2017 in rapid review

Updated: Jan 26, 2018

In which DRG tests out the new blog with a quick summary of what went down in 2017, replete with his choices for the year's heroes and villains.

So here we are in 2018, gazing back over the last dying embers of a tumultuous year just gone. Politically, the enduring folly of jingoistic nationalism has been on display on both sides of the Atlantic. In America, we've seen the worrying normalisation of naked xenophobia under a president who is the walking embodiment of the Dunning-Kruger effect. In the UK, we've seen the hollow promises of Brexit fall apart at an impressive pace. The very definition of "taking control" has seemingly mutated from claiming all the perks of EU membership with none to the obligations to admitting Britain will be far worse off, but everyone's passports will be blue - despite this being already allowed under EU regulations. Betwixt all this idiocy, Russia has been flexing their impressive dezinformatsiya muscles, exploiting useless idiots left and right of the political spectrum to push their own narratives worldwide. And all this whilst two badly coiffured megalomaniacs with severe insecurity about the size of their genitals threaten each other with nuclear war. Aside from the upheavals in geopolitics, much has been afoot in the world of (bad) science and media too. On top of my day job, I've kept myself fairly busy regarding issues of science and society, whether by writing, giving talks, appearing on radio / television and lobbying for new laws. Highlights of 2017 included...

  • Locking horns in the UK press with Andrew Wakefield (again), and helping to get his anti-vaccine propaganda pulled from London and the European parliament.

  • Mildly irritating the alt-right by pointing out in the Irish Times that scientific racism is light on the science, heavy on the racism.

  • Tackling cancer myths for the Guardian, and biomedical scientist.

  • Debunking claims that WiFi was causing Autism and cancer.

  • Writing pieces for the spectator and Irish Times explaining why cannabis has only very limited medical efficacy and cannot 'cure' cancer.

  • Discussing the HPV vaccine in Irish and European media extensively, and explaining the enduring damage of anti-vaccine narratives.

  • Covering fake cures peddled to the families of autistic people in the Irish Times.

  • Talking about energy future, climate change, and nuclear power for the Guardian.

  • Expanding on the problems of Soviet 'fake news' / AIDs denialism and the growing problem of online echo-chambers for The Guardian.

  • Repeatedly explaining why the ketogenic diet does not cure cancer (seriously).

  • Elaborating on the dangers of conspiratorial thinking to MedScape, and giving talks in Boston and London on the rise of conspiracy theories.

  • Modelling the problem of trustworthiness in the scientific record.

  • Working with TD Kate O'Connell to introduce protections for Irish cancer patients and their families from charlatans and misguided people.

  • Being a Sense About Science panelist on evidence workshops in UK and Brussels, speaking to health protection boards about HPV, cancer patients about the dangers of pseudoscience and to press officers about how to report science.

  • Shooting scenes for a documentary on conspiracy theories for PBS in Chicago.

  • Actual scientific work on charged particles for radiation therapy, a review on hypoxia in cancer, debunking bad science and publish or perish models.

  • Accidentally creating a viral kerfuffle about Ryan-air scratch card statistics.

By and large, these were well-received and hopefully did some good. I strongly feel that scientists should contribute as much as they can to public understanding of science and medicine, which is a major part of my motivation for doing all this. I've also done this long enough to know some ideological resistance to evidence-based positions is inevitable - even got the award the prove it. 2017 saw my name constantly invoked like some nefarious bogeyman by anti-vaccine activists, who apparently cannot distinguish between a physicist and a pharmacist. I tend not to delve down the rabbit-hole of conspiratorial blog-posts or below-the-line comments anymore, but when they were occasionally forwarded on to me I was amused to see they may as well have pinned me as some cross between the zodiac killer and Lord Lucan. I was less amused by the shower of anti-vaccine homeopaths who contacted my universities and demanded I be stripped of my medical license (again, physicist) but I've become inured to such tactics over the years, and am lucky to have institutional support for my outreach work. I incurred the wrath of the cannabis-cures-everything brigade too, which lead to the unedifying spectacle of an Irish political party abusing people on twitter. It is unlikely Celebrity Chef Domini Kemp or her partners will be inviting me to any birthday parties after I criticised their dangerously misleading claims regarding cancer and the ketogenic diet. I'll be in good company though, as they won't be inviting the Irish cancer society, the ASAI or INDI for the same reasons. So no low-carb cakes for us then. My mail-haul was rounded out by some furious homeopaths towards the end of the year, outraged that the new law we're proposing to protect patients with chronic conditions means they mightn't be able to peddle overpriced water as a cure for cancer.

All in all a pretty busy year, but I would also like to take a moment to say a big than you to some folks I think have done sterling work this year in flying the flag for science. So in no particular order, here are some of my 2017 heroes (twitter handle included when available, as they're all worth following on the world's biggest echo-chamber!).

Dr. Ciara Kelly - Ciara has done terrific work in promoting public discussions about science and health. She's endured the wrath of the anti-vaccine movement, and has insisted on avoiding false balance in her radio shows, marking a welcome change to what usually passes for debate on health topics.

Fiona O'Leary - Fiona is an autism rights campaigner with seemingly inexhaustible supplies of energy. She has uncovered numerous scams pitched at the families of autistic people, and has been subjected to dog's abuse for the very same. I've witnessed first hand (and sometimes shared) some of the abuse Fiona gets, and her persistence is testament to her desire to protect vulnerable people from charlatans and fools.

Prof. David Colquhoun FRS - David has long been a stalwart against pseudoscience, and a champion of scientific integrity. 2017 saw him pushing for better understanding of statistics for scientists, and avoidance of false positives in published science.

Kate O'Connell TD - Kate has been simply exceptional throughout 2017 on matters of public policy, from abortion rights to the cannabis bill. It is a pleasure and marked change for me to work with a politician with such a keen respect for evidence-based policy. While both her and I have been subjected to abuse over cannabis bill and cancer act, the abuse aimed at Kate has tellingly been so much more misogynistic than the bile flung at me. That Kate dismisses this with the contempt it deserves is inspiring.

Tom Chivers - There are lots of excellent science journalists, but Tom is one of the finest. Throughout 2017 he probed some excellent stories that other outlets didn't cover. He's currently finishing his new book, and will be missed from journalism.

Prof. Dorothy Bishop FRS - Dorothy is not only a brilliant academic, but someone deeply committed to scientific integrity. I had the pleasure of working with her in 2017 a paper and pre-print debunking false claims about WiFi, autism, and cancer.

Prof. John Ioannidis - When it comes to understanding the state of scientific publishing, there is no one in the world on a level with John. It was my absolute pleasure to work with him in 2017 on modelling impact of Publish or Perish pressures on science.

Dr Jen Gunter - Jen has persistently tackled dubious myths about sex and the female body for years now. 2017 saw her especially busy (but on cracking form) dismantling the bizarre vagina-related products hawked by GOOP and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Prof. Edzard Ernst - Edzard has long annoyed both purveyors of snake-oil and members of the British Royal family in equal measure, and 2017 was no exception. Such undertakings warm my evidence-based anti-monarchist heart.

Britt Marie Hermes - Britt has a traveled a fascinating path from naturopathic doctor to critic number one of her former profession. She's currently being sued for just that, and if you can spare a few quid please do donate here.

Prof. David Gorski - as thorns in the sides of cranks go, David is an especially deep seated one and needs no introduction.

Susan Mitchell - Susan has been an excellent medical journalist, and willing to delve into stories to uncover truths. Her expose of the nasty tactics underpinning anti-vaccine group REGRET was extremely important in turning public opinion.

Dr Robert O'Connor - Rob is the head research at the Irish cancer society, and a gentleman. 2017 saw us in various scraps together, most notably with the ketogenic diet evangelists and the anti-HPV vaccine groups. Throughout it all, Rob kept a level head and pushed for evidence-based patient well-being despite the abuse being hurled.

I also attended my first ever QED this year, and had the pleasure of meeting many of those writers and skeptics I admire, plus acquiring an incredible hangover I blame chiefly on Gorski and Britt. Huge thanks to the QED team (Marsh, Alice, Andy, Geoff, etc) for arranging the whole thing! My villains of 2017 are chiefly politicians and media outlets who should know better than to make dangerous claims in the public sphere. There's too many to list but a sampling would include

  • Gino Kenny and People Before Profit for repeatedly making misleading claims about cannabis and cancer / abusing those who had criticisms.

  • MEP Michèle Rivasi for inviting Andrew Wakefield to speak at EU parliament.

  • Donald Trump for pretty much everything.

  • The ketogenic kitchen and disciples for continuing to run ketogenic-diet-cures cancer nonsense and for their aggressive sock-puppets.

  • Slate for running a discredited anti-vaccine scare story as an 'investigation'.

  • Hotpress Magazine for yet again peddling anti-fluoride crankology.

To conclude, I'd like to thank you for reading what I do. I would also like to thank people for their support - while my skin has grown quite thick over the years, the relentless nastiness of online discourse on some topics can be quite hard to endure, and many of you have made that much easier to take. I'd especially like to thank Anita Byrne, Ronan McManus, Padraig Mcloughlin, Bernie Quinn, Jen Keane, Sueanne Moore, Daniel Murray, Leonie Hillard, Ken Mitchell, Stephanie Davey, Gerry Byrne, Sophie Cremen, Theresa Newman, David Basanta and many, many others for keeping me sane throughout the weirder episodes.

Hopefully a few new projects I can't yet speak about will be announced soon. Here's to a happy and evidence based 2018!

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