Finding certainty in uncertain times

Go onto social media. Pick up a newspaper. Ring a friend. Switch on the news. What are you guaranteed to encounter?

Speculation.

Often quite rampant speculation. In the internet age, we are all epidemiologists and experts in public health; we are all fortune tellers and soothsayers.

How long will these restrictions be in place? Two weeks, six months, eighteen months, forever. We’re flattening the curve; we’re protecting the vulnerable; we’re shielding the NHS; we’re acquiring herd immunity; we’re buying time to find a vaccine.

What further restrictions will be imposed? We won’t be allowed outside at all; the army will be on the streets; there’ll be rationing; we’ll have to eat cats and dogs.

Why has Italy been hit so badly? It has an elderly population; they were already in the middle of a flu epidemic; they have a high proportion of smokers; they’re a tactile culture; they didn’t obey lockdown; they live in multi-generational households; they closed the schools before the workplaces, exposing the vulnerable to the superspreaders.

How many will die in my country? 6000; 20,000; half-a-million; everyone. The death rate is much higher than we’re being told; much lower than we think; 10%; 0.4%. The statistics are different because of how they’re recorded; how many tests have been done; whether they died of coronavirus or with coronavirus. We’re two weeks behind Spain; three weeks behind Italy; ahead of the curve; better.

When will it end? When everyone has acquired herd immunity; when there’s a vaccine; when there’s a proven treatment; when it mutates to become more or less deadly; when we’re all dead from it.

And what will life look like afterwards? It’ll go straight back to normal; it’ll be entirely different; people will care more; people will hate more; we’ll be poorer; richer; safer; more vulnerable.

Speculation, speculation, speculation.

I understand why people are searching for answers – humans hate uncertainty. Uncertainty is dangerous. It’s terrifying. We don’t know how to protect ourselves from the unknown, so we feel vulnerable. People right now are living in a state of continual fear, and they’d rather live with an uncomfortable truth – a deadly but known danger – than endure the unknown.

Trouble is, in a situation like this, there are no answers. We don’t know how long it’s going to last; we don’t know how it’s going to end; we don’t know how many will die or what the world will look like afterwards. Ahead of us and around us is a vast, empty unknown. We’re walking on the edge of an abyss, liable to fall at any moment. How can you not feel anxious at such a time?

If it’s any help, as an autistic guy who spends his life living under the shadow of the unknown, you have to take comfort in the things that are known, and those things you can predict.

Like the fact that the sun will rise tomorrow. The sun has risen every day for the past 4.5 billion years; it will continue to rise long after we’re gone. The rhythm of the planets is eternal.

There will be two high tides tomorrow, and two low. The Earth and moon are locked in an endless ballet, and whatever happens with mankind, that will not change. It is immutable.

There will be life in one form or another for countless years to come. Every living thing on the planet has an unbroken chain of lineage extending back 3.5 billion years. Through billions of generations, every single one of your ancestors managed to reach sexual maturity, find a partner and reproduce before they died. Life today is the culmination of billions of survivors. There will be billions more generations to come.

We can’t say anything with such certainty when it comes to coronavirus. We don’t know when it’ll end or how, how bad it’ll be and who’ll survive to come out the other side. But we can say, with absolute certainty, that we will survive, and it won’t last forever.

How do I know this isn’t the end? Because modern humans have been around for 200,000 years. We’ve only had a germ theory of medicine for 150 of those years. We’ve only had antibiotics and antiviral drugs for 80. Yet we’ve survived Russian flu, Spanish flu, Asian flu, the Black Death, smallpox, leprosy, cholera, malaria, polio, meningitis, measles, HIV/AIDS, yellow fever, rabies, tuberculosis, typhoid, dysentery, diphtheria, and syphilis.

I was born in the 1970s. Most of the people reading this will, like me, have lived through the Troubles, the Cold War, the Iranian Embassy Siege, the Falklands, the Poll Tax Riots, shell suits, the fall of the Soviet Union, the Gulf War, Waco, Diana, Dunblane, Columbine, Y2K, 9/11, the War on Terror, 7/7, SARS, MERS, Swine Flu, Bird Flu, the Credit Crunch, 2012 hysteria, the Paris Terror Attacks, the knife-crime epidemic and Brexit. We’ve taken all that life has thrown at us, and we can take plenty more.

If you want certainty, there it is. We’re going to survive. We’re going to get through this. It’s the one thing I have no doubt about.

Coronavirus, conspiracy and bullshit

It’s two days since we were asked to avoid all non-essential social contact, and already I’m sick of the conspiracies and the bullshit. From my mother-in-law, who thinks if you can hold your breath for ten seconds, you’re neither infected nor infectious (FYI, that’s bullshit), to those who keep asking what’s ‘really going on’, there’s ample proof that a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has put its socks on.

So here’s the coronavirus bullshit I’m most sick of hearing.

The ‘I’ve heard…’ bullshit

So much discussion about coronavirus starts with, ‘I’ve heard…’

Whenever I state a fact on this site, I try to provide a link to a reputable source that supports it. Anecdotal evidence of the ‘I’ve heard’ variety – usually from a friend who’s a nurse, or an uncle who’s a doctor, or a cousin in Italy – is worse than useless, it’s often dangerous.

Vitamin-C stops you catching coronavirus; if you have a runny nose, it’s not coronavirus; it’s just the flu.

All wrong. This kind of hearsay stuff encourages falsehoods. It dissuades people from listening to sound advice and makes them ignore the very things that’ll help with this pandemic. It leads to them panic buying, stockpiling, pulling their kids out of school, and doing things that go against our best interests. It leads to chaos and individualism, when order and collaboration are how we save the day. It leads to people refusing to follow the steps we need to take to end this because they think they know better.

I often challenge people who make these kinds of statements to provide a source. ‘Google it,’ they respond, as though the onus is on me to find corroborating evidence, not the one making the batshit claim. If you tell me the world’s flat, it’s up to you to bring the evidence, buddy.

So next time, before clicking on that ‘share’ button, do a bit of fact-checking. It’s incumbent on all of us to do our part. If you don’t, you make things worse.

The conspiracy bullshit

The worst, most extreme form of ‘I’ve heard…’ is the conspiracy theory. I’m not going to go into the biological weapon bullshit here. Instead, I want to talk about the significant proportion of society who seem to delight in telling us the outbreak is either much worse than it really is, or else is a minor inconvenience/entirely non-existent virus that’s being exploited to take away our individual freedoms.

The first tends to take the form of, ‘I know a nurse, and she says they’re lying to us – it’s so much worse than they’re letting on.’

I’ve seen that sort of comment, phrased slightly differently, around fifty times already, mostly at Daily Mail Online. ‘The official statistics are wrong’ finds fertile ground among the distrustful minds of this post-truth age. These comments are the height of scaremongering, actively encouraging us not to trust the very government that is trying to help us. I’m pretty sure that, in times of war, this would be tantamount to treason.

But worse is all the NWO crap, that somehow seems to have shedloads of upvotes, hinting at a sizeable body of tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists living among us.

For those who don’t know, the New World Order is a massively popular conspiracy theory that claims a secretive cabal of globalists, Zionists, Freemasons and/or aliens are manipulating the world from out the shadows. Their aim is a totalitarian one world government, often called The Fourth Reich, that will enslave mankind and cull it to manageable numbers. The IMF, the World Bank, the WHO, and the UN are all believed to be arms of the NWO, slowly strangling individual freedoms. Part of Trump’s popularity is because people think he’s fighting back against this ‘Deep State’.

How will the NWO take over? By faking terrorist incidents and mass shootings to increase the government’s power and take away our means to resist (i.e. gun control), and by faking a global crisis that necessitates the suspension of civil liberties and the imposition of martial law. To these believers, Covid-19 is the end-game: all people will now be forced to vaccinate/have chips inserted in their necks to be monitored before being led to the extermination camps. Just go to Twitter and search the hashtag #Newworldorder and disappear down the rabbit hole of nuttiness.

And this would be fine, if it was just a fringe belief, but it crops up in the unlikeliest of places – I’ve even seen it on Asperger’s parental support sites. So every time you say, ‘What’s really going on?’ or ‘They’re lying to us!’ you could be encouraging someone who thinks our alien overlords are about to take over. Stop doing it.

The political bullshit

I’m also sick of all the posts and comments using Covid-19 as a stick with which to beat the Tories in general and Boris Johnson in particular, most notably at The Guardian. They seem to think that the Conservatives want old people to die, and Boris Johnson is doing everything in his power to bring that about. Specifically, they argue that, following a plan drawn up by Dominic Cummings, Johnson is willing to sacrifice the elderly, the sick and the poor, as they’re drains on the public purse, in order to safeguard the economy on behalf of his rich friends.

Do people really think this is the time to play party politics? They seem almost to want thousands of people to die in order to justify their hatred of the government. But though they dress this up under the veil of intelligence – they know better than the rest of us, don’t you know? – even an elementary understanding of politics makes it clear that blaming this on Boris Johnson is ludicrous.

Johnson is not a medical expert. That’s why he’s following the advice of Chris Whitty CB FRCP FFPH FMedSci, a physician and epidemiologist who also happens to be the Chief Medical Officer for England, Chief Medical Adviser to the UK Government, Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department of Health and Social Care, and head of the National Institute for Health Research. A senior civil servant and practising Consultant Physician, formerly Professor of Public and International Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Health, I’m rather sure he knows more about public health than most left-wing journalists and the majority of Guardian readers. So why the constant Tory-bashing?

All this achieves is sowing disunity and discord when we ought to be supportive and cooperative. I’ve even seen calls for Johnson and Cummings to be arrested and put on trial, and for the government to be overthrown and replaced, which is patently absurd.

The supernatural bullshit

But more absurd are the supernatural interpretations of Covid-19. I’ve seen many people argue that Dean Koontz predicted this outbreak in his 1981 novel, The Eyes Of Darkness, because the book is about a biological weapon named Wuhan-400, where the coronavirus pandemic began. This is obviously just a coincidence – more so when you discover it was originally named Gorki-400 and came from Russia, before being renamed Wuhan-400 in the 1989 reissue.

Even more have pointed to a 100-year cycle of outbreaks, in the manner of: 1520, smallpox; 1620, plague; 1720, plague; 1820, cholera; 1920, Spanish flu; 2020, coronavirus. This is such an obvious example of cherry-picking that it’s barely worth debunking, but I will – what about the Black Death in the 1340s; 1665 London Plague; the 1855 plague in China; the 1889 Russian flu; or the 1957 Asian flu? There are always outbreaks of disease so you can do this with any year. Indeed, as this 18-month-old article shows, we were overdue a pandemic anyway.

In terms of supernatural belief systems, many Christians seem to think that God won’t allow this virus to get out of hand. Those who believe aliens are guiding the evolution of mankind agree they won’t let us fall victim to this (unless they’re part of the New World Order and this is their plan). There are many more who seem certain that the virus will just disappear.

The evidence? The late celebrity psychic medium Sylvia Browne, from shows like Montel and Sally Jessie Raphael, predicted that 2020 would see a pneumonia-like illness spread across the world and then disappear. And far be it from me to doubt somebody who:

  • in 1999 told the parents of a kidnapped girl that she had been sold into slavery and was still alive (she had been murdered within hours of her abduction);
  • in 2001 told a woman her firefighter fiance had survived 9/11 (one month before his body was pulled from the rubble);
  • in 2002 told parents that their missing girl was alive and working as an exotic dancer (she had been murdered in 1996);
  • also in 2002 told the parents of a missing 11-year-old that their son was dead (he was found alive in 2007);
  • in 2004 convinced a mother that her missing daughter was dead (she turned up alive in 2013);
  • also in 2004 told a pregnant woman she’d have a healthy baby boy (it was a girl and died after being born 5-months premature).

And dozens more. But sure, she predicted this. After all, a stopped clock is right twice a day.

The November bullshit

And speaking of time, I’ve lost count of the number of people who claim they had coronavirus in November, or over Christmas, or in early January. They all speak of a mystery, flu-like illness that laid them low long before the illness left China. The official story is wrong, they say – it’s been here for months already.

You know what other illness has flu-like symptoms and afflicts people in the wintertime? Flu.

Give it a rest, people. This is going to go on for months, and it’ll be far harder if we have to spend them knee deep in bullshit.

Keeping sane in a crisis: an autistic perspective

As someone with autism who’s neurologically predisposed towards obsessing over danger and freaking out over every little thing, I have forty years experience of battling dread and fear, and so the threat of a pandemic bearing down on us like a runaway train is just another day to me. However, it seems to be something new for large sections of society, and as panic starts to spread, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on keeping sane in a crisis – because if an autistic guy can do it, so can you.

First a disclaimer: I’m not an epidemiologist. Nor are most journalists, or the person on Facebook claiming coronavirus is harmless, or the neighbour stockpiling toilet paper. None of these behaviours are particularly helpful, because they add to the noise and misinformation out there, making it difficult to know what to believe and harder still to keep a level head. That’s why I’ve held off blogging about Covid-19: because I didn’t want to add to that noise.

But since we seem to be at peak saturation for signal clutter, what can it hurt? And hell, in some small way it might even help.

1. Demystify what you’re afraid of

There is nothing scarier than the unknown, except, perhaps, the unknown over which we have no control. There’s a very obvious evolutionary reason for this – the unknown could be dangerous and might kill us, so it’s safer sticking to the familiar where we can manage the risks.

Unfortunately, this means we have a tendency to inflate the dangers of anything new, and downplay the severity of those dangers we face everyday. That’s why we’re afraid of terrorists (odds of dying in a terror attack in the UK: 1 in 7.3 million), flying (1 in 5 million) and sharks (1 in 900 million), and not the death machines parked on our driveways (1 in 20,000, or a staggering 1 in 240 in your lifetime).

One of the best ways of controlling our fear of Covid-19 is to make it familiar, and thereby strip it of its mystique. Look at the bald statistics from a reliable site (like the World Health Organisation and Worldometer) and they’re more reassuring than the unhelpful running totals on websites listing number of cases alongside number of deaths.

As of 9:40, Thursday 12 March, there have been 126,628 cases, of which 4638 have died and 68,325 recovered. More helpful, perhaps, are the stats on current cases: 53,665, of which 47,957 (89%) are mild, and 5,708 (11%) serious or critical. While the tabloids might delight in showing photos of people lying in hospitals on ventilators, and implying there are more than 100,000 of them, the truth is that, globally, there are 5,708. Even if you catch Covid-19, the vast majority will have mild or no symptoms.

And this is good news for the statistics. The mortality rate is based on the percentage of known cases that have died, but if up to 50% of cases are asymptomatic, there are undoubtedly thousands who are infected, or have been infected and recovered, without even realising it.

So how lethal is Covid-19? Answers vary depending on which source you look at, but the mortality rate is estimated to be around 2% (ranging from 0.7% to 3%). This varies greatly by age, however, falling heaviest on the elderly and those with underlying health issues. If you’re under 50, the fatality rate runs at 0.2% of those infected, or 1 in 500, giving you a 99.8% chance of recovery, while those in their 80s have an 85% chance of recovery.

Therefore, if you catch Covid-19, you’re still twice as likely to die in a car accident in your life than die of coronavirus this year. Indeed, not only will you most likely recover, you’ll probably have either no symptoms or the mild symptoms of a cough, a high temperature, and a shortness of breath. This doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous or that we shouldn’t do everything to protect ourselves and those more vulnerable to the virus, but knowing what we face is far easier to deal with than worrying unduly.

2. Put your fear into perspective

Oftentimes, it feels like the end of the world. Especially as an autistic person, you spend your life magnifying things to the level of a catastrophe. Your chest tightens as you’re flooded with adrenaline, obsessing over the danger and letting it consume your every thought, because you can’t avoid the thing that’s coming for you. At these times, it’s best to step back and put things into perspective.

Look out of the window: is the world still there? Is the grass still green? Can you see insects buzzing and flowers growing and clouds scudding across the sky? Then it’s not the end of the world, even if it might feel like it.

For the past few months, people have been comparing coronavirus to the flu. For just as long, people have been saying, ‘Stop comparing it to the flu! Stop saying it’s only dangerous to the elderly and those with underlying health issues! Stop trying to minimise the dangers!’ Such people are, I think, missing the point of why these things are being said.

People are scared. People want reassurance. Comparing Covid-19 – the unknown bogeyman – to something we’re fairly comfortable with, like flu, is a way of dispelling some of that fear, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. The situation is serious, yes, but uncontrolled fear leads to the kind of irrational, unhelpful behaviour we’ve been seeing with panic-buying and stockpiling, which places massive strains on supply chains and has the potential to be very damaging. In a crisis, the last thing you want is panic. Making sane, rational decisions is always better than rushed knee-jerk reactions.

Nor do I think it’s a problem stressing that 98% of those infected will recover, with most of the remaining 2% being elderly and/or those with underlying medical issues. There was an article in the Guardian yesterday about the people in that 2% ‘at risk’ group feeling thrown to the wolves to make the other 98% feel better (along with lots of the usual Tory-bashing), but while you must be feeling vulnerable in that 2%, the solution isn’t to fill the remainder with dread. This doesn’t mean that those who die from this pandemic are unimportant and that we shouldn’t do everything we can to keep them safe, simply that we shouldn’t panic by overestimating the lethality of this virus.

Putting Covid-19 into context shows that it’s much worse than the flu, which has a mortality rate of 0.1% and a mortality rate in the over-65s of only 0.83%. However, it’s far less lethal than recent health scares like bird flu (60%), Ebola (50%), MERS (35%), and SARS (10%). It’s also nowhere near as contagious as measles or chicken pox.

Looking at the big picture, the government’s worst case scenario – something that is unlikely to happen – is that 80% of the UK gets it, resulting in 500,000 deaths. While this seems terrifying, again we must put it into perspective. In the UK, there are around 600,000 deaths each year from all causes, which is around 1% of the population. Therefore, more than half-a-million people die around us each year and we barely even notice it. Many of the people in the government’s 500,000 would have died anyway and been included in the 600,000, so if we speculate that around 1 million people will die in the UK this year, the worst case scenario will increase our annual death rate by half a percentage point – from 1% to 1.5%. This is worth remembering.

It’s also worth remembering that all of these figures are speculative. Covid-19 has the potential to kill millions, but so far it hasn’t, and only time will tell how it pans out. As my mother always says, worry is a waste of energy – if the thing you fear doesn’t happen, there was never any point worrying about it, and if it does, your worry didn’t stop it.

You know what does kill millions of people around the world each year? Heart disease. It kills 18 million people a year, but very few of us heed the warnings and change our diets and exercise. Cancer kills 10 million, many of them preventable. 9 million die of hunger. 1.5 million die of tuberculosis. 1.1 million of dysentery.

Judging Covid-19 on what it has actually done, instead of what it might do, is a better way of keeping a level head. I understand those people who scream that Covid-19 could kill millions, because they’re right. I also understand those who say that coronavirus has only killed around 4500 people, and even if you do catch it, you’ve got a 98% chance of recovery, because they’re right too.

3. Switch off

As someone whose autism causes him to obsess over every little detail of an issue until it dominates every aspect of his life, I’m well aware that there comes a point where, for the sake of your sanity, you just have to stop. It’s understandable that people want to keep abreast of the situation, because you want to keep an eye on the danger and avoid it if you can, but we’re in a uniquely difficult age where our technology gives us 24-hour access to information. What starts as a desire to keep you and your family safe can quickly turn into an addiction.

Watching the news a couple of times a day is fine, but tracking the spread of Covid-19 in real time and checking your phone for updates every few minutes isn’t healthy. It gives you the illusion of safety while simultaneously heightening your anxiety – a wound can’t heal when you’re constantly picking at it. Following Covid-19 doesn’t make you any safer, but it does make you far more uptight about it. So learn what you need to learn, hear what you need to hear, and then switch off, or else you risk letting your fear of coronavirus take over your life.

Of course, distracting yourself from that feeling of impending doom is not always easy. Instead of telling yourself not to think about it, which only makes you think about it more, simply acknowledge it whenever it pops into your head and gently shift your focus onto something else. I find doing something that requires concentration, focus and hand-eye coordination – a jigsaw puzzle, a model, a paint-by-numbers – is a far better means of taking your mind off your fears than TV, movies or a book.

And once your mind is off it, go do something else. Count the leaves on a tree. Dance in the shower. Focus on the here and now and the things you have control over, instead of things that might happen tomorrow. Know that this will pass.

4. Learn to accept the things we cannot change

I think the biggest thing I’ve realised from watching this emerging crisis is just how resistant people are to accepting things. They might close the schools, they might cancel my holiday, it’s not fair, rage, fume. When you come up against a brick wall blocking your path, repeatedly bashing your head against it is nothing more than a futile gesture. Sure, it’s annoying to find our way blocked. The solution isn’t to cry, it’s to go back and find another path.

You also have to accept that we’re all mortal and will therefore one day die. I’ve seen tons of people in their 70s and 80s in denial, panicking that they’re going to die. Why? If you’ve not accepted your mortality by that age, when you’re already past the life expectancy of an adult human, you’d better start working on it. I’m 40 and I’m comfortable with the fact that this bundle of cells, animated by that mysterious force called life, will one day become nothing more than meat. If I die of coronavirus, or heart disease, or in a car accident, it’ll be sad for my wife and kids, my family and friends, but it’ll be normal, and natural, and it was simply my time. There’s no point feeling bitter over the years I didn’t get to have, because I was never entitled to them, and I never had them anyway.

Accepting that no amount of huffing and puffing will change the nature of the universe is a vital skill if you want to keep your head when all around you are losing theirs.

5. Keep a sense of humour, even if (especially if) it’s dark

The best way of dispelling fear in a crisis is finding the humour in your situation. I remember someone posting that you should look around at all your friends and know that two of them will die. Wow, I thought – with a mortality rate of 2%, she’s vastly overestimating my popularity!

I’m also bemused by people’s fear of self-isolating. To me, that’s a normal day.

I find social media an endless source of amusement. It’s fascinating how easily Covid-19 slips into political rhetoric. To the right wing, the crisis is the result of immigrants bringing in the virus; to the left, it’s because the Tories have cut health services. Various right-wing websites are claiming that Covid-19 is a biological weapon that escaped from a Chinese lab; various left-wing websites are claiming it’s an American biological weapon designed to crash the Chinese economy. You’ve got to see something amusing about that.

Perhaps the weirdest thing is how quickly people’s professed virtues flip to the opposite extreme. After Brexit, I lost count of the number of Tweets I read hoping that elderly Leavers would hurry up and die; then, in the run-up to the election, those same people were saying how we had to vote Labour or else millions of old people would be at risk. After the result showed most old people voted Tory, I again lost count of the number of Tweets saying they looked forward to the elderly dying in their millions as the Tories ran the NHS into the ground as it would serve them right; and now, those same people are saying, Save the Elderly! Save the Elderly! I mean, come on guys, pick a side and stick to it: do you want elderly Brexit-voting Tories to die, or don’t you?

One of the best jokes I saw online was: If there was a vaccine for coronavirus, most of you wouldn’t take it anyway. Now shut up and wash your hands.

We have some difficult times ahead of us, people. But keep calm and carry on.

Good luck on staying sane.

Why Zebras Have Stripes (and 21 other things you’re probably wrong about)

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I like to think of myself as a reasonably knowledgeable guy. Actually, scratch that – I like to think of myself as an extremely knowledgeable guy. I’m aware that I’ve not specialised in any particular area, so my knowledge is not necessarily particularly deep, but it’s definitely broader than most.

At university and on my own I’ve studied anatomy, ancient languages, anthropology, archaeology, architecture, art history, astronomy and autism, and that’s just the first letter of the alphabet. I’ve done history and science and history of science; forensics and psychology and forensic psychology; politics and philosophy and political philosophy. Warfare and weaponry; crime and punishment; history, geography, geology, etymology; and a partridge in a pear tree. 

But I’m not a one-trick pony. Since I live in the real world of Ed Sheeran, Ellen DeGeneres and Elon Musk, I back up this academic knowledge with a sound insight into popular culture. I can tell my Spielbergs from my Scorceses, and my Khloes from my Kourtneys; my Family Guy and Firefly from my Stranger Things and Breaking Bad. Other than my Achilles Heel (sport), I’m the one you want on your pub quiz team.

But there are a number of difficulties that come from being so knowledgeable. Firstly, you’re surrounded by people who know less than you, which makes you feel great until you realise that when you want to talk about something that interests you, nobody is able to offer anything resembling an informed opinion until you’ve schooled them on your subject. Secondly, it makes you think that knowledge is a static monolith, when it’s actually a fluid multitude of changing viewpoints, so staying current on such a breadth of ideas is impossible and makes much of what you know obsolete. And thirdly, perhaps most importantly, it makes you act like an arrogant turd.

Like the other day when my wife told me that zebras have stripes to stop flies landing on them.

‘Of course they don’t,’ I said, practically laughing in her face. ‘Who told you that rubbish?’

‘My friend.’

‘Well, your friend is wrong,’ I said in a very superior way. ‘Zebras evolved stripes as a way of breaking up their outline to make it more difficult for predators to cut an individual out from the herd.’

‘But it stops flies from landing on them because the stripes confuse them.’

‘Well, that might be a secondary benefit, but come on – evolution is all about survival. You really think they evolved stripes to stop flies landing on them and not to counter the 400lbs of teeth and claws trying to rip them to pieces on a daily basis? Use just a basic modicum of thought and you can see how stupid that sounds.’

And then, to hammer home how much of an asshole I am, I googled it to show her how I was right and she was…

Ah, hell.

I was right that evolution is all about survival. I was totally wrong about everything else. The current scientific consensus is that zebras evolved stripes to stop disease-carrying flies from landing on them. Thinking about it, it makes sense: there are probably a million flies for every lion, and once you’re weakened by a disease, you’re going to be easier to pick off.

So I was wrong. Completely. And more importantly, my wife was right. I’m never going to live this one down.

So I thought I’d make a list of some things that people think they know but are actually quite wrong about, whether through old information, fictionalisation in movies and TV, or simply because the conventional wisdom isn’t always as wise as it thinks it is. Arm yourself with these facts so you don’t fall into the same trap I did.

1. Hyenas are mostly predators, not scavengers. Estimates vary, but the widest known species, the spotted hyena, kills between 50% and 80% of the food it eats, and when lions and hyenas are seen around kills, in more than half of the cases, the hyenas made the kill. So why do we see them as skulking scavengers? Centuries of negative portrayals in literature, mythology and folklore because of how they look and sound. Yep, the maligning of Africa’s most successful predator is the closest we get to racism with regard to the Animal Kingdom.

2. Humans have far more than the five senses you were taught as kids. We also have equilibrioception (sense of balance and ability to detect acceleration); proprioception (sense of self-movement and body/limb positions); nociception (sense of pain); thermoception (sense of temperature); and a whole bunch of others like hunger, thirst, fullness, need to pee and need to poop. The best estimate is that we have between 14 and 20. Take that, M. Night Shyamalan.

3. You already use 100% of your brain. The myth that we only use 10%, and could do so much more if only we could unlock the rest of our potential, needs to be put to bed, not only because it’s wrong but because it keeps spawning naff action movies (Limitless, Lucy). You use different parts of your brain for different things, so you’re not going to use the whole 100% at the same time, but that doesn’t mean those other parts aren’t used. If they weren’t, they’d get colonised by other parts of the brain. The idea that a massive amount of the body’s blood supply goes to nourish an organ of which 90% lies dormant is just ‘laughable’.

4. The fat, laughing, half-naked golden Chinaman is not the Buddha. He is Budai, a 10th century CE Chinese Buddhist monk. Technically, he’s a Bodhisattva, like Patrick Swayze in Point Break – a spiritually-enlightened being. The actual Buddha was Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, who lived in the 5th century BCE. Most depictions of him are of a slim man sitting cross-legged, with short, tight curls and a top-knot on his head, a ‘third eye’ on his forehead, and a beatific expression on his face. This holy figure is most often seen as a neighbour’s lawn ornament. Speaking of holy figures…

5. The man we know as Jesus of Nazareth was actually called YeshuaThe Aramaic name Yeshua from the Hebrew Bible entered the Greek Bible as Iesous, which was translated into the Latin Bible as Iesus, and into the English Bible as Jesus. Likewise, God was not Jehovah, but Yahweh. Don’t anybody tell the guys at the Watchtower.

6. The Coriolis effect doesn’t make toilets flush clockwise/anti-clockwise in the northern/southern hemisphere. The Coriolis effect – essentially the deflection of an object that travels a long distance over the surface of the Earth without actually touching it – is caused by the planet rotating faster at the equator than at the poles, and affects weather patterns, ocean currents and the occasional sniper’s bullet, but not toilets, despite what you might have seen on The Simpsons. Toilets and even swimming pools are simply too small for the Coriolis effect to have any influence.

7. Dinosaurs aren’t extinct. Yep, this is a hard one to get your head around because it’s been drummed into you all your life that dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago, but they didn’t. Most did, but the bird branch of the family tree survived and evolved into the avian species we know today. Birds are Maniraptors, which are coelurosaurs, which are theropods, which are saurischians, which are dinosaurs. Weird. Even stranger, the flying reptiles (pterosaurs), the swimming reptiles (ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs) and the squat ones with the sails on their backs (dimetrodons) that you see in all the posters, aren’t even dinosaurs at all. A simple rule of thumb is that a dinosaur’s legs are under the body, so anything with legs that stick out to the sides (like a crocodile or a tortoise) isn’t a dinosaur.

8. Cutting an earthworm in half doesn’t create two worms. Quite simply, worms have a head and a tail. The head has a mouth, the tail doesn’t. Both ends might wriggle around for a bit afterwards, but only the head can survive – the tail won’t.

9. Things burn up on entry into Earth’s atmosphere primarily because of air compression, not friction. When something hits the atmosphere, it’s normally travelling several kilometres a second. In the upper atmosphere where the descent is hottest and fastest, the air is too thin to create very much friction. Instead, the object’s travelling so fast the air in front of it can’t move out of the way so becomes squashed. As anybody who’s used a bike pump should know, when you compress air it heats up, and in the case of an object entering the atmosphere, massively so. There’s a lot of science involved, so if you want to properly understand it, follow this link to a guy from NASA explaining it better than I ever could.

10. The ‘alphas’ in wolf packs didn’t get there through aggression. For aeons we’ve been justifying competitive, hierarchical, and oftentimes quite shitty behaviour in business and society using the model of the wolf pack, in which a dominant ‘alpha’ male fights his way to the top like a particularly furry Al Capone. It’s a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world, after all, especially if you want to become ‘top dog’. However, while this might be true of captive wolves in which unrelated individuals are confined together, studies in the wild show something very different. The ‘alphas’ at the top of the social hierarchy in wild wolf packs are actually ‘mum and dad‘; the subordinates are ‘their children’. When they reach maturity, young wolves go off to become alphas of their own packs i.e. find a partner, settle down and have some kids. Even among primates, where the alpha can physically dominate the rest of the tribe, their behaviour is far more supportive and nurturing than the ‘alpha male’ stereotype that business magnates and your asshole boss would have you believe.

11. Carrots don’t help you see in the dark. If you have a vitamin A deficiency that causes a loss of night vision, eating carrots rich in vitamin A will restore your night vision to the same level as a normal, healthy person. If you don’t have vitamin A deficiency, eating carrots won’t make you see any better in the dark than someone who never touches carrots. This is a myth that goes back to the Second World War. To conceal the fact that the RAF were intercepting German bombers at night using radar, the Air Ministry issued press releases claiming their pilots could see in the dark by eating carrots. Not only did the Germans believe it but the British public did too, and here we are almost eighty years later still fooled.

12. Glass is a solid at room temperature and doesn’t continue to flow. I’ve been told many times that glass is a supercooled liquid – once by a guide showing me around the Colleges of Cambridge University. The error seems to stem from the fact that the glass in the windows of old buildings is thicker at the bottom – which my erstwhile guide pointed out many times during the tour – suggesting that the glass has continued to flow over hundreds of years. This is actually completely wrong. Glass is an amorphous solid. This means its atomic structure isn’t neat, the way it is in crystals, say, but it’s still solid. The reason medieval glass is thicker at the bottom is simple: glass-making back then wasn’t exactly refined, so the sheets they created were often uneven; builders would put the thicker end at the bottom, because they weren’t stupid. That said, I have seen the occasional examples where they’ve put the glass in with the thicker end at the top, proving (if it even needed proof) that glass is a solid. And speaking of people in the past being stupid…

13. People didn’t used to think the world was flat. At least, not for the past 2500 years. Okay, some people still think the world is flat, but the experts, like scientists, mathematicians and navigators, knew it was roughly spherical. Ancient Greek astronomers (3rd century BCE), Roman astronomers (1st century CE) and Arab astronomers (830 CE) all calculated the circumference of the Earth, and there are anecdotal, pseudoscientific claims that the Ancient Egyptians also knew. The reason Europeans mocked Christopher Columbus was not because they thought he’d fall off the edge of the world but because they knew he was wrong. Columbus massively miscalculated the size of the Earth (he also thought it was pear-shaped), and if he hadn’t stumbled into America, his crews would all have starved. In fact, he died still thinking he’d sailed all the way to India, when he was actually closer to India in Europe without ever leaving home!

14. Columbus wasn’t even the first European to visit North America. There were Viking colonies in Greenland and Canada hundreds of years before the Spanish conquistadors. The best guess is that the first European in North America was Leif Eriksson around 1000 CE, five-hundred years before Columbus.

15. You can’t restart a stopped heart with electricity. The defibrillator stops a heart that’s in atrial fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat i.e. a heart attack) in the hope it starts itself in a normal rhythm. It does nothing to an already-stopped heart, so there would be no situation where the heart monitor flatlines, someone shouts, ‘Clear!’ and with a loud PA-JOOM, the patient is jolted back to life. So why do we see it all the time on TV, even in shows that are otherwise medically accurate? Because audiences expect it. Presumably it was first used, wrongly, to make for a dramatic scene; then others started doing it; and now, if you don’t do it, people are taken out of the movie or show because they’re thinking, ‘Why’s he not shocking her?’ This particular nonsense shows no sign of disappearing any time soon.

16. Shaving doesn’t make your hair grow back thicker and faster. It just feels like it does. Your hair follicle is under the skin, so when you shave, you’re not removing the hair entirely, just the end of it. What you actually do by chopping off the end is to make it blunt, and therefore rougher to the touch. It doesn’t stimulate growth or anything else. And while we’re on the topic of hair…

17. Your hair and fingernails don’t keep growing after you die. Folklorists and internet experts will tell you that the vampire myth comes from people digging up dead bodies only to discover their hair, teeth and nails had grown longer. This is only a partial truth. In reality, the longer hair, teeth and nails is the result of the corpse’s skin shrinking as it decomposes. In addition, dark ‘purge fluids’ leaking from mouth and nostrils, and the bloating of the corpse through trapped decomposition gases, all contributed to the idea that the dead could climb out of their coffins and drink blood from the living. (As a side note, the belief in vampires is still scarily common in certain parts of the world, with a bunch of villagers digging up and defiling the corpse of a neighbour in Romania in 2003 after he turned into a ‘strigoi‘).

18. Stretching before exercise doesn’t prevent soreness. Sure, we’ve all been indoctrinated into the belief that you need to stretch before a workout to avoid aching the next day, but it isn’t actually true. Stretching regularly helps to keep you supple and flexible, but it doesn’t prevent strains, injuries or aches. So whether it’s before, during, or after exercise, stretching is about increasing your range of movement, not a magical preventative to protect you from overdoing it.

19. Cracking your knuckles doesn’t cause arthritis. It’s not a pleasant thing to do by any means, but popping bubbles in the synovial fluid around your joints isn’t going to wreck your hands in later life. There is some evidence it might reduce grip strength, and you might break your knuckle if you do it too hard, but you’re not going to give yourself arthritis.

20. Stomach ulcers aren’t caused by stress. Since time immemorial it was thought that peptic ulcers – a thinning of the lining of the stomach to create a sore – was caused by lifestyle factors, such as stress, coffee, alcohol and spicy foods. While these things certainly exacerbate peptic ulcers, they don’t actually cause them. Instead, up to 90% are caused by helicobacter pylori bacteria, and the rest by long-term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Aspirin and Ibuprofen, although smoking apparently increases your risk (as it seems to do with everything). Unfortunately, knowing it’s not caused by stress makes a certain Malcolm in the Middle episode far less enjoyable.

21. There is no such thing as biological race. Or, to quote National Geographic, ‘There’s no scientific basis for race – it’s a made-up label’. Yeah, this is a controversial one and perhaps the most difficult to accept. If you look at genetics, there is incredibly little difference between people. We’re more closely related to one another than chimpanzees to other chimpanzees. In fact, since all non-Africans are descended from the same few thousand individuals that left the continent 60,000 years ago, Europeans and Asians and Native Americans and Oceanians are more closely related to one another than Africans to other Africans. The category ‘black’ to refer to all Africans as a single ‘race’ is therefore incredibly reductive, since they encompass far more genetic variation than non-blacks.

‘But we look different,’ I hear you cry. Yes, we do, but that’s mostly because we’ve adapted to where we happen to live on the planet, and haven’t moved around very much, so each population has ended up looking a little different, the way that my kids look like me and my brother’s kids look like him. Genetically, however, beneath the superficialities of skin colour, eye-shape and whether or not you can grow facial hair, we’ve remained remarkably similar. Indeed, of a person’s 20,000 genes and three-billion base pairs, a difference in a single gene, SLC24A5, where there is a G in sub-Saharan Africans, and an in Europeans, accounts for most of the difference in skin pigmentation.

If we were different races – if there were more than just superficial differences – you’d expect there to be distinctive alleles (the particular ‘flavour’ of a gene) belonging to each different race. There are indeed different alleles that appear to relate to different regions – around 7.4% of the total studied. However, these ‘race-specific’ alleles only occur in 1% of the population, meaning 1% of Africans have an African allele, 1% of Europeans have a European allele, and so on. Indeed, given the variation within populations, a European might be more genetically similar to an Asian than another European. This is hard scientific proof that while you might be able to infer a person’s ancestry from their appearance, we are all the same.

So if race doesn’t exist, why are we still so obsessed with it? Probably because we invented the notion of race to explain why we look different long before we had a scientific understanding of DNA and genetics. I mean, the Human Genome Project wasn’t completed until 2003. We’ve spent the past few hundred years dividing people into different races based on their ancestry, and then assigning those races different characteristics and relative values, so while race might not exist as a biological reality, it certainly exists as a social, political, cultural and psychological construct, interwoven into the fabric of how we see ourselves and others. If everyone came to accept the new, scientific view that the differences between people are cultural, not biological, perhaps the world would be a better place; but in doing so, you’d undermine the means by which billions of people self-identify. Instead of proclaiming that black lives matter, we really ought to be chanting that race doesn’t really exist, but I honestly don’t think it’ll happen in my lifetime.

And these are my facts. If you’ve made it this far, well done: you’re better armed against the untruths that litter society. But don’t take my word for it. Do your own research. Read both sides of an argument. See which you agree with or if there’s a consensus.

And if you can, do it before you put your foot in your mouth.

Pedantry and Autism: a love story

Pedantry: noun. Excessive concern with minor details and rules; over-commitment to formalism, accuracy and precision; prioritising of simple knowledge (facts and rules and obscurantism) over more general knowledge and/or common sense. Used in a negative context.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am a pedant. I have always been a pedant and likely always will be. It stems from the black-and-white thinking style of my autism, my propensity for rote learning and my obsession with the little things, especially my ability to see the minutiae of the trees yet somehow spectacularly miss the forest. I speak ‘correctly’, even though I acknowledge there is no ‘correct’ way to speak; I try to ensure that I am one-hundred percent accurate in everything I say and write, while accepting that perfection is an impossible dream; and I follow the rules, no matter how stupid or seemingly arbitrary.

Despite its negative reputation, I don’t think being a pedant is necessarily a bad thing.

True, if you correct people on their grammar or point out the factual and logical fallacies of their arguments, it’s often seen as arrogant, condescending and belittling. To quote Ben Shapiro, however: facts don’t care about your feelings. Thanks to my autism, and unfortunately for those around me, I’m far more committed to the facts than I am to anybody’s feelings.

It is not my intention to hurt people’s feelings, though. Correcting them when they make a mistake is how I communicate and share my love of language and history with those around me. Much of the time, when I interrupt the flow of the conversation to tell somebody the true meaning and origin of a phrase they’ve misused, it is done with good intentions and because I think it’ll enrich their understanding and appreciation of the world around them. Partly, it’s to show off and try to impress people.

Only sometimes do I do it to be a dick.

But while I can say it comes from a place of genuine concern for the intellectual development of my fellows, another and probably equally important factor is that I can’t not do it. Inaccuracies cause me pain. My cringe-factor is turned up to eleven every time I hear something that’s patently wrong and the only way of alleviating that crushing horror is to put them straight. I can’t let them walk around being wrong. Entitled? Yes, you could probably call me that. But would you rather suffer a momentary embarrassment and then go through the rest of your life being right, or keep on exposing your ignorance to everyone who knows the truth?

It’s been said that the moment an Englishman speaks, another Englishman judges him, so it’s important to get it right. It’s not ‘I drunk it’ but ‘I drank it’, not ‘could of’ but ‘could have’, and there are no such words as supposably, irregardless, and expresso. I imply, you infer; a chicken lays an egg but people lie down; and if I affect something, I create an effect. Unique means ‘one of a kind’, so things cannot be quite unique or very unique, and if you say ‘reverse back’ or ‘past history’, you’re using one word too many. Little things, but they go a long way.

It’s hard to blame people, however, when everywhere they’re exposed to poor grammar. Songs called ‘Beneath Your Beautiful’; pop culture expressions like ‘You sunk my battleship’; movies entitled Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. No wonder so many people think that you are hanged, not hung, or that you can ‘literally’ die of embarrassment, yet still be able to tell the tale. And don’t get me started on there, their and they’re.

Misused idioms also hit my ear like nails down a chalkboard. It’s not ‘chomping’ at the bit, it’s ‘champing’, referring to an eager horse biting down on its metal mouthpiece; a damp ‘squib’ is a small explosive device, not a tentacled sea-creature; and ‘tenter hooks’ stretch hides over a wooden frame to make them anything but tender. Language evolves, sure, but there have to be standards, otherwise we’ll all end up speaking gibberish and nobody will be able to understand each other.

I can’t stand people promoting falsehoods either, like the guy who sat in front of me on a ferry into Portsmouth one time, who pointed to HMS Warrior and told his wife it was HMS Victory. That might seem minor, but come on – how can you mistake the legendary Victory of Trafalgar and Nelson fame, a wooden-hulled 1765 first rate triple decker ship-of-the-line that is an integral part of British history and national identity, with an iron-hulled 1860 armoured frigate? How could I not correct that error? It’s something every schoolboy should know.

But the most egregious recent example I’ve come across is in Jon Sopel’s bestseller If Only They Didn’t Speak English. As North America Editor for BBC World News, he should know a thing or two about a) facts and b) accuracy, yet when writing about race relations in the US, an incendiary topic that demands care and attention, he displays an unforgivable ignorance. He writes about ‘the literally millions of Africans rounded up and shipped off in the most appalling, fetid conditions to the East Coast of America’, and how ‘twelve and a half million people left the ports of Africa and came to America in leg irons’. All of this suggests that the slave trade was centred on the US and that it’s an exceptional case in world history, a view that supports certain political ideologies but is entirely inaccurate.

Don’t get me wrong, slavery was awful and I don’t wish to minimise the suffering of those affected, but sensationalism and emotion should never take the place of cold, hard facts. Luckily, these are readily available at the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, thanks largely to the work of professors David Eltis and David Richardson of Emory University. Of around 12.5 million slaves shipped across the Atlantic in the period 1519-1867, fewer than 350,000 – less than 5% of the total – went to what is now the United States. Around 40% went to the Portuguese colonies in Brazil, 11% to Jamaica and the rest around the Caribbean and South America.

It is therefore wholly inaccurate to claim that ‘literally millions’ of Africans were shipped to the East Coast of America’ or that ‘Twelve and a half million people…came to America in leg irons.’ More than that, it’s irresponsible as it feeds into the myth of American Exceptionalism and continues to inflame racial tensions. I would have expected a person of Sopel’s background to be more careful with his facts. I would also have expected this misinformation to be picked up on and corrected in the subsequent editions, but it has not, meaning thousands of readers around the world will read it and believe that ‘millions’ of Africans slaves were shipped to the US, and use this ‘fact’ to inform their erroneous view of the world. And that annoys the hell out of me.

(To provide further context, the peak figure of American slavery was 3.9 million, recorded in the 1860 census. Furthermore, in the same period that less than 350,000 African slaves were shipped to America (388,000 according to some sources), more than a million Europeans were held as slaves in Africa.)

Pedantry might be seen as bad, petty, unkind and inflexible, but sometimes, as in the Jon Sopel slavery case, it is by far the better approach than playing fast and loose with the facts. As an autistic individual, pedantry is in my nature, as it is in many others who share my condition. We thrive in academia, in the sciences, in linguistics, where accuracy and obsession over the minutiae are seen as strengths instead of poor social skills. And who knows? One day, the difference between the survival of the species and our unfortunate extinction might come down to somebody spotting a single misplaced integer.