators for work on another international science project. I dearly hope that when I come to return, the UK has re-affirmed the strength of our united bonds, which I truly believe transcend narrow-minded nationalism. More than that, I can only hope that we do not succumb to the capricious demon of hatred and the empty promises of fools. 

*Given I'm 31, most people think I mean great grandfather, but no - My grandfather was born in 1882, and a decorated war here for the Boer War, WW1 and WW2. He was in his late 70s when my mother was born. While he survived relatively intact, on his death-bed he was haunted by awful trench flashbacks, with visceral hallucinations of gas, shells and death. This was a chapter in the history of Europe we've long since forgotten, and one I dearly hope we never return to. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Joys and Perils of Science outreach - picking one's battles

Short thoughts on bad vaccine advice, science outreach and some dos and don't of engagement I've learnt through banging my head off a wall. This post is mainly on the question of when and where you should engage, and where one might be better cutting their losses. Apologies for brevity. 

So yesterday, TV3 stooped even lower than they usually do and ran an absolutely appalling scaremongering documentary on the HPV vaccine, promoting claims it was damaging young women. It doesn't take much investigation to show that these claims are baseless, and it chimes in with a piece I'm currently writing on vaccination and ideology. In a nutshell, HPV is a huge life-saver, protecting people from cervical and penile cancer. It's been given to around 200 million people and has a tiny rate of complication, generally temporary soreness like any injection. The TV3 presentation was a complete quagmire of outlandish nonsense, and I put together a quick-fire status update on my facebook page after enduring the damned thing. The original post is below, with typos left intact...

"Yeats is now a unit of time, defined by an Irish Airman fore-seeing his death near Inishfree"

Now, I usually keep my facebook page private for damn good reason (I do however have a public facebook and twitter, please feel free to get involved there), but after requests from friends and colleagues I allowed this post be shared. It has now been shared on twitter and facebook hundreds of times. Of course, this isn't the style I would write a piece in for a broadsheet or even a long form blog - this was a quick and dirty initial reaction to the sheer nonsense on display, with more emotive language than I might formally use. Most of the reaction has thus far been quite positive - a lot of people are angry at TV3, and a bigger contingent left worried. I've also been on Cork 96 FM this morning explaining the vaccine stats and re-iterating that there is no evidence to suggest Gardasil is dangerous.

I have also fielded dog's abuse from the usual suspects, but in my old-age I've been quick to use the block button. This is a function of both time and my personal investment, and something I'd like to expand on a little - in addition to my own research, I do try hard to do as much science outreach as I can. It can be a struggle for time, and I don't always get to do as much as I could like but in the last few months alone I've had pieces on in the Guardian, Irish Times and Sunday Business post on a array of topics, including GM food, false cures peddled to autistic children, Abortion myths, misconceptions about homosexuality, the ideomotor effect and dietary quackery (you can see some of them here if you're so inclined). I think it's important that scientists take a role in shaping public discourse, and try to champion the scientific method in lieu of baseless sound and fury. Sometimes, this is incredibly rewarding - a piece I write might, for example, help someone better understand a tricky subject or separate fact from fiction on a topic too often immersed in partisan narratives.

This can be great, and it's lovely to hear feedback when you've helped people parse a difficult issue, or corrected a very enduring misconception. But there is a crucial element that cannot be overlooked, and one that is relevant to any scientist who wishes to be involved with communicating science. This is the inescapable fact there are people who you cannot reach, and people who express an almost impressive resistance to reality. When I started science outreach, I was more than a little naive - I assumed, as many do, that misconceptions about science were borne of a lack of easily acceptable information. And to an extent this is true, but I had neglected to factor in a huge element - ideological bias. As I've written before on this blog, I was initially somewhat taken aback by how deeply invested people can be in their ideas - and totally immune to clarifying information.

As I'm now aware, one of the most common reactions such individuals employ to reduce the sense of cognitive dissonance when confronted with information contrary to their deeply held beliefs is a simple ad homimen reaction; personal abuse, coupled with threats and insults. Or, another perennial favourite, accusations of shilling for big pharma / big water / insert your own bogeyman here. It's predictable, tiring and still completely vapid yet happens with almost clockwork regularity when one dares to write about subjects people pin their ideology on, be it climate change, water fluoride or abortion myths. This is something I have a lot of first hand experience with -  as my regular readers (hi one person!) might be aware, I was honoured with the Maddox Prize last year largely due to the level of personal abuse I've encountered in trying to put forward science over noise. I've written a little about the role of ideology on that post too, but I'll try to keep everything required here.    

Of course, not all negative comments are abusive. Some are just constant assertion, which when corrected leads to endlessly more assertion. There is a temptation to think that simply engaging with such people will somehow enlighten them, but this isn't an information deficit problem - this is an ideological problem that requires some psychology background rather than just logic to tackle. The common tropes you hear are almost archetypes at this stage: the militant "big pharma" conspiracy theorist, the Trojan horse anti-vaxxer declaring "I'm not anti-vaccine but..." before proceeding to aptly contradict their initial statement with an outlandish assertion, the concerned mothers who think the fact they have successfully spawned makes them an expert in immunology and the brilliant people who demand everyone else "does their research" while they openly ignore the scientific consensus.

This poster, for example,  kept trying to make this comment all over the thread, despite it being debunked numerous times. The sense of frustration you see in the comments is lack of patience for the same dubious assertion.  

I wore a blue jumper today. Then it rained. Ergo, my blue jumper caused the rain.

Of course, when people do this, other posters will try and set their errors right. But then if then continue to keep posting something that is wholly wrong, even after clarification and correction, it's hardly surprising that others might lose their patience, and resort to sarcasm, ignorance, or even insults. But then some concerned science communicators might ask whether this drives the misguided deeper into the arms of dubious ideas? Should we engage one-on-one with people no matter how misguided they continue to be in the face of impartial information in the hope of changing their mind? 

Sure - IF you have infinite time and enjoy banging your head off the wall. Because you'll get nowhere with it. 

This isn't just cheap cynicism - in my experience, there is almost zero value in engaging with such people to any depth. When we do, we're pivoting on the assumption the problem is an information deficit or the claims are in good faith - this isn't usually the case. There's a good psychological reason to think this too. In 2007 Jacobson et al released an arresting paper with a hell of a title - you can read it here with paper access, but here's an abstract:

I think "Reasoning flaws" could be a fantastic but subtle insult if you're so inclined to use it...

I shan't bore you with the details too much, but what Jacobson et al found was that logic flaws were so ingrained in this subculture that arguments rooted in logic completely failed to sway them. I've cited this paper before in a piece (one worth reading if you're interested, as it tackles a number of other misconceptions and flaws in anti-vax mentality), but here's the important sentence I used to distill the work of these authors:

"Research into the mindsets of anti-vaccination campaigners suggests that they tend to exhibit traits such as conspiratorial thinking, reasoning flaws, a reliance on anecdote over data and low cognitive complexity in thinking patterns."

But it's much, much worse than this - it's not just that explaining is a waste of time, there's a weird paradox where the more you try to explain the science to them or show how their reasoning is flawed, the more you will make them think they're right - that was the result of a large scale 2015 study and there's a nice motherjones.com article on it here. The highly depressing abstract is shown below:

This is a depressing message, but one that gives us a more realistic picture - the people you argue with will, more than likely, never accept reality, not matter how hard you try to convey it to them. Well, we might then argue that there's no point in doing science outreach, but I would argue that's to misunderstand the state of play. The people that comment on articles and are dedicated enough to pick fights or make assertions represent a TINY fraction of all readers - estimates are at or below 1%. These people are then highly unlikely to be representative of the average readership, and are certainty not worth the time and energy to engage with.

So what can we do? I think realise that the audience who see our work is much greater than the audience who bother engaging with it. Our time is valuable, and so too is our mental health - when I write a piece for a broadsheet or do an explainer for BBC for whatever, it's worth my time as I know it will be will read by a wide cross section, and only a tiny fraction with a deep personal interest will bother commenting.

These days, I direct my focus at a media level - I try to hold media organisations accountable for bad science (looking at you, TV3) and work with the assumption that most people are relatively open minded and not too committed to a viewpoint, that the majority occupy the uncommitted middle ground. They might have heard some good and bad things about vaccination or climate-change, or GMO or whatever else - if I write a good piece, they'll take it on board and the next time it comes up they'll remember it. Devoted ideologues never will change their opinion, and it's just a complete waste of my energy to get in cyclic arguments with them. I don't enjoy it, and the pay-off is zero. Of course, if someone asks a good faith question, then it's well worth engaging and I often do in these instances, but I don't think we should feel any guilt if we dismiss petulant repeat offenders.

For me, it's a question of picking battles; I feel that the potential yield of swaying the deeply invested isn't worth the energy expended on them. I will never convince everybody, no matter how much I try - what matters is I can get the message across to a majority of people. Of course, I wouldn't ever presume to tell anyone what to do - if you feel you can get a point across and it's useful, then by all means continue. I can only say for me that I prefer we'd aim to shape the narrative with science before it becomes laden with nonsense and throws us on the back foot backing defence. I'd be curious on what others think, whether agreeing or disagreeing!

PS: I have loads of people adding me on Facebook and that's really quite nice, but I'd be really grateful if you could get me through the public page - I still update and check messages here, but I tend to keep the personal one locked down for family etc... 

PPS: I don't mean to give the impression outreach is all hard slog - it can be extremely pleasant, and many people are grateful for assistance in grasping interesting but hard topics. I would hate to give the impression it's all nasty, because mostly it's not, even if people disagree. Yesterday, I was somewhat humbled by this honour from CR:UK for my outreach work, and it is really nice way of reminding me that it's not all angry ranting people all the time!

I ate the flowers and put the chocolate in a vase.

Friday, June 19, 2015

From Raif Badawi to Charlie Hebdo - The noxious influence of Saudi Wahhabism

I spent the first 10 years of my life in Saudi Arabia - watching the current cruel treatment of Raif Badawi brings a lot of memories into focus. In this blogpost, I wanted to talk not only about the case, but Wahhabism, the odious strain of Islamic puritanism which fuels untold hatred, and to touch on why the mantra that "beliefs must be respected" is fundamentally misguided... 

Saudi Arabia is a a paradox difficult for an outsider to fathom– an oil rich nation with gleaming modern cities and comforts that  yet maintains a religious orthodoxy which makes medieval Europe look enlightened by contrast; The shocking on-going treatment of blogger Raif Badawi is a gruesome  illustration of this very point - Badawi’s sole  crime has been to eloquently express his thoughts on secularism, stating on his blog that “Secularism respects everyone and does not offend anyone ...” .

For these thoughtful words, Badawi lies physically and mentally broken by cruel lashings. Hopes this week for a quashing of his sentence in the face of global pressure have been dashed by an unrepentent Saudi, standing firm despite the pleas of other nations for leniency. This is unsurprising - Saudi Law is notoriously harsh on critics of religion, even those as eloquent and inoffensive as Badawi, with the penalty for apostasy carrying an automatic death sentence by beheading or cruxifiction  . As the Badawi case focues world attention on Saudi’s atrocious human rights record, it’s worth examining the how the distinctly Saudi strain of puritanism has deep implications far beyond the kingdom; whether it’s the horrendous massacre of Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris or horrific actions by ISIS.

Such extremist actions have prompted much conversation about religious sensibility – despite much of these awful events being carried out ostensibly in Islam’s name,  the vast majority of Muslims worldwide condemn the attacks in Paris and beyond. But what fuels such furiousity by a persistent fringe? As other commentators have already stated eloquently, it is absolutely ridiculous to place blame for such attacks on Muslims collectively – this is akin to the blood libel that Jews have persistently been subjected to.  But having made this vital observation, it is important to look at factors driving such extremism – In a recent piece for the Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole points to the odious influence of Saudi Arabia on the propagation of Islamic fundamentalism; having grown up in Riyadh, this is something I can attest to. Saudi is the cradle of Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative puritanical strain of Islam that simply does not tolerate the existence of other beliefs; it is strictly mandated, and worship of other religions forbidden with terrifying penalties for those who would dare defy that ruling. Wahhabism’s petulant intolerance extends beyond conflicting faiths; it declares even other Muslims as takfirs (apostates) – a crime punishable by death.

This this not merely idle posturing; it is rigidly observed. There are few things as terrifying as an encounter with the Muttawa, aggressive enforcers dispatched by Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a somewhat Orwellian moniker. Their brief is to stalk the streets, looking for breaches of Sharia law and meting out whatever punishment they deem sufficient. These infractions might include not correctly wearing the Abaya (covering) or being out in public without a male relative if female, behaving contrary to Islamic morals, or even just socialising. To describe women are second-class citizens would be an understatement: They are banned from most jobs, driving , and even being out in public without male guardians, and these restrictions are aggressively maintained. In response to these archaic decrees, Saudi poet Hamza Kashgari sadly observed that Saudi women will never go to hell, because "it's impossible to go there twice" . Torture and capital punishment are frequently doled out on the flimsy of evidence , in the grim spectacle of public execution. Unsurprisingly perhaps, human rights in Saudi consistently rank among the “worst of the worst” . 

Nor are Foreigners somehow exempt from the whims and rule of the Mutaween; Ali Hussain Sibat, a Lebanese television presenter of a supernaturally themed show was detained and sentenced to death for sorcery, and only spared after relentless pressure from the Lebanese government and human rights groups . Foreigners account for roughly half of all executions in the Kingdom - Religious freedom does not exist; it is expressly banned, even in private dwellings, and this is aggressively enforced- In 2011, Christians in Jeddah were raided whilst praying in a private dwelling, where they were beaten and threatened with death. Many Westerners ex-patriates can easily cite instances where they’d been accosted or abused by the exceptionally zealous and often frightening Muttawa over some perceived transgression– I have a vivid and frightening childhood memory of a Muttawa berating and man-handling my mother in a shopping centre because one of her ankles were visible, his face contorted with unadulterated malice – a horrifying spectacle mercifully shattered by my father physically intervening. 

Nationals fare even worse; in 2002 a fire broke out in a girl’s school in Mecca; rather than assist, Muttawa actively impeded their safe evacuation on account of the girls being improperly covered and the belief of the Islamic police that this would result in sexual enticement. Doors were bolted and civil defence teams held back by the Mutaween, with both firefighters and school girls beaten. This positively medieval stance lead to the deaths of 15 girls. Despite convincing testimony from survivors, civil defence members and reporters, an inquiry absolved the religious police of any wrong-doing. This is not surprising, as the Mutaween are largely untouchable; in 2013, they rammed a car carrying brothers Saud and Nasser Al-Qaws off the road for playing patriotic songs; both brothers died, and footage of the ghastly event went viral. Despite this, a Sharia court dismissed any charges against those responsible. 

The extraordinary power of religious forces in Saudi are an artifact of its history, wrought in the uneasy alliance of the ruling house of Saud with the militant successors of 18th century puritan Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. The immense complexity of this situation is far beyond the scope of this short post, but Robert Lacey’s works are especially illuminating regarding the labyrinth of hidden power struggles that shape modern Saudi. To many western observers, hearing recently deceased King Abdullah praised for being progressive seems absolutely bizarre, unless tempered with the realisation that progressive is an incredibly relative term in this case; the house of Saud’s ability to modernise is opposed clerics, who resist stubbornly any move to modernise and enjoy immense support. Abdullah’s predecessor, King Fahad, once opined privately that "If an election were held here tomorrow, Bin Baz [then Grand Mufti ]would beat us without leaving his house."  As an incredibly oil rich Nation, Saudi has spent billions on exporting its hard-line views, founding mosques and Islamic cultural centres across the world, preaching the same profoundly fundamentalist and often intolerant views. 

So how should we react, when confronted with a twisted spectacle of bare-faced hypocrisy by the Saudi Authorities, condemning the Charlie Hebdo massacre on one hand whilst torturing citizens for thought crimes with another? Worse, as O’Toole explains, the interpretation of Islam that led to the Charlie Hebdo massacre is not a “weird aberration” – it has sprung forth from the Draconian influence of Saudi Clerics, whose deep pockets have allowed their doctrine to creep, despite the tiny fraction of Wahabbists around the world. It is perhaps no coincidence that the most enthusiastic practitioners are the disenfranchised, like the Koucahi brothers – the core of the Saudi Mutaween is similarly composed. Whether it’s the horrors of attacks in New York or Paris, or the brutality of ISIS, the noxious influence of Wahhabism runs deep. 

Saudi also illustrates another fundamental problem we often glide over -  the persistent simplistic mantra that all beliefs should be respected. This is well-meaning but nonsensical at best and actively damaging at worst; people, not beliefs, deserve respect. This should be obvious, but it is frequently inverted; in the outpouring of shock and grief after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, there were those who tried to rationalise the attack, implying or outright stating that while they decried the murders, the publication was racist and offensive. Charges of racism are poorly founded, based on out of context cherry-picking by Anglophones and has been dismantled comprehensively elsewhere. But more telling is the implicit victim-blaming, a rationalisation on the grounds that ‘muslims’ were offended. Not only does this reasoning elevate belief to some undue platform, it is staggeringly reductive and utterly vapid; Muslims are not some homogeneous bunch – there is a world of difference between a devout Wahhabi and a liberal Muslim, an Iranian Shia and a Berber immigrant. It is patronising and insulting to assume their various beliefs, stances and experiences can be unified as a single entity (Zineb el-Rhazoui, the French journalist of Berber origin has penned a wonderful piece skewering the reductive approach which is well worth a read) or that one’s beliefs can somehow justify the taking of human life. 

It is intellectually vapid to place a belief beyond criticism or ridicule solely because it is religious in nature, yet such entitled demands are common, and not solely from Islam by any means; earlier this year the Pope declared that "You cannot make fun of the faith of others." This strain of religious exceptionalism is precisely the problem; While people should be welcome to hold whichever belief they desire, unthinking deference to belief and fear of offending facilitates abuses, particularly when these beliefs place barriers on social integration and equality, or condones abuse or subrogation of others. The problem is that many beliefs are simply toxic, and religion cannot continue to shield for criticism. People have the right to hold them, but when these beliefs infringe on others, the fact that criticism may cause offense should not stop us from doing so. As the Saudi state tortures Raif Badawi, it is vital we remind ourselves that the consequences of respecting belief over respecting people cannot be entertained, and equally important that we recognise Saudi's ugly role in perpetuating  extremism at home and abroad. 

Raif Badawi - appeal here - https://www.amnesty.org.uk/giving/raif-badawi-eappeal 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Disgusting behaviour at the Black Swan, Oxford

Sorry in advance - off topic post.... Science stuff will resume shortly!

In the world's mind, St Paddy's day is now deeply associated with the noxious national stereotype of the Irish as heavy drinking flagellants. Before we condemn the world for typecasting, it's probably fair to point out we're often a little too willing to live up to this role. While it's fantastic in one respect that the world celebrates the national holiday of a tiny western European nation, that this appreciation is often expressed as a dangerous level of intoxication probably isn't so great. In that spirit (pun not intended), I witnessed something Paddy's eve in Oxford that absolutely appalled me. I genuinely have no idea if what I saw was common or not, but it was almost certainly not legal and deeply ethically dubious. I have no idea how to parse it, so I'm writing this as an off topic blog-post and would welcome feedback from anyone on this.

Contrary to national expectation, this Paddy's night was a relatively sober affair for me - I spent the evening with the brilliant people at the COPE consortium (who do absolutely amazing work on organ donation and preservation - do check them out)  giving a talk on Science Media and bad statistics in the rather stunning settings of Balliol college. After the talk and chat it was about 11pm, and I headed off to meet my fellow Oxford Irish friends, Fiona and Leonie with the vague ambition to maybe get a drink in before bed.

Now, if you're familiar with Oxford pubs you'll know getting a drink in on a Tuesday night after 11 isn't all that easy. One of Fiona's contacts suggested that we go to the Black Swan pub, off Cowley Road for a drink. This was only a mild detour from my route home, so we met there. Of course the place was packed and near closing but we got in  and got a round in. The evening was drawing to a close, and the music stopped. One lady stood out - she was middle aged, heavily intoxicated and not firm on her feet. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her hit the ground hard with a degree of aplomb. She had fallen right in the doorway, and people started stepping over here to leave. A little aghast at this, Leonie and Fiona motioned to the two doormen in case they had somehow had some bizarre ocular condition which rendered the upended woman in the neon top a metre away from them invisible. They ignored her, shrugging.

Annoyed by this, we slipped through the crowd and tried to get her up. She was pure dead-weight, and it took quite an amount of effort to maneuver her to a chair. Fiona asked for her name, and tried to find out who she was with. I went to look for her bag and belongings. She was upset, unable to remember where she lived. Her bag and coat were gone, possibly misplaced or stolen. I went up to a member of the bar staff and explained the situation. They didn't seem particularly concerned, and I resumed my sweep of the pub for the rest of this ladies belongings. I didn't know this at the time, but Leonie had also explained the situation to the bar staff who seemed unconcerned.

At this stage, the pub had cleared out. The bar staff remained, plus a contingent of 3 or 4 drinkers at the bar who were obviously friends of the owner or bar staff, as they weren't being herded out the door by the bouncers like the rest of us, and were still being served. The only others in the bar were Fiona, Leonie, the lady and I. It now appeared she had been robbed, was unable to stand or remember where she lived. She was also on her own and quite emotional. At this stage, an older member of the bar staff roared at us to get out - I re-iterated that this lady needed some assistance and appeared to have been robbed. "That's not my problem is it? " she sneered dismissively and continued sweeping.

Now, I get that they're tired - I get that drunk people can be incredibly annoying. But you know something? This lady didn't get herself into such a state by wishful thinking - she had been supplied all night by this bar, despite the fact she was clearly in no fit state to be supplied. I did that laser-focused thing I did when I'm annoyed - "Actually it is your problem - you have a legal responsibility and duty of care to this woman. She's not even able to stand, can't remember where she lives, and has likely been robbed.". Suddenly, the chorus of favoured drinkers at the bar cocked their heads over and chimed in. A woman at the bar (who we'll call Scrappy in this story) yelled "Woz your facking problem you American cunt?" and got out of her bar stool, shaping up to me and prodding my ribs with her finger.

I ignored her provocation and continued engaging the woman whom I assumed to be the most senior staff member there due to her authoritative tone and age. Scrappy continued to prod and kept trying to get in my face. Scrappy's partner was now joining in, and his friends. Scrappy repeated the "American cunt" line louder again. I glared at her and said "I'm Irish, kindly get your fucking hands off me" , and then turned to walk off, realising this was a waste of time. That's when it all kicked off - Scrappy's partner lunged forward and threw a punch at me as my back was turned. It was a cowardly, sly and calculated move, and I would never have seen it coming only one of the girls yelled 'look out' quick enough for me to duck so the punch didn't land. Still, the follow through knocked me forward. I spun round to see him and his mates all standing up looking for a fight. One bouncer stepped in front of them and the other grabbed me, throwing me out the door. He then flung the girls out too.

Given my new-found friends were aching for a fight and we had no intention of becoming statistics, we retreated to a safe distance. We had lost the lady in the melee, but we did know she'd been ejected on her own into the freezing night unsteady on her feed with only a flimsy top, no money and no idea where she lived. We called the police and told them what had happened. On Paddy's night this must have been pretty low priority, as were were told the cops would arrive within the hour. Chiefly, we were concerned about that poor lady and worried about where she might be. I entertained the idea of going back around the pub and looking around there, but given those folks were still drinking at a lock in a police escort seemed more sensible than getting my head kicked in by a bunch of guys in an alley, so we waited.

90 minutes later, while still waiting for the cops, Fiona spotted the lady staggering out of a side street. I ran over to her - she was absolutely freezing, shivering with the cold. I wrapped my jacket around her, and Leonie grabbed a coffee while Fiona talked softly with her. She'd sobered up a little, and was able to tell us more; as soon as she was ejected from the pub, she staggered disorientated down Crown St and had collapsed on the road, where she remained for over an hour, with no thermal protection whatsoever and an unhealthy amount of booze in her system. I was outraged - she genuinely could have died, and the Black Swan in Oxford couldn't have cared less; they're also apparently happy to have lock-ins with people who try to start pub brawls but I digress...

The cops arrived 25 minutes later. By this stage it was nearing 3am - there had been freezing mist all evening and without a jacket I really was feeling it. The cops were polite, and the lady genuinely grateful - she kept hugging us and saying thank you, but she needn't have - any semi-decent human would have done the same. If I had gotten myself into a state for whatever reason, I certainly would hope someone might help me rather than leave me in a situation where I run a very real risk of death or disablement. The police checked her over, and she remembered her address at that stage. They insisted on getting her medical attention first as she was incredibly cold and that is never a good combination with alcohol. We got home a little after 3 am, sober as judges who don't partake in alcoholic exuberances.

But genuinely - what the actual hell is that? That lady should not have been served the amount she had, and the fact the pub were happy to take her money but nonchalant about the risk to her appalls me. All they had to do was keep her in a corner until she sobered up, or call the police about her stolen bags and let them take it from there. SURELY that is an operating hazard of the job? Simply kicking someone out who can't stand without their belongings is a violation of duty of care? How the hell does a dive like that even get a bar licence? The story ended alright, but realistically it could have been a lot more tragic. I'm sorry this post isn't as flippant or fun as usual, but I'm genuinely fluxxomed by this - did the pub break the law? Or were they without the law but still utter bastards? What kind of establishment does lock-ins with people who try to start fights?  I would plead with any of you in Oxford to avoid the place like the plague - there are plenty of good pubs in Oxford that don't engage in this sort of thuggish behaviour.

EDIT - Someone pointed out the me the actual Owner of the Black Swan was done for dealing cocaine recently. I don't know if the ownership has changed since - story here 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Note on the 2014 Maddox Prize

As those of you who follow me on twitter or Facebook might have seen recently, Dr Emily Willingham and myself were the joint recipients of the 2014 John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science; This is a huge, humbling and unexpected honour. The award  "rewards an individual who has promoted sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest. Its emphasis is on those who have faced difficulty or hostility in doing so" and is awarded jointly by Sense About Science, Nature, and the Kohn Foundation. It is named after John Maddox, an inspiring figure who edited Nature for 22 years and consistently encouraged scientists to engage with the public and present the scientific case, even when controversial.

rewards an individual who has promoted sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest. Its emphasis is on those who have faced difficulty or hostility in doing so.  - See more at: http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/john-maddox-prize.html#sthash.ocZyUsfZ.dpuf
rewards an individual who has promoted sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest. Its emphasis is on those who have faced difficulty or hostility in doing so.  - See more at: http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/john-maddox-prize.html#sthash.ocZyUsfZ.dpu

 I am genuinely delighted and grateful to have been recognised in such a way, and really want to thank you, my regular readers, for your continuing support over the years - as you probably gather from my frequent tetchy asides, communicating the scientific consensus can often be somewhat thankless, especially on issues where evidence is at odds with passionately held beliefs. In these instances, writing about the subject often feels like painting a target on one's back, but I do try and reassure myself those who write personal slurs or angry messages are a small albeit loud minority. I delivered a short speech last week at the Sense About Science annual reception, and some of you asked for the text of that so I offer it here;

"I never had the pleasure of meeting John, but I've been inspired by his brilliance; in 2012 I published an academic review with the subtle title “Proposed mechanisms for homeopathy are physically impossible” ; in that paper I discuss his inspired move as editor of Nature to enlist the magician James Randi to investigate a paper which claimed to have found evidence of homeopathy. Their subsequent investigation showed this claim to be unfounded, and showcased for me John's unerring commitment to scientific scepticism . It is a huge honour to be awarded in his name.
Presenting the scientific case can be a seemingly thankless task; we live in an era where instantaneous access to the wealth of human knowledge is at our very fingertips, and yet the paradox of our time is that this same freedom allows odious misinformation and complete falsehoods to perpetuate further and faster than ever before.

Yet while challenging dubious science often feels like a Sisyphean task, it is vital that we in the scientific community continue to engage and support evidence-based discourse, because the problems we face as a society are more than merely academic.  If we are truly to find pragmatic effective solutions to the towering problems facing us today, we will need to encourage evidence in the public sphere.
Curiously perhaps, one of the greatest challenges in conveying  science  is human psychology. The psychologist Leon Festinger observed that "a man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point."  Or, if you prefer Paul Simon’s sentiment  “All lies and jest, still the man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”.  Frequently, personal convictions are impervious to any evidence.

Yet in arenas as diverse as politics to medicine, ideological positions devoid of any evidence often condemn us to meander aimlessly around suboptimal solutions. Yet we cannot afford to forget that reality doesn’t care one iota for what we believe - If we persist in disregarding evidence to bolster misguided ideology, we all suffer for it and this is something we should all seek to challenge not only in others, but ourselves too. Whilst some will never be swayed from their position by any volume of evidence, we can only hope that the silent majority are more reasonable.

Perhaps inevitably, when you challenge beliefs that people may hold dear, some will resort to attacking the messenger and this is never  pleasant to endure. On a personal note, I’d like to thank the people who have supported me through the nastier moments; my fantastic parents and brother , my wonderful girlfriend Mathilde, and my long-suffering friends. I’d also like to thank my colleagues in the University of Oxford and Dublin City University, in particular Prof Enda McGlynn and Dr. Mike Partridge, and my editors at the Irish Times and the Guardian. 

And finally, I’d like to extend my gratitude to the inspiring people at Sense About Science, who have demonstrated that engaging more with the public to counter scientific misunderstandings can in fact benefit everyone .   I am deeply humbled and honoured my contributions to public discussion have been recognised by such pioneers. Thank you, and goodnight. 

-David Robert Grimes, Monday 27th October 2014" 

Prof Enda McGlynn, Myself, Danny "Teegan Murray, Prof. Susan Bewley and Prof. Colin Blakemore at the Sense about Science annual reception.

I'll wrap this up here to keep it short, but thank you all again for your enduring support and for reading my outpourings. If you don't already follow the work of Sense About Science, you might want to check them out as their "Ask for Evidence" campaign launches today.  Massive congratulations again to Dr Emily Willingham, whose work (especially on the autism debate) is excellent and can be checked out here. Thanks again folks - and do keep reading!  Dave

PS: If you're curious about that homeopathy paper... 

PPS: I had a chat with the inimitable Nick Cohen last week, and he has written an excellent piece on why evidence matters which is worth a read

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Anti-biotics, Fluoride, tumours, alcohol and rhetoric - a wide-ranging round-up!

Whenever I start to write a blog-post, I find myself feel guilty over the litany of excuses I produce for my tardiness - Apologies for the delay in updating; much has been afoot -I've been somewhat side-tracked with academic work, teaching and even a sneaky holiday home to go hiking / play guitar, and as usual I've neglected to blog - I have, however, not been totally idle and figured I'd give you good folks who come here despite my lethargy an update of recent events, articles and radio / TV work - as a result, this blog-post will probably be all over the place but there should be something for everyone!


 Response to the Open Letter last Month 

 Despite the absolute inanity of the subject, the anti-fluoride movement continues apace - further to my open letter to Dublin City Council a few weeks back, the council decided that facts and evidence are pretty much a nuisance and can be disregarded and replaced with vapid scaremongering and anti-science sentiment; in their infinite wisdom they voted to remove fluoride from the water supply. This isn't particularly shocking - I've written before both here and for the Guardian the mindless populist politics that drive such a decision, but it is a shame our elected representatives fixate on shallow posturing rather than considered health policy. I should make an exception to my harsh words here however  - several members of Labour, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael replied to my e-mail and told me they would most certainly not vote to remove fluoride. However, no one from Sinn Fein, who pushed the motion, even bothered to reply to the email or letter. Quelle surprise.

Of course, in some respects the whole thing is academic, in the loosest sense of the word - Dublin City Council have no more authority to remove fluoride from water than I have to stage a wet t-shirt contest in the House of Commons, which might lead one to question why exactly the assembled genii of Sinn Fein pressed a vote on it, especially as their similar stunt in the Dail last year fell flat on its face. I debated TD Brain Stanley about this at the time and wrote up my understanding of their position here, but still the whole daft thing rumbles on.

It may be an unsuitable venue for wet t-shirt contests, but if anyone wishes to dunk Cameron in ice-cold water you won't hear any objections out of me.... .

Frankly, the whole fluoride thing bores me to tears; instead of presenting nuanced arguments or actual evidence, the anti-fluoridation lobby in Ireland continue with outlandish assertion, half-baked conspiracy theory and badly-made meme images in lieu of an actual argument. Like some bizarre hydra of hysteria, no sooner have you debunked one myth when three more get flung up in its stead. More than that,  as I've mentioned before it's an area which attracts a very dedicated, angry contingent with severe conspiratorial fixations, and the sheer volume of insulting, aggressive or plain unhinged correspondence it generates is exhausting;  In a textbook demonstration of ad-hom approaches,  I've been accused of being everything from a big pharmacy shill to a bloody member of the Illuminati. The only reason I persist in stating the scientific case is that if the anti-fluoride campaigners were to actually succeed in their position, it would not only set back public health, but would send an alarming message that evidence doesn't matter, and baseless assertion is enough - remember, as Geoff Lillis explained recently, the same lobby group are resoundingly anti-vaccination (and obviously, anti-science) and my real fear is that reversing fluoridation would encourage them rather than appease them. Anyway, I digress....

New Articles

Moving on from the seemingly endless fluoride debacle,  I've also written quite a few pieces over the past few months which are mercifully unrelated to fluoride. In no particular order, topics I've covered recently are...

Anti-biotic resistance  - Antibiotic resistance is a huge encroaching danger to our collective health, and risks rendering us helpful in the face of once curable diseases. If we're to avoid this grim conclusion, we need to take steps to moderate and innovate our drug use. (Opinion, Irish Times)     

Debate, rhetoric and logic -  With the advent of the Internet, we're constantly surrounded by discussion, argument and flame wars masquerading as debate. However, often logic is jettisoned when we fall prey to bad arguments and non-sequitar reasoning. These dubious rhetorical traps are ubiquitous in everything from politics to newspaper pieces, and serve as a vehicle for dodgy reasoning. In this piece, I present some common logical and rhetorical fallacies, and discuss how we can avoid being caught out by them - or worse still, engaging in them  (Irish Times, Features)  

Libertarian ideology and science  - In my previous pieces I have constantly lamented the jarring disconnect between science and ideology; science by definition changes its conclusions in the light of evidence, whilst too frequently ideology denies evidence to preserve its dogma. In this piece, I look at the clashes between economic libertarianism and scientific issues like climate change and gun control, re-iterating the research that suggests ideology blinds us. (Guardian, Science / Opinion)  

Obesity Myths and fad diets - There are entire publishing houses dedicated solely to doling out the latest trendy celebrity endorsed diet plan or supplement, yet the best medical evidence indicates these not only won't make us any thinner, they can actively damage us. Despite incredibly strange dietary fads, it appears that humans, like the rest of the cosmos, are still bound to the laws of thermodynamics and people will put on weight when their energy consumption exceeds their energy requirements, regardless of that hawkers try and cell  (Opinion, Irish Times)

Alcohol and date rape drugs -  If media coverage is in any way indicative of risk, then drug-facilitated sexual assault (DFSA) is alarmingly common. However, public perception is often wrong and in this piece I discuss how research indicates that if any drug deserves the moniker of date-rape drug, it is alcohol that steals this dubious crown. (Guardian Science Blog)

Radio / Television contributions 

I've also done some panel work with BBC and was a guest on BBC World Weekend a while back. I've also been on subsequently with a radio essay on climate change and politics - you can listen to it below

Academic work - Oxygen consumption dynamics

It's been busy on the academic front too - Dr. Alex Fletcher, Dr. Mike Partridge any myself recently had a paper published in Royal Society Open Science, the brand new journal from Royal Society. In this paper, we focus on the mathematics and physics of oxygen consumption in some common models tumour models, and investigate the effects of different oxygen consumption terms. The paper is open access and you can view it here if you're so inclined!

We also made the cover image of the journal, with a 3D rendered tumour spheroid, which you can see here. Turns out Mathematica can render pretty well, if you tell it where the light is coming from!

Our RSOS cover...

Because it was a first issue, we were also interviewed by the journal. If you're curious, you can watch us explain it here!

Right - that's enough for one blog post! Some of you have asked me about the PLOS One guitar paper, and I promise I will try and write a stand-alone blog post on that soon!  Until next time amigos -DRG.

PS: I've fixed the bloody contact form on my academic website - apologies if you couldn't get me there before.. 

Also, I've set up a public facebook page, as I had a few problems with slightly dubious people trying to get info from my private one and had to lock it down (long story) - please do feel free to like, and engage there too - I'll post my updates there in future! 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Holy fluoride, Batman! An open letter to Dublin City Council

 A short open letter to Dublin city council members, ahead of their vote on water fluoridation on September 1st, 2014

Dear Dublin City Councillors,

    I write to you as a scientist and journalist to respectfully request that you allow best evidence to guide your decision on water fluoridation this week - I know you're busy people, and so am I (well technically I'm only a person, singular , but I digress) and it's unlikely you have time to trawl through Pubmed to read study after study on the safety and efficacy of fluoride and that's fair enough. The "too long, didn't read" version of the medical findings on fluoride are pretty clear: it has been hugely beneficial for our collective dental health and one of the few health measures which actually saves much more in dental / medical costs than the relatively puny amount we pay for it, and there's damn few health measures that can be said about. From a social perspective, it provides some modicum of base dental care to every tier in our unequal society.

But what about the terrible things you've heard from campaigners on the issue, insisting it causes everything from depression to cancer to bad haircuts and traffic jams? As politicians you probably try to respect the concerns of your constituents or perhaps more cynically hope they'll reward you with votes in exchange for a quick populist move in their favour.  But the truth is you're giving certain elements way too much credit - the case against fluoride is nothing more than vapid scaremongering, based on a flammable mixture of dubious assertion, spurious correlation, poor reasoning and often a smattering of jaw-dropping dishonesty.

You'll excuse me, I hope, that I'm penning this with a palpable sense of weariness; as a science writer I've covered this topic before and am heartily sick of it - I wrote about it for the Irish Times last September and more recently, the Guardian in April. The title of that piece, "Politicians should stop pandering to anti-fluoridation campaigners" should make my frustration (and indeed, the weariness of many of us in the scientific and health community) clear; In it, I outline the facts and dismiss some of the fictions; as with all Guardian Science pieces it's fully referenced and filled with hyperlinks to medical sources and supporting evidence should you wish to explore further. Similarly, Science journalist Gerry Byrne makes an eloquent case debunking many of these myths you can read here.

The fluoride issue is driven by a vocal minority with an almost religious fervour - many of you have expressed on social media that you've been inundated with emails from anti-fluoride campaigners both in Ireland and abroad and I have sympathy for that - they can be a damn intimidating bunch; I've been verbally abused, threatened and insulted for having the audacity to point out their assertions are simply untrue. I've had a prominent anti-fluoride campaigner and his followers write to my employer and make a series of accusations about me - I've been accused of being in the pocket of big pharma, the Rockefeller foundation and even accused of being a member of the Illuminati (I'm afraid not - a shame, as I hear they have lovely business cards and great child-care facilities) and I agree 100% it's damn unpleasant - I've written about it here if you'd like to see the kind of tactics anti-fluoride fanatics in Ireland use. In fact, I'd urge you to read it, because it gives some background to the facts and fictions you might find useful. It also may give you some insight into the kind of people who've been lobbying you on this topic.

Fluoride conspiracy theories are nothing new - they've been around in their same ludicrous form for decades and even Dr. Strangelove ripped the royal piss out of them back in 1963*. After decades of investigation, their claims are simply without merit. I know they can be an intimidating and loud but it is nothing but sound and fury, and to entertain it would be to allow pure pathetic populism trump good health policy. The anti-fluoride crowd are loud, but it's a safe bet that the vast majority of the county would prefer a health policy based on best evidence rather than ideological scaremongering.. Remember also,  we've been on the anti-fluoride merry-go-round in the past - and in a gesture of appeasement we set up an independent expert body to examine the safety of fluoride; they've continued to find it beneficial for our dental health and have slammed the misinformation from the anti lobby. Similarly, Irish dentists support water fluoridation, and the WHO recommend a level of 1 mg/ L for optimum dental health.

It is scientific bodies like these, and the decades of peer-reviewed science upon which their conclusions are based, that should be underpinning your decision on Monday. Otherwise you're giving a public statement that you're willing to let angel-healing anti-vaccine activists dictate health policy and that cynical populism trumps the health of your electorate. I am personally sick of this topic, and if I'm honest it's not something I feel any great passion about - I almost resent having spent a chunk of my day off having to write about this nonsense again, but there is a principle that matter - if we allow dishonest or misinformed lobbying to displace one of the few positive preventative health measures we have, that is detrimental to everyone and sets a worrying precedent that evidence is simply unimportant in public discussion and policy.

I hope you've found this quick note useful, and  I truly hope tomorrow you'll make the decision to be guided by evidence and not scaremongering.

Best Wishes,

   David Robert Grimes

PS: I will be very interested in your replies, and may publish them here - I think it's important that politics is transparent and I'm sure you agree, though I will be happy to check with you first as a courtesy. 

..pretty much how I feel every time this comes up. Like Batman.

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