charity

Why it's okay to question a charitable cause

I wrote last year about how I dislike Facebook “Games” that “Raise cancer awareness” in a vague and most probably pretty useless manner.



There’s another one doing the rounds – that of taking selfies without makeup on the raise awareness of cancer. The specifics of where it arose are shadowy and exceptionally vague. Some people state that it is for breast cancer awareness, some just for cancer.



It actually seems to have arisen from a well-meaning but very misguided campaign by some friends of a girl who recently hit the headlines after dying from cervical cancer – yet not one selfie post which I have seen mentions this particular type of cancer.



This appears completely random. There’s no connection between wearing makeup and “being aware” of breast cancer. The posts do not on the whole give information and advice on how to check your breasts for signs or what symptoms to look out for.



I’ve questioned it on Facebook, as have others. The response has been… defensive. Of course people who are posting selfies and who are supporting them are doing so in good faith, and I have no problem with this. What I do have a problem with is the vagueness of these campaigns, of the fact that adding “for cancer” on the end of any old nonsense seems to be a code for “Do not question this or else everyone will think that you’re a meanie and will get all offended with you.” This leads us down a dangerous path, which in rare cases leads to real, tangible harm. Those cases - though rare - should be enough to make us stop for a moment and question.


I drew a little cartoon to explain this. I’d like to point out that it’s generalised, and simplified, and is no way aimed at well meaning people who take part in potentially questionable campaigns. Its just the process that I go through, and what many other people do, and I would love it if more and more people understood it, and why it is perfectly okay to question any charity campaign.

Scenario One:
 

Scenario Two:

A healthy dose of skepticism can make any campaign worth its salt even stronger in the end. Being open and honest when questioned only serves to strengthen a cause. Defensiveness doesn't help anyone.

Hxxx

Postscript: This selfie craze ended up making a lot of money for breast cancer charities, which is great. No one has ever denied that making money for charities is wonderful. I'd argue that donations started for this- as well as the ALS ice bucket challenge that followed- not instead of, but because of, healthy skepticism about the purpose of the craze. 

Facebook, breasts, and why the combination of both has been annoying me

"I like it on the living room floor!"
"I like it on the kitchen counter!" 


Blah blah blah. These are the sorts of bawdy Facebook statuses that surface every year. They're then followed up with a message along the lines of "hey, let's not tell the MENwhat we're doing, but according to this arbitrary nonsense below, put something attention seeking as your status update to help raise awareness of breast cancer".

There's always the inevitable guilt trip of "most of you wont bother with this, and you're all terrible, terrible, evil people who don't care about people with cancer and you will all go to hell"

These sorts of statuses/ messages have always bothererd me. The whole Carry On Breast Cancer vibe is just uncomfortable, for starters. They are infused with the same sort of superstitious, guilt-ridden nonsense as the old chain letters you used to get back in the late 80s. And people seem to go to great lengths to defend them, and any even remotely negative comments about them are batted straight back with an unthinking "why wouldn't you want to raise awareness of breast cancer? are you some sort of EVIL PERSON?!"  I have raised the point on my own Facebook and have also seen some friends take flack for daring to question these games. 

There is a great piece of writing about exactly this subject that you can find about this subject here. You'll also find a piece from Skepchick here. However, there are a couple of other points that I want to raise in addition and to compliment the points raised in that piece, and some of the arguments used to defend the game that I have seen used on Facebook. These points are in no particular
 

How much awareness are these "games" raising? 

Given that the messages contain no information on the symptoms or how to check for breast cancer, or any links to good quality information sources, I'm not convinced that it is raising awareness. There have already been huge campaigns to raise awareness of breast cancer- people in the main already know that the disease exists. Therefore this campaign needs to add something specific to that: how best to check for signs of breast cancer, practical tips, or signposting to other good quality sources of information. Furthermore, actively excluding an entire gender or other large group of people from your awareness campaign seems like a very odd tactic indeed. The messages include how the "bra game" made it to the press- this appears to be the case, although not in the way the message would like to imply. But have any of the other campaigns that surface regularly made it to the press? I certainly haven't seen so.

Who has started these campaigns, and what charity etc are they raising money for? its not clear, and it would seem that no one knows who or why they originated. So what sort of awareness are they really raising?
 

Cold, hard cash

These games aren't asking for money to be donated to any particular charity. Yet, when it comes to cancer research, it is cold hard cash that makes the difference. There is a risk that people may feel that by taking part in the game, they have done their bit already in helping to raise awareness, which might discourage any further action. In actual fact, if you want to help, donate some money to a cancer research charity.Is there any evidence that this sort of bid to raise awareness translate into money being donated? No, of course there isn't, so we should all be focusing our efforts elsewhere. 
 

Dignity

Really people, are we that unimaginative that we require this arbitrary nonsense to put something titilling as a status? Do we so desperately want to feel a part of something that we will lower ourselves to this sort of bawdy crap? Can we really not think up any better innuendos to grab male attention as we appear to be so desperately doing here? These sorts of statuses sit on the same level of annoyance as the ones that are simply an unhappy face so that many people will reply with "what's up hun?" and the original poster will get lots of attention. If you want to be tacky and attention seeking, go right ahead, but do so with a bit of imagination and personality, not according to some formulaic crap involving handbags.

Exclusion

In 2010, breast cancer rates in men were approximately 1 per 100,000. Just imagine how emasculating, shocking, and devastating this diagnosis may be. The fact that bright pink is constantly associated with this disease can't help matters. That awareness campaigns like this one actively exclude men is frankly unforgivable. Campaigns that raise awareness of testicular or prostate cancer are often very inclusive of women (I'm thinking of the Movember campaign in particular, problematic as it may be for other reasons), despite the fact that for obvious reasons the likelihood of women getting these types of cancers is zero. 

In addition, as a good friend of mine pointed out, it may be men who notice or feel changes in their partner's breasts before they do. Why would they therefore be excluded from any awareness campaign? It just doesnt make sense.
 

Humour

"Oh but its just a bit of a laugh isn't it?". I've seen this used as a defence for these games. No actually, no its not a bit of a laugh- its breast cancer, for crying out loud. Humour is undoubtedly a powerful tool in coping with such a diagnosis, but this is going to be different for everyone and needs to be treated as such. some people might find this funny whilst others might find it plain offensive. No Facebook chain message is going to be able to deal with the complexities of when and how to use humour in the face of a potentially devastating diagnosis.

So there is some thoughts to be going on with. I may or may not add to them as time goes on. In the meantime, if you'd like to do your bit, you could always donate a few pennies here. Meanwhile, for information on how to check your breasts, try this Breakthrough Breast Cancer page.

Hxxx

Is Gareth Bale worth more than eradicating malaria?

Many moons ago, in what now feels like a different life, I went on a trip to London. The date was October 12th, 2009, and I was armed with a long pole, a dispensing basket I had nicked from work, and a mosquito net.

I had an hour. An hour, to do whatever I wanted, in Central London. Its not particularly unusual to have an hour to kill in the capital, but it just so happened that I would be spending this hour atop the Fourth Plinth in a moonlit Trafalgar Square. I had been lucky enough to have been selected to take part in Anthony Gormley's One & Other artwork. I decided, after much deliberation, to represent the Malaria No More charity. I gave out packs of sweets and leaflets about the cause, wore a dress made of a mosquito net, and even did a little bit of crafting, sewing the words Malaria No More onto a large blue mosquito net. Mostly, I felt utterly terrified, and had horrendous stage fright, more so than I had ever imagined I would have.

Malaria No More, amongst other things, aim to distribute insecticide-treated bed nets (ITNs), eventually with a view to eradicate malaria entirely. According to them:

"£10 can transport 150 life-saving nets to a community in rural Ghana; enough to protect 300 people."

 Blimey, that sounds far too good to be true, doesn't it? But luckily, there is good, robust, independent evidence that impregnated mosquito nets really do prevent deaths from malaria:

"About 5.5 lives (95% CI 3.39 to 7.67) can be saved each year for every 1000 children protected with ITNs...ITNs are highly effective in reducing childhood mortality and morbidity from malaria. Widespread access to ITNs is currently being advocated by Roll Back Malaria, but universal deployment will require major financial, technical, and operational inputs.." -Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2000;(2):CD000363.

So the idea is that two people can sleep under one net, but because of the insecticide, there is an area outside the nets which is also protected. If there are enough nets in a household, or even a village, then the whole area could be protected, even when people are out and about and not just when they are sleeping under the net. The available evidence seems to back this up-the little extract I have copied above only refers to deaths, but the results are even better when it comes to reducing the incidence of malaria illness- a reduction of 62% in areas of unstable malaria, for example. 

This got me thinking a bit. With the news today that Gareth Bale, a man that I have never heard of, who runs about on a bit of grass after an inflatable round thing is apparently worth a record £85.3 million, I can't help but do some little calculations. Obviously these are all estimates, but it makes for an interesting thought experiment.

  • £10= 150 mosquito nets


 

  • £85,300,000/10=8,530,000 mosquito nets

  • As each of those 8,530,000 nets can protect two people= 17,060,000 people could be protected.

  • 5.5 lives can be saved for every 1000 children protected with ITNs. If we assume all the people protected are children:

    • 17,060,000/1000= 17,060

    • 17.060*5.5=93,830 children could be saved.


The WHO estimates that there were 660 000 malaria deaths in 2010. So that amount of mosquito nets, could, in actual fact, prevent a large chunk of those deaths (we dont know how many adult deaths it could prevent, either) meaning that over a few years, malaria could potentially be eradicated. 

Now, I'm sure this Bale chap is very good and all, but I do wonder whether, in the context of all the World's problems, this sort of amount is appropriate. Personally, I would rather opt for reducing the massive morbidity and mortality caused by a disease that is potentially eradicable given the right resources, but then what do I know?

Before anyone complains, yes I know this is terribly simplistic, and its not as easy as that, and all of that sort of hoohah. I just want to make a bit of a point about how vast sums of money need a context, and in my humble opinion, I don't think it is particularly appropriate or such sums to exchange hands when there are still people dying of hunger or preventable diseases.  I'm sure some men doing footballing makes some people happy and all, but come on. I'm not even convinced that Christian Bale is worth that much, despite that scene of him running around naked, bloodstained, and with chainsaw in hand in American Pyscho.

Hxxx

Apostasy: a Heathen's perspective

Sometimes, you come across things in life that really open your eyes and you find yourself gazing into a world that you had no idea about. The Apostasy Project is one of those things. 

Being a lower-middle-class-ish white girl with a loving, secure, and easy-going family, I've never really had to think about a lot of the things I am. I can breezily make declarations about my lack of faith and no one would really bat an eyelid, even those that are more religiously inclined. Not everyone has access to this privilege. 

I know I've said this before, but I really can't thank my parents enough for their laid back -some would say lackadaisical- attitudes to my religious upbringing. They purposefully didn't force any religion on me as a child, their conviction being that it was my choice-when I was old enough to make that decision- what to believe in. They gave me the gift of a neutral baseline on which to impose my own beliefs, or lack of them, as I wished.

I went to a Christian school, but all that really meant was sitting through a couple of minutes of prayer in assembly. There were no consequences of not praying- it was just another boring part of assembly to accept and get through before the more interesting bits of the school day started. School plays were religiously themed sometimes, (but also, on one notable occasion, Neighbours themed) but none of this really had any effect on me or the rest of my life decisions and was viewed by most of us kids as vaguely ridiculous and uncool.  I have very little knowledge of any religion, to be honest, because I just don't really need it in my life- I'm a modern day heathen, in the unruly, uncivilised sense of the word, you could say. 

So I've been pretty much oblivious to the sorts of issues that people who have to walk away from a religion can experience. Recently, thanks to The Apostasy Project, I've been reading with interest the accounts of people who have walked away from their religion. It had, to be honest, never really occurred to me that 'coming out' as an atheist is potentially just as traumatic an experience for some as the more traditional version of 'coming out' that people would think of- as being gay. Like some gay people, apostates also risk losing respect, family, friends, and their whole communities simply for stating that they no longer subscribe to the same belief system. What I'm realising too is that these sorts of issues can apply across the board religion-wise too: it's not just those that people assume to be more fundamentalist.

 

Given all of this, it's amazing really that anyone ever does come out about losing their faith. But, when the alternative is living a lie, why should people have to keep their lack of faith secret? The more apostates speak out, the more normalised it becomes, and hopefully a more open, civilised and accepting society follows. Making the decision to question and walk away from a religion which shaped your childhood is an incredibly brave thing to do, and those of us who are lucky enough not to have to do so might not appreciate that.

 

The Apostasy Project has been set up to support people in this position, and its an important role to play. If any of you lovely people can help them out, please do. 

 

Atheists are, by definition, a ragtag, diverse bunch. Some would say that with only a lack of belief to unite us, it's impossible that we could build the sort of religious community one would find in, say, a church. But I don't think that's true, and I think it's important that we build a sort of atheistic extended family in order to be more visible and frankly, just because its much nicer for us all to feel that we belong somewhere. This is my little chunk of solidarity to apostates everywhere, then, for what it's worth.


Hxxx


P.S. Be sure to also read John Sargeant's account of leaving Jehovah's Witnesses, which are beautifully written: Part One and Part Two

Take all of it, every scrap

There are many things in life that are not black and white. There are many arguments in which I can see where all sides are coming from, and I can understand the root of why people would disagree with me. Yet there is one area which is consistently contentious, and yet my brain can genuinely not comprehend the other side of the debate.

I'm talking about organ donation.

The news yesterday was good: there has been a 50% increase in organ donation since 2008. And yet there is still a long, long way to go.

"Last year, 125 families overruled an individual's intention to donate."- BBC News

I really, really struggle to understand why anyone would object to organ donation. I just cannot get my head round it. And overturning an individual's decision to donate their organs seems particularly bizarre to me. I understand that in the acutely shocking and devastating situation of a death you might not be thinking clearly, but... I really just don't get it. 

Maybe its my atheism. Maybe its the fact that I see death as just that and no more. I don't see it as the start of a new journey into the afterlife, or the first step on my way to meeting my maker. You just die and that's that. So I suppose its easy for me to disassociate myself from the shell that's left. I don't feel creepy about the idea that there could be bits of me in other people: in fact I feel positively proud that I might be able to help in any way.

Religions offer us a legacy. They give us the promise of a new beginning after our death, and so go some way to assuage the fear of nothingness that might follow. But it's a legacy that, in my opinion, is pretty useless. It might be comforting to our loved ones, but in the long term view of things on this planet, that doesn't mean a great deal when there are people whose lives could be made better by a chunk of my flesh being implanted into them when its no longer any use to me.

Not that I think every objection to organ donation is on religious grounds, but I suspect it may be a fairly important part of it for some people. Atheists are often told that we're evil, that we have no morals, and that we are going to hell, but to me it seems that organ donation is clearly the more morally good choice when the alternative is wanting to keep a dead person intact for ceremonial reasons. 

Some people just think its icky: the idea that a bit of you will be in someone else. I had an ex-boyfriend who thought organ donation was wrong "because its just weird" (he's an ex for a number of very definite reasons, and this is quite a prominent one). Well, I think a lot of things are icky, but they still get done because they have to be done. I can think of more pleasant things than having a smear test, for example, but I do it because it is a necessary evil. And, one has to remember a key point: you're dead. Things don't seem so icky or weird to you any more because you no longer exist. 

Fig 1. Handy flow chart for deciding whether to sign up for organ donation

Fig 1. Handy flow chart for deciding whether to sign up for organ donation

urely there is no better legacy than giving parts of ourselves to allow other people to go on living healthier, longer lives.  

And so, your homework is to (if you haven't already), think about it, speak to your loved ones about it, and sign up to the Organ Donation Register 

Hxxx

Firewalk with me: Science, Religion, and some very, very hot coals

Firewalking is, to be honest, great fun. I did it last year and I shall again be strutting over burning embers in a few week's time, to raise money for The Stroke Association, for which I would be very, very grateful if you were to throw your spare pennies in my direction.

I remember from last time that we were told in the pre-firewalk training that you needed the following three things to be able to firewalk successfully:

1. Fire connection- you have to know that it is a real-life fire, not a trick, and that it is going to be really, very hot. We were encouraged to go and hold our hands above the coals so that we knew that it was hot before walking. Apparently, if you tell yourself it's not hot, it just doesn't work.

2. A belief in a theory. You need to have some faith that it works, and that you're not going to end up as barbecue fodder. 

3. Intention to walk. You need to stand at the start of the walk, and know and want to walk across the fire. Supposedly there have been studies done where they blindfolded experienced firewalkers and they were unable to do it unless they knew when they were stepping onto the fire.

"They believe that the power of Saint Constantine—the religious power—allows them to do it and that that is a miracle," Source: National Geographic

Some people believe they're able to firewalk because of their aura and golden light coming from their heart chakras and that sort of thing. The evidence for this appears to be a couple of photos which I'd imagine could easily be explained by the fact that a) you're moving and b) you're walking on fire, usually in the dark so its pretty likely that there's going to be a bit of a glow on photos. 

Other people believe that it's God who allows them to firewalk, and indeed firewalking is an integral part of some religious rituals and is generally considered to be a very spiritual experience.

You'll hopefully know me well enough by now to know that I'm unlikely to go in for this as an explanation. Indeed I'd suspect that if there was a God in control of such matters there'd be even more likelihood of me getting toasted feet, and he's probably see to it that I got hit by lightning or something at the same time, just for good measure, to prove a point and to punish me for all my years of non-belief. Is there any evidence that this option is the truth? In short, no. 

So that leaves us with physics then. Now, it's been many years since I actually did any physics, and admittedly my physics teacher spent more time attempting to give electric shocks to a boy called Alistair than anything else, but I know enough to be pretty damn confident that out of all the options, this is the one that makes sense. It's all about conductivity- because coal and wood are pretty feeble conductors of heat, and because you're walking, there isn't enough time for the heat to transfer to your feet to cause any burning. The evidence for this? Well, lots. Sticking your hand in an oven is an oft-quoted example, and few people declare that to be a spiritual experience overseen by a God, do they? 

Here's the thing: does any of this actually matter? According to the guy who did our training last time, apparently not, as long as you believe that something will get you across safely, it doesn't really matter. If only such attitudes were employed in other aspects of life, one can't help but wonder how many lives would have been saved/made better. 

So does believing in science make firewalking a less impressive experience? Surely if you take out the belief in a protective spiritual presence it would lose its appeal, right? In truth, this couldn't be more wrong. It feels magical, and every bit as much like you are conquering the impossible as it must do for spiritual types. The fact that its caused by the physical characteristics of different types of matter doesn't make it any less transcendent, scary, or beautiful. 

Of course, having said all this it'll be just my luck that I'll end up in a burns unit after my next one. I hereby give you permission to laugh heartily if this is the case. 

I'll just leave this here again, just in case you want to lighten your wallets....
http://www.justgiving.com/Firewalk-WithMe 

Hxxx