Archive by Author | davidwaldock

The Privilege of Common Sense

I once had a conversation with a hairdresser in which they told me that I was incredibly intelligent, but that I had no common sense. I responded by asking what made that particular knowledge necessarily common. I got no immediate response.

On my next visit to the barbers, the reply came. Having thought about it, they realised that our experiences were different, and what they had learned from their education, home life and work weren’t the same as what I’d learned. They concluded that assuming that anyone who doesn’t know what you know is an idiot is quite arrogant and unhelpful.

This argument is one which I’ve seen many times subsequently, from the minor, “how can you not to not put those colours together?!” to the more significant, “well, if you don’t know electrons are smaller than atoms you’re not scientifically literate.”

I’ve argued before that such arguments don’t really stand up. I’d go further and argue that such a position is an abuse of privilege: telling other people that they can’t fully function and engage in a society simply because they don’t have access to what is felt to be ‘essential’ knowledge is no better than David Cameron sneering at people from working class backgrounds. It’s all the more ironic when the people being criticised are evidently engaged with a society of which they are fully functioning members.

However, this morning I caught myself asking why an article needed to be written: of course the atmospheric carbon dioxide is acidifying the oceans, we all know about the effect of dissolving carbon dioxide in water, don’t we?

And then I realised that I was doing the same. What those of us who have spent time studying scientific disciplines consider ‘basic’ knowledge is far from the common experience of many – even most – people, just as interior decorating, clothing design and oil extraction are a long way from my comfort zone.

This surely gives us a moral duty to use our privilege and experience for everyone’s benefit. Just as I rely on friends with infinitely more style than I to help me when it comes to selecting fashion, my knowledge can help other people when they need it.

We’re most used to this in regards to formal professions: when we need legal advice we see a lawyer, when we need medical advice we see a doctor. However, I think that this ignores the informal networks that people use to navigate everyday life.

For every professional providing services in a formal context, there is an unprofessional helping in an informal context. Pub medicine, water cooler science education, Facebook philosophy and Wikipedia inform our every day lives as much as, and probably more, than appointments with visibly qualified experts.

For me, this is what arguments about literacy and common sense often miss. As humans, we don’t have to know everything to function in society because we are but one node in networks of knowledge, linked by relationships, encounters and the Internet. The real skill is learning how to navigate the social and digital networks; and how we use the information we have to help others.

After all, I’m rubbish at cutting hair, but I still manage to function in society.

That Opening Do

A brief history of Britland by interpretative dance, sons et lumiere and massive sets should rightly strike fear into the heart of any social observer and commentator. Last night, however, was impressive, inspiring and moving. Obviously the time constraints and context meant the focus was on a very specific and limited narrative (arrow of time anyone?) but I’d say it was magnificent given that. The inclusion of Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Isambard Kingdom Brunel was genius, focussing on what Britlanders have given to the world (although perhaps ignoring what we have taken). Also powerful were references to the suffragettes, unions and the world wars.

The Queens first acting role was a stroke brilliance: she looked incredibly smug when she walked in! I do wonder what the consequences of that will be: royalty have long been celebrities; does this cement them more in the pages of Hello! and OK! than it does Burkes and the Court Circular? Is this the solution to the crisis of inherited monarchy?

The focus on the NHS was surprising given the constant claim (which I challenge anyway!) that the games are apolitical; the fact that it royally annoyed the Mail and Tories gets a massive thumbs up from me though! Regardless, that sequence was really a tool for introducing our cultural contributions to the world: we really have led the way in so many ways of which we should be proud. Film, music, TV, radio and literature were rightly powerfully represented. It seemed odd to associate it with the amazing work of the NHS and GOSH though; am I missing a juxtapositional constrast?

Rowan Atkinson gave a moment of light relief, a constrast to the weightiness of some of the content. He showed how nobody – but nobody – does physical comedy like we do.

Rogge’s (or was it Coe’s?) speech told us that the Olympics celebrates the best of being human. I disagree personally: sports is a tool for achieving great things. The Olympics does pull nations together, but sports are also used as a method of social control, to reinforce injustice and elitism. Whilst sports undoubtedly does good – the biggest cheer all night was in response to his noting all teams included women – it can only do so within a values framework, and within a wider cultural context which includes the contributions of the humanities, science, diplomacy, politics, arts and media. Again, I acknowledge the rhetorical context of his remarks as rendering my criticism less powerful. However, since one of my criticisms is of the Olympic narrative in wider society, I’d argue I couldn’t not make the observation.

Flag bearers were well chosen and for me summed up the main themes of Danny Boyle’s sketch of Britain: change, diversity and social justice. Showing that Britain is always reinventing itself industrially, artistically and socially reminded me of how far we’ve come over time and the rich legacy – both positive and not-so-positive left by our forebears.

The focus on diversity was symbolised by the inclusion of people with disabilities, people from a range of ethnic minorities, the mix of classes and the inclusion of the infamous 1993 Brookie lesbian kiss in the montage all highlighted that Britain is heterogeneous in ways we take for granted on a day to day basis. Whilst some may bemoan the courting couple were portrayed by two young black actors, I didn’t even notice they were black until I reflected on it. Again, contrast that with how society treated minority groups one hundred, fifty or even thirty years ago.

And this for me was the third core theme: social justice. Our change from a society with rigid boundaries and a fixed sense of identity to a society which has taken doing the right thing to its heart really does set us apart from many other countries. We do welcome minorities, despite moves to marginalise them. We do care for the sick and injured. We do think that corporations should be in the service of society, not the other way around. We do value women as well as men. I’m not saying we’re there yet: women are still not equal with men, the NHS is threatened, the rights achieved by unions are being undermined by “austerity” measures and, ironically, neoliberal corporatism has been boosted by the Olympic sponsorship deals. Regardless, we have reason to celebrate what we have fought for and achieved.

The opening ceremony was a moving piece of amazing theatre, and at the price tag, so it should be! I still feel the Olympics feed aspects of culture which make me feel very uncomfortable, but this was different. This was about a vision of who we are and what that means, and expression of pride in the journey to the opening of the thirtieth Olympiad.

That said, do I now feel a sense of pride of being British? No: I still don’t think I know what that means. However, what I saw in Boyle’s brief brush-strokes showed me some of the values which I am proud to subscribe to. Perhaps on a very deep level, being British is actually about being who you are, doing the right thing and being so utterly eccentric that even those who hate you and what you stand for have to admire your gall and laugh at you. In which case, I guess that Boris Johnson, and I, are right up there.

And am I proud of being eccentric? You bet I am.

Why are we gay? (piece published on

The case of Chris Birch seems to have raised some questions for the gay community. Some of the comments on a news story covering his story have raised prejudices and fears about its implications. If someone can be “made gay” by the brain damage caused by a stroke, what does that mean for who we are?


Who should be represented?

I said in my first post on the topic of replacing the PiA that I would blog further on aims and objectives. However, I’d first like to consider for whom these objectives are being undertaken. The disease group primary immune deficiency (PID) includes a vast number of conditions, all of which by have a non-external (ie. genetic) cause. Usefully, they can be summarised in five broad classes:

  • B-cell disorders
  • Combined T- and B-cell disorders
  • Phagocytic disorders
  • Complement disorders
  • Diseases with current fever and inflammatory manifestations

(For more information on these see IPOPI.)

Whilst some of us require antibody replacement therapy, some of us have much more complex needs; some of our therapeutic needs are life-long and some are short-term; some of us have scheduled periodic therapy, some of us occasionally need immediate urgent treatment. Representing such diverse clinical needs is itself a massive challenge which needs consideration. Whilst condition-specific groups can keep issues on the agenda, we also have to ensure that this occurs without the exclusion of conditions unrepresented by groups.

But we are diverse beyond the range of conditions we have. We are male and female; young, middle-aged and older; from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds; a mix of gender and transgender roles; gay, straight, bisexual and asexual; single, coupled, married, civilly partnered, divorced; parents, soon-to-be-parents and not parents; a range of positions on with systems and beliefs; different physical and intellectual abilities; and a mix of educational levels, class backgrounds and employment.

In short, we patients cannot be reduced to a single stereotype, and our principle aim has to be empowering all of the patients affected by the condition, putting them at the centre offer objectives. To do this, we have to walk a fine line between representing all those affected and purporting to represent those who wish to distance themselves from our objectives.

People with PIDs are clearly people who should be in “our camp”. However, there is another groups who deserve consideration, those with secondary immune deficiencies (SIDs), which have an external cause.

The best known of these secondary immune deficiencies (SIDs) is probably AIDS (caused by HIV), but other diseases include Good Syndrome, which is functionally the same as CVID, but which is caused by surgical removal of the thymus, and which is treated with IgG replacement therapy. Other causes of SIDs include chemotherapy for cancers, drugs and other diseases which affect organs and tissues related to the immune system, sometimes chronically, but sometimes just in the short term.

So for me a key question which needs to be carefully considered is whether or not we want to include SID patients from the organisation. However, at the same time, I would absolutely not want to usurp the work being carried out by AIDS and cancer charities who expertly support their patients.

I think we need to think about what language we choose to use (for example, in the naming of the organisation), especially since the information, support and representation needs of SID patients are in many cases identical to those of us with PIDs, but we need to think about how we those we represent and support, and those we do not. Who should we represent? Should we focus our name on immune deficiencies or primary immune deficiencies?

Another issue is how we represent, at the national level, the mix of needs in different regions, and for that matter how we define regions. Should each region be equally represented in some way, or do we focus on the four nations?

We are sufficiently complex and diverse that how we represent ourselves has to be given careful consideration. If we can’t address this fundamental need, we will be ineffective in many of our endeavours, such as being able to advocate on behalf of patients to government agencies.

I’d love to hear your ideas and opinions on this topic. Please, contribute to the discussion below or if you want to contact me privately, just add a comment and note you don’t want me to approve it!

Representing patients with primary immune deficiencies

I had a really interesting day yesterday in London, at a meeting to consider how to best to replace the now folded Primary Immunodeficiency Association (PiA). It was organised by two professional groups concerned that patients with genetic immune conditions don’t have a voice which is heard nationally. A voice is important because without someone representing us at the policy level our complex needs can be excluded from consideration in key decision-making processes. Establishing a voice is made all the more important by the radical changes being made to the NHS over the next year.

For me a number of key issues came up. The first is that there is a lot of experience and knowledge out there which we need to cultivate, whether it’s condition-specific or locality-based. Condition-specific groups – of which there are a number – understand the impact of particular diseases and syndromes on day-to-day life and offer incomparable emotional and practical support to people with the same diagnosis, or indeed to their families.

Locality-based groups – of which there are fewer, but I think has growth potential – understand the issues faced by people in a given area. Who to contact, what commissioning problems exist, who the specialists are and where to get specialist equipment and supplies if needed.

It would be an unrealistic expectation for a national organisation to develop this type of expertise itself; it would also be a duplication of effort and disrespectful of the efforts of the individual groups. However, at the same time, smaller groups are not able to muster the kind of support and resources necessary to be effective at the level needed to influence governmental bodies, to engage with clinicians and to identify and promote research opportunities. This needs a body which is representative of all the interests, and which commands the respect of patients, agencies and professionals.

This suggests that rather than providing everything, there is need for an umbrella group working at a national level. However, as one of the representative groups pointed out, it’s essential for such a group to reflect all of its constituents, and to remain accountable to them. Regardless of whether a national body is labelled an umbrella group or an alliance or some other word, this accountability is essential, as is respecting the individual groups’ autonomy. This is a key issue which needs careful consideration as we move forward.

Having agreed in principle that a national organisation is a necessary goal, there was a discussion about what the broad objectives such a body might be. It was agreed that there are four principle broad objectives: information, advice and support, policy and representation, research. Some of these objectives, such as advice and support, may also be objectives of constituent groups, but there will likely be aspects best handled at the national level (for example, work) to avoid redundancy of effort. I intend to expand my thoughts on these objectives in further blog posts.

We also discussed a couple of other issues. The one which concerned me the most was how we ensure that any national organisation is truly representative off and responsive to the needs of all of the people affected by primary immune deficiencies. Some people (including me) expressed concern that some PID patients weren’t aware of the meeting and felt they were being excluded. Whilst accepting that perfect representation is impossible without considering the opinion of every single person (including people who don’t have or want to express an opinion!), it was agreed that a priority for the organisation would be to ensure effective representation, both across demographic and condition groups.

It was then agreed that a number of volunteer patients present at the meeting, including me, would carry the project forward as a steering group, along with representatives from the seven patient groups present at the meeting as necessary. There are also representatives from Northern Ireland and Scotland involved. This will be facilitated by the Chief Executive of Genetic Disorders UK. As part of this process we will be consulting as widely as possible with patients and parents of patients in order to ensure that the finished product meets the needs of as many of us as possible.

There will be a formal consultation, but I would also welcome informal comments, ideas and discussions. You can comment on here, message me on Facebook or ask me to email you in the comments (commenting requires you to have an email so I’ll be ale to reply without publishing either your or my email addresses).

I really do welcome your comments, and for me the highest priority is that the patients and the needs of patients are at the heart of the project. There will also be other people you can contact, and you can also get involved through your patient support groups. If you don’t see your PID patient group below, we also want to hear from you.

[Dissertation Log 2] Discourse: what and why?

My dissertation is going to use a technique called ‘discourse analysis’ to help me understand the ways in which people are talking about a particular alternative cancer therapy, and invariably about the people involved in delivering, using and promoting the therapy. But what is discourse, and why is it important? My aim in this post is break down what we mean by discourse, and why I think it’s important, and useful for my topic.

“The Universe began with a word you know. But which came first? The word, or the thought behind the word? You can’t create language without thought, and you can’t conceive a thought without language. So, which created the other, and thus created the Universe?”
– Lorien, Babylon 5 ‘Whatever Happened to Mr Garibaldi?’ (s4 e02)

As Lorien told Sheridan in Babylon 5, words and thoughts, and therefore attitudes, beliefs and values, are deeply intertwined in such a way that it’s impossible to tell where language shapes our thought and our thoughts shape our language. This is true not only about individuals – after all, this is the basis of going and talking to a counsellor – but also about wider society.

The language used to talk about a subject – spoken or written, in conversation, in formal and informal publications such as newspapers and blogs, on broadcast media or in other locations – both reflects and shapes the attitudes and thoughts we have about the subject. We call this collection of written and spoken communication “discourse”, and we can use discourse analysis to understand the the underlying attitudes and thoughts and how each influence the other.

A classic example of this is looking at the language used in national newspapers and politics to describe asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are those people who travel to Britain from abroad seeking sanctuary from abuse in their own countries, and, wearing my namby-pamby pinko commie liberal T-shirt for a second, their stories are frequently horrific and heartbreaking. (Examples taken from Lynn and Lea 2003 : 446, as quoted in Bryman 2008 p 506.)

However, the people writing and talking about asylum seekers often (and sometimes deliberately) confuse the concepts of asylum seekers with immigrants here for economic, family or other reasons. In addition, the language used often paints an extreme view of what an asylum seeker is. For example, a letter to The Sun stated, “[they should] say no now and again instead of accepting every freebie that comes their way…” a perspective which ignores that under UK law asylum seekers are not legally able to work or claim many benefits.

“Asylum seekers who are genuine should have no qualms about being held in a reception centre”. This quote from a letter to the ever compassionate Daily Mail suggests that people escaping political imprisonment and torture shouldn’t have a problem with being locked up without charge.

A final letter confuses the value, ‘society has a responsibility to support asylum seekers’ with ‘I have a personal responsibility to support asylum seekers': “A solution to the problem of dispersing asylum seekers is staring us in the face – namely, billet them free of charge on white liberals… White liberals will of course be only to happy to welcome them into their homes. Indeed, it is most odd that they have not been queuing up to offer their services.” (from The Independent).

The use of language contributes to how publics build their view of the topic. In this case, it is argued that these extreme positions (asylum seekers shouldn’t accept ‘freebies’, asylum seeks should be locked up, ‘white liberals’ should house asylum seekers free of charge) influence the ways in which people talk about asylum seekers.

One way of thinking about this is by imagining the range of all possible conversations on a topic as a spectrum running from red at one end to violet at the other, with red and violet representing extreme positions (say, violet being ‘we shouldn’t tolerate asylum seekers being in the country at all’ and red being ‘anyone who says they’re an asylum seeker should be welcomed at the tax-payers expense’ – note this is not intended to represent political party affiliations).

Visible spectrum running from Violet through Indigo, Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange and Red

Visible spectrum running from Violet through Indigo, Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange and Red.

The actual conversations that are being had can be imagined as a window onto the spectrum, and the Lynn and Lea research suggested that in 2003 the conversation was perhaps around the blue indigo region of the spectrum. Every time someone makes a contribution to the conversation – perhaps a violet-, green- or red-tinged comment – that window representing the conversation moves a bit in that direction.

The louder the contribution, the bigger the movement, so a comment from a leading politician would cause a bigger movement than a comment from a drunk bloke in the pub (although, arguably you may not be able to tell the different between their statements). If there are enough people making violet or red contributions then the window might stretch wide, suggesting that public opinion is spread across the entire spectrum. However, if all of the contributions are at one end, then the window is likely to be very narrow.

People who subscribe to the concept of social construction believe that the language used builds the ways in which we view the world, so they often examine the language being used to look at what we mean when we use certain words or concepts. So, in the example I’ve quoted here, we could argue that the language constructs a quite an extreme anti-asylum seeker position, which could perhaps be argued to be borderline racist in nature.

I would personally argue that this is the dominant view in society, and it’s a position that I don’t support. However, I am fascinated by the interplay between the newspapers’ use of language and the attitudes and values of people in society. Do newspapers or people have more influence over the other? Does the language or the thought come first?

It’s for this reason that I think conversations – discourse – are important. It’s rare that I get to cite one of my favourite television programmes when I’m writing, let alone twice in one piece, but I think G’Kar might just have it right:

“Our thoughts form the universe. They are always important.”
– Citizen G’Kar, Babylon 5 ‘The Hour of the Wolf’ (s4 e01)

In my next post, I’ll be discussing several different-but-related approaches to understanding how a particular discourse is being built, and making a decision about which method I am going to use in my project.


Bryman, Alan (2008) Social Research Methods 3rd edition, Oxford University Press (Oxford)

Lynn, Nick & Lea, Susan (2003) ‘”A Phantom Menace and the New Apartheid”: The Social Construction of Asylum Seekers in the United Kingdom’, Discourse and Society, 14 : 425-52

Dissertation Log 1: My dissertation research project

I guess I’m not a typical blogger as I don’t like to generate my own reasons to blog: I blog when there’s a topic which interests me and about which I feel I can say something novel. (Which is another way of saying that a lot of blogs seem to be somewhat echo-chambery – not that echo chambers are inherently a bad thing, but that I don’t necessarily feel sufficiently married to any particular social group that I feel the need to necessarily reinforce my social bonds with that group by echoing discursive themes.)

However, having completed modules in science and the public and communicating science in the information age, and been awarded my post graduate diploma in science and society, I now have to research and write a 15,000 word dissertation. in order to get the full MSc in Science and society degree. (That’s mainly sociology of science and technology, with some philosophy of science, social psychology, linguistics, politics and other odds and sods.)

Well, my research proposal has been accepted. I’ll expand on the detail shortly, but part of the marking criteria includes keeping a regular research log. Rather than keep a purely private log, my intention is to develop it as part of my blog.

First, we are living in a networked world, and my research cannot exist independently of the world in which it exists, so this is a good way of acknowledging engaging what I’m doing with that world.

Second, one of my modules was on science communication in the digital age: if, as the basic thesis of that module proposes, the world of research is being transformed, I don’t think that can be restricted to just the natural sciences. I can do a bit of action research and actually try out the idea of a public lab book, and see how I feel about it, and how it compares with other projects I’ve worked on. May be it won’t work, but negative findings are still findings ;-)

Third, the discipline of writing something each week will actually benefit me, ensuring I’m writing down what I’m thinking and allowing me to keep a track of the development of ideas and theories. It will probably allow me to air drafts of sections of the dissertation, and refine the arguments and presentation.

Fourth, I’d be interested in getting feedback on my ideas and actions. The main weakness of Open University study (and it’s not much of a weakness in the grand scheme of things) is that I often feel disconnected from the academic community, and I’d welcome intellectual discussion and constructive criticism of my ideas and action. This is not a licence to slag me off because you don’t like me, social science, my values, my face (you’re not alone in this one) or whatever, and I will cull comments which aren’t constructive, but could be fun for me. (Of course, what will probably happen is no-one will ever comment. Meh.)

So over the coming few months (the dissertation is to be submitted in September 2012) I will try to post a blog at least once a fortnight touching on my research; for example, my next post will be on choosing a methodology for undertaking the research. If you have questions, ideas and comments, please post them.

So, now for the big reveal, what is it I’m studying? I’m interested in the way social groups construct their views of scientific topics, and in particular in medical subjects. I’m also interested in a social group who describe themselves as “skeptics”; they’ve become increasingly active and high profile in the UK and I have a lot of sympathy with a lot of what they say and do, but there’s very little research into them as a social group, influence and norms and values. So, my proposal aims to explore those key areas.

My accepted proposal reads as follows:

The Burzynski Affair: a case study in perspectives on alternative cancer therapy

Patients with terminal cancers, their friends and families often seek out therapies which would not normally be considered as a “last ditch” effort to save their own or loved ones’ lives. An example of this type of therapy, which appears in the press not infrequently, is the “antineoplaston therapy” promoted by the Burzynski Clinic in Texas, USA ( A typical story is that of Chiane Cloete, a five year old girl who has been diagnosed with a supratentorial primitive neuroectodermal tumour in the brain; her parents are seeking to raise £130,000 to get her treatment “not available in the UK” at the Burzynski clinic (Parsons, 2011).

I am interested in exploring how four different groups represent the Burzynski Clinic’s therapies in discourse available publicly. The first group will be that of proponents of the Burzynski Clinic and its work. The principle sources will be the Burzynski website, promotional materials, testimonials (via blogs, tweets and publicly accessible fora) from patients and associated materials.

The second group will be that of skeptics in the UK (the spelling using a ‘k’ comes from the American spelling, and is used to differentiate skepticism – the movement – from scepticism – the philosophical position – although the two are not unrelated). Writing about the emerging skeptical community in the USA in 1993, Hess described skeptics as “antiantiscientists” (Hess, 1993, p 11) who focus on debunking and demystifying “parapsychology … superstition, occultism and ‘pseudoscience’” (ibid. p 11). In the intervening 18 years, a sceptical community has arisen in the UK, complete with its own internet counter-culture and real-world community events (such as skeptics in the pub, and conferences such as Q.E.D.). After skeptics in the UK raised concerns about Burzynski in September 2011, a threat of libel action was made against several of the sceptical voices. The principle sources will be sceptical websites, blogs, tweets and other associated materials of people in the UK who self-identify as skeptics, or who are strongly associated with the skeptic movement in the UK (for example, Dr Ben Goldacre, Robin Ince and Dr Brian Cox).

The third group will be the printed news media in the UK. The principle sources will be Nexis and using Google to find other material hosted on major outlet (ie. national distribution) websites. This will be limited to information available at no direct cost to the consumer.

The fourth group will involve a literature search exploring the view of peer-reviewed scientific journals and associated research (eg. Cochrane reviews). This will be as light-touch as possible, to identify the boundaries of knowledge rather than to provide a considered opinion on the use of such treatments.

In order to undertake this research, the following questions will be considered:

  1. What language is used by each group to describe the Burzynski therapy, and what are the implications of the language used?
  2. What are the similarities between the way the Burzynski therapy is represented by each groups, and what are the differences?
  3. What values are revealed or highlighted by the language used by the contrasting groups?
  4. How does what each of the groups say compare with what the scientific literature has to say on the issue? What situated knowledge is implicit or explicit in the discourse?
  5. How are groups (particularly proponents and skeptics) represented by the other participants in the discourse?
  6. What implications does this analysis of the discourse have for understanding the ways in which an issue is represented in the public?

Exploring these research questions will demonstrate an understanding of the ways in science, scientists and their limitations are understood and represented by contrasting public groups. This will touch on issues raised in S802 such as concepts of anti-science, ethics, expertise, regulation, policy and risk.

Certainly the issue raises questions of what constitutes science and non-science (see for example: Grove, 1989), but also raises the issues of the knowledge boundaries of scientific research (Collins & Pinch, 1998). It also touches on how scientific knowledge is used, constructed and reconstructed in everyday life (Irwin & Wynne, 1996).


  1. Construct a narrative relating to the Burzynski affair based on publicly available material
  2. Compare and contrast through discourse analysis four differing perspectives on the Burzynski affair: proponents, skeptics in the UK, UK news media and published papers in scientific journals
  3. Understand how the perspectives reflect on the construction of scientific knowledge, uncertainty and how the values of each group influence their representation of the issue

Collins, H., & Pinch, T. (1998). The Golem: What You Should Know about Science (Second.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grove, J. (1989). Anti-science. In Defence of Science: Science, Technology and Politics in Modern Society (pp. 151-177). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Hess, D. J. (1993). Science in the New Age: the paranormal, its defenders and debunkers, and American culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Irwin, A., & Wynne, B. (1996). Misunderstanding Science? The public reconstruction of science and technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kozinets, R. V. (2010). Netnography: doing ethnographic research online. London: Sage.

Parsons, R. (2011, December 14). Cancer girl’s £130,000 plea for life-saving operation in US | News. The London Evening Standard. London.

Publication: Engaging with the real world

I’m rather pleased to say the Dec 2011 issue of People and Science – the house publication of the British Science Association – arrived today, and on page 29 they have published my first opinion piece, Engaging with the real world.

Would love to hear your constructive criticisms and feedback ;-)

Why I Laughed This Evening

Someone posted this on Facebook:

‎”Atheism is for everybody, but maybe everybody isn’t for atheism. Its the most unprejudicial, unbigoted, no-agenda school of thought you could hope to find. Some people just aren’t equipped for such an unorthodox way of life of dealing in truth and being nice to people for the sake of it.” – Darryn Roberts

To which I replied:

It’s a great quote, and perhaps it describes an ideal atheist, but it’s clearly not true in the real world.

Many atheists are prejudiced, as Alison said ironically, against people of faith, but also about other minority groups. There are bigoted comments made by self-described atheists about others. There is a clear agenda being promoted by some atheists (for example, anti-theist school of thought is very much prejudicial, bigoted and agenda’d).

Unfortunately, it’s more something to aim for rather than a description of reality :'(

To which came the reply:

David, you are a dumbass!

Which I can’t disagree with, but to be honest is more heat than light. So I replied with:

And there we see, right on cue, an example of people not “being nice to people for the sake of it.”

Now, perhaps that was harsh, but here came the reply:

David. Saying that the anti-theist agenda is prejudicial and bigoted just proves that you have the mentality of a gnat unable to grasp complex ideas. Religion is what invented bigotry by telling one group of people that they are better than another. Atheism is the opposite of that. We believe that all people are the same. Have you tried educating yourself? It might help.

So I replied with:

I didn’t say atheism was prejudicial (that means something different), I said atheists were prejudiced (therefore, atheism cannot be free of prejudice). In fact, this is hardly news, because prejudice is essential to our every day functioning and survival. For example, today I used the prejudice (pre-judgement, if you like) of not stepping out in front of a fast moving car, because I thought it might kill me. I’m also somewhat prejudiced against people with knives and guns, because I perceive those things as being a risk. I dare say that my ancestors ran away from things that looked like they might be big cats in the jungle.

Prejudice just means judging a situation or person before learning the details. By definition, an anti-theist position *is* prejudiced, because, without knowing every detail, it assumes that no matter the benefits which might be associated with any form of theism, the costs will outweigh them.

Bigotry means being obstinate and stubborn in one’s opinion’s and prejudices. Certainly, classic examples include forms of misogyny, homophobia, classism, racism (etc…), and many of these have been perpetuated by religious groups. This doesn’t mean such behaviour is restricted to religious groups: such bigoted behaviours have been observed in skeptical groups (to name but one non-theistic social group).

However, it’s going too far to suggest that bigotry was “invented” by religion. It’s thought to have arisen in tribal society as a way of clearly differentiating Us (who are moral people, trying to raise our families and struggling to get enough food to eat and drink and stave off illness) from Them (the tribes and villages around us, who are immoral people, trying to kill our families, steal our food and drink and who bring disease to our village). Whilst this is clearly an extreme simplification, it certainly fits with how we know social groups form and adopt an identity around certain social norms, mores and values.

Indeed, one might argue that telling someone they are a dumbass and suggesting they educate themselves is a form of tribal in group/out group behaviour, trying to reinforce a certain identity by minimising the value of the other, trying to show they’re an outsider because they question the core norms of the group!

I might add that as a gay man, former born-again Baptist fundamentalist and modern-philosophical-atheist – along with my academic training – I have seen all sides of this coin. I have seen the forms of both bigotry and kindness which exist in religious groups; I have seen the hatred shown towards non-heterosexuals in society; I have seen the rational and irrational positions taken by atheists, skeptics and rationalists. And I see that whilst some are better on some measures than others, none are immune to the delightful quirks brought by imperfect humans.

Atheism, as a social movement (as opposed to an ideal) is flawed, and has the same social flaws as other groups. It’s made up of imperfect people living in an imperfect world. However, it is one of those groups which are perhaps a bit more reflective than other groups, and is a bit more aware of its imperfection, and tries to correct the flaws. It doesn’t have an ultimate sacred standard of truth, so it typically uses empiricism and rationalism to identify truths and falsities. However, it’s made of people doing people things in people ways.

Now, to get back to this literature survey…

Which I followed up with

Erk, mistake on my part. I did say prejudicial, and I apologise for my error. I did in fact mean prejudiced (ie. possessing prejudices). My bad!

…because I’m nothing if not intellectually honest.

I have to say, this failure to be sufficient reflective to recognise one’s own group’s failures really does irk me!

Edit: and the reply comes…

David you really need to buy a dictionary. Not stepping in front of a speeding car is not prejuduce, it’s common sence self preservation. If that’s what you think prejudice is you are a dumbass. it means to pre-judge. To judge before finding proof or evidence. Also your commont about tribes being against each other on moral grounds is the start of the bigotry of the religion of one person thinking that they have the right to dictate anothers morality. I stand by my statement. YOU ARE A DUMBASS!! I laugh at you.

I feel laughed at.

All-in-One Prophylaximagic!

I had my six-monthly checkup with my immunology insultant consultant last week (no infections to report, trough IgG of 7.5 g L^-1 which is double what it was a year ago). I have common variable immunodeficiency, a genetic condition which means I don’t produce antibodies, so untreated I can get frequent and repeat infections.

We were reviewing my treatment plan, and discussing that I’ve now been on prophylactic antibiotics for six months. The antibiotic of choice at my hospital is azithromycin, a member of a family of antibiotics called macrolides which also includes erithromycin and clarithromycin.

Molecular structure of azithromycin (C38H72N2O12)

Molecular structure of azithromycin. Note the large ring in the top left of the image. Thanks to Wikimedia

Molecularly, macrolides are characterised by having a ring of 14 or more (mainly carbon) atoms, making them quite large. As a comparison, benzylpenicillin has 16 carbon atoms in total and a molecular mass of 334.4, whilst azithromycin has 38 carbon atoms and a molecular mass of 749.0, more than twice the mass.

Pharmacologically, macrolides block protein synthesis in bacteria. All cells (and bacteria are just cells with a thick wall) depend on constant replacement of their proteins, so blocking their manufacture kills bacteria rapidly.

Macrolides also have a cunning trick of getting to the bacteria. Neutrophils, a type of white blood cell which is attracted to infections sites, transport as much of the macrolide molecules as possible in the cell. Once neutrophils find the infection, they release bomblets of anti-bacterial chemicals along with the antibiotic. The net effect is they get to the bacteria very quickly and if the chemical warfare from the neutrophils doesn’t kill them off, the macrolides soon do.

However, macrolides are not a one trick pony. In addition to being efficient killers, they also have other beneficial effects, in particular being potent anti-inflammatories. Unlike common anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen, which have a single mode of action, macrolides are multi-modal and suppress inflammation in multiple ways.

One trick they have is protecting the body from the damage caused by the neutrophil attack chemicals. Another trick, also associated with neutrophils, is that they may promote the migration of the chemical warfare specialists to the infection sites, meaning more of them get to the infection, and they get there faster.

They have also been implicated in suppressing expression of endothelin-1. ET1, as it’s known, is a powerful vasodilator which promotes blood flow in the area around an infection, and is what causes infected wounds to go characteristically red and inflamed. In addition, macrolides have been associated with reduction of other signalling chemicals, cytokines and interleukins, which promote inflammation.

These effects have been shown to be beneficial, particularly in a range of respiratory conditions. This includes asthma, particularly where the patient is sensitive to environmental irritants such as dust, and a condition called diffuse panbronchiolitis (DPB). DPB is characterised by extensive bacterial infection in the lungs, and constriction of the airways in response. Treatment with macrolides has increased survival rates from around 50% to better than 96%, with it’s effects exceeding that of an antibiotic alone.

Whilst macrolides become concentrated in normal cells, they aren’t transported into the space in the lungs where air exchange occurs, the bronchial tree. However, they have been shown to have benefit on the lung function tests of patients with bronchiectasis and cystic fibrosis, not by directly affecting the flora, but by decreasing inflammation and promoting the migration of neutrophils. In addition, macrolides may have benefits in atheroma (fatty arteries, which have a strong association with serious and fatal heart disease), arthritis and some forms of cancer.

For those of us who do have poor immune systems, just reducing the bacterial infections is great, but reducing the inflammatory response is a buy-one-get-one-free bonus. So, here’s to an amazing group of drugs that’s making my life more liveable.


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