They Believe Me, They Believe Me Not, They Believe Me…..

•June 11, 2014 • Leave a Comment

“Science is too hard for me to understand”
“I’m not smart enough to be a scientist!”
“Science? It’s all part of a government conspiracy!”
“Science is an affront to my religious beliefs!”
“Honestly, science, who even needs it anymore?”

I often wonder what is really becoming of science in terms of how it’s viewed in the public eye. Sadly, the prevailing image of scientists as unemotional, white lab coat wearing androids I think is all too ingrained into society. Now, don’t get me wrong, as part of the science communication movement (not by profession, but other means), I definitely think we have made huge progress in helping to inform the public about science in its entirety. But that doesn’t mean that we have to be blindly optimistic: a consistent dose of realism is crucial. That said, I would hope that, going forward, we maintain a healthy degree of optimism that we will inevitably need to educate a world that is increasingly reliant on science and technology.

Of course, I think a large part of the problem is fueled by the fact that science can give off this image that it is inherently complicated and you really need a whole bunch of qualifications to understand it. That is far from being true. I think anyone that is curious about the world around them can be called a scientist in one aspect – not academically, sure, but in a way that appreciates their personal qualities are in line with those whose role it is to simply always discover new things. And is that not what are all doing, in one form or another? Now, I am not advocating that everyone suddenly becomes a scientist and suddenly we have all this pseudoscience plague us. Science still has to be bound by rules and codes not because scientists enjoy being ‘rigid and boring’ (they are not, believe me), but because without these regulations in place, people could simply make things up and pass it off as bonafide science. 

I want to take a look at one of the ways we can win back public trust in science: by tackling pseudoscience. Make no mistake, it is a constant struggle. Pseudoscience is an insidious plague that legitimises completely false information as actual science. It’s not just a case of proving to people that they are gullible because they fell for it, either. I believe that these people sincerely believe they have the proven facts and that the ‘evidence’ scientists present is just heresy. Without forcing this on anyone, here’s why you should trust the science: briefly, science is where one has an idea, evidence is collected and then analysed to see if the data support this idea or not. If they do, great, we have learnt something new and the idea is explored further. If the data do not support the idea, then the idea is refined and the process is repeated. This is the process because it works. Pseudoscientists have an idea. They then spread it around as science even though they have either done no research or have used completely biased examples to ‘prove their point’. Often, they will attack a straw man to try and win the moral high ground (a straw man is where somebody attacks a point that the other person did not even make in an argument in an attempt to win it).

I will now explore three of the main ideas of pseudoscience that are epidemic in society. These are ideas that have dealt blows to science through their insidious lies that appeal to human emotions.   

1. The Anti-Vaccine Movement: this has to be one that has reared its ugly head time and time again. Like a persistent hydra, it just won’t go away despite the fact that there is a mountain of evidence supporting the use of vaccines. “Anti-vaxxers”, as they are commonly known, are a crafty lot. I’m reluctant to use the word ‘clever’ as, if they were, they’d probably vaccinate their children, right? Snap. The claims the anti-vaxxers make range from the bizarre to the downright insane. A fair amount of them still make the assertion that vaccination is linked to autism. People, this has been debunked ages ago. It is all to do with the controversy when Andrew Wakefield, a now discredited doctor, published a study in The Lancet (an incredibly, if not the most, prestigious medical journal) claiming that the MMR vaccine had links to autism. I’ll give you the abridged version of the story: he was wrong, there was no evidence linking the two at all. But he had a massive impact on disease spread: the rates of measles, mumps and rubella rose dramatically in the UK and the USA. Despite all this, Wakefield was never arrested. I find that fact abhorrent in itself, especially so because it means that anti-vaxxers can still rally behind him and defend his “research”. Oh, but it did turn out he was pandering to the interests of those who had everything to gain from vaccines being discredited. Bias research? That’s a massive science NO!

Other ludicrous claims I have come across are that it will make you addicted to injecting, the natural progression that you then inject drugs and that it can “overload” the immune system. I read the former claim off a satirical poster but, honestly, I can really imagine people believing this. Being vaccinated does not increase your risk of going onto injecting drugs much in the same way that taking prescription painkillers does not increase the risk of you popping ecstasy and using an inhaler increases your risk of smoking (regardless of substance). The immune system claim is equally horrendous tripe. Being vaccinated and gaining immunity to diseases can actually reduce the load on your immune system. Once exposed to a vaccine, immunity is granted because your immune system knows the right antibodies to make to fight off the invading pathogens. It takes a LOT less effort/resources to fight an enemy you already know than one you do not.

Overall, don’t be fooled. While the anti-vaccination movement consists of parents concerned for the welfare of their children, if they really cared for them, they would know that you can’t protect them from everything from breast milk. In fact, if you were not vaccinated, then you have no immunity to certain disease…so how can your children?!  Don’t be fooled by the trolls: if you care for your children, listen to the science. The evidence for vaccination is enormous.

 

2. Climate change deniers. Oh boy. John Oliver recently did a segment on climate change denial, which was both hilarious and profoundly astute. In it, he asserted that, despite one in four Americans being skeptical in climate change, it actually makes no difference at all. You don’t need to have an opinion on an established fact. Climate change is happening, it is real and you can’t simply ignore it by ‘cleverly’ claiming it is part of a liberal, hippie agenda or part of an Illuminati conspiracy. We should all be incredibly worried by climate change as it directly affects our lives but it seems that no one is. Who do we have to thank for that? Those loud, obnoxious types that ignore the science – which, of course, has actually done the work to collect and analyse evidence – and go on to further attack the facts. Ironically, although these people claim to be the ones fighting those with an agenda, they themselves are, more often than not, the ones with the agenda. 

Now, a more valid (but, by no means, completely) question can be whether climate change is human induced or not. I personally think it is due to human activity but certain people make the argument that it is not. I, and many others, would say that the evidence is clear that the Earth is warming and it is due to human-induced activity. My belief is that, by adopting the line of thought that we are not responsible for it, you can make the logical leap to absolve humanity of their horrific environmental crimes. Make no mistake, we are royally messing up this planet. But, that aside the crucial point is that, by asking this question, you openly acknowledge that climate change is real. That is the important thing. I put climate change deniers in the same boat as Holocaust deniers. Is that a bit too extreme? Perhaps, but we have substantial evidence for both…one cannot just blindly ignore either. Recently in the UK, we had an increase incidence of floods. Many climate change deniers denied it having anything to do with climate change at all, with one particularly misguided UKIP MP blaming the weather on gay marriage. Yep, we even got kinda biblical there, people. 

Climate change deniers have sneakily concocted in order to undermine and distract from the effort to help people realise that a) climate change is real b) it is most likely man made and, most important c) is ready to make things incredibly difficult for us. Instead of debunking the popular myths one by one, I will leave you to explore the evidence yourself: be skeptical, ask for evidence and sources for what you read and evaluate the information you are getting. Here’s a potential starting point: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn11462-climate-change-a-guide-for-the-perplexed.html#.U5gxrHJdVxp

Oh, but I will say that flood incidence has no link to gay marriage whatsoever. …not that it needed to be stated. Ever.

3. Evolution deniers (a.k.a creationists). One of my biggest passions in life, as a science communicator, a scientist in my own way (not academically…yet, I hope) and one of the biggest issues modern religion has with the scientific community. From claiming fossil evidence is fake to claiming that humans rode dinosaurs, the amount of completely off the wall claims made by those who deny evolution is a real thing is nuts. Now, this is not to debunk or attack anybody’s religion at all. I do know people that are religious but believe in evolution. It is not unheard of. But there are those who really stick to what they were told growing up, taking everything in religious books as factual evidence. The thing is, we can’t do that as scientists: we have to know what actually happened. Evolution is no exception. The amount of evidence that the scientific community have uncovered to support evolution is astounding, with the advent of fields such as genetics only further fueling our quest for knowledge. Using novel genetic techniques, we can even observe speciation in action around us. Of course, we are only observers to one miniscule segment of the incredibly long process. 

Creationists claim that the Earth is 6000 years old (no doubt a biblical date). Various dating techniques, including carbon dating, have all given exhaustive evidence that the Earth is billions of years old. Creationists (and others) claim that dinosaurs coexisted with humans. Unfortunately, watching The Flintstones does not count as adequate scientific research! If we were around at the same time dinosaurs were, we would find ancestral human fossils along with dinosaur fossils. ‘lo and behold, the fabled human fossils do not exist! Though, of course that is all a clever hoax….right? …ahem. Plus, you’re conveniently ignoring all the years of Homonid evolution. Homonids have nothing to do with homosexual people, by the way – homo just means ‘same’. Creationists believe that we are inherently perfect, that creation is perfect. That is not exactly true at all. Environments change all the time, no organism is adapted to every single environment. To cleverly tackle this issue, evolution is inherently unguided and blind. This way, mutations that confer advantages in a given environment are random and organisms are able to adapt to survive (as populations, not individuals). Creationists also believe that evolutionists state we are descended from monkeys. Unholy matriarch of Anopheles, could you be any further from the truth? This is not magic: we did not just turn into humans from monkeys. Through millions of years of painstaking evolution, we evolved from a COMMON ANCESTOR with monkeys. I realise that may be a difficult concept for some to understand, so here is a simple diagram. Every time there is a split, that is where the common ancestor between the species is placed. 

See? Simples! The saddest part of those who disregard evolution, though, is that you totally miss out on the beauty this world has to offer. If you believe in a God, or a supreme deity of any sort, why is it so difficult to accept that your chosen deity created the process of evolution? I think it is a fantastic and ingenious process to have come up with and, if indeed it had a creator, I give them much kudos. To think that it all started from simple, single celled organisms is astounding. They were the progenitors of the immense variety of lifeforms that we see around us today, as well as those who have gone extinct and those will come after us.

By the way, forging a nice link back to vaccination, one way we observe evolution today is through the evolution of microbes. Bacteria and viruses have a much faster rate of mutation due to reproducing at a much faster rate than we do. Given that they go through so many generations in a much smaller time frame, we can observe evolution in action. It is what helps give rise to vaccines and other weapons in the fight against disease. I have heard stories of staunchly religious doctors walking out of evolution lectures before. My advice? If you can’t accept it, find another profession, preferably one where your beliefs do not conflict with your solemn duty as one who is entrusted with the lives of people.

 

Scientists aren’t doing their jobs properly if they only seek to invest in their own personal gains whilst disregarding the factual evidence or if they intentionally mislead people. Science is a quest for knowledge, truth and wisdom. We have gained much of it in our endeavours so far, yet have so much more still to gain. But the information we gather is useless if we don’t act on it: if we let ourselves kill our planet, we lose out. If we let babies catch lethal diseases because we believe in fear mongering, we lose out. If we blindly ignore clues and incredible information on our own genesis, as well as that of other organisms on this planet, we lose out. At the heart of it, science should be inclusive to everyone, not just those who believe it as an elite privilege. In an age where we are increasingly relying on technology at a staggering rate, we cannot afford for large chunks of us to still be lost in the dark ages of knowledge.

Science is awesome. Pseudoscience is destructive. It’s crucial to know the difference.   

 

Fundraising And Me: There’s A First Time For Everything…

•March 13, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Starting out a New Year with a change in your routine can certainly be daunting for some and exciting for others. For me, in 2014, it was an apt mixture of both. From January 1st 2014 until February (of the same year!), I would be giving up alcohol for a whole month for Cancer Research UK. It was not the only thing that I had to do, of course. I also shaved my head, decided to run a 10K race and go hiking. The last activity I ended up doing in costume…and for a guy who NEVER dresses up, that was quite a feat in itself! What brought on the decision to do the fundraising? I guess I wanted an explosive start to my 2014…an explosion that would reverberate through the rest of the year and beyond. After all, isn’t that what we all want from our lives, in one form or another? We all crave excitement, adventure and the passion that makes both of those things that much more exhilarating? I reached out to my close friends and, soon, had a team that I was a part of: The Dry and Mighty. Consequently, all of the team members were my former housemates/long time close friends from my university days: Nick, Steve and Dan. I could feel that it was epic!

The very first act, as already noted, I undertook was shaving my head. I had already done so once before, during my first year at university, and thought I could pull it off again. It was January too, so winter was still throwing its frosty winds at us and my naked head felt the full frontal assault by nature many-a time. My hairdo sorted out, I set to find out the next best thing to do. By this point, I had been running for just under a month (which I still need to get back to doing as I write this!) and thought I could do a 10K run. It wouldn’t be easy but I knew I could pull it off. I set about finding out who else wanted to join me and was happy to discover that I had four other interested people! I covered the race in a previous blog so won’t sound like a broken record but I was really happy with my finishing time of 1h11m. I also managed to run through the finish line waddling along like Zoidberg. SCORE!

The next big thing I did was a hike in the Cotswolds along with my intrepid explorer friends, Nick and Dan. Steve couldn’t be with us, unfortunately, as he was kicking some serious butt at hockey, so we three resolved to go hiking and exploring on our own. Three hours of walking in fairly good sunshine, having both hilarious but deep conversations (as one does!)…oh, and Nick and I were in costume. He a tiger, me an Assassin…it was pretty great. Dan opted to be himself, which, to be fair, was epic enough. Our three-hour or so hike took us around most of the area we wanted to cover. That said, we did have to cut our route slightly short as the last twenty minutes of our journey was filled with painful hail raining from the skies and winds battering us relentlessly. On our way back to the pub where we would eventually drink tea and hot chocolates in to celebrate our achievement, we passed by a tree that had been uprooted by the wind and fallen onto the pathway. Yikes!

Consequently, that same fatefully epic day, my lovely nephew Dylan was born and I went to see him in the hospital that day. …dressed as an Assassin, of course (one of my longstanding dreams, really). I bet he’ll really grow up idolising me for that!

Looking back, that month was one of the most adventurous and exciting months I have ever had in my life. I felt ready for action, alive, passionate and, most of all, connected with the people around me. My love for science, especially astrophysics (who woulda thunk it?!), grew astronomically, as I devoured more literature, podcasts and general knowledge that I could get my scientifically curious mitts on.

More importantly, I also learnt that the really important and awesome people in my life would support me all the way through and stand by me. The few that actually made the journey with me were nothing short of amazing: their support spurred me on to make the finish line with more gusto than I would have otherwise managed. So, guys, if I haven’t said it already, thank you for being so awesome. And to everyone who supported me whilst I was finding ways to deal with sobriety, a big thank you to you too. We managed to raise over £1,300 in the end as a team…way beyond our initial target!

So…what would be my advice from this experience? Be yourself, do amazing things one step at a time and never stop believing that you are awesome and every day is a chance to increase your limit of awesomeness.

As I look into the hidden gifts and challenges that 2014 holds, I am hopeful and excited. Never before have I truly felt the capacity to be a harbinger of an enormous amount of change and positive action. And never before have I seen that quality exuded by so many people in such an intense manner.

This is Taz, signing out by urging you to keep being awesome.

The Evolvability of Science

•March 4, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I thought I would herald in a new change of pace with my next few blog posts. You could call it a series of blog posts as they will revolve around the same theme. I enjoy themes and I’d imagine any scientist that is passionate about what they do probably is as well. After all, most of the time, we really do like it when things are explained in fairly simplified patterns. As a science communicator, we thrive on patterns and on a certain amount of predictability. Of course, the very nature of science is anything but predictable. That said, when explaining science to a general audience…themes doth prevail!

To kick off then, what is Evolvability? In a given natural system (most commonly a biological population), it is the nature is the ability of said population to generate adaptive genetic diversity for which natural selection is able to act on. Taken through to its logical conclusion, this means that certain populations must surely have the penchant to be more disposed to evolving than others. Is this a theory that we can find evidence for in nature? While I can’t claim to be an expert on this topic – far from it – I would imagine so! That said, the focus of this post is not natural systems…but something more methodological.

Namely, just how evolvable is science itself?

It goes like this: imagine that Evolvability and fitness are defined in this context as a field’s ability to generate more sub-fields, survive in terms of generating a higher research output and, perhaps slightly more counter intuitively, cross-fertilise information across other scientific disciplines to help bolster their own fitness. Is this really as counter intuitive as it may first seem? I don’t think so. Rather than being inherently competitive (which, don’t get me wrong, science can certainly be!), science thrives on collaboration and teamwork as opposed to fields wiping out other ‘competitor’ fields. It isn’t a huge leap of logic to then state that a scientific field which is successful in fuelling other scientific fields is fit, in the sense that it is passing some of its ‘genetic material’ (we’ll call research ‘genetic material’ in this sense) onto another ‘species’ of a scientific field. That said, I do not mean to say that Evolvability is the same as ‘success’. The ability of a scientific field to be able to evolve, I believe, does not directly correlate with its success because of the changes in environmental conditions. As shall be illustrated, Evolvability will be a unique trait of its own. That is not to say that it has no effect or influence on ‘success’, I do not dispute that there is a relationship. Just that such a relationship shall not be the focus of this investigation.

To say that the rate of change and progress in science recently has been exponential would certainly be on the mark. In a little over 100 years, we have seen some of the most formidable discoveries bear fruit and change the way we understand and interact with the world around us. We have seen two world wars, which have catalysed scientific discovery in their own right. We have also seen the Cold War act as a catalyst for scientific discovery, with the great space race allowing humanity to put the first people on the moon. Even beyond that, quantum theory has made quite a few (quantum) leaps and has helped to revolutionise how we understand the workings of the universe at the quantum level. To be sure, science has been a heavyweight contender in the ring of achievements and, whilst there are still so many more things to garner knowledge about, we should be impressed by the sheer tour de force science has shown.

Implied in this is the evolutionary branching that has occurred in science, not just recently, but also since the inception of science as a discipline. Owing to the fact that, in evolutionary biology, we see periods of relatively low evolutionary output (i.e. fewer new species generated) as well as periods of relatively high evolutionary output (i.e. a greater number of species generated, such as during the Cambrian Evolution). This trend can also be applied to the sciences. It is not a huge leap of logic to suggest that certain periods of time yielded a higher output of scientific fields than other periods. The interesting question would be why these periods yielded greater rates of evolution. We thus start to move towards the notion that scientific fields/disciplines can be treated as distinct species. In the absence of genetic material, we can use research output as a proxy. After all, more successful scientific field would have a greater pool of adaptive research material that they produce. This would ultimately have an effect on their evolutionary fitness and Evolvability, provided that adaptive in this sense means garners and provides ample opportunity for more research.

In the next few posts, I will seek to further explore the notion of scientific disciplines as closely related, but fairly distinct, species that exhibit certain traits of Evolvability. With this comparison drawn, I will seek to create a hypothetical theory which could give rise to a fresh perspective for studying how scientific fields interact with each other. The final post (or two) will be exploring the practical applications this could have and hopes for future studies on the topic.

Life Lessons From The Lab And Beyond

•December 30, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Woah. It has felt like an age since I last sat down at my laptop with the intention to bust out a blog. It feels a bit alien but comfortable at the same time. I won’t go on a huge rant about the long hiatus – would anyone even care? I know I don’t… –  but I’m back now!

Coming at you from an erratically evolving angle, I wanted to make today’s post about merging two close passions of mine: science and personal development. I realise that both are incredibly broad terms so I’ll grant each a brief explanation. By science, I am referring to physical laws and observed natural phenomena, that we collectively (throughout known history) devised ideas for and subsequently gained both quantitative and qualitative evidence to support said ideas. Note, I specifically avoided use of the word facts here: I know people can get antsy (and aggressive) around the use of that word. By personal development, I mean ideas grounded in neurosciences, psychology and spiritual practices (not voodoo…yet) that contribute towards happiness, health and wellbeing. Admittedly, everyone has their own ideas on this and this post isn’t so much about spewing out pseudo-scientific, arrogant life advice but just a few observations from the natural universe around us that we may be able to rework into life lessons to better help us.

There are many life lessons I believe we can take from science (of course, I would think that, having done a Biology degree, wouldn’t I?) and the below are just sone of them

Let’s roll!

Evolution: Variety Is The Substrate of Life

Let’s imagine the following. You go visit out into any natural place in the world. All you can see anywhere you go are the same animals and plants, with each individual having the exact same characteristics. Nature programmes are either restricted to the graveyard TV shift or, more likely, non-existent. David Attenborough would probably be working in an office for a  . You wouldn’t be able to brag about how incredibly cute your dog Fido is because everyone else’s pet dog looks like your Fido. But it gets even more interesting. Everyone else pretty much looks like you too, with slight functional variations allowing for genders. Suddenly, almost inevitably, you’re wondering just when things will become different?!

It’s OK, it’s OK. Have a cup of cocoa. You were shaking pretty badly, I think you started to really believe that fantasy was reality. You’ll be glad to know it was only a fantasy (albeit quite horrifying)! You can walk almost anywhere on this planet and, with very minimal effort, see quite a variety of animal and plant life. Or, if you don’t feel like doing that, jump on your laptop instead and Google a related search term. It’s not even limited to wildlife, of course. A simple glance at schoolmates, work colleagues, neighbours, ad infinitum, will show you that everyone is, at the very least, slightly different.

Which is why I frankly find it bizarre when we are bombarded with messages to be the same.  To all believe the same political, religious and social dogma (which, by the way, differs from country to country). Our schools are all about passing standardised tests to get the ‘best grades’ and ‘make it to the top of the class’ so you can ‘get the best job, make loads of money and have an awesome life’.  School social order is fiercely stratified: geeks, nerds, jocks, popular girls, losers etc etc etc. Sure, it’s not all that black and white but a frightening proportion of it is like that. It seems not to celebrate diversity but actually attack it. Sadly, that trend follows us into adulthood. Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia…we’ve actually invented loads of different ways to attack and denigrate each other’s differences.

Contrary to that, I think that, deep down, we know we want to be different enough (read: we should certainly celebrate our similarities too) to stand out, to help form our holistic sense of identity. And we want our world to be different enough too! Speaking for myself, I love that we’ve discovered species that are diversely (and subjectively!) beautiful, odd-looking, fearsome, timid, crafty, alien-looking, deadly…the list goes on. I revel, not dismay, at the fact that we have only discovered a fairly small percentage of estimated species on Earth. That’s only on Earth, by the way. Want to try taking a guess at how many there could be in the universe? I personally doubt we’re alone.

It’s all down to evolution, baby! In a nutshell, evolution occurs as a result of changes in gene frequencies in populations (i.e. how many individuals have different types, or alleles, of different genes) …over enough evolutionary time, these changes will result in new species. …meaning that we are here today because genes, the blueprints for us humans and the rest of life on this planet, have been diversifying like nobody’s business! And the best part is that evolution never really stops. While we can’t really see it occurring over a long evolutionary time (macroevolution – how species form), we can, and do, definitely, see evolution occurring over a shorter evolutionary time (microevolution – involving mechanisms such as genetic mutations). The same is with us, too, in a sense. We are undergoing the process of evolution – you will not be the same person after finishing reading this post – definitely biologically thanks to cell division, possibly psychologically …I am not liable for any damage of the latter.

Lesson One: Celebrate and love your differences, they help make life incredible and interesting. They help make you, you.

Thermodynamics: cha-cha-chaaaaaaaanges!

Do you love the creation of new life but abhor the idea of death? …or maybe you abhor the idea of life but abhor the idea of death? Either way, you’re buying into a fallacy according to one of the fundamental laws of physics! The First Law of Thermodynamics, simply stated, is that energy and matter can neither be created or destroyed, it can only change form. That’s right! Every bit of energy and matter that exists now in the known universe is all that there was, is and ever will be. For example, we get energy from the food we eat. The food we eat got its energy from somewhere. Let’s use cow beef as an example. Cows get their energy from the grass that they eat. The grass they eat gets the energy it needs to thrive (well, if you call being eaten eventually ‘thriving’) from the sun. And if you trace that energy chain back far enough from the sun, you’ll eventually arrive to the singularity that marks the very beginning of the universe. Neat, right?!

How does that translate to a ‘life lesson’? Taking a short logical leap, it follows that nothing in our lives (or any other organisms on this planet or any other) can be created or destroyed. So when you’re marvelling at the sheer beauty of a newborn baby (human or otherwise), just remember that it wasn’t technically created in a thermodynamic sense…it was simply a result of matter and energy changing form (though that makes the event no less incredible). It also means that when somebody passes away, as we all eventually will do, all the energy and matter that made them who they were will dissipate and change form to become part of new forms in the universe. Even if you have no spiritual belief That is according to the physical law of thermodynamics, not any kind of religious belief.

Most strikingly, from a personal development angle, it means that all we really are is change! We are changing constantly from one moment to the next, stacks of minute variations occurring without us even knowing it. While this applies physiologically, what is perhaps more subtle is the mental/psychological implications of this. Every thought, every ideawe have is a form of energy that inevitably changes form. Without meaning to diminish the massive breadth of the fields of mental and psychological health and research, this means that the thoughts we have – both negative and positive – have substance to them! Mind-blowing, right? So that constant inner dialogue you may have with yourself where you tell yourself you’re the biggest idiot in the world for whatever reason – being late for an appointment, spilling coffee on a smoking guy/girl you really like, not being pretty/smart/cool/successful/girly/manly enough etc etc – is going to have a tangible physical effect. Even if it is subtle and obscure enough for you not to notice. Likewise, those positive thoughts you (I hope) are having about yourself and the world around you have an effect too. No guesses as to which type of thought processes culminate in you feeling tired and lethargic, with no energy or willpower to do much of anything and which type of thought processes make you feel ready for opportunity, to try different things and to feel happy.

Implicit within this law, I believe, is the very powerful notion that we all have the power to change ourselves – not just physically, which I often feel is given more precedence, but mentally. Hey, you can have a pretty buff beach body but if you go around thinking everything is pretty goddamn crap and everyone is out to screw you over and the world is a bad place…you’re gonna have a bad time! How you think strongly affects what you do and how you do it. Just like we can change ourselves physically, we all have the tools and capacity to change our mental landscape. We can choose to stop thinking that we are the sum of all the (frankly pointless and unhelpful) judgments that we label ourselves (and others). We can actually strive towards a happier and more adventurous set of experiences in our time on this planet by thinking that we matter – you do, we all do – and we all have something extraordinary to offer. Not sure about whether that’s true or not? Well, start by believing it and see how things go from there…

Lesson Two: Not only can we change, it’s the only thing we can and do do! How much you are in control, and aware, of that change is completely up to you.

Astrophysics: We Are In The Universe, The Universe Is In Us*

*(Admittedly, the last one of this post I take from a quote by Neil deGrasse Tyson in an interview with TIME magazine. I have recently been introduced to his work as a science communicator and have been hooked. The link to a video of that particular interview excerpt will be at the end of this post)

We’ve taken a biological and physical approach – so this last one will be chemical (although, yes, I fully acknowledge that there are other scientific disciplines!).  What are we made of? I guess you could answer that in a bunch of ways, but chemically, there are a few elements that make up the bulk of us. In no particular order, these elements are Carbon, Hydrogen, Helium, Nitrogen, Oxygen. OK, thanks for the incredibly basic chemistry lesson, I hear you groan, but what in the name of Zeus does it have to do with anything??? Ahem, imploring you first not to take great Zeus’ name in mortal vain, I should like to mention simply this. These same five elements – that make up us – are also up there in the most common elements in the universe category. These elements – used to shape life itself – were forged within stars, the very ones we both see and can’t see (because their light hasn’t reached us yet) in the night sky…in our galaxy and the galaxies beyond.

Where am I going with this, you impatiently ask? Well, these elements were scattered as cosmic dust by dying stars (though, not technically dying, but changing forms, right?!) in their final, supernova stage (…supernova? Think…supermassive explosion!). The very elements that make us up being shot through space itself to eventually become new physical forms – stars, planets and living beings (yeah, even dolphins! Go dolphins!). I’ll say now that I’m an existentialist. I frequently wonder about my/our place in the universe and how we fit in, what we’re meant to do…all that existentialist stuff. I am deeply, deeply humbled and satisfied by the thought that we are all formed of stardust. That we share such a profoundly common link with the very objects we can so longingly gaze at when looking up at the night sky. And, as deGrasse Tyson mentions in his video, that makes me feel big (metaphorically speaking, of course). That’s the point where I realise that I, we, have a place in this universe. That we’re all just full of energy ready to be utilised at our will, that we all matter. It also comforts me in the thought that space isn’t as far as we think: it’s as much within as we might think we’re without reach of it. And that is. Awesome.

More deeply, it’s all about connectivity. I think we often forget that we’re as much part of nature as anything else that we see around us. As many manmade constructs we build to house and distract us, we can’t change the fact that we are as much animals as much as any other on this planet. Some people would aggressively argue that we are not animals – that man is somehow superior to animals. That warrants its own post but I will say that, for all our advances, we can’t escape the fact that we need to fulfil basal for survival. To eat, to sleep, to socially interact and to reproduce. I don’t think we need to feel superior to other wildlife on this planet to feel that we’re important or that we matter. In fact, we’re most likely no doubt happier when we’re getting along with nature – appreciating it because, deep down, we know that its existence sustains our own and that we are part of it. Oh, yeah, and next time you think you’re better than a ‘spineless worm’…just remember that a spineless worm has never freakishly obsessed over how Miley Cyrus twerked on the MTV VMA Live. Or post unwarranted abuse at people online, anonymously, just because it could. …at least, no spineless worm scientists have discovered so far have done that.

Lesson Three: The very fact that you exist is an incredible fact. Anything else you do between now and when you return your elements back to the universe to do with as it pleases, that is just icing on the cake. Feel free to make that icing as delicious as you want. You have as much right to have your icing to be as delicious as anybody else’s.

That’s all, folks! Thanks for reading if you got this far…I hope you got something out of it. And if you disagree with any/all of it, then rock on – diversity of opinion makes the world go around…though admittedly I hope you won’t deny things like evolution, thermodynamics etc…since…well, I’ll leave that one open.

Here’s wishing you an amazing 2014 folks – may your changing forms be ever to your own grand designs!!!

“Angrom Terra Incognitus” – Eulogy of a High Civilisation

•April 6, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Something a bit different this time. I wrote this short piece of prose a month back for my friend Nick to read out at a spoken word event. The theme was all to do with the environment and conservation, so I put a bit of a twist on it. I heard the feedback was positive – helped largely due to his vocal prowess no doubt – and so, in the spirit of bringing out new blog content, here it is. Hope you enjoy it!

—————————————

I look at you, staring absently into the horizon. I nudge you gently in the ribs. It’s enough of a jab to break you out of your dreams.
“Come, hunting time approaches. Have your wits about you.” I toss you a crudely carved spear into your hands. You’re a bit wet behind the ears but I’ve told you this on more than one occasion. I slowly edge forwards, hidden by the debris, my scent overpowered by the burning metal. I don’t need to beckon you to follow, at least: that much you are capable of.

“What do we hunt today?” I hear you ask behind me. You’ve actually asked me this a hundred times. And the answer is always the same.

“We’ll be lucky if we get a rodent that isn’t irradiated but beyond that, I’ve very little clue.”

I grunt uneasily in my crouching position. You’re really asking me if we’ll find some quality game meat or some delectable vegetables. I shake my head to myself. I’m not sure where you get these odd fantasies.

“You have much more than hunting on your mind, friend. Perhaps we should leave it until later. It’s suicide if you haven’t got your focus about you.

We retrace our steps through the debris, finally settling on making our temporary camp inside some wreckage. What it was before, I have no idea. Perhaps it was once one of these flying machines, which used to allow the old ones of our kind to journey high into the skies.

We sit down wherever we can find a suitable space; one free of protruding metal parts. We stretch our weary legs.

“Tell what is on your mind” I gaze at you, a gruff look carved onto my face

“My dreams…” you slowly look up at me. The expression on your face is pathetically innocent and pained. I should’ve expected this to crop up again.

“You mean the dreams of the time before this?”
“Yes…” you shift uncomfortable in your seat.

“And what is it you see?” I’ve asked you this before but something feels different this time around.
“Green…lots of green. And other colours. And people…like us, but not the ones we encounter. Not ones with deformed limbs or melted skin.”

This piques my interest. I’ve shared some of my own dreams with you when I first met you, but very little. This land has its way of sowing mistrust, although you are different. You trusted me from the day you met me, which still confuses me to this day.

“I’ve been piecing these together with the sparse texts we’ve found in our travels.”

“The From Before Scriptures, you mean?” my hand cups the side of my face, my usual thinking position. The From Before Scriptures are texts which you and I recover when we find them, trying to piece together the knowledge of the Before Time. I ask you to tell me more about your dreams.

“Wherever I am…it is beautiful. I know it is the Before Time, I can sense it. I am flying above and below this strange but exotic world. Towering brown structures with a burst of green adorning the top. The From Before Scriptures call these ‘trees’. A host of creatures make their homes on them. Many circle up above with feathery wings and razor sharp beaks…so colourful and majestic. Some that I saw on the trees themselves were so little that I expect you would need Strong Glass to see them properly”

I nod, eagerly listening to your vivid tales. We found some Strong Glass once. I remember marvelling at the detail I saw the world: everything, so much closer and more defined.

“And the grounds below are teeming with life as well. I see many strange furry rodents scuttling in and around ground-trees, though there is only soft green and no hard brown that makes them up. Looking up at parts of the tree, furry-men play.”
“Furry-men?”
“Yes, yes,” you clap your hands excitedly, “they remind me so much of us, minus the effects of the radiation. But they are smaller and have a third wavy leg much lower down their back”

This makes me raise an eyebrow.
“And beyond that, I see many places with less green to it but more grey. Metallic structures and those of brick, some towering quite high. Many Before People live here, I see them walking around, in some cities hurrying past each other. Some wear interesting garments…I believe the scriptures referred to them as suits.  But there are many different types of garments these people wear. What I found really peculiar is that many sit in metallic structures, with 2 round parts made of some rubbery material at either end. Smoke billows from these machines. They often sit in groups, and these structures carry them around. Some of the debris I see around us often reminds me of them. As odd as this all is, it is truly a spectacle…”
You check to see if I’m still listening. I am, more than I have ever listened to your dreaming babble before. Because this is not babble.

“Do you ever wonder how our planet turned into this from that?” you ask me, unsure of whether I will even answer.

“No…”

“Oh, I…” I cut you off by opening my mouth again.
“No, I believe that I know how it came to be. In my dreams.”
Normally, hearing about my dreams excites you. But not today. There is something else about you today.

“Will you share it with me?”

I nod and hesitantly start describing my dream, with my own supplemented knowledge from the scriptures.
“The Before Time…you must understand that they had complex and frankly odd ways of governance. Many Before People conducted rituals that they called ‘elections’, where they chose a series of people to make big decisions for them. I struggle to understand it both from my dreams and the scriptures. The Before People also used something they called ‘muh-nee’”

“Mo…ney…?” you say the word differently to how I thought it would be said.

“Yes, pieces of paper or metal they exchanged for goods, like food, and services. It seemed that the Before People almost worshipped this ‘muh-nee’”

You snort. “They did not hunt? Not that I am a great huntsman myself but how else could they survive?”
“By using machines and many Before Labourers to produce large amounts of food. Only, as the scriptures go on to detail, this food was never given out evenly. Most of the food often went to the regions with the most ‘muh-nee’ ”

“Savages. Barbarians. We give our hunt to any we encounter, especially if they are less well fed than us” I can see that you’re troubled but there is little good that can come out of blind rage directed towards the Before People.

“But interestingly, in my dreams, I see certain Before People noting how the elements were changing. Perhaps these were the shaman of the Before People: wise and intellectual individuals who studied the world around them in more depth than other Before People. “
“So the Before People knew? They knew the elements were changing?” you look shocked.

I shift about in my seat. I can never sit still for too long.
“The shaman amongst them gathered much information about the way the elements were changing. I saw this in my dreams and inferred it when reading the From Before scriptures. But the shaman faced a colossal challenge. There were many who fought them – denied their evidence – and even more who did not care. In my dreams, they looked as though their heads were buried in sand…as if that would make it all better”

“But why? Why would they ignore the wisdom of the shaman?”

“We can only guess. Perhaps they knew that they were responsible for the changing elements and could not handle the guilt, instead choosing ignorance and inaction. The scriptures go off on many tangents. I speculate that they distracted themselves from the real problems by imagined ones.”
“Distracted themselves?”
I nod wearily. “One particular scripture comes from an island tribal region called ‘Briht-ayn’. The Briht-ayn tribe’s governance, their elected elders, seemed volatile to say the least. At one point, they had both a Chief AND a Sub-Chief in governance at once.
Your jaw drops.

“A Sub-Chief! I’d imagine he had to be little more than a mere puppet”

“Indeed. But this scripture goes onto say that the Briht-ayns once had a very large debate amongst the elders, in the midst of the shaman attempting to convey the seriousness of the changing elements. It lasted a long while between the elders and much was written of it to inform the rest of the tribal populace, though these records are lost.”
“And what did they debate about? How to survive the changing elements, surely?”
I laugh, perhaps a bit too awkwardly. “No, not quite. It was about whether one male was allowed to engage in formal relations with another… as a lifemate under a ritual known as ‘mayr-age’”

“WHAT?!” you nearly fall off your makeshift seat, “that is barbaric! ….you mean to say that an entire tribal region debated about this when the elements raged around them?!”

“Yes, and it gets worse. In one of the most powerful tribal regions, a prolonged debate centred on metal weapons of which only came death.  This tribe grew accustomed to these weapons despite a worrying number of tribe members using them to inflict devastation across the tribal populace.

“Primitive fools! To turn on another tribe is bad enough. But to turn on one’s own tribe? They would not find peace anywhere”

“Yes, quite,” I flex my arms to provide some distraction to this macabre tale, “but that is what the shaman were up against. They protested and protested…until…”

I cannot carry on. Thankfully, you intervene.
“Yes, I have had the dream. The elements grow ever more out of control. The Before People had abused the Earth Fuels for much too long. The trees I saw standing majestically now fell in their masses. Mild heat turned to sweltering infernos in some regions, as did cold breezes turned into raging blizzards. The land…it could not handle such mistreatment. The shaman had lost and the Before People gradually faded away. It is said that they harnessed something called ‘new-kleeuhr power’. They did this using giant towers and metal structures”
I cough into a curled fist, splattering a red-green substance onto it. “I expect that is the reason for the radiation now. The scriptures note that this energy was very volatile…powerful but dangerous. And I have dreamt that one tribal region uses this energy to nearly destroy another.”
You stand up and yell: “You mean the Before People KNOWINGLY used this energy ON PURPOSE against each other?”
“Yes.”
“The shaman never had a chance against the Before People’s tendency to their own self-destruction, did they?”
“Perhaps not. But the Before People had many chances to adapt their ways to the changing elements, perhaps even to quell them enough to survive…”
You finish my sentence for me: “But they did not. They focused on trivial issues of male interactions, death sticks…even starved needy tribes to feed ones already sated. How could they expect that they could ever survive? How?” You leave the question hanging in the air.

Finally, you speak: “Do you think there are other planets out there that have met the same fate?” you seem to be shaking. More than when I asked you to hunt an irradiated beast for the first time with nothing but a dull rock.
“I hope not…as bitter as I am, I’d wish this fate for no peoples.” I chew

“Or…worse…do you think there are planets that are doomed to this fate?”
I let loose a howling cackle. You look at me, puzzled at this outburst.

“More are the fools who let themselves be the harbingers of their own destruction, like our Before People. Look around you! Fallen empires and civilisations everywhere…remnants of ages past. And what do we have to hope for but dreams that taunt us? We will soon pass to the earth and perhaps we will be the last ever descendants of the Before People. But, I ask you, friend, who would knowingly wish this upon themselves?”

You are silent. Finally, you speak again.

“I hope there are not others out there, in the Dark Beyond, who will share our same fate” you are fond of staring wistfully at the Dark Beyond: the shining lights there, ‘stars’, they entrance you.

“If there are those who are on their way to the same fate as the Before People, then I simply say this to them: heed your shaman, for they seek knowledge for the sake of survival and prosperity. Cease your petty bickering. Elect elders who are characterised by inaction and caring for their own elevated statuses. But do this soon. Heed the elements and do not deny your responsibility for changing them.”

For a moment, I almost think there is someone else listening apart from you. But that moment is fleeting, lost before I can even truly acknowledge it.

We sit in silence for a long time. Then, you ask me an interesting question: “What was that last line you read in the last From Before scripture which made you laugh so much?” you ask me, hesitantly.

My smile is wide and open mouthed, but devoid of humour. My teeth are crooked and rotten. They were like this yesterday and they will be like this tomorrow.

I answer you slowly: “A Before Person’s writing. Near the End Days of the Before Time. Much of it was scrawled and undecipherable. The part I could make out said simply this:

“We spent all of our lives fearing Hell, so much that we did not realise we were well on our way to creating it.”

 

 

The Publication Bias Bomb

•March 13, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Under The Carpet, Jenkins!

Imagine this scenario. You’re a researcher involved in a series of studies at a company, call it Random Inc. What the experiments are on is irrelevant but for the sake of setting the scene, let’s say that you’re investigating the effects of a new type of milk powder on the growth of children. As your boss, I’m pleased with the general outcome of the studies but am a bit concerned that we had a few of our studies report that our product is no different to what else is on the market.

I look at you dead in the eye and tell you that it’s not good enough. Luckily for you, I have a tried and tested solution that everyone is doing. Best of all, it’s not illegal in the slightest! I ask you to…

….just ignore the studies that didn’t show a positive result in favour of our product!

That’s right, even the negative studies! We can’t go wrong! With that, I walk away back to drive my Lamborghini back to my mansion, you publish only the studies that will paint us in a good light and everybody wins.

Except…do they really?

Ignorance Is A Profitable Bliss…For Some…

I recall sitting in a lecture once, with a professor talking to us about studies and results. In particular, he wanted to talk to us about our final year research projects (except I didn’t do one as I was a media student, though it would’ve been cool!). As he spoke, we hung onto every word. Why not? He is an amazing lecturer and science communicator, after all. But one thing he said has always stuck with me since that fateful day roughly three years ago.

“Don’t be disheartened if you don’t get a significant result! That can tell you just as much, if not more, about what you set out to find than a significant result. Want a non-significant result? Just ask me, I’ve got a drawer full of them!”

It was something I had never thought of before. Since that seemingly innocent day, I had run into this issue time and time again. I say issue, I really mean an ugly behemoth of epic proportions. Whilst I do not claim that this issue is not present in probably every field of science, there is a skewed bias. After all, bias follows that sweet, nefarious smell of money…and there is definitely one field where it is not only rife, but it can cost lives.

The pharmaceutical and drugs industry!

 

Pills, pills and more pills: the pharmaceutical industry doth prosper http://www.cdn.emergingmoney.com ©

 

An incredibly lucrative industry, the pharma industry is teeming with companies who are required to conduct plenty of clinical trials to test the effect of their drugs. The only thing is…they have the power, legally, to actually withhold data…notably, negative/non-significant data. I’m not sure if anybody else sees the massive gaping abyss of a problem here but it’s staring us all in the face.

Time + Emotions + Selective Product Studies = PROFIT!

I often marvel that the medical/pharmaceutical industry is just so profitable and my desired field of ecology/environment has to really scrape the barrel at even the best of times to make up the funds for the projects. Maybe one explanation is that medicine/pharmaceuticals are actually more useful and beneficial for humans. After all, everyone needs medicines, right? I can buy into that one: given the choice of saving an endangered animal or supporting research of a novel drug that shows promise against a horrible disease, I’d imagine most people would choose the latter.

But I honestly don’t think that’s the entire reason. Sadly, I am slowly being won over to the fact that a lot of the pharmaceutical industry, notably big pharma, is actually corrupt. Not corrupted, but corrupt. Do I say this out of spite? Of course not. I value the role of medicine and pharmaceuticals in our daily lives. These crucial fields save lives. Yet I think that has led to part of its corruption across all rungs of the pharmaceutical ladder. It’s incredibly easy to bring in the big dollars and pounds by playing on consumer/patient emotions: this new drug could save your loved one, could prevent this debilitating illness.

Oh, and it’s made a LOT easier by the fact that pharmaceutical companies can hide the effects of their studies. Check and mate!

 

I’m not sure I want to play anymore…. http://www.ejectorseats.co.uk ©

 

These Are Not The Studies You Are Looking For…

Of course, the corruption doesn’t just end there. According to a 2010 fact sheet, published by the World Health Organisation (WHO), bribery and falsification of evidence (to name a couple of corrupt practices) can occur along each link in the pharmaceutical chain. The more ‘middlemen’ there are between drug conception and the end users (the patients), the higher the chance for corrupt practices. The fact sheet released by the WHO goes onto detail just how deeply ingrained the corruption is. Drugs can be made via counterfeit methods, trials on these drugs can be conducted without regulatory approval and, just as worrying, the inspection of these drugs can be incredibly shoddy, meaning some products get a government seal of approval. What does that all mean? Potentially and realistically, expensive drugs that may, at best, actually do very little and, at worst, cause serious harm to the patients that have been misled into their use. As well as this, the doctors that prescribe these drugs can only go on what studies are available to read about them…

…studies that are selectively released by the companies producing these drugs. Another check and mate!

The result of all this widespread corruption is that most cases of corruption go unreported and people generally feel powerless to actually stop this happening in their countries. As the WHO report details, countries without proper legislation, regulation and laws put in place to control these medicines are most at risk of being targets of this insidious corruption. Without transparency about what drugs patients are consuming, which the drug companies are pretty much hesitant to provide for obvious reasons, patients – you and I – have no idea how effective the drugs we put in our bodies are.

Disregarding everything else, I think this may just mean that placebo is actually the most effective drug out there!

I Can See For Miles And Miles And Miles

Actually, at the moment I can’t. It’s pretty shocking that, were I to have to weigh up evidence between, for example, two drugs, I’d actually have no idea which one was better for me. And I’m not even a doctor! I wonder how patients would feel if they’re being cheated regarding the drugs that they themselves take, through no fault of the doctors themselves (I hope not, anyway). There really is no question: regulation and laws surrounding medicines need to really take into clamp down in order to stem this corruption. It isn’t much of a big ask for drugs companies to publish every study on their drug. After all, if one buys some mincemeat from the supermarket, we want to be sure we know all about it. Wouldn’t it be a big shock if it contained, say, horsemeat instead of just beef? ……….

…alright, maybe that’s a bit too political for this topic.

But the point still stands: transparency is key. The amount of drugs being prescribed and taken by patients worldwide is staggering…but how much do these patients know about what they’re taking? How much do their doctors know? Can ignorance really be called bliss when it involves the lives and health of patients?

Full access to studies, relevant and important information on novel and existing drugs and boycotting corrupt practices. Because the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t seem to be doing that. In the past decade or so, at least three Big Pharma companies, the ones who reap an incredibly disproportionate amount of pharma-driven wealth, were fined for illegal practices. In 2003, Bayer Healthcare paid $257 million in fines for a drug fraud scheme which sought to overcharge for the antibiotic, Cipro. In 2009, Pfizer was fined $2.3 billion for promoting four drugs for uses that were not yet approved by medical regulators. Finally, in 2012, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) were fined a hefty $3 billion in what was deemed as ‘the biggest healthcare fraud in history’, after they paid off US medics to prescribe potentially dangerous medicine to adults and children.

Publication bias: profits at what cost? http://3.bp.blogspot.com/©

 

These are meant to be the companies that are ‘golden standard’ of the pharmaceutical industry.

Misinformation may make a nice profit to line the already bulging pockets of the pharmaceutical industry but it costs lives.

And all it’d take to deal a heft blow to the corrupt industry is greater transparency.

That’s all.

 

Special Mention

I really got the idea for this post after watching Ben Goldacre give a TED talk on the matter. It really rang out to me and I encourage anybody interested in this burning issue to take a look at it. He is funny, inspiring, poignant and, above all else, incredibly relevant:

His blog, Bad Science, can be found here:

http://www.badscience.net

Enjoy!

 

The Noble Savages: A Not So Noble Perspective?

•March 8, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Recently, I was perusing some information about tribal causes on Google, when I ran into a charity website with a news article – quite urgent at that – about something entitled the ‘Noble Savages’. My curiosity sufficiently piqued, I clicked on the link and read the resulting article. After I was done…well, I can definitely say that I was not amused.

It’s My Publicity And I Will Be As Controversial As I Want To Be!

‘Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists’ is an autobiography written by anthropologist Napolean Chagnon, after he lived with the Yanomamo tribe, in Brazil, for a time. Of course, this is not the only book he has written on the matter, having a series of other works around the Yanomamo tribe. His viewpoints include remarks that the Yanomamo tribe are ‘trapped in chronic warfare’ and ‘homicidal violence’…going as far as to call this behaviour ‘biologically ingrained’. Now, I will point out that this comment offends me both as a rational human being with common sense and a biologist. There is just no way that such behaviour has a solely genetic component, based on Chagnon’s ludicrous statement. Whilst intensity of emotions such as anger may have a genetic component, it is worth keeping in mind that the environment is a stronger factor. But even with that aside, it does not even prove to be an accurate portrayal of the tribe. However, there must be some sort of reason for these claims?

It’s a sad truth that, in the media, they who speak controversial words as loud as possible are those who win the ears of the people, even if they are completely wrong. And that is precisely the case here, as I see it. Chagnon has been heavily criticised about his viewpoint, with some academics going as far as to resign from their posts in certain organisations. The criticisms were many and varied, with many critics pulling him up on how dated and completely misleading his portrayal of the tribe is. One Catholic missionary, who had spent 50 years living amongst the Yanamamo tribe, mentioned that he had ‘never found them to be violent’. But, for Chagnon, the real benefit to his wild claims is clear: he has now received the publicity he desires. What more could he want?

Members of the Yanamano tribe, portrayed as ‘noble savages’ by Napolean Chagnon http://www.survivalinternational.org ©

In a nutshell, Chagnon has shown that, far from portraying the tribe in an accurate light, he has instead revealed his true colours: sly, aggressive, intimidating and trapping him in a chronic state of warfare with his abundant critics. See the irony?

The Lies We Speak, They Sting Like Poison In The Veins

Long ago, when I was completing my GCSE studies here in merry old England (age 15-16), I recall studying the Native Americans in History. I emphasise my use of ‘Native Americans’ as opposed to ‘Plains Indians’ or “Native Indians’…the latter of which only stuck because Columbus had severe issues with reading a map, thinking he had discovered India instead of America. Learning the tragic story of the Native Americans was harrowing to be sure but I vividly remember gorging myself in reading about their culture. It was wonderful! Living a nomadic life on the plains of North America, they lived sustainably and relatively peacefully with each other. They engaged in war games but generally did not kill each other, instead honing their skills to be able to sneak up on an opposing tribe member. They believed that a dead Warrior was no use to his family or tribe so did not really see the point in openly killing each other. However, when the Europeans arrived, they labelled the Native Americans as ‘childish’ and ‘cowardly’, given that they did not kill each other in battle.

The punchline? The Europeans openly called the Native Americans savages.

Today, tribal cultures still exist all around the world. But they are being severely threatened by a variety of human-related threats. For the Yanamano, this includes having their territory encroached by gold miners, cattle farmers and just those who generally want to seize their land. To emphasise the problem, between 1989-1993, one in five Yanamano tribe members died to diseases brought to their lands by gold miners. Politically, Chagnon’s work in degrading this indigenous tribe has been successfully devastating. For example, in 1990, the UK government refused to fund an educational project for the Yanamano, citing their violent nature as the reason for their reluctance. And no, being influenced by a publicity-hungry anthropologist is  not something that makes me particularly proud of my country, but it happens, sadly.

Tribal societies are a modern preservation of historical traditions and cultures. They provide us insight into how to live sustainably with the land. Yes, all of the aspects of these cultures may not be aspects we necessarily want to live with. That does not mean we have the right to judge them and dismiss them as mere ‘savages’. There is no denying we can learn more from these tribes than the media will ever let us believe. Instead, they prefer to focus on the paltry debate between anthropologists because it is apparently more interesting.

But where does that leave the tribes who seem to be largely ignored despite being at the centre of the debate?

At the moment? It leaves them hanging on for dear life, as we slowly write them as another footnote in the history books.

And we are the only ones who can help to change that.

Two children from just one of many tribes in the world today. Their Survival. Their Future. Our Responsibility. http://www.solomonberhetours.com ©

“And I Wonder…Who Are The Real Savages?”

I wish to finish this post with a short piece of writing, taken from ideas for one of my personal novels:

Karosis approached the gates. He felt sick, for reasons he did not know. By request of the King himself, he rode to the war room to hear General Commander Tarius’ report on dealing with the Karkorian dragonkin tribe, a nefarious group of individuals who had once left Karosis for dead. Inches from death after being ambushed by a Karkorian dragonkin, Karosis felt his life ebbing away. As the darkness engulfed him, he felt himself being lifted off the ground. This is it, he thought to himself grimly, I meet the Gods this day. But that was not what transpired. Instead, he had been saved by a passing member of the Yar’gal tribe, sent out by the elders to scout for food to hunt. Karosis was nursed to health quickly by the tribe, who gradually taught him parts of their tongue. And very quickly, he realised that his previous prejudices were completely misguided. These noble nomads paid homage to their own God, who gave them the gift of being skilled huntsmen and craftsmen. Karosis marvelled: far from being the brutal savages he had been led to believe they were, they were kind, intelligent and had their own sense of humour. He cherished those seasons, much more than the petty bureacracy of his own Kingdom.

Tarius was awaiting Karosis, standing to attention at the end of the giant map of the region which sat on the table. The General Commander regarded Karosis coolly. “I was beginning to think that you wouldn’t show.”
“The King sends his apologies, Tarius, but he is quite busy these days. War and all. Your report?”
Tarius nodded, not hiding his contempt for Karosis. “Yes, well…we tracked the Karkorians back to their ritual grounds. The battle was over quickly, I must say. We received a few casualties but no deaths. The hostages the Karkorians took from us were moments away from being sacrificed. They are gravely wounded but the healers tell me they will make it”
“I am pleased to hear that. As I am sure the King is. Is that all?”
“Not at all! After defeating the pathetic dragonkin, we ran into a group of savages. We thought it peculiar that they were so close to our borders. I questioned them but Gods be helped if I could understand their primitive tongue”
Karosis grimaced. Tarius did not hide his hatred for what he called the ‘lesser’ races very well, earning him no great respect with the upper echelons of the Kingdom.
“Anyway, one of them made to approach me an spoke a few words of our tongue. As far as I could make out, disease and conflict drove them for their lands. They sought to find new hunting grounds. I dealt with them as quickly as I could.”
“You allowed them passage to our lands?”
Tarius laughed, a deep and horrible sound to be sure. “Passage? No. They would have destroyed the outer villages without a moment’s hesitation. I ‘dealt’ with them, Karosis. They are no longer a threat…to anyone.”
Karosis’ knees went weak. He gripped the table to steady himself. He spoke in a shocked whisper. “You…did…what?!”
“I did a great service to my King and my realm. Those brutal savages would have done unspeakable things to our people. But I made sure to inflict upon them what they would have done to us. Here, I brought you a present.”
Tarius tossed a decapitated head onto the table, stopping short of where Karosis was standing. Karosis’ mouth fell open. He knew the person who this head belonged to: it was Chieftain Yar’fayn, the person who Karosis spent days and days teaching his Kingdom’s tongue to in return for learning the Yar’galian tongue. 

Tarius laughed as he walked out of the room, leaving Karosis to his own troubled thoughts. As he stared at the head, only one sentence kept looping in his head.

I wonder, Karosis thought to himself gravely, who are the real savages?”

 
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