Tuesday 3 October 2017

Engage brain before opening mouth

We've had an earful of free speech recently. The problem with free speech is that it costs nothing. But that doesn't mean that there are no consequences to your statements. If you tell lies on the campaign trail, you may be unable to fulfill your promises. But in current political discourse - Brexit in the UK, Trump in the USA, Free Water in Ireland - truth doesn't count and if the numbers don't add up (now or later), then who cares? It's hard enough to get to truth in a complex world without throwing known nonsense into the mill. There was a time when journalists worked hard at their craft: behind every newspaper story, every radio segment, every TV programme, there were hours of research and interviews and a pile of material left on the cutting room floor. It seems sometimes as if journalists are just motor-mouths who rock up five minutes before Air-time ready to gab on about whatever turns up. The combination of a talking head with a fossilised mind embedded in rock-hard certainties is particularly dangerous because it plays to the prejudices of listeners in a similar demographic. There are a lot of old people out there whose sure foundations - in church, school, state - are being rocked by emergent scandal and a roaring tide of new ideas. They deserve a voice on the airwaves who shares their values and will discuss matters that matter to them. Since the quieting of Gay "Uncle Gaybo" Byrne [83], the grey voice seems to have become George Hook [76]. I had a dig at him recently George Hook blaming everyone including the victim, but he has another case to answer; also related to young women.

Five months ago Hook was cleared of treating debate about the HPV vaccine in an 'ill-informed and irresponsible' manner. But the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland found " . . . the programme had satisfied its own Code of Fairness, Objectivity and Impartiality, but “only in a barely minimal fashion”. It added that the presenter “did not appear to be very familiar with the details of the issue that the programme sought to examine”". The back-story is that Hook interviewed the grandmother of a girl who had experienced adverse effects after a dose of HPV, and then used that anecdote and his own opinion to play the Devils' Advocate while interviewing a paediatrician. Devil's Advocate has an important role in public discourse. Back in the day when he (almost always a he) was Advocatus Diaboli, this person would spend weeks researching in the Vatican archives to make the best case why an holy person should not be made a saint. Devil's Advocate is hard work - he is fighting against the tide of certainty by sowing seeds of doubt. Hook's version of this honourable profession is often to be merely contrary and boorish, because he hasn't [been bothered] done his homework. I came across a classic example of lazy-arsed journalism last week where a new revelatory program was made about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. Amelia Earhart: the lost evidence is on youtube and 84 minutes long. The whole edifice is built on the discovery of a 1937 photograph of two white people on a dock. It took a blogger Kota Yamano 30 minutes to show that the photograph was published in 1935 two years before Earhart's disappearance.

In taking an anti-establishment position on the utility of the HPV vaccine, George Hook was recently and unaccountably joined by the Minister of State for Disability Issues, Finian McGrath [aged 64]. Minister of State, sometimes loosely called a super-junior Minister, is not a cabinet position (that's occupied by the Minister of Health); it is rather a shiny prize given as a reward for supporting the minority government. TDs get paid a basic €90,000, but Ministers of State get an additional €35,000 'allowance' [source]. McGrath is an Independent of a leftist persuasion who has taken several positions of principle in politics. Before he joined the government he had been contacted by concerned parents and called for HPV vaccination to be banned. When this fact was stirred up by The Sunday Times on 3rd September, there was a storm of indignation that one limb of The Man had taken an anti-establishment position. To scotch any suggestion of disagreement in the Ministry of Health, McGrath was publicly put back in his box and made to retract his earlier rebel roar. Seems a little luke-warm to me "On the issue of the HPV vaccine, I did raise concerns about it when in opposition last year. I stand over the fact that I raised it because concerned parents asked me to raise it. Parents have a right to voice any concerns they have relating to vaccines or any form of medication being introduced for their children. Personally and as Minister of State with responsibility for Disabilities, I do accept that such vaccines are a very important part of Government health strategy." Being humiliated like that does nobody any good. The Min O'Health looks like a bully; his Junior's street-cred is undermined; the seeds of doubt about HPV/Gardasil are re-sown.

It's a long, long time since they were in school doing sums but, as public voices, Hook and McGrath, need to reflect on the consequences of their statements. By questioning the utilitarian value of HPV vaccines and/or emphasising the downside while ignoring the benefits, these two old boys are helping to slump the uptake of the (free) vaccine among pubescent girls from 90% [and effective herd immunity] to 50% and a likely toll of 30 excess deaths every year from cervical cancer in the future. Neither Hook nor McGrath is likely to be alive to see the first cases diagnosed when the unvaccinated girls approach middle age. Whether it is worth €million$ now to achieve that distant aim is an entirely other question which nobody is prepared to address.

And now Alphonsus Cullinan [aged 58], Catholic Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, has added his 2c worth of data-free opinion to the debate. Last week he went contra HPV vaccination because he imagined it would lead to promiscuity among girls. Even admitting that teenagers are hormone-driven mad-things incapable of rational thought, I cannot see how vaccination and promiscuity would connect in someone's mind. I can see it for contraception (another issue on which the RCs are strongly contra). Falling pregnant makes school and college life much more difficult and must be a risk put in the balance by any girl with a ha'porth of imagination. But a small increase in the risk of getting one form of cancer in 30 years time?  Would a normal girl really let that weigh significantly in the balance? "If I get vaccinated against HPV, I can reduce risk in future sexual encounters"?; I don't think so. I don't think the Bishop has really thought this one through. It looks more like a bluff oldish chap, who is faith-bound to deplore sex out of wedlock, is just dumping all those sexy-things in the same dark box and determined that HPV vaccination is bad because it's only really relevant in sexual [and cancer] politics.  In fairness to The Bish, yesterday, he uttered a humble apology for being confused and confusing. "I was not fully informed about the vaccination programme and I can see now how HPV vaccines can contribute greatly to lowering the rate of cervical cancer. As I have learnt, possession of full information is paramount on this vital health issue."
Poor Simon Harris (31 although he looks an earnest, and here quite cross, 13), the Minister of Health decisively and rather disrespectfully put the Bish back in his box; denouncing the old boy as ignorant and pathetic. Harris, rather naively but he's only young, is deferring to another sort of authority figure with a stethoscope and black bag to vehemently assert that the matter was simply a medical issue, by which he really meant a mathematical balance-of-probability issue. But it's also an economic issue. I've roughed out the cost at €120,000,000 so far paid to Merck for Gardasil aliquots. That would go a long way to fund research into cervical cancers, not just the proportion of them which are triggered by HPV. I keep it simple here: you can think what €120m would do for a simple, unsexy campiagn in driver education or suicide awareness. It will do nothing for homelessness, so forget that: 8,000 people, incl. 3,000 kids, are living in hotel rooms this week in Ireland; but the Gardasil Discretionary Fund GDF would only build 600 starter homes.

George, Finian, Alphonus, I've done a bit of leg work on the matter:
HPV I - HPV 2 - HPV 3 - Before you make up your mind or open your mouth at least read those pieces - take you ten minutes, boys.

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