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‘Progress is happening, and the future looks bright’: Luke O’Neill

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World-renowned immunologist Luke O’Neill takes on today’s biggest science questions, with more than a little rock’n’roll attitude thrown in.

It used to be said that you should never judge a book by its cover. And yet, one look at the unmistakable dayglo colour references to Jamie Reid’s infamous album sleeve of 1977 relieves you of that responsibility. And just as Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten explained the title of the band’s album - which famously survived an obscenity court case – as being an imprecation to strip away the nonsense and get to the objective root of the matter, so here does Luke O’Neill.

Don’t be fooled by the guitar-playing immunologist’s eyeball-friendly rock’n’roll cultural magpie stance. There’s a lot of deadly serious stuff going on in ‘Never Mind the B*ll#cks, Here’s the Science’. It’s a book about nothing less than why the public is reluctant to think scientifically, or trust engineers for that matter, as if they ever did.

If for the past year you’ve been mystified by the endless stream of single-issue politics that seems to drag science and technology through the mud, then you’re not alone. That’s because Professor Luke O’Neill, leading immunologist and professor of biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin, Fellow of the Royal Society and big Talking Heads fan, has too. Whether it’s to do with climate change or anti-vax, the cost of developing new medicines or euthanasia, he’s fed up with all the hysterical headlines, pseudo-scientific justifications, the lack of nuance in the debate and the politicking. His big idea with ‘Never Mind the B*ll#cks, Here’s the Science’ is to look into the heart of these issues from a scientific perspective and, coupled with his leftie-liberal Irish bonhomie, have a bit of a laugh from time to time. (Mostly because, the reader will eventually suspect, the topics covered by O’Neill are so serious that you’ll drive yourself nuts if you take them too seriously.)

As a scientist, says O’Neill, you simply cannot find any rational argument for not having your children vaccinated. During the course of a closely packed and tightly argued chapter he cites all the relevant statistics boiled down from thousands of scientific investigations into the topic. The bottom line, he says (he confidently finishes every chapter with a one-liner that delivers the evidence-based judgement) is that “all health agencies in all countries agree: vaccinate your child”. Which raises the question of why a growing unscientific sector of society knows better.

O’Neill say that while he’s not a psychologist, it’s probably vital not to treat these people as idiots no matter how much this reviewer might want to: he recommends listening to those reluctant to accept vaccination with “empathy and humility”. This is because misguided fears about overwhelming an infant’s immune system, chemical contamination of the vaccines and side-effects are nonetheless real fears. If we address them one-by-one, we can guide people towards a better understanding of the science and away from those hyperventilated headlines. Should we make it illegal not to vaccinate? That’s for ethicists to work out, says the author, who concludes his essay on the topic with the upbeat view that “progress is happening, and the future looks bright”.

We read it for you

‘Never Mind the B*ll#cks, Here’s the Science’

Why must we vaccinate our children? Why are we destroying the planet? What sort of control do we have over the future? These are but three of the big questions that Luke O’Neill sets out to answer in his brilliant ‘Never Mind the B*ll#cks, Here’s the Science.’ Despite its anti-establishment title, O’Neill’s series of 15 evidence-based essays is a rational plea for a common-sense approach to highly emotive issues of public importance. As a scientist he wants us to consider the evidence, weigh the arguments, trust the technologists who have devoted their lives to researching how to build a better, safer, healthier world. Sounds a bit serious? It is. But O’Neill’s genius is to present these debates in a user-friendly way, with anecdotes from his own life and plenty of cultural reference points that are quite cool if you’re a middle-aged dad punk rocker. Fantastic stuff.

It’s now beyond reasonable doubt that global warming is being caused by greenhouse gases emitted due to human activity, says O’Neill in his chapter ‘Why are you wrecking the planet?’. And while engineers and technologists will take the statement as axiomatic, our author warns us that “many are still in denial”. Why this should be the case is again for the psychologists to unpick. But scientists can play their part too, says O’Neill, because we know from examining ice cores in Antarctica that go back almost a million years that the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere ballooned in the mid-19th century, when we started burning fossils to power an industrial revolution that gave us textiles and steel, railways and ships.

We know that the oceans are filling up with gyres (some the size of Texas) full of plastic fragments that will take millions of years to biodegrade. We know that the demands of an increasing global population will only make matters worse. But we can slow down the supertanker and turn it around because we have the technology. But to do this we have to listen to young people such as Greta Thunberg. Why? Because it is a scientific fact that we are statistically more likely to respond to the impassioned pleas of future generations than we are to Orwellian Whitehall doubletalk.

More than anything ‘Never Mind the B*ll#cks, Here’s the Science’ is a book about the future. As with plenty of futurists, O’Neill takes as one of his benchmarks ‘Star Trek’. This isn’t half as daft as it sounds because Gene Roddenberry’s franchise was unnervingly prescient when it came to predicting gadgets such as mobile phones, e-books and AI-enabled digital assistants. In fact, it might turn out to be a better approach than any other, as we see the likes of Google, Microsoft and Apple employing sci-fi writers as consultants.

Interestingly, O’Neill thinks that this is because it presents a cultural counterbalance to the way businesses think, which is like a business: “Science-fiction can free up the mind from constraints... can inspire people who work in the technology sector to come up with new products and services.” We won’t get much further than Mars, he argues, if we think of transporting humans through space in cigar-tubes filled with combustible propellant. Neither will we solve the on-rushing resources shortages unless we can somehow replicate the replicator technology found in the realms of science fiction. Wait a minute, he says, we’re already working on both of these. And while we may be “a long way from developing warp speed”, we’re already 3D-printing chocolate, prosthetic limbs and plant-based meat.

It’s no surprise that ‘Never Mind the B*ll#cks, Here’s the Science’ should be a superb read. It’s been written by an author who has spent his life in science thinking about problems and looking for answers. It’s also a no-nonsense analysis of the issues of our day, much in the same way that Johnny Rotten’s similarly packaged record was. O’Neill should send him a copy. He’d like it.

‘Never Mind the B*ll#cks, Here’s the Science’ by Luke O’Neill is from Swift, £9.99

Extract

The Star Trek effect

Apart from warp speed and replicators, the other striking thing about Star Trek is medical procedures. Injections are given by ‘hypospray’, which doesn’t involve a needle. The FDA recently approved a device that can use ultrasonic waves to open pores in the skin, allowing vaccines to be injected without needles. A device with a high-pressure jet is being tested as a way to deliver vaccines in powdered form. This will mean no injections for vaccines and no need to keep vaccines at a low temperature to preserve them, which is an issue in the developing world.

Star Trek: Voyager also has an emergency hologram doctor who is an expert in all fields of medicine. Then there’s the famous medical tricorder, which can diagnose diseases and collect other information about a patient by holding the device over someone’s body. We are a long way off robotic doctors, although there are robots that can perform some types of surgery. In diagnosis artificial intelligence is being increasingly used, most recently in the diagnosis of breast cancer, where the technology outperformed humans. There are, of course, scanners like the MRI imager, which can see inside our heads using magnetic resonance, but these are a long way from being hand-held. But there is the Standoff Patient Triage Tool, which is being developed by the US Department of Homeland Security. This device can take vital signs from 10 metres away – another highly clinically relevant device in the age of Covid-19.

The National Space Biomedical Research Institute is developing a device that can use light to measure blood and tissue chemistry. It needs to be placed on the skin, so isn’t quite like the tricorder, but it’s moving in that direction. There is also a device called DxtER, which can diagnose conditions including diabetes, atrial fibrillation, urinary tract infection and pneumonia. It uses AI, patient questionnaires and sensors to provide a quick assessment of a patient’s health.

Edited extract from ‘Never Mind the B*ll#cks, Here’s the Science’ by Luke O’Neill, reproduced with permission.

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