Saturday, 6 December 2014

Running away from Christmas. 05.12.14

My family loved Christmas so much that we’d have it three times every single year. Yes, you’ve heard it right: we had three completely separate and independent celebrations. Christmas eve was for me, my mum and the Baby Jesus; we would listen to carols, eat a special meal and stay up super-late for the magic of the midnight mass. Christmas lunch was at my grandmother’s, who’d produce a fabulous spread that would have been enjoyable had it not been for the stress of formal table manners and overcomplicated cutlery arrangements. Christmas dinner was at my auntie and uncle’s for champagne, the richest puddings imaginable, and the exchange of unfortunate gifts. By the end of the day my mother and I were all Christmased out, utterly exhausted and glad it was over. You might think this is overdoing it, but my folks really believed in Christmas. We saw it as such an important festival of hope, joy, love and family that we were willing to have as many celebrations as it took to make sure that everyone had a chance to celebrate and nobody was left out.

That’s the official version of the story, anyway. Unfortunately, its accuracy is rendered somewhat doubtful by the fact that my mother, grandmother and aunt lived in the same block of flats. A twenty meters’ trip would have got us all together. Our inability to celebrate a joined Christmas wasn’t due to geography, but to history.

My memories of The Fight That Broke Christmas, back in the mists of time, are both vague and tangled up with what I’ve been told. It was our first Christmas at my mother’s house, the very first time the whole family would gather at our table for a major celebration. It was a big deal for my mother as a new hostess, but an even bigger deal for me. I was finally old enough to understand that something big was coming up. Santa, the Baby Jesus and my entire family were running on parallel tracks towards this Special Day, a day so special that it only happened once a year. Everything about it was going to be extraordinary: the lights, the music, the food, the presents, the general feeling of it all. Everything about it was going to be different – except that it wasn’t.

We had not managed to get through the first course when my grandmother and my aunt, her daughter, got into a screaming fight. Given that screeching, occasionally punctuated by slamming doors, was their main method of communication, this ought to have been a commonplace occurrence. However, this was not an ordinary day: this was Christmas. And Christmas, as I’d been told repeatedly, was the celebration of family and love and joy and everything shiny and warm and comforting. Shouting abuse at each other clearly didn’t fit into the scheme of things. This wasn’t just not right; this was very, very wrong.

Lacking both the words and authority to express my dismay, I did the next best thing: I bolted from the table and sought shelter in my mother’s wardrobe. Unable to get me to come out despite much cajoling, my mother flipped and, uncharacteristically, displayed some backbone. She told everyone what she thought of their behaviour and kicked them out. And that was that, for that Christmas and all other Christmases to come. 

Christmas was about love and family; we had the family, but lacked the love. The sad truth was that our lot could not be trusted to sit together through a meal without sending it flying, regardless of the occasion. This left the holiday season hanging upon us less like mistletoe and more like a guillotine. How could we get through the holidays without any major conflagrations? Proximity prevented us from making excuses. The need to keep face prevented us from telling the truth. We just couldn’t admit that we all detested each other and would rather be anywhere than together – we were a good family, after all, and good families aren’t like that. So we parcelled Christmas out into manageable chunks, with me and my mother being the only safe moving parts connecting the whole, pretended that it was normal, made it a tradition out of it and never spoke about it again.

I was clearly a very dense child, because this did not teach me that the myth we wrap around Christmas is precisely that – a myth. For me, Christmas was and is real. Christmas is the beating heart of family love; love flows towards it and emanates from it in an endless cycle. Somewhere there is that perfect place where people come together in celebration, joined not only by blood ties, but by mutual love, trust and care. I don’t much care what holiday they are actually celebrating, because the fact that such a bond exists seems a good enough reason. 

As a child, I created and defended that place in my head. Although I’d never seen anything like that, I could close my eyes and feel how it must feel. I was good at make- believe and, after all, it wasn’t any harder to imagine than the nativity scene: two parents in the same house? Adults glad of the arrival of a newborn? That wasn’t how it was in my world. Either it was all completely bogus, or it was real but out of my grasp. I chose to believe that it was real. The lack of it hurt me, but the hope in it supported me; I guess the two nearly balanced each other out.

To this day, I don’t know if I ran away from the fake Christmas or towards the real one. All I know is that as soon as I was able I made damn sure not to be “home” for the holidays. I respected my family tradition of lies and omissions and never blew the whistle on their Christmas dysfunction. The fact that I’d rather spend the holiday season in a pit full of snakes was never openly mentioned. I simply made sure that I was reliably elsewhere so I didn’t have to be with them. I left my family to their Christmas fate and went off to find mine. 

Alas, finding a Christmas, or at least my version of it, is nigh-on impossible. It doesn’t matter if you have the most wonderful bunch of friends, because Christmas, my Christmas, is about family. Unless your friends are also avoiding their folk, they will be busy – and you must not, repeat, MUST NOT piggyback on someone else’s celebration, ever. Regardless of people’s good intentions, there is nothing as depressing as feeling like a charity case at someone’s family party. Even when you are welcome, even when you are invited, it is hard not to feel like a Dickensian orphan.

Getting together with other folk who can’t or won’t celebrate with their family is a possibility, but that doesn’t make a Christmas. It makes a faux-Christmas, an anti-Christmas, or a fort-against-Christmas, but that’s about the best you can hope for. The only safe bet is to actually be part of a family for the holiday. That can be achieved by the very simple method of being in a relationship and agreeing to visit the in-laws. All you have to deal with then is, well, reality: the fact that many people’s Christmases involve, to a greater or lesser degree, the hasty and shallow burying of hatchets at the front door and a great deal of praying that the truce will last until the eggnog kicks in.

I ought to know better by now, but believing in the power of Christmas created a magic in my world that hasn’t been tarnished yet, despite my utter lack of success thus far. I’ve had all manners of Christmases – happy and sad, quiet and busy, dull, exciting and utterly random – but I’ve never had a “real” one. I still believe, though. I believe in the possibility of it, and I wonder if the problem has been that I’ve been hoping to find the Right Christmas, or hoping that the Right Christmas would find me, instead of building my own Right Christmas.

Christmas isn’t a seasonal miracle that magically improves your life and fills it with love; it is the culmination of day after day of focused effort in choosing the right people with whom to create and maintain solid relationships.  So this year, instead of a Christmas wish I have a Christmas resolution. I resolve to look at my choices, routines and unconscious habits every day of the year and ask myself: what kind of Christmas can they give me, in the long and short run? At the end of this road, will I find myself in a place worth celebrating?

Sunday, 20 July 2014

He couldn't possibly mean anything by it. 19.07.14

(You'll have to excuse me if this one comes out as a long, rambling anecdote.  It's a true story - cross my heart, I am not making this up.  It came up in conversation with someone recently, so I thought I'd get it down.  I think it highlights a phenomenon, but I'm still working at finding the "moral" in it.  Maybe you can help. Maybe there isn't one.)

Once upon a time, when I was eleven, I got me a brand-spanking-new supply teacher. On the face of it, this ought to have been the least of my concerns. I'd just been dragged kicking and screaming into junior high - a hellhole full of strangers, continuous testing, bullies, obscure rules, and a battery of "professors" far more interested in catching us out failing than in helping us achieve. Another unfamiliar adult in a position of power ought to have just blended in the general horror of it all. This guy, though, just wasn't right. I couldn't tell what or why, but there was something about him that was just... wrong. 

I bet you are already guessing where this story is going (panic not - nothing much happened). Unfortunately, back then I couldn't. I was a kid - I knew that life wasn't all Disney, but I was entirely innocent of that aspect of it. Not only I wasn't sexualised, but I didn't even have a concept of what the word could mean. In fact, although I was aware that babies came out of their mothers' bellies, I had no idea of how they got in there in the first place.  I was still playing with My Little Ponies, for crying out loud. All us girls, we were all in the same boat: we were all innocent, all clueless, and yet all somehow repulsed by this strange adult who kept standing too close, talking too intently, getting too cuddly, looking too hungry... but now I'm putting thoughts in my eleven-year-old's head. The truth was that my main bugbears were that he smelled nasty and his face was scratchy. I didn't want to be close to him because it felt unpleasant - none of us liked it - but he was very insistent. Most of us had told our parents that we didn't like him, but we couldn't really explain why, and kids not liking a teacher isn't precisely breaking news. It didn't feel good, it didn't feel right, but we didn't have the words to explain to ourselves what was happening, let alone raise any kind of alarm.  

This situation went on for quite some time, until the guy pushed it too far. One of the girls in my class was a bit older, having being held back a couple of years. She wasn't ahead of us on the mental development front, but she'd already started to need the services of a brassiere... And it was his excessive interest in that particular garment that caused the girl's mother to turn up at the school one afternoon, baying for blood.

A paedophilic teacher in a school full of pre-teens is no laughing matter. As a member of the school board, my mum jumped on her white charger and raced down to an emergency meeting, where she fought uncharacteristically hard until she got what she wanted: the girl silenced, the angry mother placated, no mention of the incident to be put on the teacher's official record, and for his employment to continue as normal.

Yeah, you got it right.  My mother fought for a paedophilic teacher's right to continue teaching in my school, in my class.

I must admit that I didn't quite understand how utterly screwed up the entire incident was until I had kids (nearly) of my own to mind. Although they were step rather than biological children, anyone touching a hair on their head with any malicious intent would have found himself short of a hand, if he was lucky.  Seriously, merely thinking of anyone intending to harm them in any way makes me want to rip and tear and maim and gauge and stomp and repeat until I'm entirely out of breath or they are entirely out of body. In reality, unless I caught them right at it, I probably would manage to control my impulses and seek a more socially-approved retribution. However, I sure as hell would not be aiding and abetting them in carrying on their activities unhindered. That's insane. It's as alien to me as my teacher's impulses towards us, and nearly as repulsive.

I have broached the subject with my mum a few times. A teacher herself, she still believed she did the right thing, because:
1. She's sure "he couldn't possibly mean anything by it".
2. His own kid was studying in that very school at the time.  He would have heard about a report and been upset by it.
3. "It could have ruined the poor man's career."

...and none of it makes any sense to me.  You don't bother a whole class of girls by accident - and even if you do, sorry and all that, I think you should still be called to task. Whether it's because of poor social skills, some sort of mental deficiency or evil intent, bothering kids isn't something I'm willing to excuse. The fact that his own child was at the school was not an inconvenience, but a great opportunity to ensure that there weren't any similar problems at home.  If someone is mad or bad enough to bother pre-pubescent children, I'm not comfortable with assuming that the rest of his life is exemplary. As for ruining a paedophile's career in the educational system... yeah, right, we wouldn't want to do that, would we?  

From my point of view, my mother made a dangerously insane decision.  She chose to wilfully ignore a number of warning signs and put tens of children in danger, including her own daughter, to protect a colleague. From her point of view, I am unfair and cruel. After all, nothing that bad happened... A girl was made uncomfortable, but it's not like she was hurt. People get uncomfortable all the time, often for no valid reason. Why would you punish someone so badly when nothing really happened?

And that's where our worldviews just can't match, because we are looking at the situation through different lenses. To me the risk of paedophilia is a terrible thing to expose a child to. To her it is just a word, a nebulous concept with no basis in reality. It's something so twisted and alien that she can't picture it in her own head; she can't fathom the mechanics nor begin to appreciate the possible consequences.

Social shaming and shunning, however, are very concrete, understandable issues to her, as are financial problems. To be made not just unemployed but also unemployable in one's own field, turned into a social pariah, shamed in front of one's family and colleagues... That's destroying a life, hurting the man more than if you'd killed him outright because his pain will keep on going, and hurting his family to boot.  That's serious, real stuff.

So far, I've managed to gleam a lesson from this story, and it isn't more of a "duh" than a "eureka".  People often make bad risk assessments when they don't fully understand a situation: they discount the seriousness of what they can't comprehend. You see it rather a lot in the comments on violent videos on the internet. (Why did the cops handle that person so harshly? Well, he was armed and acting aggressive.  But couldn't they just take the weapon off him nicely? They were so rough with him, and all he was doing was waving a sword at them... Yeah, ok.) Also, people who don't understand asocial predators often can't recognise them, and look for social solution to asocial problems. They seem to find it hard to comprehend that predators don't have horns or scales, that they look and act pretty much like us up until the point they choose to act very, very differently. They seem to be unable to change tack in their heads, holding on to the tried-and-tested social conventions in the belief or hope that they will keep everything going nicely.

When one of the risks is certain and the other is hypothetical, people are even less willing to "overreact". They value the definite risk, the damage to the stability of the group, over the hypothetical and hard-to-accept possibility that one of their own may be some sort of monster. So they ignore their gut feelings or even low-level cries for help, waiting for proof that the situation is really an issue. Unfortunately, in certain situations if you wait for something to happen then you're waiting way too long. 

It seems to be worse the tighter the relationship with the perpetrator is, whether it's personal or financial. I've seen this happen in all manners of groups: families, schools, work places and even, ironically, self-defence clubs. You tell someone that one of their relatives, friends, colleagues or valued customers is up to no good without solid evidence other than a series of not-quite-right behaviours that make you go "eeeeeek!" and they'll flap around like mad ducks looking for excuses.  "He's just being friendly."  "He's just socially awkward."  "He just doesn't understand personal space."  "He's always like that." Ultimately, the excuse underlying each of their excuses is my mother's "he could't possibly mean anything by it". You are supposed to somehow tolerate the behaviour, however uncomfortable it may make you, because there is no proof of malice underpinning it. We may look for work-arounds -  tell you we'll keep and eye on him, make sure he's not alone with anyone vulnerable, etc. - but we won't challenge the behaviour directly or seek to change it.

Regardless of legislation, regulations and loud proclamations of horror every time a nasty story comes up in the news, I have yet to report an emerging situations and not see people put the stability of their group ahead of potential future misdeeds. It is generally only after things have got bad that people suddenly change their priorities, but by then it's too late. That's in marked contrasts with how we react to any "creepy" behaviours carried out by strangers, particularly around children. I've lost count of the number of times I've been called out at work to deal with "disgusting pervs" whose only crime was doing their own stuff in the vicinity of children - you know, like having a picnic or walking in the park. Nobody would do that unless they were up to no good, right?

On the one hand, we're a society so frightened of sexual misbehaviours that we're legislating ourselves into a very lonely corner. Telling someone that their outfit looks good could be construed as sexual harassment. Touching their shoulders or arms could be classed as assault. Asking them out... seriously, would you want to risk that? And if it's bad for adults, it's infinitely worse for children. A child falls over and gets hurt, and rather than comforting them you end up having to treat them like unexploded ordnance. It skews our priorities, because a broken bone is bad but will fix, but an accusation of sexual misconduct will ruin your life. On the other hand, I've lost count of the people who have a relative, friend or co-worker who they know they can't leave alone with kids or women, yet never confront the issue until it blows up. 

I don't know where to go with this. I've seen it too often for it to be just something happening around me, though I may be wrong.  I don't know how or if it can be changed.

The corollary, though, is that don't feel able to rely on the "white knight" syndrome. I've been told repeatedly by people I regard very highly that when faced by creeps and pervs I ought to call upon the folk around me for help. Apparently they are supposed to be naturally overcome by the need to protect those smaller and/or weaker. Well, I can see that working if the bother is caused by someone outside of the group (for instance, in a bar), although I still wager that most folk these days will not want to get involved in someone else's problem. For solving problems within a group, though, I just can't believe it would work. Whilst I'm perfectly glad to cause as big a fuss as I can to keep myself safe, I fully expect to end up being the one who ends up paying for it. I will have been the one to damage the solidity of the group without an actual incident to justify my behaviour - I will have done something real, something people could see and understand, whilst the creep hadn't done anything, yet.

[As for my supply teacher, he finished that year with us without any further incidents. The following year he was hired to work at my mother's school, rather ironically. Surrounded by older kids who had a much better understanding of what was what, he didn't last a month. He was reported, investigated and kicked out. I've not heard about him since. My mother still doesn't get it.]

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Letter to a rape survivor. 03.07.14

“There are those hearts, reader, that never mend again once they are broken. Or if they do mend, they heal themselves in a crooked and lopsided way, as if sewn together by a careless craftsman.” ― Kate DiCamillo, Tale of Despereaux

I don’t know anything about you.  I don’t know your background, your personality, your hopes and dreams and fears.  I don’t even know what you went through, as the label of “rape” is now applied to a vast range of events – all horrid, all inexcusable, but all the same very different.  I don’t know you.  Maybe I never will.

I do know one thing about you, however: I know that ever since your ordeal, in many people’s mind you’ve stopped being a person. You are a statistic, a client, a warning or a symbol, but not a person. It’s not your fault. It’s theirs. 

To the police and medical staff you’re a patient, a victim, a case, but ultimately a number. Whilst the individuals may care about you, the system mostly cares about what boxes your case will tick.  Will you be one of the many cases that never get reported to the authorities (1) Will your case be reported but not prosecuted?  Will they be able to secure a conviction?  Will you pass right through the medical system, or will you be back time and time again, requiring long-term care?  What resources will you require?  How much will you cost us or gain us?  The system will eat your individuality and turn you into a statistic.

Some fanatics will try to turn you into a dire warning.  To them you are nothing but a modern-day Red Riding Hood who should be held in front of all the other girls as a cautionary tale: you see what happens when you stray off the beaten path?  You see what happens when you behave improperly, when you dress immodestly, when you are just too damn attractive for your own good?  See what happens when you’re not invisible and inaudible, when you make people notice you?  Oblivious of the harsh reality outside their front doors, these people will try to blame you for your ordeal, often without knowing anywhere near enough about the circumstances.  They don’t need any actual facts, because however loudly they may proclaim their “truth”, it is nothing but the darkness in their heart combining with the ignorance in their brain into a poisonous bile.  They are not presenting an argument you have to dispute; they are spewing forth a vomit you have to avoid getting on you.  

These people are toxic, but thankfully they are incredibly rare. They are so rare, in fact, that every time one of them opens their rotten mouths it seems to make the news.  They shock and astonish us precisely because their position, though it's claimed to be endemic, goes completely against what the vast majority of people hold true.

Most of us, regardless of what you have been told, are on your side. Many of us truly care about you, but may not be able to convert their caring into action, or even words.  Many people just don't know the right thing to do or say, and are desperately worried about doing or saying something wrong.

Some people lack that uncertainty.  Confident and vocal, guided by their mission, they demand the right to defend you.  They see you as a blameless victim of a dreadful violation, whose victimhood should be exalted and protected.  They want to slay the beast that hurt you (not the person, but the crime), to eradicate it from the world forever.  They claim to care for you, to be fighting on your behalf, but they are telling a half-truth.  You are not their priority: the priority is the cause, the epic crusade that they have embarked upon.  And in order to show how important the crusade is, it needs victims.  It needs people who were hurt, are hurting and will keep hurting.  These people need to be able to hold you up to the world as a demonstration of how terrible rape is, of the inescapability and depth of the scars it leaves behind, of the lives it destroys forever.  To them you are the living proof of the magnitude of their cause.  You are not a person: you are a martyr, a sacrifice, a bleeding symbol for their cause - and they will keep you bleeding.

These noble crusaders insist they are the only ones who can help, who can understand. They believe they have the only solution.  But their crusade is fighting Rape - helping you to cope, heal and grow is of secondary importance.  In fact, anything that detracts from their heroic goal must be crushed, even if it’s precisely what you need.  

Because of this noble cause, we cannot give you comfort or hope, because we cannot tell you anything that could be construed as minimising or normalising rape.  We cannot show you how intact you actually are, how the damage done to your body and your mind, however bad it is, is limited.  You are still here, broken and hurting, maybe hurting more than you ever thought you could bear; but you are still here.  Your experience didn’t kill you or utterly destroy you.  The worst is already over.  You can get better, you will get better. 

We cannot tell you that, in a sense, you already are better, because now you know how strong you truly are.  You know you are stronger than you ever imagined, because you have lived through this and you’re still here, still clinging on to yourself.  We cannot tell you that you will be a different person after this, but different doesn’t mean weaker, broken, or in any way worse, because you can not only heal, but guide your healing.

We cannot tell you that we know this to be a fact because countless scores of women have gone through what you’ve gone through and come out the other end changed, but not for the worse.  Whilst some were left broken and beaten out of shape, many or most didn’t.  We cannot tell you that, according to our own statistics, there are most probably women in your life who have suffered like you, and are not only functional, but truly whole, so whole in fact that you don’t even know who they are.

We cannot paint you a bright picture of yourself in the future, able to look back at this rotten, sordid event and see how far you’ve come, how much you’ve grown, how resilient you are.  We cannot tell you a story about a you who sees herself as infinitely bigger than the event that hurt her so, back then.  We cannot tell you that to get there is totally within your grasp, but it’s all up to you.  It’s up to you to make sure that you don’t grow crooked or broken or bitter.  It’s up to you to keep your eyes firmly on the goal, even during the bad days – and there will be bad days, but you will cope with them.  You know you can because you’ve already coped with this.

We cannot tell you that though coping mechanisms are different for everyone, there are some techniques that are proven to help most people.  We particularly cannot tell you that it is generally healthier to focus on the problem itself and constructive ways of managing it, rather than focusing on the feelings that the problem has engendered.  No, we must constantly encourage you to be aware of your feelings, to constantly poke yourself where you hurt the most, to obsess about your sufferings.  At the same time, we encourage you to avoid all triggers – not to see them as incredibly painful yet useful indicators of an ongoing problem you will in time overcome, but as monsters you should avoid forever.  We encourage you to turn your triggers into phobias by recoiling from all exposure, so you can make your horror permanent.

We cannot tell you how you may be able to avoid this happening again.  Hell, we are not allowed to revisit your ordeal and look for ways in which you may have avoided or reduced it at all, because that may make you feel bad, that may make you feel as if you’ve done something wrong.  You must be blameless in this!  It doesn’t matter if this also leaves you utterly powerless, because the only logical consequence of being utterly unable to protect yourself yesterday is that you will be equally unable to protect yourself today and tomorrow and for the rest of your days.  We cannot give you the reassurance that, though some horrors are random and unavoidable, many are not.  We cannot give you any extra awareness or skills.  We cannot give you any feeling of control, or the hope not to be a victim again and again.

We cannot tell you that it’s ok if you actually just don’t feel that bad.  We cannot tell you that it’s ok for some people to feel as if they did well, because they realise that it could have been much worse, because they didn’t die or lose limbs or got scarred or...  We cannot tell you that it’s ok for some people not to care too much, because it’s a hazy memory they can hardly recall, so they prefer to bury it and move right along.  We cannot tell you all sort of weird and warped and wonderful tales survivors tell themselves in order to keep themselves together, pick themselves up and start moving on, moving forward, moving away from this.  We cannot tell you that sometimes what you need today is not what you will need tomorrow, because what is good short-term may not work long-term, but that whatever makes you feel better, feel more functional, feel like yourself, is just fine. And we absolutely cannot tell that for some people the best and final strategy is to face the unvarnished, inglorious, confusing, painful truth, because you only need to accept the truth once, but you need to reinforce lies all the time.

We cannot tell you any of this, though all or some of it may help you, because that’s not what’s important. None of this is about making you feel better. It isn’t about teaching you how to cope or heal or grow. This monopoly on rape is about slaying the monster. And the fight needs all the fighters it can get, and in order to gain troops it needs victims; suffering, broken victims who, by never getting better, can be turned into martyrs. And now you’re one of them.

So we keep telling you time and time again that this event was an awful ordeal, that it has hurt you deeply, that it has scarred you forever.  We make your victimhood more important than your healing.  We rub salt in your wounds so they can stay open forever for all to see how bad rape is, as if we didn’t know that, as if anyone with half a brain would need reminding.

Rape is bad.  But healing is possible, healing is necessary, healing is natural, and healing should come first.  YOU should come first.  You should be the most important person here, our first priority.  You have earned that right.  This is your life and this is your story.  This is not a social commentary or a moral crusade: THIS IS YOUR STORY.  It belongs to you and to you only, as does the right to heal.

Don’t let yourself be used, nor for evil nor for good.  You neither need nor deserve it.  Anything that stops you getting better is nothing but another iniquity thrown at you, regardless of its intentions.

There are people out there who don’t care so much about what happened to you – not because it wasn’t awful, or significant, or life-changing, or earth-shattering, but because they care about you first and foremost.  They know you are infinitely more important than whatever tragedy may hit you.  Those are the people who will support and help you, who will put you first, who will help you grow strong again and make sure that you don’t grow crooked.  Those are the only people who matter, those who care about you as a person, not as a victim or a warning or a number.  To anyone else you’re expendable.  To them, you are you.

(1) If you don't report, don't think you won't make the numbers. You will still be used, in a very particular way, but that's a pretty complicated stand-alone subject, enough so it deserves its own blog.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Dear Social Scientist: The Stool Sample 25.06.14

Dear Social Scientist,

I am not one of you.  I am watching your struggles from the outside, yet I think I understand your pain.  Other scientists have it much easier.  They can get funding and run experiments to prove or disprove theories.  Nuclear physicists keep shooting particles at each other.  Plant geneticists can produce tons of clones to abuse and then dissect.  If entomologists want to find out the lethal dose of a pesticide, they can just take a lot of critter and poison them.  You can’t do any of that.  You can’t produce clones, subject people to experimentation or kill them.  Even if your ethics didn’t stop you, it’d be hellishly hard to find funding for that.  All you’re left to play with is “studies”.  To the uninitiated, that can be translated into “asking people questions”, or, if you’re really pushing the boat, “making up completely non-dangerous scenarios, and then asking people questions”.  There’s nothing else you can do. It’s all stacked up against you, and it’s repressive and harsh and unfair.

To add insult to injury, apparently to call yourself a “scientist” these days you need to produce some “data”, so you can carry out some “statistical analysis” to back up your “theories”.  You’re kidding me, right?  Those white-coated nerds in the boring sciences may think that numbers are fun – hell, you’ve probably seen them around getting all excited over an ANOVA or another, leaping in joy at finding their data statistically significant, complaining about their variables being dependent - do they turn up at their house and ask for food and money, I wonder? – and so on.  They may get a kick out of this stuff, but they are essentially soulless freaks.

You’re not like them.  You got into your chosen field because you really care, because you feel passionately about these issues.  You don’t want to sit in an office and crunch numbers for hours on end!  You want to change the world!  Plus, let’s face it, nobody told you that you’d have to be good at maths to do humanities.  You are seriously into philosophy and ethics and real life, man.  You’re just not a number person - you're a people person.  Do they care about that?  They don’t.  They’ve force-fed you through a basic statistics course, and now they’re demanding numbers, numbers, and more numbers, and they all want them to make sense.

I want to help you out.  Statistics don’t have to be your enemy.  We can make this nice and simple, with a handy step-by-step guide.

The first thing we need to work out is what statistics are all about.  All those percentages and proportions and pie charts – what do they really mean?  How does it all work?  Fear not – it’s actually very simple.

Basically if you want to find out something that applies to the whole population (e.g. the percentage of boys to girls, the average weight, the favourite political party – anything, really), you have two options:
  1.        You can look at the entire population and find out what’s really going on.
  2.       You can look at a sample of the population, and extrapolate.

Why don’t we just ask the entire population all the time?  Well, it’s a teeny tiny bit impractical.  There are a whole load of people out there, so it can be a touch expensive.  Furthermore, even when we do run giant statistical efforts, such as universal censuses or elections, there are still a lot of people who just refuse to play ball.  For all intents and purposes we’re stuck with asking a sample of the population, and then assuming that the answers we get from them apply to everyone else.  That’s actually allowed in science, and it’s been shown to work.  Unfortunately, there is a big catch.  The whole process hinges on your sample being valid.  And that, my friend, is where you appear to be going wrong – consistently, awfully, sadly wrong.

In order to carry out a lot of the simple statistical techniques that you seem to prefer, your sample has to be big enough and random.  Check this out:

“Sample size determination is the act of choosing the number of observations or replicates to include in a statistical sample. The sample size is an important feature of any empirical study in which the goal is to make inferences about a population from a sample. In practice, the sample size used in a study is determined based on the expense of data collection, and the need to have sufficient statistical power. In complicated studies there may be several different sample sizes involved in the study: for example, in a survey sampling involving stratified sampling there would be different sample sizes for each population. In a census, data are collected on the entire population, hence the sample size is equal to the population size. In experimental design, where a study may be divided into different treatment groups, there may be different sample sizes for each group.”

“In statistics, a simple random sample is a subset of individuals (a sample) chosen from a larger set (a population). Each individual is chosen randomly and entirely by chance, such that each individual has the same probability of being chosen at any stage during the sampling process, and each subset of k individuals has the same probability of being chosen for the sample as any other subset of k individuals. This process and technique is known as simple random sampling, and should not be confused with systematic random sampling. A simple random sample is an unbiased surveying technique.”

…none of that went in, did it?  Sorry about that.  Let’s make it easy-peasy.  Basically, a sample has to be pretty damn big for anyone to take your work seriously.  If your sample is too small, your work will be worthless.  Yes, there’s a huge size unfairness going on here.  To make matters worse, you can’t make it up for having a small one.  You can’t work harder with a small sample, get some flashy moves on and, you know, still find a way to please your audience.  It’s one of those horrid situations where size really matters and you truly can’t do a damn thing about it.

Furthermore, for a lot of the tests and analysis your sample ought to be random.  What you are doing is effectively assuming that the people you are asking are representative of the entire population.  If you pre-sort them in any way, you just can’t make that assumption anymore.  There’s no wiggle room on that – any sort of pre-sorting just messes the whole thing up.  That makes things rather tricky, if you think about it.  You can’t pick people solely from within any given organisation, club, church, hobby, etc..  If they all belong to or participate in something, anything, then the sample just isn’t random. 

It gets worse.  If you send your questionnaires into the wind hoping for people to be kind enough to answer, you won’t get a random return.  People only tend to bother answering any sort of volunteer questionnaire or survey if they care about an issue.  Most people who feel neutral about something just won’t waste the time.  And even if people care about a subject, it tends to be those who have some problem with it who’ll feel the most compelled to answer.  For instance, most business owners have to accept the fact that unless they force customers to review them, they will always get more complaints than compliments, regardless of how well they are actually doing.  So, if your data collection is based on people volunteering their contribution, you are already pre-selecting your sample.  Oops.

If your sample isn’t right, then you can’t make that leap that goes from it to the whole population.  Whatever you have found out can only be used to describe the particular group you’re looking at.  Any attempt to do otherwise is a misuse of statistics and very poor science indeed.  If you’ve been wondering why you’ve been working so hard on all those “studies” that people ignore or laugh at, now you know.  Those meanis are not so set in their ways that they can’t accept your point of view.  They are not deliberately ignoring the truth because it clashes with their primitive beliefs.  Your sampling is atrocious, so your whole study is just a joke.

Now, I know this may be a bit difficult not only to accept but also to absorb.  It’s all complicated and dry concepts.  It’s hard to grasp them and even harder to care.  In order to help you out further, I’m going to give you some examples along with a clear visual-emotive reminder:  the sad kitten.
You make bad statistics, you make kitten sad.

“A study of 22 people….”
A study of 22 people is not a scientific study, because a sample of 22 is so small as to be utterly ludicrous.  As a general guideline, any study with a sample size so small that you could fit all participants on a bus makes kitten sad.  Seriously, you need to aim a lot higher.  Think multiplexes, at the very least.

“A study of 22 university students….”
The sample is not only pitifully small, but it is pre-sorted.  University students are pre-sorted group – not only they tend to be of a certain age and socio-economic class, but they go through a specific selection process.  Non-random sampling makes kitten sad.

“A study of 22 Social Studies students….”
No, no, and thrice no.  Your sample is too small and pre-sorted twice.  Anyone who decides to spend money and time on studying a certain topic so they can make it their lives’ work has a definite interest.  This interest is likely not only to colour their point of view, but to be a reflection of their background and beliefs.  Very non-random sampling makes kitten very sad.

“We sent a questionnaire to all Social Studies students at this University, and out of 22 responses….”

Seriously – you're killing the kitten.  What you are looking at is a pathetically small selection of answers from people who are affected by the issue you are investigating, share a common interest, AND belong to a selected group.  Carry on if you really want to, but don’t try to sell this as science.

I honestly hope this doesn’t upset you.  I am not judging you – I am just trying to help you. I was once like you, and just couldn’t see what numbers meant.  It all changed for me when I finished third grade, but we all grow at our own rate.  There is no shame in this.  I can honestly promise you that if your studies were only worth the paper they are printed on, people would probably really listen and care.  At the moment, you’re cutting trees down for nothing.  And that makes kitten sad.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

A Webspeak Phrasebook. 21.06.14

Navigating the Interwebs can be arduous for the uninitiated. Not only you have to learn special terms – LOL, ROTFL, OMG, and so on – but you can bump into people who have a completely different cultural background from yours. This is grand, as it allows us to open our minds to new worldviews, but it can make conversations rather difficult. You may end up finding yourself entirely unable to comprehend what on earth your interlocutors are on about, going around in endless circles, upsetting people, or wanting to punch the screen.

Worry not! You are simply the victim of a linguistic barrier. Whilst Webspeak may sound very similar to English, it is in fact an entirely separate language. In order to facilitate your cyber-interactions, here is a handy list of some common Webspeak sentences that are often misunderstood.

1. “It is so, because the Good Book says that it is so.” 

It doesn’t matter if the book in question is the Bible, the Koran, Silent Spring, The Joys of Sex or The Gruffalo. You are arguing against a dogmatist. There is absolutely no point in doing that, for two main reasons. Firstly, regardless of how we choose to rationalise them, beliefs are not based on fact or reasoning. You will be therefore hard pushed to use fact or reasoning to challenge them. Secondly and more significantly, the person you are talking to is evidently incapable of comprehending that their beliefs are not universal. They are appealing to an authority that is only worth anything if you share their belief system, clearly entirely oblivious to the fact that it may not apply to you.

Translation: “Not only I have nothing original, rational or factual to say about this topic, but I am also stupid enough not to realise that I am appealing to an authority that you do not recognise.”

2. “It’s not scientifically proven” or “it’s not measurable.” 

This is, to my mind, almost a variation of point 1. Science has become some people’s religion, with the scientific method hailed as the one, true way of looking at reality. The problem is that many of the people doing so appear to have no understanding of how science actually works.

Aside from the fact that a lot of our reality isn’t measurable (love, beauty, joy, etc.), science doesn’t yet have all the answers.  It is a continually developing field.  Sometimes it gets things wrong, or only partly right.  Sometimes it can’t explain what is blatantly there; for instance, prior to the discovery of gravity, if you fell out of a window you’d still go “splat” at the bottom.

When it comes to social sciences, things can get ever looser. Due to both practical and ethical constraints, the experimentation that is routinely carried out on minerals, plants and animals just can’t be carried out on people. Old theories in psychology, sociology, anthropology and other “-ologies” are routinely discarded when the scientific community realises that they were nothing but the distilled creed of a past age, rationalised and justified by semi-scientific means, but utterly devoid of innate truth. Sadly, all that can be done is to replace them with the distilled creed of the current age. To put it in plainer terms, soft sciences are often more a matter of popular opinion than fact.

We once knew that women’s brains were too weak to handle complex stuff like maths or sciences, that non-caucasian ethnic groups were stupider and needed whites to “look after” them, that homosexuals were deviants who should be punished by law. To look at less extreme examples, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is at its fifth revision in just over 60 years – and its validity and accuracy are still criticised. Science isn’t static. Science isn’t godlike. Just because science hasn’t yet explained or accepted something, it doesn’t mean it’s not real.

Translation: “Not only I have nothing original, rational or factual to say about this topic, but I am also stupid enough to appeal to science whilst ignoring the way it works.”

3. “The plural of anecdote is not data.” 

This is a factual little statement that may sound undisputable. However, it can get used to reject personal experiences because they are not supported by current theories, scientific studies or any other sort of “official” data, which is frankly bonkers. This is in fact a form of gaslighting, which is neither rational nor benign:
“Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and sanity. Instances may range simply from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.”
The way I see it, you’ve got two choices. You can get yourself hypnotised and have your memory altered to fit their reality, or you can give up talking to them about this issue. Face it, you are, again, dealing with dogmatists, who will gladly ignore reality if it clashes with their beliefs. 

(Bear in mind, I am talking about truthful, accurate facts, not their interpretation. If you saw a pink elephant stomping your strawberry patch and you were sober, have ruled out any sort of psychological issue, there are large footprints and a pile of dung as evidence, much as it may seem unlikely, hold on tight to your reality. If you saw a bright light in the sky and that’s clearly a sign that aliens exist, however, then you might need to review your thought processes.)

Translation: “Your real life experiences are clashing with my beliefs, causing a cognitive dissonance I can’t deal with. I’m going to take the mature approach here and go LALALALALALALA until you go away.”

4. “Whatever you say, what you are trying to say is…”

Two options here: you are either dealing with a mind-reader with a better command of English than yours who is trying to help you out, or with someone so utterly prejudiced against people like you that they think you all think alike. The latter may have grasped some basic facts about you (gender, race, age, size, political or religious inclinations, whatever you may have put out on the ‘net) and from this they believe they can determine what you think on any given subject. Yes, there are people that narrow-minded. No, you can’t communicate with them.

Translation: “I am so bigoted I can’t even bear to listen to people like you.”

5. “You can’t say that, because it would trigger me.” 

Again, two simple options: you are either dealing with a PTSD sufferer who gets triggered by a certain topic, or with someone who is using emotional blackmail to manipulate you. While at first it may seem problematic to try and tell the two apart, it’s actually really simple. Firstly, a genuine PTSD sufferer is unlikely to choose to hang out in places where their particular trigger is commonly mentioned. If they want to avoid a trigger, they will be avoiding that trigger. Secondly, they will not carry on the conversation after they’ve shut you up, turning it into a monologue.

Translation: “I can’t win this debate with logic or facts, so I am going to shut you up playing a dirty emotional trick.”

6. “You can’t talk to me like that!” 

Some people may try and pull rank on you because of age, gender, experience, position, or any other factor, whether relevant or irrelevant. Some people may do the same using a purported weakness – age, disability, illness, life traumas, etc. – as a justification. The tactic remains the same regardless of the specifics. 

Translation: “You can talk to me like that. In fact, you just have. Unfortunately I have nothing of any value whatsoever to use as a retort, so all I can do is pull rank and hope for the best. Darn.”

7. “That’s groupthink!”

“Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints, by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.”

Groupthink is bad. Groupthink is very bad. Fortunately, the mere fact that you are agreeing with some people on a subject doesn’t mean you’re not thinking for yourself. If you all came to the same conclusion having thought independently, that may well be a sign that it is the most rational conclusion. Conversely, being in the minority on a subject doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re cleverer or better informed than everyone else. You may be the odd one out because your conclusion is just plain wrong.

Translation: “Everyone is disagreeing with me, so they are all wrong and stupid! I can’t possibly ever be wrong! I’m speshul!!!”

8. “You can’t say that! That’s justifying rape!”

This sentence is thrown around so often these days that it makes me want to puke. I am in favour of school uniforms: "Justifying rape!" I am in favour of self-defence training for everyone: "Justifying rape!" Say anything that the extremist branch of the feminists don't agree with, and you're a rape justifier. It's got to be the stupidest straw man fallacy out there, ever. 

“A straw man, also known in the UK as an Aunt Sally, is (…) an informal fallacy based on the misrepresentation of an opponent's argument. To be successful, a straw man argument requires that the audience be ignorant or uninformed of the original argument.
The so-called typical "attacking a straw man" implies an adversarial, polemic, or combative debate, and creates the illusion of having completely refuted or defeated an opponent's proposition by covertly replacing it with a different proposition (i.e., "stand up a straw man") and then to refute or defeat that false argument ("knock down a straw man") instead of the original proposition.”
As it happens, I am in favour of school uniforms, supplied free to all the kids, because they can reduce the huge differences there can be between rich and poor kids. I am in favour of self-defence for everyone (not just women, not just against sexual assaults) because there are people out there who, due to lifestyle choices or personality disorders, choose to victimise people. Neither argument has anything to do with rape. Both can be warped to make them be about rape, but that is a huge misrepresentation and has no rational validity. Yet, this happens all the time. 

Yes, rape is awful and a very emotive subject, but so are murder and torture. If anyone said that you should not advocate self-defence training because “it justifies murder” we’d laugh in their faces. As an argument, it is visibly absurd – so why do we let it win when someone uses the “R” word? Operant conditioning dictates that, as we allow it to be successful, its use will only increase and spread.

Translation: “I can’t back up my beliefs with any sort of rational argument, so I’m going to accuse you of doing something heinous in the hope that it will horrify you and make you shut up.”

9. “You could have been working on the cure for cancer.”

This very common comment can cause huge confusion to the uninitiated. Someone achieves any sort of feat – in engineering, theoretical research, literature, art, even sports – and some bright spark is bound to point out that it isn’t the cure for cancer. This would make a tiny bit of sense if the creators in question were doctors skiving off work to succeed at their hobbies, but this invariably not the case.

Are there really people out there unaware of the difference between oncology and metalwork, meteorology, cake baking, etc.? Do some people really think that you could work on the cure for cancer with an arc welder? Thankfully, no. These people are not that stupid. What they are is incredibly small-minded and bitter. Unable to criticise someone else’s work on its quality, they are desperately struggling to find another way to slate it.

Translation: “I can’t criticise your work. Either it’s too good, or it’s so far above my head I can’t even begin to understand it. But I’ll piss on it anyway, because I have never achieved anything.”

10. I’ve saved this one for last, because it’s my absolute favourite. I will also let Stephen Fry do my homework for me:

Translation: "I have nothing to say.  Not a damn thing."

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Where is the F in Zebra? 08.06.14

My mum had to buy our encyclopaedia by instalments. We just didn't have the money to buy the whole thing in one chunk. The volumes arrived once every two months, provided we had the cash, with the idea being that over three years or so you’d have the whole of human knowledge in your own home. That was fine, up until the point when you get an assignment on Zebras and you realise you've only got to the letter F.  It’s tricky to get a three-year extension on your homework.  Still, back then and back there, it was amazing. None of my friends had anything like that. They had to resort to their school books and maybe a dictionary. Their families just couldn't invest that much of their income on knowledge that may not be essential. My family was different: we valued knowledge above pretty much all else. However, information wasn’t free, and the cost of it hurt us. I had to fight to get my mum to buy me my very own atlas, because "your grandfather's is a perfectly good one!" And I had to explain that yes, it was a very good example of cartography for its time, but I wasn't going to pass my geography test referring to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Friends of mine who didn’t have many books at home had to go to the public library to do their homework. If the information they needed or wanted wasn’t there, they couldn’t get it. It was as simple as that. In fact, it was sometimes hard to even find what information you wanted, because you didn’t know what was out there without looking, but you didn’t know where to look unless you knew what you were trying to find.

Things have well and truly moved on. For well under £100 I recently got myself a tablet that gives me access to hundreds of free books. If I don't know a word I can click it and the in-built dictionary gives me a definition. If that is not enough, I can click again to connect to the 'net for a deeper explanation. I can do all this without lifting my butt off my armchair. I've got more information at my fingertips than all my ancestors put together, which is why I’m routinely compelled to headbutt the nearest wall.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the information that upsets me. It’s the fact that, despite the resources we have available to us, most of what I see circulated is nonsensical misinformation or meaningless drivel that would have made my great-grandmother ashamed.

I look at my Facebook feed, and what do I see?  Brown bananas/cinnamon/you name it cures all diseases, but big pharma is hushing it. A boy getting a stiffy over a scantily-clad girl is a sign of rape culture. Pain is “all in the mind”, hence it's our fault if we can’t make it go away. All you need to change your reality is to change your outlook.  Really?  Would you like to say that to the children of Rwanda?  I’d be glad to pay for your one-way airfare.

I mean, seriously, what in the name is wrong with us? I appreciate this is nothing new. My own grandmother was fond of using a two-way explanation for, well, everything.  Everything was caused either by the devil or by god, acting through various means (people, natural phenomena, objects, you name it).  Everything could be parsed as either an act of god, or something sent from the devil – but she had to leave school at twelve to go to work, for crying out loud.  She was ignorant through lack of information – what’s our excuse?  How can we justify completely disregarding the centuries and centuries of accumulated human knowledge when we can access it by merely pushing a few buttons?

Listen up, sunshine; the rant’s about to start.

Pain is not all “in the mind”; it’s all in the nervous system.  That doesn’t mean that all pain is made up.  Yes, there is psychogenic pain – “physical pain that is caused, increased, or prolonged by mental, emotional, or behavioral factors”[1].  Yes, there are also people who can’t withstand any discomfort because they lack the mental fortitude.  However, that isn’t ALL of the pain out there.  There is plenty of pain that arises from physical damage or illness.  Furthermore, physical pain, particularly if intense or prolonged, can be the cause of personality changes or even psychological issues.  It can be an enervating, depressing, frightening experience, even when it’s not accompanied by visible physical damage.  When the physical damage is obvious, that can add psychological pain to the physical one, and yes that does make things worse.  However, to say that all pain sufferers should just pull a magic wand out of their rectum and wish the pain away is somewhat disingenuous – and also liable to make them very, very angry.  If you don’t believe me, as a long-term back injury sufferer I’m personally willing to stab you in the eye so you can find out for yourself.

If your body is broken, it can hurt, even if you’re a little ray of positive sunshine. That’s why we’ve invented pain killing medication, which yes, can fuck you up in a multitude of ways but is sometimes preferable to the grinding, draining, unbearable pain with no respite. It is true that if we removed your nervous system from you, you couldn’t feel any pain.  You also couldn’t think, but hey, who’d notice the difference?  And yes, there would be the small matter of your death, but I’m personally willing to put up with it.

Male sexual arousal is not a sign of “rape culture”.  It’s a physiological response.  “Penile erection is the result of a complex interaction of psychological, neural, vascular and endocrine factors, and is often associated with sexual arousal or sexual attraction, although erections can also be spontaneous. (…)  As an autonomic response, erection may result from a variety of stimuli, including sexual stimulation and sexual arousal, and is therefore not entirely under conscious control. “[2]  The fact that the arousal is caused by certain visual cues is also not a sign of “rape culture” – we are a sexually dimorphic species.[3]  Yes, there is a cultural influence on what we find sexually attractive, but the underlying mechanisms have nothing whatsoever to do with culture: they’re pure physiology.  Both genders tend to be attracted to the secondary sexual characteristics of the opposite gender – and if you want to blame something for this, it’s not our culture, but the evolutionary path we took.

A male sees an attractive female, and his system gets activated.  Culture doesn’t come into this.  Culture comes into the fact that the male does not then proceed to grab said female and hump her regardless of the situation.  To describe an involuntary physiological reaction that isn’t followed on as a sign of “rape culture” is frankly so stupid that it would likely make a medieval witch-doctor guffaw.

The big pharma conspiracy.  Pharmaceutical companies are money-grabbing bastards, that’s a fact.  They exist solely to turn a profit.  They do not have any kind of humanitarian ethos.  However, what they are not, is hushing up a huge array of herbal remedies that would cure us all from all diseases if it wasn’t for them.  Herbal medicine was, indeed, used for millennia – until better remedies came along.  Those herbal remedies that worked safely, reliably and efficiently have become part of “Western” medicine – aspirin, anybody?  You could find a willow tree and suck on the bark directly, but you will not be able to control the dosage and it’s marginally inconvenient, particularly if you live in a city.  Start nibbling on trees in a public park, and the care you’re likely to get will go beyond the medical.  Much as it would be nice to believe it, honey, cinnamon, brown bananas, and so on are not about to save us all from all diseases.  If they did, we’d be using them already, in pill form, thanks to one of the pharmaceutical giants that we like to berate.

As for the vaccine controversy, it’s very easy for us, with access to good medical care, to forget how easily contagious diseases used to kill us off in past decades.  They still kill people without our resources, whether medical or physical; they kill the poor, the weak and the sick, either directly or through complications.  My uncle was sterile due to mumps; I nearly died from whooping cough; congenital rubella syndrome, passed from a pregnant mother to the foetus, can result in “cardiac, cerebral, ophthalmic and auditory defects”[4], when it does not result in miscarriage.  This is serious stuff.

Yes, vaccines carry risks, as do all medical procedures and products.  However, in the past those risks were offset by the huge advantages they gave us, like, you know, not dying.  While you may not see the advantages so clearly now, the infection you may easily be able to survive can spread to people who can’t get inoculated because they are too young or too weak.

As for any information you get from an unverified source, if a source is unreliable, you can’t trust what it says.  I know this sounds like a ridiculous piece of circular speech, but apparently this baffles a load of people.  If you know that a source is unreliable, it pays to check the veracity of its claims before launching on an emotional rollercoaster over something which may turn out to be quite simply untrue.

Say that an article from the Daily Mail – that notorious rag best suited to lining cat litter trays and starting fires – states something quite shocking, as per usual.  For instance, children are forced to compete in full-contact cage-fighting matches.  Well, we’re three clicks away from checking the veracity of their claims.  You can put the article’s keywords in Google, or the search engine of your choice.  You see what, if any, other articles or references are out there on the same theme (and, if there are none, that ought to tell you something too…).  You can open one or even more of those sources.  You can verify if the claims are true – or rather, in the case of the Daily Mail, how badly they have been warped out of shape.  It’s a matter of minutes at most, which is why it drives me demented when people circulate the latest shocking revelation that is, essentially, bullcrap.  Given our ability to cross-reference, I can’t understand how these publications still exist. 

As for “untainted” sources, such as any random person who decides to pontificate on a subject with no kind of knowledge or training, yes, they may have a candid, open, “pure” point of view.  However, they are not unprejudiced: they have formed their opinion without knowledge, hence their opinion is nothing but prejudice.  Not knowing anything about Western medicine doesn’t make you an expert in any other form of medicine (ditto economics, politics, natural resources management, and so on) – it just makes you ignorant in the field you are attacking.  It may make you open-minded, but unless you fill that vacuum with some sort of knowledge prior to talking, you’d be better not fancying yourself an expert.

It really makes me mad, in case you’ve missed it.  We have centuries of collected information, not only the facts, but also the theories that we can use to explain those facts  We are truly standing on the shoulders of giants.  We also have the resources to circulate this information freely and easily, which is unprecedented in human history.  So how about instead of “sharing” the latest meme on the newest miracle cure that was tried and thrown out back in the Dark Ages, or the hottest shocking scandal that never took place, we put some of these resources to good use?