Thursday, 26 February 2009

BBC scandals round-up

It can be kind of hard to keep track of the latest depths of depravity to which the BBC has sunk in the eyes of the press, so here's a handy guide to the most recent shocking developments

On Wednesday, the BBC broadcast a show about the East End of London which centred around some black Britons. The show was Eastenders, and the BBC maintains that it has done limited-cast episodes which centred around particular families before and no-one complained, but of course, it's different when it's black people, right? Even though they're black British people in a show about a city which, it turns out, has quite a lot of people who aren't white.

The curious part in all this is that the papers seem offended that the BBC didn't shout from the rooftops about it, and treated the promotion of it as if it was a normal episode, as if black people were valid subjects for a soap or something! The Mail, of course, was particularly upset:

The corporation refused to say if the writers for the episode were black and said many people contribute to the story-lines of EastEnders episodes.
What is this country coming to when you can't even ring up the BBC and demand to be told the race of all their writers in order to facilitate your tedious 'PC gone mad!' griping? It's a confusing issue for commentators; if the Beeb had gone big with the 'look at us! We're doing a show focusing on black people!', they'd have been scorned for being politically correct, but by not doing so, they're, well, being politically correct by stealth or something. All this seems to suggest that there's no way the BBC could focus on a storyline involving these two Eastenders families without being accused of social engineering, which is pretty depressing.

All this seems to be based around a somewhat speculative quote from a BBC 'insider'. Perhaps that's the same 'insider' who forms the basis for the Express' FORGET THE WAR BASIL, JUST DON’T MENTION INDIAN CRICKETERS, which claims that Fawlty Towers is being held back from repeats because it contains a satirical instance of the words 'wog' and 'nigger'. There seems to be no basis for this story other than the musings of an unnamed insider, and it's contradicted by the Beeb's explanation that;

The BBC repeats only a handful of archive comedies and seeing as Fawlty Towers only ran to 12 episodes, and was repeated only five years ago, there are no plans to repeat it in the near future.
Don't forget though, kids, never accept a mundane explanation where a 'political correctness' one might fit! Quentin Letts, meanwhile, lets rip at the 'politically correct, social engineering loonies' of the Beeb for...well, it's not quite clear. Terry Wogan gave an interview where he suggested he might think about quitting the BBC because "I mean, I'm 70 years of age. I have to get up at 20 past five every morning", but also because he thinks the BBC will eventually retire him. Letts suspects that the BBC "feel uncomfortable with his middle-class, conservative values and sensitivities", despite the fact that they continue to pay him £800,000 a year and have made no move to get rid of him or reduce his profile. All this serves as a reasonable platform for Letts to air the usual moans about the BBC's disgraceful liberal bias.

All this pales into insignificance, though, next to Jonathan Ross takes ski holiday after an arduous MONTH back at work following BBC ban, which tells us that Ross went skiing for a bit, but fulfilled all his show obligations with pre-records. What a cunt!

Perhaps the oddest attempt to manufacture some anger was The Bono Broadcasting Corporation: Bosses hand U2 £1m in free advertising , in which some 'critics' (a Tory MP and two people on a message board) express their shock at seeing U2 get some publicity for their new overwrought hunk of shite on the BBC. Now, I hate U2, but I fail to see how this is a new development. The fact is, the BBC is just like everyone else when it comes to booking bands and other types of guests to do features; you get them when their PR people and management want you to. It's hardly unusual, every fucker with something to plug gets round the circuit, and the BBC has a big reach.

Another [message board poster] added: 'New albums come out all the time, but we are all supposed to be interested in this one for some reason.'
hmm, I wonder if it's because U2 are arguably the biggest group on the planet and lots of people actually like them? As much as I'd love the BBC's public service remit to involve them giving over a prime-time Friday night BBC1 slot to two hours of Burning Star Core improvisation, dedicate a massive section of their website to commemorating the brief career of recently-defunct Iowa psych/noise purveyors Racoo-oo-oon, or have MF DOOM present Match Of The Day solely in rhyming couplets, I dare say some shit about U2 would probably be more popular.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Balloons, arses, and Facebook - those pressing Mail issues in full

I've been a bit quiet this week, but sadly not because the press have been behaving themselves impeccably. If anything there's just been too much trash to write about, and it's been hard going trying to follow the papers, all of whom seem to be publishing one 'this Jade Goody obsession is degrading and symptomatic of our failed society' opinion piece for every five 'See the latest Jade Goody cancer pics and a detailed itinerary of literally everything she's going to do in the rest of her short life!' stories. This is probably best demonstrated by this Mail story, which helpfully combines the two kinds of article, being a sober 'what have we become?' lament which nevertheless reprints 15 pictures of Goody in various states of distress, so you can simultaneously satisfy both your moral righteousness and your secret tragedy-porn-loving prurience. It's kind of like watching Jeremy Kyle in that respect.

It's fair to say the Mail hasn't exactly been covering itself in glory this week. Here are a few other examples of the kind of quality middlebrow journalism you may have missed:

Libraries put Bible on top shelf in a sop to Muslims. A dramatic story indeed, until you realise it just means they've moved ALL the religious texts to the top shelf because apparently the Koran shouldn't be placed below other books. So, all the religious texts are getting treated equally, you can still get the Bible, and we can all get on with our lives, right? Well, no: "This means that Christian works, which also have immense historical and literary value, will be kept out of the reach and sight of many readers". If only libraries could employ people who would help you find and retrieve's a pipe dream, I know.

Apparently the Mail's concern for short-arse Christians being possibly briefly inconvenienced in a library is an entirely serious one, whereas a policy which affects the majority in no way at all but benefits blind people is obviously ridiculous PC drivel. This confusing manifesto is laid out in BBC newsreaders told to read out ALL phone numbers... so blind people are not offended, which huffs and sneers at the long-running and entirely sensible BBC (oh, right) policy of reading out phone numbers on TV so that blind people can know what they are (this seems to have been translated into 'so that blind people don't get offended' by the Mail). The Mail quotes an 'insider' who runs with the 'offensiveness' idea and assumes this is because blind people are offended by any and all references to sight, spiralling off into a mad world of his own creation where you can't even use the word 'look':

'This is political correctness gone mad.

'All the BBC's bigname presenters received this email from Peter Horrocks saying that whenever they refer to an on screen phone number or email address they should no longer say, 'You can see the number on the screen now', because it might offend blind people - and could even be illegal.

'But where does it end? Does that mean presenters will be banned from saying: 'If you don't want to know the football scores look away from the screen now', because that could be just as offensive. It's insanity.'
More indignation can be found in £62,000 payout for gay airport guard after woman colleague wobbled her breasts at him. £62k to look at jiggling titties?!?! MADNESS! Except, as you'll already know, it was a tad more serious than that. Once you plough on through the article you eventually realise that this seems to have been a serious and prolonged case of sexual harrassment which involved both physical invasions of privacy and her calling him 'batty boy', and which he only complained about when she began falsely accusing him of harrassment.

If that bores you, how about this tale of health and safety gone MAD: Tesco bars girl for carrying a balloon because 'it's a health and safety risk'. The first eleven paragraphs of this are devoted to the mother's furious telling of the story, before Tesco finally get a chance, right at the end, to explain their entirely fucking sensible reason for not allowing the kid to bring her helium balloon into the shop:

A Tesco spokesman said: 'A restaurant near the store was handing out helium balloons. A number of children had come into the store and released them inadvertently or on purpose.

'Unfortunately they were getting trapped on the ceiling and blocking the sprinkler system, and they are pretty difficult to retrieve. The managers decided to use their discretion.

'There is not a set policy on helium balloons at the store – it's just common sense really.'
I suppose 'Tesco store gets bored of sending its workers up to the bloody ceiling to repeatedly retrieve balloons' wouldn't have been as much fun as a headline.

It's interesting to see in these kind of stories, which issues the Mail determines 'petty' and which are worthy of paragraphs upon paragraphs of outrage. Are you blind and think it would be useful if TV presenters read out phone numbers rather than just showing them on screen? Cry me a fucking river, you ponce! What would Churchill say?! Getting sexually harrassed at work? Man the fuck up, buddy! Child not allowed to take a helium balloon into a shop because it's becoming an increasing pain in the arse for staff? You have our deepest sympathy, madam, and your complaints are thoroughly valid and ought to form the entire basis for a story. As a general rule, a minor non-event (moving books from one shelf to another) becomes a national scandal if either 'political correctness' or 'health and safety' can be deduced as the reasoning behind the tiny decision.

But what of the Mail's serious side, its thoughtful columnists? Last Sunday, Peter Hitchens came out with a breathtaking torrent of shite, even by his standards. To summarise:
1) people who joke about drugs should 'go to Hell'.
2) Peter Hitchens hasn't seen the movie 'Slumdog Millionaire', but someone else has seen half of it, and that's good enough for Hitchens to write a whole part of his column explaining why it's a travesty.
3) people who listen to music in the street are 'unreachable zombies', whose heads are 'full of angry noise'. He's not even complaining about being able to hear your iPod here, just the mere insolence of people listening to music instead of enjoying the glorious sounds of hundreds of strangers' inane chatter. This kind of complaint bugs me; I hate the idea that while I'm enjoying a nice bit of music as a brief respite from the incredible tedium of my five hours of daily commuting time, some Hitchens-esque cunt is sitting in silent judgement, despite knowing nothing about me or the various incredible things I listen to because I'm so massively more awesome than him.
4) Charles Darwin was a 'flunked parson and failed doctor' (actual quote!), and people really should get over this whole 'evolution' thing; until someone can show Hitchens a velociraptor actually physically evolving into Rafael Nadal, then there's simply not enough evidence to go on and all theories are basically as valid as one another (yeah, even the really stupid ones), so Darwinists should stop running their fat mouths about it.

The sad part is that none of the above even come close to being the worst thing in the paper this week. That honour surely has to go to How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer, in which the Mail's headline writer seems to be trying to drive satirists out of business by coming up with a title so mind-bendingly, hilariously over-the-top that if someone had offered it as a parody of a Mail headline on 'Mock The Week' you'd have thought it was a bit clumsy and crass. The substance of the story, such as it is, is that some guy reckons that being on the internet is worse for your health than actually going out to meet people in real life (IRL for you non-n00bs). As you clamber back onto your seat from the shock of that revelation, you might pause briefly to wonder if that's really a fair accusation to aim at a website whose entire function seems to be dedicated to arranging actual real-life meet-ups. But then again, you might just think the whole thing isn't worth bothering with, and I have some sympathy with that view.

Luckily for fans of REAL journalism, the Mail isn't all manufactured outrage, blowhard columnists and crap scare stories; it also deals with the latest breaking stories in relation to hot celebrity tits'n'ass. I for one would like to salute the Mail for keeping me bang up-to-date with developments like Kelly Brook wearing skin-tight hotpants, Girls Aloud showing off their bums and legs, Katy Perry wearing a basque, Daisy Lowe pretending to kiss another girl for a photoshoot, Peaches Geldof taking her top off on a beach, among many, many others. There was once a time, shortly after the death of Princess Diana, that serious, quality papers like the Mail pondered introspectively on the role of the paparazzi, and solemnly promised to in future only intrude on the privacy of celebrities where it was fully justified by the 'public interest' defence. Luckily for sexually repressed Mail readers who feel uncomfortable searching for actual porn on the internet, the definition of what constitutes a public interest has since expanded sufficiently to allow the Mail to base stories around photos of pert 20-year-olds' wet arses rising suggestively out of the water:

The Mail, there, your family values paper.

Friday, 13 February 2009

"NHS??? NH-Sex, more like!"

If there's one thing the Daily Mail hates (just one thing?), it's the mere idea that British teenagers are having sex. Actually, this is one area where the Mail and I almost see eye-to-eye, except in my case I don't restrict it to teenagers; my bitterness does not discriminate based on age. I mean, damn it, if I'm gonna be sat here on a Friday night tapping away on a blog about a shit newspaper I read just to annoy myself, then I don't want to be faced with the prospect that everyone else is out there banging each other stupid in some kind of big oiled-up hedonistic orgy to which I'm not invited.

If there's another thing the Mail hates, it's any kind of public policy which aims to reduce harm rather than wagging a finger at people and telling them that sort of behaviour is wrong. This applies to any kind of drug treatment programme (as opposed to hurling drug addicts in jail where they'll obviously be safe from drugs), and also to contraception for teenagers. Consequently, today the Mail are in a tizzy about this, in the story GPs to get bonuses for giving teenagers contraceptive implants and jabs without informing parents. You'd be forgiven for thinking from the headline that this would lead to GPs browbeating teenage girls into get contraceptive jabs:

Teenage girl: "Doctor, I tripped over and now my ankle is all swollen!"
Doctor: "Interesting...while you're here, have you ever considered getting a contraceptive implant so you can behave like the dirty little whore I know you are with impunity?"

Or, as a Mail rent-a-quote puts it:

Norman Wells, of the charity Family and Youth Concern, said: 'Parents of girls under 16 will be alarmed to think that doctors are going to be given financial incentives to provide their daughters with contraception behind their backs.

'It is tantamount to bribing doctors to facilitate underage sex.
At last, New Labour's 'MOAR UNDERAGE SEX!' agenda is laid bare. Somehow the story turns out to be a tad more prosaic than the bulk of the article suggests:

Doctors will be given the money if they achieve three indicators. Each point is worth about £124 for the practice.

They receive four points for producing a register of women prescribed contraception at least once in the last year. Another six are awarded if 90 per cent of those who have taken the morning-after pill or are on the Pill, are given advice on longacting contraceptive methods.

So, it turns out that they're merely getting points (they get awarded points in all kinds of areas, not just these) for advising people who are already having sex and have come to them to get contraception about the various contraceptive measures available, nearly all of which are more sensible than the morning-after pill, which really ought to be a last-ditch measure and should avoid becoming routine (something the Mail whines about in the annual 'KIDS ARE GONNA GET THE MORNING-AFTER PILL' furore). So, teenager comes in for contraception, gets contraception, plus advice about various other options. To the Mail, of course, the doctor should be peering over the top of his glasses and telling her how silly she's been, before ringing their parents and telling them about what their filthy sexy daughter has been getting up to. This seems a surefire way of ensuring that they never come to see the doctor for sexual health advice again and end up pregnant think about what they've done and devote their lives to abstinece and self-restraint.

The Mail can't really decide whether it's more against teenage pregnancy or teenagers using contraceptives; clearly the solution is to tell them to wait until their sixteenth birthday/wedding night, sit back with our fingers in our ears, and let teenagers' famous ability to resist their biological urges do the rest. Of course, there's still room to crank the fear levels up a notch, by getting hold of Jackie Fletcher's usual balanced opinion:

Jackie Fletcher, of the antivaccine group Jabs, said: ' Giving a doctor a monetary gain to promote a product is abhorrent, especially if it is a vaccine with possible side-effects.
Still, none of this seems quite shocking enough, so along comes a comment piece with the fair and accurate title Now GPs will be paid to 'encourage' girls to have sex. You got that? Not to advise girls who are already having sex about various methods of contraception other than the morning-after pill, but to actually encourage them to fuck. (For some reason I have the urge to link to Joe Cornish's 'Doctor Sexy' at this point, as I imagine this is broadly how these type of appointments will go now). For the Mail, this whole thing is just one step short of teams of doctors arriving at primary schools in a dick-shaped Fuck Bus, telling kids how awesome sex is, with a speech about the pregnancy-avoiding benefits of anal, delivered as volunteers hand out lube, bondage gear and peephole bras.

Actually, it's tempting to try and help Littlejohn out with his next column...

"Dear Richard Littlejohn (when are you going to run for Prime Minister, eh?!?!), just thought I should let you know about the PC Brigade's latest bonkers assault on family values! A cab driver told me that he knew this guy in Birmingham who'd read about this case where this guy's 13-year-old daughter had gone to her GP for a check-up and she walked out a LESBIAN! The doctor had advised her that the best way to avoid pregnancy and STDs is to just have sex with other girls!?!? Now her dad can't walk past her room without hearing Ani DiFranco records and the muffled sounds of sapphic experimentation. What's happening to this once-great country, Richard? Are you and me the only sane ones left? You couldn't make it up!!!"

Monday, 9 February 2009

Pro Evolution Suckers 2009 (or how a Telegraph columnist beat science!)

With it being 200 years this month since the birth of Charles Darwin, there's quite rightly been a lot of interesting stuff in the papers and on TV about evolution. The downside, of course, is that we're also seeing a lot of anti-evolutionist bollocks as a result, as the publicity riles columnists who either don't believe it or clearly don't understand it. Possibly the worst mainstream column written about it so far is Christopher Booker's Telegraph piece, Charles Darwin zealots have made science a substitute religion. From the very title you just know it's time to strap a pillow to the edge of your desk to cushion the head-bashing that will no doubt ensue. If there's a more tedious and disingenuous argument than 'Weeeell, science is a lot like religion when you think about it', then please, don't tell me about it, I value my mental health. It's bad enough coming from kneejerk anti-authority forum posters who think they're the first person to say it, but when you read it in an actual newspaper, written for money, it's painful. Booker sets the bar for the standard of evidence we're going to be seeing in this piece with the opening line:

As councils ran out of the grit they had failed to stockpile because they fell for the Government line that climate change made it unnecessary, Britain was last week doubly-carpeted, partly by snow, partly by a blizzard of tributes to Charles Darwin.
An irrelevant dig at the Government, there, with no evidence that 'the Government' has advised councils not to keep stocks of grit, or that it had anything to do with climate change. Bonus points for implying that snow is somehow ruled out by climate change! (Booker is a high-profile climate change 'skeptic' who has form for winding people up with his interesting scientific views). Still, that's just the intro, maybe he's about to shake the scientific world to its core with some hot new arguments that will leave scientists embarrassed, chucking their lab coats to the floor while admitting they've wasted their lives before retraining as plumbers?

One great stumbling block to his argument [that evolution takes place by natural selection] is that evolution has repeatedly taken place in leaps forward so sudden and so complex that they could not possibly have been accounted for by the gradual process he suggested - “the Cambrian explosion" of new life forms, the complexities of the eye, the post-Cretaceous explosion of mammals.
I used to go to school with a guy who told me he'd asked out the same girl over 140 times, getting an exactly equal number of negative responses (ranging from 'no', through 'fuck, no!' to 'please get off my doorstep'). His approach was pitched somewhere between endearing, try-hard romantic comedy protagonist and creepy stalker whose eyes will one day be staring out at you from a TV screen over a newsreader's shoulder in a story about missing prostitutes. Perhaps more the latter. Anyway, the way he lobbed the same question hopefully at this girl over and over again, hoping that one day he would simply grind her down to the point where she's so desperate she gives up seems quite similar to the way people who think evolution is a crock endlessly toss out the same boring, debunked arguments about the eye and such.

It's amusing that he frames his piece with reference to David Attenborough's recent BBC Four documentary, and then goes on to mention 'the complexity of the eye' as a massive problem for Darwin's theory, as if scientists have either overlooked it or are just keeping quiet about it. In fact, Attenborough devoted a fair portion of 'Darwin's Tree of Life' to this very issue, explaining how the eye could have slowly developed from a simple light-sensitive cell, through various more complex stages to the eyes we see today, and he cited numerous examples of modern-day animals and organisms with massively less complex eyes than we have. The 'irreducible complexity' of the eye is such a boring anti-evolutionist canard that everyone with even the remotest interest in evolution has been talking about it for years, particularly Richard Dawkins, who also dealt with the eye issue in his recent Darwin doc. It formed a major plank of Michael Behe's failed argument in the now infamous Kitzmiller vs Dover trial in which Intelligent Design proponents got a massive smackdown. It's so overused that one old Talk Origins page on it even correctly points out that people who mention it will quote Darwin as saying "that the evolution of the eye seems 'absurd in the highest degree'", which Booker indeed does here.

Booker's other arguments are similar tropes that you'd expect to see from some kind of boring Dembski-fellating pisswit on a forum, except he's actually getting paid to say things like implying that the "Cambrian explosion" (duration: over 50 million years) was impossible with natural selection. And then this...

Years ago, a good illustration of this was Attenborough himself claiming to 'prove’ Darwin’s theory by showing us a mouse and a bat, explaining how one evolved into the other. He seemed oblivious to the obvious point that, as the mouse’s forelegs evolved by minute variations to wings, there must have been a long period when the creature, no longer with properly functioning legs but as yet unable to fly, was much less 'adapted to survive’ than it had been before.
Booker, as is traditional for this type of article, misrepresents evolutionary arguments before going on to profess incredulity at them. Evolutionists argue merely that mice and bats evolved from a common ancestor, and again this is a textbook Intelligent Design argument which has been dealt with numerous times, for example here and here. He assumes that a leg which also has some of the functions of a wing would be an evolutionary failure, a claim which sounds faintly plausible until you realise that a basic wing can be formed from a leg with a big flap of skin on, and that there exist to this day birds with functioning claws on the front of their wings, and creatures like the flying squirrel and sugar glider who can glide long distances and yet have fully-functioning legs, as pointed out here:

Ah, the classic argument from personal incredulity. If a creationist cannot imagine how something might have happened then it must not have. Fortunately nature is not limited by the imaginations of creationists and all one must do is look at other living things to find a few reasonable analogues for the ancestral bat.
Back to Booker, and he returns to his theme to beef up his 'evolutionists are basically religious zealots, ahhhhhhhh!' argument like this:

...he [Darwin] has been followed by generations of 'Darwinians’ who have found his theory so beguiling that, like him, they have refused to recognise how much it cannot explain.

What is fascinating about the Darwinians is their inability to accept just how much they do not know. Armoured in their certainty that they have all the answers when they so obviously don’t, neo-Darwinians such as Richard Dawkins rest their beliefs just as much on an unscientific leap of faith as the 'Creationists’ they so fanatically affect to despise.
Now, I don't want to argue from authority, but what always strikes me about this point when I see it (and I see it a lot), is the belief inherent in it that scientists basically don't think about this kind of stuff, or merely toss it aside, and that you as a columnist/lay person are among the select few with the startling clarity of thought to see through it. To suggest that evolution, a science which over the past 200 years has been backed up with piles of evidence from the fossil record, from biology, and crucially from genetics among a plethora of other fields, is the same kind of leap of faith as creationism, a theory which takes as its starting point a line in an ancient book which says "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" and argues from there, is to conflate two worldviews so utterly different as to render the act of comparison meaningless. If you wish to criticise evolutionary theory, fine, but for fuck's sake don't attempt to draw a parallel with religion in terms of 'leaps of faith', because it makes you look like a simpleton who has to reduce everything to such stark black and white terms that there's no point discussing anything with you. Booker goes on to return to his 'climate change, that's a right load of shite as well!' thesis, one that he lays out with all the finesse of a man down the pub moaning about bloody scientists.

(Incidentally, can anyone explain to me the thinking behind this old 'Scientists reckon they know everything, the arrogant dicks' claim? Wouldn't scientists claiming they'd discovered everything there is to know be somewhat doing themselves out of a job, given that their primary function is to keep researching in order to discover new things? It's a wonder any new papers get written at all!)

I realise as I read this that I could write a lot more about the actual science of evolution and where Booker is misrepresenting it, and I could go on about transitional fossils or DNA or Richard Lenski's awesome E.Coli research and subsequent epic pwning of Andrew Schlafly but it hardly feels like there's any point. Booker, like me, is no scientist, but a columnist whose apparently enjoys trolling for hits, and will no doubt take the detailed critiques of his article that have appeared in the comments as proof that 'Darwinists' (because we all just slavishly follow Darwin, right?) can't take any criticism or let people have their stupid opinions in peace.

I suppose I can understand why writers like Booker have a hard time with the idea of evolution. Perhaps he applied the 'survival of the fittest' mantra to journalism and realised that since he's still in a job despite repeatedly holding forth on science topics he knows little about and getting embarrassed in the process, the whole thing must be nonsense. If only selective pressures were applied to journalists...well, I certainly wouldn't have started this blog.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Pete Hitchens reckons your child probably won't die

The frustrating thing about Pete 'call me Peter' Hitchens* is that he's not an idiot. Unlike some of his lazier colleagues, Hitchens has shown that he's actually a capable writer, an intelligent one with the capacity to understand issues with some level of depth. This only serves to make it all the more infuriating when he deliberately throws compelling counter-evidence aside to hammer out a story consistent with his overarching narrative, which is essentially a lament that Britain has moved on from its Victorian values.

Today Pete is back talking about MMR. It begins, as such stories often do, with an anecdotal attempt to throw doubt on the numerous studies which have repeatedly shown no evidence of a link between MMR and autism. Snorting at the idea that MMR is 'safe', Pete replies:

Well, tell that to Heather Edwards, whose son Josh developed severe bowel problems and autism after his first MMR, and then suffered the same thing redoubled after the second jab.

Coincidence? Twice? Maybe. We’ll never know.
That's right, he did just use the hilarious conspiracy-theory technique of putting two events together and pointedly asking 'Coincidence?', an argument that has long since become an established joke among people who mock such theories. Of course, after this single anecdote, Pete confesses that there are mountains of available research (some of it mentioned here) that strongly indicates there's no link and that it therefore could, indeed, be a coincidence. Oh, no, wait! He doesn't, he just goes on to make an appeal to emotion:

Poor Josh, though much-loved, is now in a terrible way, desperately thin and missing much of his insides.

Are the authorities really so sure the MMR is completely safe?
'Completely safe', of course, isn't really true of any vaccine, which is why no-one says that it is. With a vaccine that produces an effect, there is a chance of side-effects. These are usually well understood by doctors, disclosed fully in medical literature, and ought to be taken into account when making a decision about when and whom to vaccinate. Hitchens, though, thinks that acknowledging side-effects is a winking admission that the Government and medicine are covering up The Truth that MMR causes autism:

Well, listen to Vivienne Parry, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, who candidly admitted back in 2007: ‘There’s a small risk with all vaccines.

'No one has ever said that any vaccine is completely without side effects. But we have to decide whether the benefits outweigh the risks.

'If we had measles, it would kill lots of children. If you have a vaccine, it will damage some children, but a very small number.’
It seems Pete has just contradicted his stance that the authorities claim it's entirely safe by quoting an authority figure saying it's not. Oops! Anyway, confronted with the notion that unchecked measles could indeed be a dangerous disease which can lead to severe complications up to and including death, Pete reaches for some compelling counter-stats based on what I can only assume are hundreds of sleepless hours ploughing through research papers:

Will measles kill lots of children? I doubt it.

In very rare cases, it can lead to fatal complications but in general it doesn’t.
You got that? He doubts it. Like Jeni Barnett, he thinks that in general measles isn't gonna kill your child. This is a very curious argument when you consider the reasons why he's writing it. Could you imagine how he would react if a doctor had written the reverse of what he just asserted there? "In very rare cases, MMR can lead to autism but in general it doesn’t". He'd be aghast at the callousness of the dismissal of these 'rare cases'.

It's hard to read people like Hitchens and not come away with the idea that, on some issues, they just take the opposite view to authorities they don't like, and choose the evidence that supports their previously-held view. I can imagine that in an alternate universe somewhere the NHS has withdrawn the MMR vaccine, citing a 12-subject preliminary study claiming a link to autism, in which the doctor involved reportedly tweaked his results. In that universe, The Mail is running screaming headlines about every subsequent child death from measles, and columnists are suspicious that the decision to withdraw was merely financial, that the NHS and Government have simply decided that letting a few kids die of measles is 'cost-effective'.

It's up to you though. On the one hand you have decades of peer-reviewed research systematically looking at the safety of the MMR vaccine and concluding, tentatively of course, that autism is not a known side-effect on the balance of evidence. On the other you have sour-faced miserabilist Pete Hitchens, who assures you that children, y'know, generally don't die of measles. And he's right. For a lot of people, measles will be a minor illness. But what research has told us is that one in ten cases of measles will put the child in hospital, significant numbers of them will get pneumonia/bronchitis, convulsions, meningitis, encephalitis, serious brain complications, and yes, on some occasions, they will die.

What we also know is that, in 1998 when Andrew Wakefield published his paper that started this row, there were 56 cases of measles in England and Wales. In 2008 there were 1,348 confirmed cases. Two children have died since 2006. That is to say, children have literally died from an illness that we have a proven vaccine for, an illness that was supposed to be eradicated from Europe by next year. If vaccinations continue to go down, more children will die, and media coverage like this will only serve to increase the doubt about the safety of MMR despite robust scientific evidence that suggests that autism is not linked to it. Sure, measles is a bit dangerous, but hey, it'll still be true that most children won't die from measles, so let's drink to that! Cheers, Pete!

*I should probably at some point explain why I insist on calling Peter Hitchens 'Pete'. Normally I hate the undeniably cheap shot of playing around with people's names to undermine them (cf. 'Harriet Harperson', 'Tony B.Liar' etc), but Hitchens insists on calling Tony Blair 'Anthony Blair', as he does again in today's column. In Hitchens' view, Blair preferring to be known as 'Tony' is a mendacious piece of political spin; it represents Blair's outrageous 'I'm a guy like you, I'm just some bloke called Tony' con. Irritating as this was, it wasn't an opinion that seemed particularly insane, until late last year he started calling Barack Obama 'Barry'. As he explains:

Why do I call Mr Obama 'Barry'? For the same reason that I call Mr Blair 'Anthony'. It is his name, or rather was his name, until it suited him to change it. Its use makes (some) people think, my main purpose in life.
At no point does it seem to occur to him that these are actually polar opposite situations. Obama uses his full name for politics. Blair uses the nickname people called him by. It's win-win for Hitchens; can you imagine the reaction he'd give if Barack Obama was hiding his distinctly un-American first name and calling himself 'Barry'? That would be the same as Blair calling himself Tony. This is the exact opposite, and yet Pete 'Peter' Hitchens (I'm assuming someone in his family has at some point called him 'Pete' and yet he uses his full name to add gravitas) thinks they're the same thing. Apparently he prefers to make other people think so he doesn't have to sit down and actually review his ideas himself.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Jeni Barnett and MMR

I don't know how many times we're going to have to teach people this, but if you try and censor something on the internet now, the chances are that you're merely going to ensure a much bigger audience for it when the blogging echo chamber takes up the cause. A few days back, everyone's favourite cuddly tousle-haired science writer/evil Big Pharma shill Ben Goldacre wrote about LBC radio host Jeni Barnett's hilariously wrong-headed rant about the MMR vaccine, posting a 44-minute excerpt of the show so you could hear for yourself the titanic levels of stupid involved. Since then, LBC have wielded the copyrighthammer and made him take it down.

It's really worth hearing, although to do so requires gritted teeth and a slight masochistic streak, so to that end I'm linking to a couple of good folks who are hosting the mp3. You can assault your ears it with here at Lay Science (where there are also links to complete transcripts) or download it from the good folks at Wikileaks. Or hear it in five parts on YouTube. It continually amuses me how lawyers like this fail to understand a) that once things are on the internet the cat immediately puts a spectacular amount of distance between itself and the bag, and b) that bloggers and forums are full of people passionate about free speech who will make sure that your legal threats end up merely helping the thing spread.

Barnett's opinions on the MMR vaccine are confused, but some of her stellar arguments include:

The fact is, the notion that we're all the same, that you have to be inoculating children with this MMR jab, this debate is going to go on for ever and ever and always at the back of it, in my head is 'hold on a minute, there's a drug company that's making lots of money out of it'.
Drugs companies make money from drugs! Why not ignore them and listen to the opinions of someone who makes money from talking on the radio?

There are some children - whether you like it or whether you do not - that have a response to that triple jabbing that is not good for them. We have evidence, however much people say we don't, we have evidence that if a child's immune system is weak; my daughter was one of them, she was very asthmatic as a child, she could not have received that triple vaccine, she couldn't have done it so I made a calculated decision that I didn't want to go there.
The best part about this argument, apart from the childish 'Yeah well we've got evidence so ner!' tone of it, is that if Barnett's child were actually medically unsuitable for the vaccine, she would be able to be protected by herd immunity provided enough other kids got theirs. One of the most compelling reasons for mass vaccination is that with many vaccines there are a small percentage of people who cannot have them; these vulnerable people rely to an extent on herd immunity keeping the spread of the disease down. Barnett's wittering frequently stumbles into the offensive:

Is there something wrong with having mumps, is there something - you know is it - most people aren't that one in fifteen.
The 'one in fifteen' being a reference to the old days where, as she mentions earlier the broadcast, one in fifteen kids died of measles. But hey, 1 in 15? Gotta love those odds! Does Britain really need this many kids anyway? Later, Barnett gets a homeopath (Tracy) on the phone to provide the impartial, sane advice you would expect from someone who believes that the less of something you put in something, the more of it there is:

My eldest is 12, my youngest is 3, none of them have ever been vaccinated, immunised. And they're all very healthy children.
"Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol must be working like a charm!"

There's a telling exchange right at the end, as transcribed here at Holfordwatch, where a nurse, Yasmin, calls in to take Barnett to task over a number of points. One of them is Barnett's continued references to 'stuff' that's in vaccines harming her child. Yasmin asks her a couple of times if she has any clue what's in the MMR vaccine:

Yasmin: You don’t know what you’re talking about. You can’t even tell me what’s in an MMR vaccine so you shouldn’t be talking about it.

JB: Well, I can get it…Shall I get it off the internet, Yasmin?

Yasmin: Yeah, get it off the internet, from a reliable source, the such as the Department of Health

JB: Really?

Yasmin: and then I might listen to you, yeah.

JB: The Department of Health frightens people.

Thanks, Yasmin, for your call.
Yeah, you don't wanna be running into the Department of Health down a dark alley. That pretty much sums up the standard of evidence Barnett is working from; throughout the whole show she relies on anecdotes, a ludicrously fuzzy understanding of science, a breathtaking array of logical fallacies and a lot of vague suspicions about the motives of people promoting MMR (a level of skepticism she apparently doesn't have towards, say, homeopaths who call in to deride vaccines despite making their living out of selling the alternative). She's since written a blog in which she complains about the reaction and what it says about "Allopathic medicine", allopathy being the name alternative health proponents give to real medicines that have been, like, tested and shit. Like a lot of these people do, when challenged she falls back on the 'MORE RESEARCH!' fallacy; "Injecting tiny babies with substances that may compromise their immune system needs to be looked at not shouted down", which is an argument frequently used by people who couldn't tell you the first thing about what research has or hasn't already been done.

Oh, and she closes her blog with a classic argument; "Should anybody from BAD SCIENCE read this I urge you to continue the debate, and if it gets too heated there is always the option of turning me off". As if instead of challenging broadcasters on abusing their position by perpetuating potentially harmful misinformation, we should just switch the radio off, chill out and go do something else. It's only the health of kids and the public understanding of science under threat, you planks! Still, I do fancy another go on the Killzone 2 demo right now so I might take her advice and finish here.

At the time of writing, a Google search for "Jeni Barnett" brings up two blogs about this in the top ten so far, and her Wikipedia page now has its own section about this, which represents top work by the righteous blogging bandwagon which I'm now unashamedly joining. I may as well link to the transcipts in full: Part 1 at Science Punk, Part 2 at The Lay Scientist, Part 3 at PodBlack Cat, Part 4 at The Skeptic's Book, Part 5 at The Quackometer and finally Part 6 at HolfordWatch.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

The evolution of language, with Ben Stein

Woo, looks like we found the transitional fossil which will come to be regarded in future as evidence of the macro-evolution of the phrase 'pro-science' from meaning 'in favour of science' to 'in favour of repeatedly pissing off scientists by trying to force them to entertain your vague ideas about how God probably did it'. It was recently announced that the zealous Intelligent Design proponent and producer of 'Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed' Ben Stein would be giving a speech at the University of Vermont. This caused a bit of a stir, what with Stein having spent 2008 making a decent case to be crowned Laughable Moron Of The Year. Stein, slightly peeved that scientists keep on mocking his adherence to an untestable anti-theory with no evidence, has gone on the defensive and assured everyone that maaaaan, he's ALL about the science up in this bitch:

“I am far more pro-science than the Darwinists,” Stein said later in an e-mail. “I want all scientific inquiry to happen — not just what the ruling clique calls science.”
Stein's passionate declaration of love for science may come as a bit of a surprise to those of you who may remember him from such quotes as this one last year:

Stein: When we just saw that man, I think it was Mr. Myers [i.e. biologist P.Z. Myers], talking about how great scientists were, I was thinking to myself the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed … that was horrifying beyond words, and that’s where science — in my opinion, this is just an opinion — that’s where science leads you.

Crouch: That’s right.

Stein: …Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place, and science leads you to killing people.
Not sure about you, but I personally tend not to describe myself as 'pro' things which I believe were responsible for the Holocaust. "Hey, the Holocaust was your fault!" isn't normally seen as a compliment, but I suppose it would make an interesting chat-up line. Maybe that's where I went wrong in my teens.

The problem, of course, is Stein's somewhat shaky grasp of science, which he seems to think shouldn't favour one theory over another just because, say, one theory is backed by multiple lines of converging evidence from numerous scientific disciplines and has yet to be adequately falsified, and the other is a bunch of poorly-evidenced arguments which doesn't even offer a hypothetical mechanism for any of the things it's claiming other than magic. Stein seems continually surprised that Big Science isn't taking Intelligent Design seriously or allowing it to be taught alongside real science in schools, just because it, like, can't be tested. It seems science nerds are quite big on this whole 'testing' thing when it comes to theories, and Stein understandably finds that restrictive when trying to get his idea treated as science. Why not therefore just redefine science?

I have a similar complaint about how the mysterious cabal of Big Football keeps running scared of my ideas. I'm sick of seeing the stuffy elitists at Manchester United continually refusing to let me express my footballing talents on their pitch. Sure, there's an argument for sticking with Rooney, Berbatov and Tevez up front, they're all decent players in the traditional way I guess, but I think society would be better off if people got a chance to see my alternative approach. Just because I'm fat and unfit and haven't properly kicked a football in a decade doesn't mean I don't have anything to offer the game, you fucking Nazis. You've got a generation of kids now growing up thinking that football is all about who's got the most skill or scores the best goals, and I think it's about time we shook up this outdated paradigm and let the world see me wheezing and falling over and getting caught offside all the time. I want all football to happen — not just what the ruling clique calls football. Plus I'd be willing to do it for half what Ronaldo earns in a week.

Monday, 2 February 2009

'Columnist' writes 'column'

With a sense of grim inevitability, Pete 'Peter' Hitchens yesterday waded into the gay adoption debate and surprised us all by siding with the homos in the name of liberty. No, of course he fucking didn't, he wrote We show tolerance to ‘gays’ and get tyranny in return. The best part of this article is the opening three lines, where Pete insists that he really doesn't want to write about the gays, but they just kind of force him by constantly thrusting their hot groins in his face or something:

If I never again had to read or write a word about homosexuals, I would be very happy. I really don’t want to know what other people do in their bedrooms. But these days they really, really want us all to know.
It's not entirely clear what the bit about homosexuals forcing Pete to read intimate details of their sordid, lubed-up depravity has to do with gay adoption, or indeed anything, but it's an intriguing argument, and one I read a lot; this idea that yeah, gays can do whatever they want behind closed doors, but 'we don't wanna hear about it', as if the whole gay rights movement is about literally providing Pete Hitchens with pornographic details about the act of man-to-man bumsex.

It's tempting to conclude that whenever Pete hears the word 'homosexual' or 'gay', his brain is immediately filled with thoughts of actual gay sex. I'd like to meet him and see if he feels the same about being introduced to the idea of heterosexual couples...

Me: "Pete, I'd like you to meet my girlfriend..."
Pete Hitchens: "Hold on a second there! What you and your 'girlfriend' get up to behind closed doors is your own, disgusting, business. If you must talk to me, please bear in mind that I have no desire to hear about the disgraceful carnal sins that you and your girlfriend presumably commit. For goodness sake, have a sense of decorum, young man! I didn't come here for an orgy!"

The rest of the article is similar to Phillips' piece from my last entry, lots of [citation needed] type stuff about a mysterious gay agenda that apparently says he can't call homosexuals 'homosexuals', even though he does so on five separate occasions in this article alone:

And that’s another thing. We can’t even call homosexuals ‘homosexuals’ any more. This neutral word is not considered enthusiastic enough. We have to say ‘gay’. Which is exactly why I don’t, apart from in inverted commas.
Hitch's inverted-commas revolution starts here! His main point about the whole adoption story is the bit about how the grandparents were forced to pretend they liked it:

Next, the grandparents are informed that the children are to be put into the care of a homosexual couple. And – this is the crucial moment – they are warned in the most terrifying terms that if they object to this arrangement they will never see their grandchildren again.

Leave aside the rest of it. It is this demand, that they mouth approval of the new regime like the defendants at some show trial, which is the bit that ought to make your flesh creep.
Of course, we have no idea if that was true. This idea was based entirely on a quote from the grandparents themselves, but as I mentioned in the comments to the last entry, the reason this story is gold dust to the likes of the Mail is that the rules prevent social services from talking about specific cases and hence having any kind of comeback to allegations made. So the only version of the story we get is that of the aggrieved party (the grandfather in this case), who said:

When he protested to social workers, the grandfather alleges he was told: "You can either accept it and there's a chance you'll see the children twice a year, or you can take that stance and never see them again."
I would be staggered if that were a verbatim quote, but we'll never know. There could be a nugget of truth there, but it could be hugely exaggerated and paraphrased. Still, Pete hangs his entire piece on this allegation. But then Pete is always resolutely sure of his own ideas, and who is to blame. If you've never read Hitch before, the thing to bear in mind is that his entire worldview is based on the notion that everything went irreversibly to shit with the Sixties, and that most of the things that have come since have damaged our nation's soul. Including rock music...

First, their daughter ends up as a drug abuser, like so many others in a country which permits the endless promotion of drug use by rock stars and refuses to punish the possession of narcotics, the only measure that would work.
...and, of course, everything else including comprehensive schools, atheism and video games (which are to blame for a story of horrendous violence in the next bit of his column):

The callousness of fatherless, comprehensive-educated, Godless, TV-entertained, computer-game desensitised, cannabis-crazed and lagered-up Britain is perfectly demonstrated in the pictures of Johnathan Robinson, a pub landlord whose robbers dragged him from his car, ran him over, broke his leg and then stamped on his face for fun (since he was by then helpless).

The problem with this is, the reason the Johnathan Robinson case made the news is because it was an abnormally violent act. This is a trick the media likes to use; the promotion of the idea that something so extreme is actually broadly representative of where the country is going. Of course, Pete knows exactly where this one incident is clearly leading our society:

We have bred a generation of concentration camp guards, and if as a society we later turn to mass murder, nobody will need to wonder much why and how it happened.
Video games, right?