The new normal

Hindenburg burning“Oh, the humanity,” cried Herbert Morrison, as he watched in horror as the giant airship, the Hindenburg, burst into flames at its mooring. The year was 1937, and Morrison’s words still echo down the decades. As the disaster unfolded in front of him, Morrison exclaimed, “…it’s falling, it’s crashing! Watch it, watch it, folks! Get out of the way, get out of the way! … Oh, the humanity… This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.”

Eighty-three years later, uttering those words of anguish and disbelief wouldn’t be out of place in an eyewitness account of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. They’d be particularly apt when standing in front of a Talibangelist megachurch packed with worshippers while the sane world is in lockdown. Or commenting on the armed proto-fascists protesting lockdown in states that Donald Trump wants to win next November. Or the crowds of self-absorbed and immature people in Florida and California breaking social-distancing rules to demand state governments open beaches so they can party.

In the aftermath of the Hindenburg, travel by airship virtually ceased and the industry died. Air travel never returned to a pre-Hindenburg “normal.”

But as COVID-19 spreads and continues to wreak havoc on communities, businesses, and economies, many of our leaders and indeed citizens believe that it will simply pass, after which we will return to a pre-coronavirus “normal.” Things, they tell us, will go back to the way they were and we will continue on as we did before the pandemic. Things will be “normal” again.

Not only will that not happen, it should not. Normal is what got us into the mess. Normal caused the problems and if we go backward, we will only repeat them in the very near future.

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Dandelions and civilization

Whenever I see a lawn with dandelions, I think, “This is the home of civilized people. This is the home of people who care about the environment and their community. This is where bees are welcome.”

When I see a monoculture lawn, bereft of weeds or dandelions, I think, “Here is the home of an anti-social family; a place where life is restricted, wildlife discouraged; where community and the environment don’t matter.”

I feel the same when I see a lawn sign advertising that an anti-“weed” toxin has been applied: “Here is the house of someone who dislikes their neighbours, the local wildlife, and pets.” It’s the home of someone who doesn’t care about their and their neighbours’ drinking water, either, because everyone knows that those poisons drain off into our local water supplies and eventually poison everyone.

Bland lawns bereft of texture and colour, bereft of even a single dandelion just seem so artificial, so hostile, so arrogant. So anti-bee, so anti-life, so impoverished.

Dandelions, on the other hand, are a bright icon of civilization and conscience. After all, who doesn’t know that bees and other pollinators are in trouble, are suffering from the excesses of toxins sprayed egregiously on lawns and fields? Who really believes a drab, one-colour lawn is more attractive, let alone beneficial than a flower garden?

Dandelions have a long, storied history in human company: brought over from Europe in the 17th century for their healing properties, they have spread across the continent. 

Weeds get a bad rap, says Dan Kraus, national conservation biologist at the Nature Conservancy of Canada:

Weed is a very subjective term. There is no scientific definition that says: this is a weed, this is not a weed. They’re basically plants that are in a place where people don’t want them. People consider dandelions to be a weed, but if you just change your mind about dandelions, and you don’t mind them on your lawn, then they’re no longer a weed.

Just google lawns and weeds and up pop a horde of commercial sites offering to cleanse your lawn of weeds, mostly by spraying some toxic concoction on them that will also poison wildlife and your drinking water. And they do it for money, of course.  But that’s modern life and the culture of me-me-me: as long as your lawn is perfect, who cares the consequences?

Lawns have a long history, mostly as status symbols rather than anything useful. The word itself comes to us from the Old Enligh launde, meaning a communal grazing space. It devolved into laune by 1540. Back in Henry III ‘s time it meant a private area exquisitely and laboriously manicured (first by livestock, then by peasants’ hands, and later by paid workers) to show off your wealth and status. Nothing communal about them.

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Hegseth, hand washing and social media

Fox News host Pete Hegseth has said on air that he has not washed his hands for 10 years because “germs are not a real thing”.

That’s the headline you read on dozens of media sites and shared throughout social media (this one from BBC News). Instant reactions (mine included) were “ewwww…” followed by negative comments on Fox News in general. But when you stop to think about it, could it be true? Can someone actually go a decade without washing his hands?

No. Surely he bathes or showers regularly. One can’t believe a TV show host would be so unhygienic. His co-hosts would surely comment. Maybe he’s not as observant of the niceties of personal hygiene as others, but a whole decade?

And face it, it’s difficult to believe that even a Fox News host is so stupid as to not believe in germs. Alex Jones, and maybe the other fringe wingnuts like anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers could believe such piffle, but surely not a mainstream media host with a university education. Could he? OMG!!!! the tweets erupted.

Predictably, social media lit up like a pinball machine over this comment. So Hegseth tried to explain:

Mr Hegseth later told USA Today that his remarks were intended to be a joke.
“We live in a society where people walk around with bottles of Purell (a hand sanitiser) in their pockets, and they sanitise 19,000 times a day as if that’s going to save their life,” he said.
“I take care of myself and all that, but I don’t obsess over everything all the time.”
Of the public reaction, he said it was ridiculous how people took things so “literally and seriously” so that their “heads explode”.

He’s right. We react and often over-react. We are knee-jerk trained. Social media has made us into Pavlovian emotional hair-triggers. I am sometimes guilty of it, too, because I am as susceptible to confirmation bias as everyone else. No matter how hard I try to use reason, sometimes those eager little response hormones kick in first. Having our beliefs confirmed is comforting and reinforces them.

But Hegseth’s joke, if indeed it was one, didn’t get everyone laughing. It was a joke without a punchline. A lot of people believed it was true. And others found fault his later explanation, as noted in The Guardian:

On Twitter on Monday, Hegseth gave mixed messages. He claimed he had been joking and paraphrased the president in blaming the media for being so “self-righteous and angry”. He also said he supported drinking from hosepipes and riding bikes without a helmet…

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Local media is letting us down

Doesn't understandRule number one in The Elements of Journalism is: “journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.” Number three is “Its essence is a discipline of verification.” Keep those two in mind as you read this.

I recognize that local reporting is not always the same calibre as the investigative journalism we expect from national media, but in my view (and experience as a former reporter and editor), blindly accepting claims about health, wellness or science without questioning, let alone confirming them through a credible source, and then repeating those statements in a story is not responsible reporting. It’s just typing.

There’s a recent story on Collingwood Today titled, “Firefighters getting charged up by new wellness device” that strikes me as a good example of poor journalism. The story is about Collingwood’s Fire Department buying a mat,

…called a Seqex, and it uses Pulsed Electromagnetic Field therapy to help the firefighters detox, relax, and heal when necessary.
The device comes from Health Wellness Industries in Collingwood, where the owner and president Kim Sartor has built a business selling and offering treatments in the Seqex system.

The manufacturer is SISTEMI SRL (Italian Society of Seqex Electro Medical and Innovative Technologies), and they have numerous products all that start with Seqex, such as Seqex Fam and Seqex Radiant Mat. Which particular one this is could have been easily confirmed with a five-second internet search. Or maybe a single question. Several Seqex products were recalled in 2016, by the way, because the company didn’t have a licence to sell them in Canada until late 2017.

You already know from many, many science-based articles debunking it that detox is New Age woo hoo, not a treatment, nor a cure. It is, as Science-Based Medicine calls it, “Ritual purification masquerading as medicine and wellness.” The site also notes, “Detox Scams are Worthless and Potentially Dangerous” and calls it “a marketing strategy… designed to treat a nonexistent condition.” Any detoxification your body does is through your liver, colon and kidneys not through smoothies or electromagnetic stimulation. That too, a reporter could easily establish. And no, you can’t sweat out toxins in a sauna, either because of simple biology: “Humans sweat to cool ourselves, not to excrete waste products or clear toxic substances.”

The “Seqex is a Class 2 medical device, which means it can be used without a doctor administering it – similar to a sleep apnea machine.”

That doesn’t explain what the classification means. All medical devices need to be licensed in Canada.

Class categorization is a risk evaluation, not a determination of efficacy or wellness. In Canada, “Medical devices are classified into one of Classes I to IV by means of the classification rules set out in Schedule 1, where Class I represents the lowest risk and Class IV represents the highest risk.” A licence doesn’t mean it works as advertised; just that it meets labelling and safety standards: see Section 32.2 of the law. Licensing relies on the manufacturer’s attestation that it’s safe and meets these requirements:

-certification that device is manufactured according to international Quality Management System standard.-manufacturer’s attestation that device satisfies the safety, effectiveness in MDR (Medical Device Regulations); labelling reviewed.

Other Class II medical devices include contact lenses, epidural catheters, pregnancy kits and surgical gloves.

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What is science? It’s not this stuff.


Recently in a Facebook post, two of us were squabbling in typical Facebook-fashion over “alternative medicine” and related treatments (many of which came into the discussion as links to pseudoscience and/or charlatan’s websites).

As is my wont, I continued to debunk these with links to actual medical sites and discussions on the topic from health services, universities and real doctors. The other person posted a link to a piece that had Dr. Nuzum – a naturopath*, not a medical doctor, who promotes himself and his products heavily on YouTube and social media – comment thus on fingernail ridges:

“…in oriental medicine, we have—there are ridges that go long ways down from the cuticle to the end of your fingernail. That is from gut inflammation, gut dysbiosis, and mineral deficiencies are what that points to.
Lines that go across the fingernail, those again, in oriental medicine, that would indicate an oxygen deficiency or not getting enough oxygen into your system.
“So, if you have the lines going from the cuticle to the tip of the finger, that typically, in oriental medicine, indicates gut dysbiosis, or gut inflammation, and nutritional deficiencies.
“And so, if you have lines going down your fingernails, the types of things you want to be looking at would be green foods, probiotics, minerals, multivitamin-type supplements. Those are the types of things that you would want to use.
…If there’s a line going across the fingernail, that points to an oxygen or breathing deficiency. And that would be something we’d need exercise and proper diet, and things that would support lung health and gut health at the same time to correct those.”

Caveat Emptor!The type of things he recommends are, of course, the very products he sells on his own website and promotes online (ka-ching!). But remember his advice about treating vertical lines:  vitamin supplements; and for horizontal lines (also known as Beau’s lines, a medical term which Nuzum doesn’t use – and may not even know): exercise and diet (spoiler alert: the latter is dangerous claptrap).

When I called it (and some similar New Age health posts that lacked proper scientific citation) baloney on Facebook, my verbal opponent posted this response:

…anything can be debunked! I agree science can disprove so many things. I am not encouraging ignoring allopathic medical care. I also believe choices in medical care should be presented.

Well, that’s not true. You cannot debunk gravity, for example. Or the speed of light. Or the body’s need for oxygen. Or a spherical earth, evolution, the electromagnetic spectrum, the temperature to boil water, photosynthesis and so on. Scientists may dispute the causes or effects of some phenomena such as climate change, or black holes, microwave radiation, or the extinction of the dinosaurs, the existence of a Higgs-boson particle, and supersymmetric string theory, but not to debunk them: to understand and more fully define them. Scientists endeavour to either fit new ideas into our existing knowledge or to revise that knowledge to accommodate new discoveries.

You can, however, debunk water having feelings, homeopathy, astrology, UFO abductions, chemtrails, detoxing, pH balancing, psychics, ghosts, healing crystals,  the anti-gluten fad, the anti-GMO fad, the anti-vaccination fad, magic, reflexology, iridology, reiki, channelling dead people, Donald Trump’s claims about immigration and a whole lot of other silly, New Age, sometimes dangerous, and always unfactual things.

And from every thing I’ve read so far, you can also debunk what “Dr” Nuzum says about fingernails. Quite easily, in fact. But first…

I shouldn’t have to caution readers about taking advice about food and diet from the people who want to sell you the methods, products and services they say you need. But just in case you missed it the first thousand times I warned you about it: don’t take medical, dietary or health advice only from the people who sell or manufacture the products they recommend you need to be healthy. Demand to see the peer-reviewed studies that prove the efficacy of what they promote BEFORE you shell out money for them. If the seller hasn’t got any proper in vivo studies to support their claims, you’re being conned.

I hope that will be the last time I need to remind you. And I really shouldn’t have to remind you about taking advice from people with diploma-mill certificates, either. So let’s move on.

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The slow death of reading

To me, one of the most depressing stories to come out of 2018 was posted in The Guardian, last August. Its headline read, “Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound.” Its subhead reads, “When the reading brain skims texts, we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings or to perceive beauty. We need a new literacy for the digital age.”

As an avid reader who has a dozen books or so on the go at any time, this is a troubling trend that bodes ill for our collective future and our collective intelligence. We are headed towards a very disparate society of readers and non-readers, literates and non-literates – rather like H. G. Wells’ Morlocks and Eloi.* The author writes,

Unbeknownst to most of us, an invisible, game-changing transformation links everyone in this picture: the neuronal circuit that underlies the brain’s ability to read is subtly, rapidly changing – a change with implications for everyone from the pre-reading toddler to the expert adult.

The author of the piece, neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, wrote a similar article in The Guardian in 2011 that was titled, “Will the speed of online reading deplete our analytic thought?” Given the rising gullibility of people for codswallop and pseudoscience like the anti-vaxxers, gluten-free fads, astrology, homeopathy, flat earth, creationism and Donald Trump, the answer to that question is a resounding “yes!” A lot of online comment (hardly anything that can be called debate) over major issues is reduced to bumper-sticker slogans and ideological platitudes. I blame it on the reduction of deep reading: too many people don’t take time to read and analyze – i.e. to think.

When the reading brain skims like this, it reduces time allocated to deep reading processes. In other words, we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of the reader’s own.**

One of the most important concepts presented in the first piece is:

My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight. Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential “deep reading” processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading.

In other words, the less we read, the dumber we get. All part of the Great Dumbing Down that the internet and social media in particular have accelerated (it really began with TV replacing print media, but that’s another story). This is echoed in part by neuroscientist Susan Greenfield who said in an interview in the New Scientist that our very brain structures are changing through online activity. And not in a good way.

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