Recant, Retract, Remove: My open letter to the Irish Independent (and what happened next)

So, oddly enough, this blog devoted to reviews of Disney movies had its busiest day ever when I decided to talk about something entirely unrelated to reviews of Disney movies.

Man, that was a wasted year.

Man, that was a wasted year.

If you’re just tuning in, last week I posted on the Irish Independent’s  sudden, unplanned trip to cray-cray town and a lot of you have asked to be kept abreast if anything came of it. Well, here we go.

I mentioned before that I’d written a formal letter of “What the hell bra?” to the Indo complaining about this article and earlier this week I got a phonecall from XXXXX in the paper saying that they’d read my letter and they’d checked with the journalist who wrote it and that he confirmed that the scientists he’d interviewed had made the claims printed in the article. I could see right off the bat that we’d gotten our wires crossed. I explained that my problem wasn’t that I doubted that the scientists had actually said those things, but that the things they said were…how shall I put this? A clenched fist of bollocks. We then had this exchange. It may not be word for word but it’s a faithful gist:

“Well, that’s your opinion. But these are some very serious scientists.”

“They’re cranks.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because you can’t use radio waves to create energised water that makes giant animals.”

“How do you know?”

How do I know. Well that’s the question, isn’t it? It’s a bit of a stumper. It’s like being asked, “How do you know elephants can’t get heat-vision from eating lemons?” Technically, I suppose, I don’t know they can’t. But there is such a thing as an educated guess. Well anyway, XXXXXX very kindly offered to let me publish a letter in the paper explaining my concerns with the article. This is what I sent them:

Sirs,

Thank you for this opportunity to share my thoughts on the article “Wave Goodbye to Global Warming, GM and pesticides” by Tom Prendeville, which appeared on Independent.ie on 25 August. When I first read this article I was so flabbergasted that I ended up writing a critique of it online (entitled “Question: Has Ireland’s biggest national newspaper lost its goddamn mind?”) and within hours I was inundated with messages from people who were all wondering the same thing: “How did the Independent let this thing get published?”

The article, written in the best “breathless press release” style claims that Irish scientists have perfected a new technology, a device the size of a biscuit tin that converts 24 volts of electricity into a radio wave that can then be used to transform water into “Vi-Aqua” which is then used to treat vegetables. Then come the following claims (and I swear I am not making any of this up): Treated vegetables become 30% larger and are resistant to disease, rendering pesticides and GM foods obsolete. It converts excess CO2 into plant matter, thereby solving global warming. It makes “water wetter” (really), thereby reducing the amount of water actually needed. And in, a final display of not knowing when to quit, the author states that animals fed the energised water “turn into giants”. We can only assume that Mr Prendeville ran out of space before he was able to recount how Vi-Aqua fed a crowd of five thousand and then died on the cross for our sins.

Now this is of course flim flam, and obviously transparent flim flam*. The Independent may say “We published the article in good faith. We’re not scientists.” But you shouldn’t need to be. There is nothing here that should be able to fool even a moderately educated layman. If “making water wetter” didn’t tip you off, “giant freakin’ farm animals” should have done the trick. The science here wouldn’t pass muster on Doctor Who**. 

But even aside from this, it’s frighteningly obvious that nobody checked this before it went to print. The basic facts stated in the article don’t stand up to even the mildest investigation. Warrenstown, the facility where these miraculous experiments supposedly took place, has been closed since 2009. That took all of three minutes with a search engine to find out. I should point out something at this point: I am not a journalist. I am a guy who writes reviews of Disney movies on the internet. When you cannot match the story-proofing and journalistic rigour of a guy on the internet who writes reviews of Disney movies, that is a bad day for you.

So why am I so upset about this? If the article is as ludicrous as I make it sound then surely no one will believe it? Well firstly, if you think that, then I have an internet to introduce you to and secondly yes, they absolutely do believe it and are sharing it because source matters more than content. I believe the Holocaust occurred and man walked on the moon. Why? Because I was there? Because these events were everyday, mundane and believable on their face? No. Because sources I trust, reputable historians and news sources, tell me that it was so. 

Over the last few days I have watched this story metastasize and spread across the internet and I can tell you now with some authority that you have done the following;

1) You have opened up yourselves, the University of Limerick and the nation as a whole to ridicule and scorn, and have turned Irish scientific research and Irish scientists who do real, vital work in their fields into laughing stocks.

2) You have helped perpetuate the myth that there is some magical cure-all to the issue of global warming, the most pressing concern facing humanity in the modern age.

3) You have allowed yourselves to act as salesmen for a product whose scientific efficacy I will call (in deference to the delicate constitutions of this paper’s legal department) “a bit iffy”.

4) You have done serious and lasting damage to your own reputation as a trustworthy news source and this is by far the worst of all.

In the modern era, with the internet drowning us non-stop in a sea of never ending half truth, cons and sheer bullshit we need, more than ever, legitimate, trustworthy news sources. If I see “Asteroid Headed For Earth” on Mayanprophecy.net I won’t give it a second glance. If I see “Asteroid Headed for Earth” on the front page of The Times I’m running for my wife and daughter to hug them goodbye. We need the grownups. We need to know who we can trust, and who we cannot.

The Irish Independent has incredibly, spectacularly failed that test. With regard to this article there are now only three things you can do: 

Recant. Retract. Remove.

Mise le meas,

Neil Sharpson

***

So I sent this off to XXXX and got a response asking me to edit it down to less than five hundreds words.  I did, cutting a few “flim-flams” here and there and sent it back in. And then I got this response. I think the following email chain speaks for itself.

***

Dear Mr Pearson,

 

Thank you for your letter.

 

If you wish to write a letter challenging the merit of the piece, subject to legal and editorial constraints, we would welcome that.

 

However, this letter cannot be published due to legal reasons.

 

We are more than happy to publish a letter that challenges the content of the article, not the reputations of the scientists involved.

 

Kind Regards,

 

XXXXXX

***

Hi XXXXX,

 
Was this sent to me in error? I only ask because you seem to have gotten my surname wrong.
 
Regards
Neil Sharpson

***

Hi,

 

Apologies for that Neil – it was intended for you, but I got the surname wrong,

 

Apologies,

 

XXXXX

***

You’re kind of terrible at this.

***

So, there you have it. Nothing really left to say except that my article which mentions many concrete inaccuracies while not naming the scientists involved by name does not challenge the contents of the article and endangers the reputations of the scientists involved. My bad. Gonna try and take this up with the Press Ombudsman and see if I can get a sympathetic ear.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

All the best

Mouse

PS: I think I may have inadvertantly given the Independent a new slogan.

independent_logo

* Yes, I say “flim flam”. Yes, I AM a nineteenth century cotton baron, as a matter of fact.

** I love Doctor Who. But this is a show where DNA can be passed along by lightning strikes.

***

The third week of voting for the Blog Awards Ireland 2013 has now begun. If you have a minute, please click on the link below and cast your vote for “Disney Reviews with the Unshaved Mouse #8a: Song of the South. Thanks.

blog awards ireland

22 comments

  1. This reminds me a bit of the rejection letter that David Gerrold (guy who wrote the tribbles episode of Star Trek:TOS) got the first time he submitted a script: (as close to verbatim as memory will serve):

    This was a thoughtful, creative, and original script that was a joy to read. This does not comply with our station’s standards.

    *facepalm* Maybe tweak your letter so that your vitriol is more on the sad, sad lack of research that went into article prior to print, and thus imply that the “scientific” claims are a load of flim-flam?

    (BTW, I guess old-fashioned terms for stupidity are coming back — I’ve heard more people use the word “malarkey” after Joe Biden said it during a debate. So have no fear from us for your use of flim-flam. Also, ITA on the science, or lack thereof, in Dr. Who. I don’t mind being asked to believe scientifically impossible things but please for the love of all things holy, have some consistency!!)

  2. Well, I am pretty sure all of us who follow your blog are just Frank Welker in disguise, pretending to have varying voices and opinions, so that counts as one celebrity. 😉

  3. Seems you’ve been corresponding with a badly-programmed automaton. I wouldn’t be surprised if you got a mail back saying, “Hi, Yes, I’m kind of terrible at this.” Let me just link this on Facebook for an applause of facepalms and a universal moan.

  4. Does anyone have a link to the original article by the indo? I promise I won’t read it with an open mind. I science. Hopefully they’ve taken it down anyway…

  5. Yes, they ARE kind of terrible at this. And? BEST.LINE.EVER: “We can only assume that Mr Prendeville ran out of space before he was able to recount how Vi-Aqua fed a crowd of five thousand and then died on the cross for our sins.”

  6. It’s only bloody back again today (17/09/13) at the top of the Indo’s ‘most shared’ articles in their daily email offering to the world. W the actual F?? Unfortunately not one of their articles opened up for comment though I dearly wish they would… Not only did they sin by publishing this in the first place but now they’re recycling this garbage? Please make it stop.

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