Sunday, 28 October 2007

On Wine and Scientific Committees


One of the principle faculties you are expected to possess in order to claim membership of the upper middle class is an ability to pick out a fine wine. Unfortunately, I am decidedly ignorant on the subject, but I do have a better than average grasp of human history. Hence when I am despatched by my spouse to Londis to pick out some red wine for the evening ahead I invariably stick to familiar ground and plump for a bottle from the country with the worst record of human rights abuses. For someone like me who is woefully uninformed when it comes down to understanding the complex soil and climate variations that combine to produce a decent bottle of merlot, this approach has serious merits. Having shifted the logic of purchase, those once incomprehensible rows of bottles arrange themselves into some kind of order. Should I pick out a Chilean red because of the crimes of General Pinochet?, or are these outweighed by the apartheid era embroiled in the South African cape wine or the Aboriginal genocide encapsulated in the fruity Australian red?. Or perhaps I shouldn’t be drinking anything at all seeing as I am already over my recommended weekly limit of 21 units.

Last weeks news that this recommended safe units of alcohol limit was a purely random figure plucked out the air by a pompous scientific committee comes as no surprise. My science teachers at school were some of the most loathsome human beings I have encountered, and their illustrious counterparts in the research labs and universities seem to follow this pattern. So far, in my lifetime, these kill joys have proclaimed the non-existence of God, launched into dire tirades concerning the evils of alcohol, tobacco and obesity and, as the pi├Ęce de r├ęsistance, demonised us for destroying the world with our gas guzzling motorcars, our resource wasting refrigerators and our callous abuse of our TV’s standby function. They remind me of the 19th century lay preacher who decries his congregation every Sunday for their rampant sinfulness and vice. Strange how, despite our supposedly post-theistic modern perspective, the old Christian concepts continue to re-emerge. The capital vices of lust, gluttony, sloth and greed continue to be denounced -although this time for scientific reasons and for the good of our decaying health service- and the concepts of the carbon footprint and carbon offsetting closely mirror the Calvinist concept of original sin and the pre-reformation practice of paying money to the church in exchange for the forgiveness of sins. The worst of the scientists currently whore-ing themselves out the media is probably the odious Richard Dawkins, Darwin-fundamentalist and the author of ‘The God Delusion’, a man so obnoxious that he makes even a committed atheist like myself want to convert to Catholicism at the next opportunity and spend the rest of my life burning bread in the toaster in an effort to create a visage of the Virgin Mary.

Often it is not the evidence itself that is the problem, it is the way that evidence is assembled into a self serving conclusion and packaged for the media in a series of simplistic sound bites. Take last Friday’s Times for example which led with a huge image of earth and a series of apocalyptic headlines. ‘Humanity's very survival' is at risk, says UN’ read the header although beneath it was the intriguing fact that the ‘the world’s population has grown by 34% to 6.7 billion in 20 years’. In my experience these pronouncements from the UN are usually about as objective and reliable as a North Korean press release. If the iguana population were to surge by 34% we would in all likelihood describe them as thriving and not be suggesting they were on the brink of extinction. This preceded an ‘Earth Audit’ section in which dire facts such as ‘Ten million children under 10 die’ (global infant mortality has actually halved since 1960) sat somewhat uneasily alongside such titbits as ‘Annual income per head has grown by 40% to US$8,162’ and ‘Farmers produce 39% more from their land than in the 1980s’. The overall message however, was of doom and gloom accompanied by, thanks to the new internet enabled feature whereby readers can comment on newspaper articles, the usual displays of panic, outspoken ignorance and unbridled joy from those who don’t particularly like being Homo Sapiens and would prefer it if they, their relatives and the rest of the species faded into extinction. Under the online version of the article a sub-literate commentator, Mr John Hanson of Cairns had written

“Know doubt, Darwin's theory of evolution, is correct, perhaps homo sapiens, if they dont adapt to a very different world, will need to go the way of the Dodo like many other species, that have gone before……when homo sapiens eventually die out , perhaps some new form of life on Earth, will be slightly more cleverer.”

Whatever the state of human evolution, it certainly appears to be lagging in Queensland.

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