Here are a two more songs about vaccines:
Here are a two more songs about vaccines:
I have recently been reading Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science, which is based on his Guardian column of the same name. In the column Goldacre takes a satirical look at the media’s lack of accuracy when covering science. Goldacre doesn’t believe in the motto “if you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” He directs his barbs at pseudoscience, quackery and health scares. He is most definitely not a fan of Gillian McKeith, the Holistic Nutritionist and presenter of Channel 4’s You Are What You Eat. Here is a selection of my favourite quotes from the book:
But these are just stories, and the plural of anecdote is not data.
Most people know that homeopathic remedies are diluted to such an extent that there will be no molecules of it left in the dose you get. What you might not know is just how far these remedies are diluted. The typical homeopathic dilution is 30C: this means that the original substance has been diluted by one drop in a hundred, thirty times over. In the ‘What is homeopathy?’ section on the Society of Homeopaths’ website, the single largest organisation for homeopaths in the UK will tell you that ‘30C contains less than one part per million of the original substance.’
‘Less than one part per million’ is, I would say, something of an understatement: a 30C homeopathic preparation is a dilution of one in 10030, or rather 1060, or one followed by sixty zeroes. To avoid any misunderstandings, this is a dilution of one in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, or, to phrase it in the Society of Homeopaths’ terms, ‘one part per million million million million million million million million million million’. This is definitely ‘less than one part per million of the original substance’.
For perspective, there are only around 100,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Imagine a sphere of water with a diameter of 150 million kilometres (the distance from the earth to the sun). It takes light eight minutes to travel that distance. Picture a sphere of water that size, with one molecule of a substance in it: that’s a 30C dilution.*
The Daily Mail in particular has become engaged in a bizarre ongoing ontological project, diligently sifting through all the inanimate objects of the universe in order to categorise them as a cause of—or cure for—cancer. At the core of this whole project are a small number of repeated canards, basic misunderstandings of evidence which recur with phenomenal frequency.
Soon these food marketing techniques were picked up by more overtly puritanical religious zealots like John Harvey Kellogg, the man behind the cornflake. Kellogg was a natural healer, anti-masturbation campaigner, and health food advocate, promoting his granola bars as the route to abstinence, temperance and solid morals. He ran a sanatorium for private clients, using ‘holistic’ techniques, including Gillian McKeith’s favourite, colonic irrigation.
Kellogg was also a keen anti-masturbation campaigner. He advocated exposing the tissue on the end of the penis, so that it smarted with friction during acts of self-pollution (and you do have to wonder about the motives of anyone who thinks the problem through in that much detail). Here is a particularly enjoyable passage from his Treatment for Self-Abuse and its Effects (1888), in which Kellogg outlines his views on circumcision:
The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anaesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment. In females, the author has found the application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement.
I’m going to push the boat out here, and suggest that since you’ve bought this book you may already be harbouring some suspicions about multi-millionaire pill entrepreneur and clinical nutritionist Gillian McKeith (or, to give her full medical title: Gillian McKeith).
I once saw a bloke at the opening of a Jackson Pollock exhibition in the Tate, wearing a T-shirt that said: “my cat could do better”. What, you may be wondering, has that got to do with Dr Gillian McKeith (PhD)? Well now. Besides her PhD, which we have already discussed, there were a few other interesting entries on her CV. For example, she is proud to announce under “Professional Associations” that she is a certified member of the American Association of Nutritional Consultants (AANC), which certainly sounds impressive. I bet you get a little certificate and everything.
In fact, I know you get a certificate, because I’m holding it in my hand right now. It’s in the name of my cat, Henrietta. I got it in return for $60, and it’s a particular honour since dear, sweet, little Hettie died about a year ago. So, coming in a bit cheaper than Gillian’s non-accredited correspondence course PhD and Masters degrees (although she will have got a discount from “Clayton College of Natural Health” if she ordered them both at once), it looks as if all you need to be a certified member of the AANC is a name, an address, and a spare $60. You don’t need to be human. You don’t even need to be alive. No exam. No check-up on your qualifications. And no assessment of your practice. I guess that could be embarrassing for some of their certified professional members. Presumably, the diploma is there to certify that you have $60.
….. But back to the money: if anybody wants nutritional advice from the decomposing corpse of my ex-cat, I shall be setting up a small shrine at the bottom of the garden, where you can leave chewed mice, ready cash, and offers of a primetime TV series on Channel 4.
The man who invented the stock market bubble
We have had an endless diet of financial scandals in recent years but there is nothing new under the sun as the case of the Scottish economist John Law demonstrates. Law was born into a family of bankers and goldsmiths from Fife in 1871. At the age of fourteen Law joined the family business, where he worked and learned the ropes, until the death of his father in 1688. This led Law to abandon the firm and go off to London where he lost a fortune gambling. Things were about to get worse for the young Law. On 9 April 1694, he fought a duel with Edward Wilson over the affections of one Elizabeth Villiers. Wilson was killed, and Law was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. This sentence was commuted to a fine for manslaughter but when Wilson’s brother appealed the sentence, Law was imprisoned. However, he managed to escape to Amsterdam. At this time the city was the world capital of financial innovation – with the world’s first central bank and the invention of the company. This was the perfect place for Law and he was able to amass a huge fortune through financial speculation. It also gave his some ideas about financial engineering – he now needed a country where he could apply them.
In 1705, he returned to Scotland, and wrote a book – Money and Trade considered, with a Proposal for Supplying the Nation with Money. The same year, he made a proposal to the Scottish Parliament for the establishment of a national bank, but his suggestion was turned down. He would have to take his schemes back to the continent.
In 1715, he settled in France, and soon came to the attention of the rakish Philippe Duc d’Orleans, Regent for the young king of France. Both Law and the Duke enjoyed frequenting gambling dens. In 1715 Philippe succeeded his uncle and would be Regent to the new king five-year old Louis XV, until 1723. Law now had his foot in the door. In 1716 he persuaded the Duke to allow him to set up the Banque Generale with the power to issue banknotes. Although it was a private bank, three quarters of the capital consisted of government bills and government accepted notes. The economic difficulties faced by the French government gave Law just the opportunity he had been waiting for to put his revolutionary ideas into practice.
We need to look at the historical context of these events. Under Louis XIV France had been at war with England for many years and this left the French economy with its rampant inflation shortage of coins and unstable prices, in a parlous state. It was on the verge of bankruptcy. Law’s plan was to convert government debt from fixed-rate annuities to shares paying a lower rate. He was going to create the Dutch model but on steroids combining a trading company and a public bank.
In 1817 the Banque Generale became the Banque Royale. Not content with having the French money supply under his tutelage, he then sought the trading concessions of the Compagnie d’Occident and he also had the Royal Mint. This was not a good idea because it gave Law and the Regent the incentive to print money. Law floated the Compagnie d’Occident as the Mississippi Company, which owned a quarter of what is now the United States in the Companie were originally issued at 500 livres, but rose to 10,000 livres in the course of 1719. When the Companie issued a 40% dividend in 1720, the share price rocketed to 18,000 livres, far-outstripping the capital base of the Companie. This was the biggest financial bubble in history, surpassing what happened in the United States in the 1920s before the onset of the great Depression. The atmosphere is captured by these observations from the time:
It is inconceivable what wealth there is in France now. Everybody speaks in millions. I don’t understand it at all. But I see clearly that the God Mammon reigns an absolute monarch in Paris.
The problem was that the Mississippi Company was based on marketing and had little fundamental value it was basically a Ponzi scheme. In 1720 after those spectacular gains, speculators resolved to take their profits and run. The share price dropped as dramatically as it had risen. As panic set in investors sought to redeem their bank notes and promissory notes, but the Companie did not have the funds it and went bankrupt. In 1720 with a false passport in his hand, Law fled France returned to his nomadic existence, and died, penniless, in Venice in 1729.
What about the consequences for France? It set back French finances and Louis XV and Louis XVI were permanently hamstrung by a lack of resources, surely one of the most important factors behind the revolution of 1789. Interestingly Britain suffered a similar crisis, The South Sea Bubble, but it did not have the same disastrous effect. The British government took a too-big-to-fail stance, nationalising the company and a resolution was proposed in parliament that bankers be tied up in sacks filled with snakes and tipped into the murky Thames. The lesson I would draw is that is that venality is a constant theme in society but it is also important not to renounce financial innovation completely. Financial innovation has also created a lot of wealth and it would be a grave mistake to throw out the baby with the bath water.
The People’s Atheist
Clinton Richard Dawkins was born on 26 March 1941 in Nairobi, Kenya, which at that time was a British colony. His father had gone to Kenya with the British army but the family returned to England when Dawkins was eight. He had what he calls “a normal Anglican upbringing“, but by the age of nine he had already started doubting the existence of God. In 1959 he went to Balliol College, Oxford to study zoology, where he was tutored by Nobel Prize-winning ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen, a pioneer in the study of animal behaviour.
In 1976 Dawkins came into the public eye when his book The Selfish Gene came out. It popularised the gene-centred view of evolution and introduced the term meme. This neologism coined by Dawkins refers to any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that is transmitted by non-genetic means from one mind to another. Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, practices, clothes fashions, habits, songs, dances, ways of making pots and the technology of building arches. They are the cultural counterparts of genes. Dawkins has argued that when a fertile meme is planted in your mind it literally parasitises your brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitise the genetic mechanism of a host cell.
Dawkins has also been an outspoken critic of creationism and intelligent design. His 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker, was a refutation of intelligent design theory. William Paley had argued that if you were you were walking along and you found a watch lying on the ground, you could not possibly imagine that something so complex had been assembled by chance. There had to have been a maker. Paley went on to argue that the complex structures of living things and the adaptations of plants and animals required an intelligent designer. For Dawkins evolutionary processes are analogous to a blind watchmaker; there is no need for a creator to intervene.
Dawkins’s most recent book The God Delusion is an atheist polemic from its uncompromising title. It is actually one of number of such books published in the last few years. I’m not sure what has brought on this trend – probably it is a reaction to the rise in fundamentalisms that has become apparent. These books have been a great publishing success and there have also been initiatives such as those atheist buses. Dawkins has been criticised for his understanding of theology. The most famous criticism came in a scathing review in The London Review of Books by Terry Eagleton:
“Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” I happen to think this criticism is wrong. You don’t have to be an expert on Tarot cards to critique it. Dawkins is a biologist, not a philosopher. He is studying religion as a natural phenomenon. Dawkins has come under fire for a death – the tragic suicide of 22-year-old Jesse Kilgore. Kilgore, who had been challenged to read The God Delusion by a college professor, said that Dawkins’ book had destroyed his belief in God.
As a non-believer I am not unsympathetic to many of Dawkins’s ideas and in his post as Professor for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford he was very effective raising awareness of science. He is always very quotable and has an incredible talent for coining metaphors. However I do think sometimes his role as Darwin’s Rottweiler gets in the way of his message. I think a couple of examples will suffice to show this. Before the 2004 election in the US, Dawkins along with John Le Carré and Antonia Fraser was part of a Guardian initiative to write letters to Americans in Clark County, Dear Clark County voter, Give us back the America we loved. Here’s what he wrote:
“Don’t be so ashamed of your president. The majority of you didn’t vote for him. If Bush is finally elected properly, that will be the time for Americans travelling abroad to simulate a Canadian accent.” The result was he found himself subject to a barrage of abuse from the voters. And the election? Clark was the only county in Ohio that, having voted for Al Gore in 2000, switched over to Bush in 2004.
Dawkins is also a member of a social movement that aims to promote public understanding and acknowledgment of the naturalistic worldview, known as the Brights, which also includes Steven Pinker and philosopher Daniel Dennett. As the mathematician John Allen Paulos has pointed out you don’t need to have a degree in public relations to realise that this will come across as smug, ridiculous, and arrogant. Perhaps I see a little too much intellectual certainty there. There are many very intelligent people, including scientists, who believe in God. The existence of God is an objective question – he either exists or he doesn’t exist- but it is beyond our pattern recognition software to find the truth about thus question. We will always have answers that are at variance.
There is also a tendency to see the abolition of religion as a panacea for all the world’s problems. I think the twentieth century has shown that this is not the case. People commit evil acts with or without religion. Religion does make people do terrible things but it also can make them do wonderfully selfless things. Science is a wonderful too but it cannot tell us what is right or wrong and in my opinion neither can a book written thousands of years ago. We have to discover this for ourselves and it can be a very painful progress. Scientific progress may be linear but moral progress is a completely different enterprise.
You will not like me – John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester
John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, was born at Ditchley in Oxfordshire on either April 1 or 10 1647. This was a tempestuous time in English history. Just two years after his birth King Charles I of England was beheaded and England was without a monarch for ten years. Society was divided politically and religiously and Rochester’s own family reflected these divisions – his father was a Royalist and his mother was a Puritan.
As a child, Rochester had a very solid education; he attended the Burford Grammar School but was also taught by a tutor at home, and was generally considered a model pupil. At the age of 12 he went to Wadham College, Oxford, where, away from his mother’s strict control, a different side of his personality began to emerge, as he started to frequent taverns. At the age of fourteen he received his M.A degree from his uncle, the Earl of Clarendon, who was Chancellor to the University. Then, as was the fashion amongst the English Aristocracy for nearly 200 years, he was sent to round off his education by going on the traditional Grand Tour, taking in Italy and France.
This very polished and sophisticated 18 year-old, then joined the newly restored new court of Charles II, the greatest centre of cultural patronage of its day. This was a period of many cultural, social and gastronomic innovations in England – the first stage actresses (various of whom Rochester would bed), the man’s three-piece suit, those distinctive periwigs, tea, coffee champagne and ice cream. There was a glorious cultural explosion with such figures Dryden, Purcell and Wren to name but three.
Rochester decided he needed to find a wife but he was far from conventional in how he went about it. The target of his affections was one Elizabeth Mallet, an heiress who had caught his eye because of her beauty, intelligence, and immense wealth. Fearing that another suitor might get his hands on her fortune, Rochester decided to kidnap her. Amazingly Elizabeth was impressed by his tactics. The King though was displeased and had Rochester put in the Tower and Elizabeth returned to her parents. It was only a temporary sojourn for Rochester and he finally married Mallet two years later.
The Earl lived a double life – a loving father and family man in the country and a hell-raising boozer and womaniser in London. Rochester’s relationship with Charles was a difficult one. Charles II, whose father had been executed, and who had only escaped capture himself by hiding in an oak tree, was a cynical and pragmatic monarch. After the dour years of Oliver Cromwell’s commonwealth, Charles sought to bring back some splendour to Britain and the Court. He surrounded himself with scientists, architects and he rogered just about any woman who met his gaze. Rochester was not afraid to lampoon Charles to his face and many times the king would banish the disrespectful poet to the country, but he would always relent and invite him back to London, because, despite all his many faults, Rochester was witty and fun to be around. He was an member of the infamous ‘Merry Gang’ at the Court, a sort of seventeenth century “rat pack” who went around getting drunk, brawling, playing pranks and generally raising hell. When he was exiled from Court he would often assume different identities, the most famous one being Doctor Alexander Bendo, a German quack, specializing in fertility treatment. His unconventional treatment would produce positive results – he had soon cuckolded half of London.
On Charles’s death Rochester couldn’t resist sticking the knife in:
Here lies a great and mighty King,
Whose promise none relied on;
He never said a foolish thing,
Nor ever did a wise one.
But Rochester also had his artistic side and in his lifetime he produced sexually explicit poetry. Signor Dildo is the classic example of his bawdy poetic style. The background to this poem is interesting. In 1673 a petition was presented to King Charles, protesting about the proposed marriage of the heir to the throne, Charles’s brother James, Duke of York, to Mary of Modena, an Italian Catholic Princess. They could foresee dangerous consequences of a marriage to a Catholic and urged him forbid any wedding. Wilmot had an alternative take, anticipating the benefits of the aforementioned union, which would see the mass importation of Italian dildos to the delight of English ladies:
You ladies all of merry England
Who have been to kiss the Duchess’s hand,
Pray, did you not lately observe in the show
A noble Italian called Signor Dildo? …
His one play “Sodom or the Quintessence of Debauchery” was banned for obscenity and printed copies were destroyed. The characters have names such as Bolloximian, Cuntigratia, Prickett, and Buggeranthus, which leave little to the imagination. On 16 December Sotheby’s 2004 sold one of the few surviving copies for £45,600.
But his works were much more than just lewd verse. His poem. “Satire Against Reason and Mankind”, with its cynicism about man and rationalism, owes much to the works of philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who died when Rochester was 15. The unifying themes of his poetry are a honesty and a dislike of artifice. They seem to reflect his philosophy of life:
All this with indignation have I hurled
At the pretending part of the proud world,
Who, swollen with selfish vanity, devise
False freedoms, holy cheats, and formal lies
Over their fellow slaves to tyrannize
His constant drinking and wenching were to take their toll on his body and his last few years were full of suffering as he rotted away, afflicted with syphilis and cirrhosis among other illnesses. He finally died on 26 July 1680. He seems to have been an atheist but on his deathbed his mother was anxious for him to repent and it was later claimed that Rochester had returned to the path of righteousness.
In his ‘Lives of the English Poets’ Samuel Johnson gave a damning verdict on Rochester:
“Thus in a course of drunken gaiety and gross sensuality, with intervals of study perhaps yet more criminal, with an avowed contempt of all decency and order, a total disregard to every moral, and a resolute denial of every religious obligation, he lived worthless and useless, and blazed out his youth and his health in lavish voluptuousness; till, at the age of one-and-thirty, he had exhausted the fund of life, and reduced himself to a state of weakness and decay.”
I have to disagree with Johnson. I’m not sure I can say that I like Rochester but the world would have been a duller place without this quintessentially English rake.
This is the first of an occasional series profiling historical figures singers, thinkers etc.
The genocidal wedding singer
At this moment Simon Bikindi, a former wedding singer is locked up in a United Nations Detention Facility (UNDF) in Arusha, Tanzania awaiting a sentence that could see him spend the rest of his life behind bars. The accusations are very serious – writing songs to incite genocide and participating himself in murder. How could an entertainer be accused of such terrible crimes? Hassan Bubacar Jallow, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda said Mr Bikindi, 52, had “used his renowned talent for use in a criminal enterprise”. Who then is this Simon Bikindi and how did he end up in Arusha?
Simon Bikindi was born on 28 September 1954 in a little village called Akanyirabagoyi in Rwanda’s mountainous Gisenyi Province. He was a child prodigy on the inanga, a musical instrument similar to a zither. He went on to become Rwanda’s most popular singer, compared to both Michael Jackson and Gil Scott-Heron. He set powerful rap lyrics in English, French and Kinyarwandan (the language of both Hutus and Tutsis) to traditional tunes. He would also supplement his income by working at weddings for the wealthy. But as Rwanda degenerated into chaos in the 1990’s Bikindi’s career would take a sinister turn.
I need to take a detour here and look at the historical background and how the hatred between Hutus and Tutsis emerged. The stereotype has been (for many Rwandans too) tall, slender Tutsi and shorter, squat Hutu. But with intermarriage it is often very difficult to tell. This was illustrated during the massacres when the Hutu murderers often had to look at identification cards before deciding who they should kill.
Colonialism has undoubtedly played an important role in this conflict. Rwanda was carved up by European colonialist powers in the late nineteenth century. Originally it went to Germany but after WWI it became a Belgian possession. Both the Germans and the Belgians favoured the Tutsis over the Hutus. This was a time of racial pseudoscience and the Tutsis were seen by the Europeans as a superior race -“Caucasians of a lesser breed” as one African writer put it. Belgian rule solidified this racial divide. The Belgian colonisers were utterly obsessed with the differences between Hutu and Tutsi. Scientists arrived to measure skull size. Tutsi’s skulls were bigger, they were taller, and their skin was lighter. The Belgians even went around measuring noses. If all this wasn’t enough they came up with the brilliant idea of issuing each citizen issued with a racial identification card, defining everyone as legally either Hutu or Tutsi. Tutsis began to believe the myth of their racial superiority, and exploited their power over the Hutu majority who thus began to resent them.
It was in 1994 that things came to a head. In April, a plane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana, the president of Rwanda, was shot down. Blaming the Tutsi for his murder, Hutu extremists seized power and launched their own African “final solution” and indeed it was the biggest genocide the world has seen since the Jewish Holocaust – a well-prepared and coordinated plan for the elimination of the Tutsi population as well as Hutu moderates. Many operations were carried out by the army but the Interahamwe, the Hutu militias, were also responsible eliminating the “cockroaches,” the dehumanising term they used for the Tutsi. The genocide ended after 800,000 deaths in 100 days with an invasion in July 1994 by Tutsi-led RPF exiles.
Now we can get back to Bikindi’s role. In the months leading up to the genocide, Bikindi allegedly consulted with the Rwandan government and military authorities about song lyrics that were to be played on the Hutu radio station RTLM (Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines) It is important to understand the significance of radio in Rwanda; almost no one reads newspapers or owns a television, so radio is the thing. The government even gave away free radios as part of its propaganda drive. RTLM was to play a very dark role in Rwanda’s genocide, coordinating the mass killings. As an article from the New York Times put it the radio station “gave death tolls like weather reports and exhorted murder squads to hurry to villages where the work’ wasn’t going fast enough” It was Bikindi’s music that was blaring out during the hundred days of murder and mayhem. Although Bikindi himself was actually out of the country at the beginning of the massacre.
What were these lyrics that have been blamed for inciting genocide? The two songs cited in Bikindi’s indictment for inciting genocide are ”Bene Sebahinzi” (”Sons of the Father of the Farmers”) and ”Nanga Abahutu” (”I Hate Hutus”). The latter song has a curious title. Nowhere in the song are Tutsis mentioned by name. In the song the Bikindi sings about the kind of Hutus he hates – the ones who break ranks with other Hutus.
I hate these Hutus, these de-Hutuized Hutus, who have renounced their identity, dear comrades.
I hate these Hutus, these Hutus who march blindly, like imbeciles.
This species of naïve Hutus who join a war without knowing its cause.
I hate these Hutus who can be brought to kill and who, I swear to you, kill Hutus, dear comrades.
And if I hate them, so much the better.
These songs need to be interpreted. When Bikindi sings about Hutus renouncing their identities he is referring to marrying a Tutsi. And naïve Tutsi are those who supported the invasion. But although Tutsi are not mentioned by name, it is clear that his Hutu audience knew what he was referring to. Eyewitness accounts say that many of the killers sang Bikindi’s songs as they hacked or beat to death hundreds of thousands of Tutsis with their government-issued machetes and homemade clubs.
Bikindi and his lawyers have denied the charges and have used a number of different defence strategies. They say that charges violate his right to freedom of speech. This brings up the whole question of how societies that proclaim free speech deal with those who use that freedom to propagate hatred. The second argument is one that is chillingly familiar to any student of twentieth century history: It was the government that was responsible. Bikindi had to follow the rules – the classic “I was only obeying orders” defence. He sang at government rallies but he was a mere entertainer. It was not his fault that people went around killing each other. He claims that the song ‘Nanga Abahutu’ and the others were in reality a plea to stop the senseless killing. A former mistress, a Tutsi said that he was not the monster that he is being portrayed as. He had actually defended Tutsi neighbours who were being attacked by Hutu thugs. She feels he was just being opportunistic. He actually said: “If I hear the R.P.F. is coming to Kigali next month, I’ll write a song for them.” (The RPF is the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front.) There is another irony here. Although he is also accused of taking part in some killings himself after he returned to Rwanda toward the end of the 100 days, Mr. Bikindi is on trial primarily for his lyrics. If he had “only” killed he may well not have been dragged before the International Criminal Tribunal. It is his songs that converted him in a defendant. Soon we shall find out if he is to spend the rest of his life in prison for those lyrics.