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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 10th October 2011

Someone told me about a piece they’d read in The Sunday Times suggesting that we should stop shaking hands because it could lead to the spread of viruses like flu. It seemed a bizarre suggestion to make so I wanted to learn more but that, of course, was a problem.

I buy national newspapers very rarely. I do buy the local paper but that is because it has a very slow to respond website and you can feel left out if you haven’t read it by Thursday lunchtime. But I do believe that printed national newspapers are a waste of resources and I’m quite confident that I but fewer than ten in a full year.

That means I cannot, at present, read anything published by the Times or Sunday Times. These two members of Mr Murdoch’s empire are only available on subscription and, with plenty of other new sources freely available, I don’t see the need to pay that subscription. In this I am not alone. The subscription experiment has failed though no-one in the Murdoch organisation will say that.

But, there is one clear way to know it has failed and that comes from an analogy with final trials of new medicines. Though proper medical trials require comparison with a placebo it is well-established that, if the trial substance is producing outstanding results and no especially troublesome side effects, it is ethically wrong to continue to deprive the control group of its benefits.

So, we can be pretty sure the Times Newspapers’ online subscription model hasn’t been successful simply because it hasn’t been introduced to other papers in Murdoch’s worldwide portfolio. It was always said to be a trial and other ‘heavyweight’ papers would adopt it in due course but none has rushed to do so. The problem now is how to get a man who is used to dictating what the public should read and see to admit he is wrong.

But I digress.

Luckily for me, the Daily Mail saw no reason not to rework the story using the old trick of reporting on a report to avoid the accusation that they were simply stealing the story. Of course, what the Mail published online is effectively, at least, third hand. The Sunday Times reworked what an American university professor had said about shaking hands spreading the flu and other, worse, viruses and the Mail reworked the Sunday Times piece.

So, could it be true that an expert in viruses would say such a thing? The first point I noted in the Mail story was the words ‘in his book’. So, this is not ‘news’ because it is news; this is related to pre-publication marketing for a new book.

The book is called ‘The Viral Storm’ and its author, Nathan Wolfe, is a professor at Stanford University and founder of something called the Global Viral Forecasting initiative. Prof Wolfe seems to be one of those celebrity scientists that we see more of these days and spends a lot of his time in remote parts of the world studying how viruses spread and mutate.

In the USA, PBS carried an interview with Wolfe and The Wall Street Journal carried a long piece written by the author about his work and the issues covered in his book. But none of the US originated coverage makes any mention of shaking hands.

As noted above, I haven’t read the Sunday Times coverage so I can’t tell how prominent its comment was about this point. It could be that it wasn’t given a lot of emphasis but someone at the Daily Mail decided it deserved to be made the centre of the story and settled on the headline ‘Don't shake hands... touch elbows: Experts' bizarre advice to dodge flu’.

And what has this to do with poisonous plants? Simply that it is another example of someone, whether a university professor or a UK newspaper, exploiting the public’s fascination with unpleasantness, as long as it remains at a distance. It is in the same league as writing that holly should not be brought into the house at Christmas because it is so poisonous, that ricin is a terrorist threat capable of wiping out whole cities and that ragwort is such a danger to livestock that it should be eradicated from the countryside altogether.