The Flying Monkey Effect explained

In my recent talks to Sydney Atheists and Western Sydney Freethinkers, I've been a little damning of email-writing campaigns and blog comment campaigns due to something we've termed the "Flying Monkey Effect". At the same time, I've tried to get across the point that they could have positive effects, properly done. I wanted to expand on this a little.

The Flying Monkey Effect, as anyone with a modicum of pop culture nous has twigged, comes from the 1939 movie "The Wizard Of Oz". The Wicked Witch of The West employs an army of flying monkeys which she sends out to do her evil bidding. They're not smart henchmonkeys, and while they might get the job done, they'll accomplish it with much poo-flinging, public masturbation and stealing of bananas.

Meryl Dorey, and nutters like her, often play a similar trick, mobilising their followers via social media, email or similar, sending them out to wreak their special brand of havoc by email, on blogs or by social media, against media outlets, businesses or even in some cases against individuals deemed fair game by Meryl.

Much like this:

 What I've wanted to impress on skeptics at my talks has been that such activities, carefully herded, considered end-to-end and tightly controlled, can have their place, but that merely calling in the monkeys is just as likely, if not more likely, to damage the cause. We hear anecdotal reports from targets of such activities that they now routinely ignore large spikes in email or comment noise. We also have the Twitter version of the FME, which got Mike Adams disqualified from the Shorty Awards when it became clear that his followers were too dumb to follow the rules. The flying Monkey Effect is a bad thing.

Of course, the Flying Monkey Effect only happens when the monkeys are uncoordinated, uncontrolled and unprepared. 10,000 badly-written emails all on the same subject are likely to annoy. 10 well-written, carefully tailored emails, perhaps with many signatories to each, are likely to be seen as reasonable, rational and, frankly, sane.

This is not to say that the Flying Monkeys of the AVN and their compatriots worldwide should not be countered when unleashed. They absolutely should. But skeptics should not embark on the same kind of ill-considered mailbombing that the forces of woo so fondly love.

This, of course, brings us to tools such as ReasonMakesADifference*. I like this tool. I like what it indends to do, but I worry that it's a little vulnerable to Flying Monkey disease. I think it should batch-process or collate emails to cut down on flood effects, and institute a membership system to monitor who's sending what. It should encourage personalisation of emails, and give the option of adding multiple signatories to a single mail. Above all, it should conform to the Prepared, Coordinated and Controlled approach.

I promote ReasonMakesADifference in my talk, but I do have these minor reservations. I'll be talking to the originator of the site sometime soon for a podcast I'm working on and I hope to discuss a few of these concerns. I hope it'll make for interesting listening, should I manage to get it off the ground.

To close, I'll re-iterate. If you think your cause can be supported by an email campaign or other mass mailing tactic, please think carefully about it before you start, make your aims as clear as you can to your troops and maintain a steady hand on the rudder throughout. Prepared, Coordinated and Controlled.


[This is the second post in the new category "Running Guns To The Dissidents", in which I'll be trying to promote better digital activism to skeptics, atheists and freethinkers through more effective tools and tactics.]

* Currently, the ReasonMakesADifference email tool is down, so I can't check and see if it still operates the way I remember it operating. Please consider these remarks provisional until the tool is back up for analysis

A little perspective

Several times recently I've had antivaxers cite thalidomide as a case of medical harm and/or failure. Well, I was just prepping some medication and I got to thinking.

You see, there are two packs of thalidomide in my kitchen drawer.


Yep, two packs. You see, thalidomide is still in use. In the case of my kitchen drawer, it's being used as a treatment for Esther's GvH, an area where it seems to have some effect. These days, of course, the screening process is more stringent - you can't get it if you're pregnant, for a start, and there are regular checks on patients receiving it. But it's in use, and in fact is being manufactured right here in Australia.

But that's not the thing that struck me as I was musing. The thing that struck me as I was musing was this.

The thalidomide withdrawal that antivaxers hold as a touchstone of medical negligence, (or incompetence), happened in 1961.

That's closer to World War Two than it is to today.

Not only that, but it's closer to World War One than it is to today.

No, seriously. Thalidomide was withdrawn roughly 49 years ago, 43 years after the close of The Great War. Nearly half a century ago. To put it in context, 1961 was the year Russia put Yuri Gagarin into space. It was the year the Berlin Wall was built. Also in the 1960s, Plate Tectonics was properly codified, the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation was discovered by Penzias and Wilson.

Just to emphasise. When thalidomide's teratogenic nature was becoming known, our species had not left the earth's atmosphere, and had not fully figured out how the continents came to be where they are.

In terms of medicine, we had never carried out a successful heart transplant. Today we carry aout about 3,500 a year. There was no hint of technology such as Medical Lasers (60s, 70s), MRI (late 70s), PET and CAT scanners (late 70s, 80s). Gene therapy was not even thought of, the structure of DNA only having been published in the late 50s. We had no idea about AIDS, and of course many antivaxers have no idea about that now. Medicine has advanced more since the 1960s than it advanced in the previous two centuries, probably longer.

And this piece of ancient history is the antivaxers' favourite example of medical failure. And it wasn't even a complete failure. Thalidomide is back, and the medical community has learned from the tragedy. It changed the whole of drug testing and licencing.

And let me just put something else into perspective. Thalidomide is estimated to have affected 10,000 - 20,000 individuals worldwide.

The Jenny McCarthy Body Count currently stands at 65,593 preventable illnesses and 619 deaths for the US alone. And so far there's no sign of Jenny being withdrawn in any way.

Dawkins vs The Pope

Dawkins wins

Vaccination Saves Lives: Stop The Australian Vaccination Network
Say NO to the National School Chaplaincy Program