Latest from Birmingham Post science...
It is a fact of journalism that we all know: when a spree-killer shoots or stabs multiple victims and secures a large number of fatalities, the story receives serious news coverage, and such coverage is exacerbated if the shooter remains at large and local police are issuing "active shooter" notices to the public. TV news stations will usually drop the majority of their pre-planned stories and features in order to follow the ongoing tragic developments. That is simply how news works in the 24 hour age.
It is a simple premise I also work on: when a spree killer story receives heavy news coverage, it is not a sensible idea to repeatedly show any video footage of the shooter that the newsroom may have acquired. There is no code of conduct that stops broadcasters from doing this by the way. One thing that is highly likely to influence an angry, hostile individual (who may have already harboured thoughts and fantasies about by spree-killing and may be slowly nudging towards doing so) into committing a spree killing, is to see the attention and infamy given to other spree killers. This becomes more intoxicating and seductive if the original spree killer is able to air their views and frustrations when the news show clips they uploaded, or shows their 'manifestos'. The great majority of spree-killers are narcissistic, and seeing such infamy achieved by others 'like them' is so compelling that most of us cannot possibly understand how it feels.
Spree-killers have traditionally been influenced by other killings they see in the news; but now they are able to be influenced by other killers themselves and their video rhetoric. When making the channel 5 series "Killing Spree" it was a condition of mine that I would not mention the first names of the killers when speaking on camera. This is something I adhere to when contributing to news coverage too. The ability of spree-killers to influence other spree-killers is clear to me. The Hungerford massacre perpetrated by Michael Ryan (when he killed 16 people, and wounded 15 others on Saturday 17th August 1987) occurred just 10 days after the Hoddle Street massacre in Melbourne (perpetrated by a former army cadet and solider Julian Knight who killed 7 and wounded 19 others) on Sunday 9th August 1987. The Hoddle Street shootings received heavy news coverage in the UK from both the BBC and ITV at the time. It is no coincidence that Ryan dressed in military clothing like Knight - and walked the streets during his spree rather than hiding or finding a tactical vantage point. The Hoddle Street-Hungerford link was not a one-off. After killing 16 children and 1 teacher in his spree at Dunblane Prmary School on Wednesday 13th March 1996, Thomas Hamilton received world-wide coverage, and also influenced a spree-shooter on the other side of the world. Twenty-two year old Martyn Bryant killed 35 and wounded 23 others in a spree-attack in and around Port Arthur in Tasmania on April 28th and 29th 1996. When taken alive and in immediate captivity, he told police that he "wanted to beat that Dunblane guy's record". Further evidence comes from Raoul Moat, the wannabe spree killer who, before embarking on a rampage in July 2010 which that saw one person killed, one attempted murder, and another serious injury, Moat wrote that he would not be going on a spree and shooting old ladies in woolly hats like that bloke in Cumbria - a direct reference to the spree-killings by Derrick Bird one month earlier who killed 12 people and injured 11 others in his spree on 2nd June 2010.
Anders Breivik who perpetrated the Oslo bomb killing 8, and then attacked teenagers on the island of Utoya that saw 69 more killed, wrote a manifesto and posed for pictures in his combat gear. In the absence of any pre-existing video of him, news coverage would often show his combat-ready pictures. There is no doubt that those photos of him, in black wetsuit with rifle raised, would have psychological appeal to countless angry isolated individuals who also felt they had a grievance to settle. Breivik had made a "pre-spree PR friendly photo" that would influence many. It could be a coincidence, but one year and one day after Breivik's shootings, James Holmes, after having set bombs at his home, dressed in black combat gear then entered the Century 16 plaza in Aurora, Colorado on 20th July 2012 and shot and killed 12 people, wounding dozens more, before being captured. He too, like Brevik has endured months of infamy and attention in courtroom debates regarding his sanity and motives. There is no greater attention for a spree-killer than the courtroom media circus that follows their crimes.
After the Virginia Tech massacre on 16th April 2007 by Seng Hui-Cho who killed 32 university students and injured dozens more, his self-made videos and photos of him brandishing weapons and ranting to camera about his hatred for other students arrived at the offices of ABC and NBC the next day. Thankfully the news agencies quickly pulled such video clips from their news coverage - and to my knowledge, no copycat spree-killings occurred within the following few weeks of the tragedy - possibly because Cho's infamy and platform to justify his killings was stymied.
Since the emergence of the phenomenon of YouTube and on-line video posting, many disgruntled, angry and blame-raddled individuals post their hate-filled videos and 'manifestos' on-line. So what of Elliot Rodger, the so-called 'Virgin Killer' who killed 5 and injured several more during his spree just over two weeks ago, on the weekend of Memorial Day? He made countless videos that he posted to YouTube, as well as compiling a 1400 page 'manifesto' that he called "the twisted world of Elliot Rodger" which he emailed around, pre-spree. His videos and particularly his writings are disturbing for many reasons, and warrant a full analysis separate to this in order to get into the psychological complexity of his hatred. Needless to say, on the surface, his videos and writings are long-winded pieces of a young man whining and complaining that he is unable to have sex, even though he truly believes deserves to, all the while being unable to understand why lesser-men than him are able to do so. He speaks of the "injustice of it all" so many times in his racist and dystopian rants, without realising how ironic his use of those words are. I am sure nobody outside of the PUAhate chat (pick up artist) forums and immature young boys find his words compelling or convincing.
However, what is more troubling is the amount of airtime his videos were given by TV news channels over the following three days. TV news bulletins and channels, including all of the terrestrial UK channels and SKY news, freely used clips of his self-assured and confident pieces to camera (along with the accompanying audio) that he filmed while sitting in the Californian sunset his BMW. He was a good looking young man and clearly verbally eloquent in his ability to "justify" what he was about to do. The heavy use of these clips in the subsequent news coverage provided him with some of the slickest post-mortem PR available. Rodger knew the value of the visual to his generation. On the BBC news on Saturday evening (one day after the killings) the video clip of Rodger sitting in his car was used three times in fifteen minutes. There is little doubt that other hostile and isolated people as angry as Rodger have seen his videos in full by now (they are still available on YouTube) having been introduced to them via the TV news.
The timeline of events since Rodger's spree-killing has been disturbing, with three other active-shooter incidents occurring in the two weeks since (New Brunswick in Canada had a male military-type spree-shooter who killed three police officers and wounded two more, 11 days after Santa Barbara; two days after that a male spree-shooter killed 1 and wounded 2 others on a Seattle College campus before being over-powered; and three days after that, two spree-shooters killed three others and then themselves in a shopping centre in Las Vegas). Case-linkage being what it is, it may be impossible to prove any links or influences between the four spree-killing incidents discussed here, but circumstances often do speak for themselves. One of the most media savvy spree-killers we have seen leaves a dense canon of hate-material behind him, secures massive global news coverage of his killing-spree, and then has his views aired widely by those news channels. Within two weeks, four more angry and isolated shooters try to settle their grievances with society by killing strangers in public places.
I am confident to say that showing pre-spree materials on the news coverage of sprees does encourage the fatal actions of some wannabe copycat spree-killers, but also, that by deciding not to show such materials when they exist can also make copycat spree-killings less likely to occur. Even by showing a hard copy of any killer's "manifesto" on camera, it gives a legitimacy to it and the subsequent killings that it does not deserve. I have read Elliot Rodger's "twisted world" manifesto (as well as a few others I have come across) but his is the most disagreeable self-pitying and pathetic piece of solipsism I have seen - and as such I have refused to be seen holding it on camera - simply to deny it any ability to influence others.
Prof Craig Jackson was a consultant on the documentary "The Virgin Killer" to be broadcast on Channel 4 at 22:05 on Sunday 15th June
As a parent, I can only start to imagine the pain, grief and suffering of the family of Hannah Smith, who committed suicide recently after being bullied on the ask.fm website. Almost daily, fresh headlines emerge about social media sites like Twitter being used to issue threats of rape, violence and murder. My visceral, emotional, immediate reaction is much like everyone else: something must be done.
But principles, and policy, must be driven by reason, logic and a sense of proportion. We must understand what is happening and why. Bullying and intimidation are an integral part of human nature and of society; while the recent media storm might make us believe that all this is new, it has forever been the case.
I've done it. I'm now clean. I've not touched it for a couple of months now, and most significantly the craving to consume more and more has pretty much gone. I have time for others, time for events, activities, and headspace to think and enjoy them. I don't have wasted hours, where I can hardly remember what has happened.
Yes, I've stopped using Facebook.
Whilst it's slightly early for the prediction season, I thought I'd put forward a few possibilities, based on some digital crystal gazing, some wistful looking off into space, a finger in the air and some personal perspective. Some of these may even come true.
When I was a research biochemist, I used to enjoy the occasions when I would meet someone new, perhaps in the pub, and they would ask me what I do for a living. Upon hearing the word 'biochemist', you could see their face turn to stone and the panic come over them in a wave as they tried to think of a follow up line that did not involve having to ask what a biochemist is or does. More often than not, this thinking time would rapidly become a tumbleweed moment and I wish I had never said the dreaded B word. Apparently though, if you are a genetic counsellor, rather than a tumbleweed moment, one of the common responses you get is, "so you tell people not to have children then?". And this is how the October Birmingham Café Scientifique started.
Organ donation is always an interesting discussion because it is one of those things that most people, if you were to ask them, do not seem to have an issue with and are generally very supportive of in the UK. And yet we have one of the lowest rates of organ donation in Europe. Why is this? To start to discuss these points, the first thing you need is someone who knows a thing or two about organ donation and the second is a suitable environment for honest and open discussion - welcome to the Birmingham Café Scientifique.
More developments from the battlefront on the war with stress. Unfortunately, it looks like "stress" is winning the PR war...
Stressful jobs that involve a lack of control and decision-making from the worker are linked to increased risks of heart attacks, a new study has found, that has been published in the latest edition of The Lancet. This of course, is nothing particulalrly new, other than the results eminate from a meta-analysis of the data from over a dozen high-quality large-sized cohort studues in the field. Research in this area is often faced with a wall of indifference - on one hand the results state the obvious, which turns off many lay-readers from looking beyond the headlines. Yet on the other hand the results are important in terms of public health promotion, but still become over-shadowed by the authors' own assertions in the very same article that the health effects are minimal compared to those of smoking.
The paper, led by Mika Kivimaki, was a combined effort from researchers at many top-level research institues, and does indeed show strong evidence of the links between those jobs with little freedom, autonomy and worker-choice and heart attack episodes. Sensibly the authors also address their data seperately, taking account of the publication bias that often exists, resulting in published papers demonstrating larger effects (numbers of heart attcks) than those in un-published papers. All-in, the researchers found strong links that show decision-poor jobs have an odds-ratio of 1.23 (23% increased likelihood) of heart attacks than jobs which involve worker decision-making (based on workers' own self-rated questionnaire responses).
The researchers state that "Our findings suggest that prevention of workplace stress might decrease disease incidence; however, this strategy would have a much smaller effect than would tackling of standard risk factors, such as smoking." This statement, while providing balance and setting the results in context, also delivers an own goal to those who campaign for improved and healthier work environments.
We should not infer from this important piece of work that improving workplaces and the quality of working lives is neither impossible or pointless relative to other hazards, but we should also accept that making working lives better for millions of people will also contribute to reducing the exposure to hazards such as smoking and drinking. There will be an additive effect.
Improving workplace conditions, health promotion possibilities and work-life balance will reduce the wilfull exposure to other recreational hazards for millions of workers. What's that you say? You want a meta-analysis to prove it? OK.....
Nokia released their latest Lumina smartphone to the most desultory of audience applause - but is it good or bad? Actually, I'm not going to discuss that - it has it's good points, in terms of wireless charging and camera technology, and it's bad ones - poor PR in faking its performance in an advert, for example. But are these the factors that will make buy it, or not?
Facebook was offered to investors at $38/share - and at the time, I commented that I'd love to be able to short the stock. It's now at about $21, so I'd have made a killing. Mind you, I'd have made a killing if I'd have sold my shares in Psion years ago when I'd bought them for pence and they reached the heights of pounds. I event told my sister to sell when she asked for my view - but I didn't follow it myself, and now they're worth.....less.
Reports suggest that many investors who got in early enough can still make a lot from selling Facebook shares now that they are able to, but for the standard investor, it's not an obvious share to make a quick buck on.
The tabloids have been quick to label as "skivers" those ten thousand civil servants who have been given permission to work from home when suitable over the Olympic and Paralympic games. Can our understanding of human behaviour in the workplace help us to predict what may happen to Londoners who have been advised to work from home over the Olympics to avoid travel chaos and those extra three million journeys that will be made? What will be the downside to this natural experiment?
Civil servants are one group who have been given dispensation to work from home from July 21st (6 days before the Olympics started) until the Paralympics end on September 9th. May have criticised the decision - complaining there will be a backlog of public sector work for up 7 weeks. However, when we're not working within the confines of an office, does our behaviour change differently when we're working at home, on our own, and could there be longer-term implications to follow?