Current Affairs


The media is all a-flutter again, and this time, it’s about a website called BirthOrNot. On this website, you can learn about Pete and Alisha Arnold, who are a couple from Minneapolis. Apparently, they have had trouble conceiving in the past (two miscarriages, according to their blogs on the site), but have managed to conceive again. They have taken the unusual step of setting up the BirthOrNot site to allow the public to vote on just one issue regarding their pregnancy, and it’s not the child’s name, or the nursery colour… By heading to BirthOrNot, you can vote on whether they will continue the pregnancy, or abort.

As you may imagine, this is proving a contentious issue. As well as the moral quandary raised whenever abortion is discussed in the media (and the inevitable fallout as pro-life and pro-choice supporters clash), there is also the more unique issue of whether it’s appropriate to discuss these issues on the internet, and of course, whether it’s appropriate to make a decision based solely on an internet vote (particularly given the ability for voting to be wildly skewed if a particular poll becomes very popular/notorious). I’ll be honest – I find the notion a little ridiculous. Pro-life or pro-choice, to make a decision like that based on an internet poll seems a little idiotic (and perhaps callous too). With any medical procedure, there are a number of risks, and pregnancy tends to multiply those risks. Since the website claims that the vote will remain open until just 2 days before the foetus has reached the legal age limit for abortion in their state, it is fair to say that the procedure they are considering is a substantial one. Late term abortions are more risky, and given that Alisha apparently has a number of health problems (again, discussed on the blog), it seems downright reckless to be postponing any sort of procedure so that you can conduct an internet poll. Regardless of your views on the rights of a foetus, it would seem logical that you would not want to endanger your own health!

As I read through the website, I began to see little red flags waving – something just didn’t seem right. The blog posts on the site chronicle the development of the foetus, whom they have named “Wiggles” and deemed to be male based on a home gender test. Whenever there are updates about the pregnancy, they include the kind of emotive language that you would expect from people who are planning on having their child – comparing the size of the foetus to objects, talking about the stage of development that it is at (“The hair, eyebrows, and lashes are filling in and taste buds are forming.”), etc. The couple maintain that they are simply attending the scans to ensure that everything is healthy should the result indicate that they do not abort. However, given the language used when discussing the development, it seems that they are more attached than they allege. Rather than using any sort of neutral or medical terms, such as embryo or foetus, the word “baby”, and often “Baby Wiggles”, is used. They mention how issues with the pregnancy have shown them that “even something like this can be completely out of your hands”.

While the slightly biased language, and seemingly religious phraseology of some of the things said on the blog made me question the intent, I knew that I couldn’t debunk a site based simply on a gut feeling. With that in mind, I began a little investigation. The first, and most simple of these steps was to find out about the domain itself – who owns it, etc. This is pretty straightforward, you simply feed the domain into a WHOIS checker, and let it do the searching for you. When I checked, I received some interesting results. Firstly, the domain was registered in on the 17th of May, 2010. According to the blog, Alisha had a miscarriage in January, and became pregnant some time around late August/early September. Why would you register such a domain if you a) had just recently had a miscarriage, and b) were not yet pregnant again, nor certain if you could become pregnant again, or carry a child to term?

The second item which raised concern for me was the fact that the domain is registered by a service – DomainsByProxy. This is a service which allows you to keep the registration information of a domain private, so that your contact information is not available. This is a service that you must pay an extra fee for when you register and renew your domain, and so, despite privacy concerns being ever present on the internet, it is not a service that is availed of by many. The fact that the couple chose to hide their registration information could simply be coincidence, but given the discrepancy with the registration dates and the pregnancy dates, I suspect that it may actually indicate that they are concealing something (perhaps the true domain registrars?).

I decided to move on and investigate the source code of the website. You may remember that source code discrepancies were something that effectively marked Gillian McKeith as a liar when the veracity of her twitter account was called into question – it seems to be an oft overlooked area, whether down to carelessness, or lack of knowledge. One of the first things I noticed was that the website has Google Analytics tracking. This is not unusual, plenty of websites do. What caught my eye, though, was the tracking code clearly visible in the source of the site. It’s UA-7524334-2, and that ‘2’ is quite important. What that ‘2’ tells me is that there is more than one site being tracked by the same account, and that this is the second. From here, the next logical step is to investigate what other sites are being tracked by the same account.

Well, as it so happens, it didn’t take very long to find another site being tracked by the same account. The site is The Church Of Global Warming, and it’s a climate change denial website. It’s a site run by a decidedly right wing individual or group (likely group) who set up Climate Change as a religion, with Al Gore as its prophet, and refer to people like Colbert as a “left-wing asshat”. If you have nothing better to do, feel free to browse – I found it quite entertaining. You could, of course, point out that many people use web developers to set up their sites and/or manage their domain and hosting services, and this would be true. In that case, it might be possible for them to be completely unrelated to the Church of Odd and it’s right wing slant, and to have simply, and completely by chance, stumbled across the same web developer, who registered their domain with the same registration service as the Church of Odd, who prefers to always register domains privately (because, of course, the Church domain is privately registered also), and happened to update the Church domain just shortly before their own (last updated on 3rd of May, 2010). After all, even unlikely coincidences happen sometimes.

This led me to some further research into the individuals themselves, Pete and Alisha Arnold. Rather helpfully, they both have facebook pages which have enough public information to discern rather a lot about them, such as their political and personal views. In Pete Arnold’s public writer fan page, his photo shows him in a rather distinctive shirt. If you can’t make it out, it says “Bitter typical white person clinging to my God and my guns”. While it’s possible he could have been wearing it ironically, I doubt that many would disagree that that’s a rather right-wing sentiment.

From there, it’s just a hop, skip, and a click to view Alisha’s page, which rather obligingly allowed me to view a list of pages she had “liked” and things that she is interested in (Screen of FB page). Among them, I found the following:

and (drum roll please)

Rather than clutter this post with more heavy right-wing American rhetoric, I will simply say that if you’re not familiar with any of the above people/groups, a quick Google should suffice to inform you that they are all prominent right-wing groups and/or lobbyists.

While it’s hardly a crime to have political views, it would seem very contradictory to have such clear right-wing views and also be allowing the internet to vote to abort your pregnancy. It is these contradictions, as well as the discrepancies above, which lead me to believe that the site may simply be a rather elaborate hoax perpetrated by some pro-life group in the US. If that is the case, then while it is by no means the most offensive campaign I have seen, it is most certainly deceitful, and just a little disgusting.

The Arnold’s have received an awful lot of publicity, and have conducted numerous interviews, as a result of their controversial website. When asked, they maintain that it is a genuine site – that they merely wish to offer people a chance to have their vote “make a difference […] for the first time”. Interestingly, in a recent interview, Alisha’s mother Sandi mentioned that they “said they have the right to veto, just like the president”. I don’t know about you, but I’d be betting on a midnight-hour conversion around about December 8th, followed by a blog post explaining the wonders of having a child, and how wrong it would have been for them to terminate the pregnancy. I shall keep my eyes peeled, and promise to be duly shocked by their unexpected turnaround.


Divining Intervention

Some quackery is obvious – there are posters, flashy ad campaigns, the works. Sometimes, though, it floats under the radar, waiting for someone to stumble upon it accidentally.

Today, I was trying to find some information on public water supply in Dublin. As you might expect, I turned to the official websites of the various councils and boards involved to try to find accurate information. One such website is the usually extremely useful Citizens Information site. This site is an Irish eGovernment initiative, and is maintained by the Citizens Information Board – in other words, it’s properly official. It’s the responsibility of the board to provide accurate and up-to-date information on all manner of public and social services available in Ireland (among other things).

As I tried to find the information I was looking for, I spotted some odd information under the Private Water Supplies section. I’ve quoted the section here:

If you are not part of a water supply scheme (capital or group), you will have to consider boring your own well and drawing out groundwater to supply your needs. One way of finding a suitable spot for a well to hire a water diviner to find out if there is groundwater beneath your land. However, even if a water diviner can tell you where to dig, he or she will not be able to tell you how deep you will have to drill or how much water you are likely to get. You can get this information from the Geological Survey of Ireland and it is usually free of charge.

Yes, that’s right. If you’d like to have your own connection to the groundwater, and want to know where you should put your well, the Citizens Information Board are happy to direct you to hire a water diviner. Water divination, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the process by which someone walks up and down with a y shaped stick, or “dowsing rod”, and when it points downwards, tells you that there is water present. If you think that this sounds ridiculous, and like it has absolutely no basis in modern science, you would be absolutely right. To date, water divining has not been shown to be any more effective than random chance. Indeed, prestigious scientific journal Nature puts dowsing in the category of “effects which until recently were claimed to be paranormal but which can now be explained from within orthodox science”, with dowsing effects being a result of the observer-expectancy effect and probability (i.e. random chance).

Worse still, a perfectly accurate and completely free resource, in the form of the Geographical Society of Ireland’s groundwater web map, is shunted to the bottom, and inexplicably recommended as something you might check after consulting a water diviner, but only to see how deep you might have to drill.

Honestly, I occasionally despair for the future of this country sometimes…

Current Affairs Science

I can do science me

In a few days, Science Week Ireland will begin, bringing with it a host of lectures, demonstrations, and good, clean, scientific fun. The aim of Science Week is, in their own words, “to promote the relevance of science, engineering and technology in our everyday lives and to demonstrate the importance of these disciplines to the future development of Irish society and to the economy.” An excellent cause, I’m sure you’ll agree, as science impacts, in some way or another, on almost every aspect of our daily lives.

Maybe I’m biased – I’ve always loved science, from the first moment I stepped into a lab, beginning my secondary school education, to the moment when I donned cap and gown to graduate with a BSc. I have always believed that a basic understanding of science is an extremely important part of any education, even if the student does not go on to study science at a higher level. You can perhaps imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that Science is not a compulsory subject at Junior Cert level.

I had always assumed that, while Leaving Cert science subjects were optional, Science as a subject was compulsory until Junior Cert. It seemed to make sense to me, considering that it’s an extremely useful subject, and that at least half (if not more) of all third level courses require at least one science subject to have been done at Leaving Cert level. I was honestly surprised to find that it is considered an optional subject in schools and is, as such, not a subject that schools are even obliged to offer to their students.

I have always felt that, for students just embarking upon their secondary education, one of the most difficult decisions that they must make is what subjects to study. After all, not studying Music, for example, at Junior Cert level will almost certainly preclude you from studying at Leaving Cert level, and similarly, will make attending a third level Music course nigh on impossible. By making certain subjects compulsory, schools hope to ensure that, regardless of what optional subjects a student takes, they can be sure to receive an education that is well rounded. How can any school not consider science to be a fundamental part of a student’s education, a subject that, at least until Junior Cert level, should be compulsory? Worse still, how can any school allow a student to begin their secondary level education with so many career options already closed off to them, and so many third level courses now beyond their scope, not due to inadequacy on the part of the student, but because the student may not be offered the opportunity to study science at all?

The goal of science week is to promote the relevance of science, something which, in my opinion, is even more important today than it has ever been before. The influence and impact that science and technology has on our lives has become so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible – who thinks of the detailed understanding of plant genetics necessary to produce viable crops when chopping tomatoes, or of the understanding of sound waves and their transmission when answering the phone? Surely it is crucial that people have some understanding of the world around us, steeped as it is in a rich history of scientific discovery and development.

The sad fact is that, perhaps because science is now so ubiquitous as to be commonplace, people no longer seem to feel the drive to study it. Uptake of study in various science courses remains consistently poor, and the rate of drop-off in science courses at third level is, frankly, embarrassing. I was, for example, one of just five students who took Computer Science in my 4th year in college. We shared a lab with students studying CSSE (Computer Science and Software Engineering), but between us all, we took up less than half of all the room allotted to us.

Almost without fail, when our politicians discuss the potential reasons why investors should choose Ireland, they will mention the high quality of our graduates, the progressive nature of our technology education, etc. If we are to live up to our reputation, we need to encourage people to study science, and enable them to do so. Those in charge of our curricula, namely, the Department of Education and Science, should make science education compulsory, and ensure that any student’s interest in science is not nipped in the bud before they’ve even reached their teens.

If you know someone who is starting secondary education, ensure that their school does offer Science as a Junior Cert subject, and encourage them to study it. Doing so will open up a world of possibilities, both in terms of career options, and further study options. If you know of a school that does not offer Science as an option for students, why not use Science Week to ask them why?