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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 1st April 2012

In my younger days, I was a regular reader of ‘Punch’. This was in its golden era under Alan Coren’s editorship. For, at least, the last fifteen years I’ve been a subscriber to ‘Private Eye’. What that means is that I’ve seen a huge number of cartoons and I couldn’t describe one in a thousand to you.

Because this is a daily blog, I don't usually revisit what I've written after I've published it. Because today's entry is about hanging on to erroneous beliefs I'm revisiting on this occasion.

Shortly after I tweeted about this new entry, I received a tweet from someone saying that the cartoon described had never appeared in Private Eye. It can be viewed here and, as you'll see, it isn't exactly as described.

I'm happy to acknowledge my false memory.

But there was a cartoon, some years ago in ‘Private Eye’ that has stayed with me and that comes to mind regularly. It is one o’clock in the morning and a man, wearing only underpants, is tapping furiously at his keyboard. His wife, in her nightdress, asks him why he won’t come to bed. ‘I can’t’, he replies, ‘something is wrong on the Internet’.

I remember that cartoon every time one of my Google Alerts takes me to some egregious example of something being wrong on the Internet. My first reaction to such things is to look for the ‘register now’ button in order to get signed up and fire off a bad tempered correction but then ‘my’ cartoon pops into my head and I realise the effort would be almost certainly wasted. As I blogged, yesterday, people cling to erroneous beliefs if those beliefs fit their prejudices.

Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort

Today’s example was, as it often is in the spring and summer, about Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort previously called Senecio jacobaea. This was a thread on a horse forum that began ‘This is just a reminder to everyone when removing this horrible stuff wear gloves as it will kill us just the same as our horses’. So far, only one person has added to the thread and that is to agree that ‘we can absorb the toxins through the skin’.

The original post goes to say that it was DEFRA’s advice in the ‘Code of Practice on How to Prevent the Spread of Ragwort’ with its talk of the need to wear protective clothing and a face mask when handling ragwort that had him ‘scared to death’.

I’ve blogged about Jacobaea vulgaris many times and you can see a list of those entries if you go to the plant page but when I blogged about the disappointing lack of knowledge of the COP shown by Richard Benyon MP, the minister whose department is responsible for it, I wrote;

‘…the first published draft of the COP said, of facemask wearing, ‘to reduce the risk of hayfever’; nothing to do with PA poisoning.’

Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort

Removing those six words from the final version has left open the possibility of people misunderstanding the risk involved in dealing with ragwort. I always tell people that wearing gloves is good advice because it removes the risk of mechanical damage to the hands as a result of pulling the plants up but it is not essential to avoid poisoning because it has been estimated that it would take 120kg on the skin to cause lethal poisoning.

There would be no point in registering for the forum concerned and making these points there because the belief in the potential for harm from ragwort is illogical and, as I’ve seen before, this is an area where people cling to anecdote, even of the ‘I read somewhere about this bloke, right’ variety, in spite of all the evidence.

What I find amusing, because finding it amusing is what stops me sitting here at 1 am in my pants, is the inconsistency of people’s beliefs. Obviously, I do not know the individual concerned and I cannot speak for the totality of his beliefs. In general, however, I know that a great many people, possibly the overwhelming majority, belief that advice from government is ‘health and safety gone mad’ or, at the very least, vastly overblown.

There’s actually a paradox to the way people view information from the government. They are, generally, hugely sceptical when the government says they should drink less or eat more vegetables or get more exercise but, at other times, as was seen this week with the fuel situation, they will not only accept what the government says but grossly exaggerate it.

And they do that because it fits with their existing beliefs. Regardless of what was said, people would have tried to ensure they had plenty of fuel and panic buying would have occurred. If the government had said there was no need to fill-up, people would have taken that as a sign that they should fill up.

People believe what they want to believe and won’t be swayed by what anyone else says. The people on horse forums who ‘know’ how dangerous ragwort is will choose what to believe in order to bolster their prejudice.

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