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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 3rd December 2011 

I’m beginning to think I should have a weekly post about the rubbish printed about ricin because it just keeps appearing and I feel it is important to keep challenging it. It would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that people believe it and, it seems possible, a young man is about to spend time in jail because even he believes it and no-one was around to give him better advice.

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant

I’ll come back to Asim Kausar later, but I’ll start with a short update on the four men arrested in Georgia for supposedly planning to launch terror attacks by throwing ricin out of the window of a car. So far, what’s been reported has been brief details of bail hearings but they contain enough information to suggest that, if an American TV company wanted to remake the British sitcom ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ about daft out men living out their retirement doing silly things and fantasising about how it could be, these four sad, though undoubtedly unpleasant, men would be the ideal characters.

Opposing bail, the prosecutors have claimed that the men intended to kill ‘thousands’ of people and there is no sign that their lawyers responded to this with the howls of derision it deserved. It is well known that a witness telling lies in court can be charged with committing an act of perjury. It appears there is no such risk for representatives of the district attorney’s office.

The case, as they say, continues and was not the reason for choosing to write, once again, about the poisonous component of Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant. What’s prompted today’s entry is a story in the Daily Mail containing, by my reckoning, four lies. The first three are quite easy to spot but the fourth, and most important, takes an understanding of how the media works to unearth.

The story is headlined ‘Scientists deal a blow to terrorism as they close in on antidote to deadly poison ricin’  and the lies it contains are;

1.    ‘Ricin has been used in bioweapons by terrorist groups such as al Qaeda’. No, it hasn’t. It’s as simple as that. There is no evidence that al Qaeda has ever tried to produce a weapon containing ricin and it is absolutely certain that no such weapon has ever been ‘used’.

2.    ‘It follows a warning in August that Al Quaida was producing bombs containing ricin to attack shopping centres, airports and train stations’. There was no such warning. As this blog entry explains, there was a claim that al Qaeda was trying to gather enough castor beans together to be able to extract a large quantity of ricin. There was, then, speculation that this might be used to make ‘ricin bombs’. As with the first lie, there is no evidence that al Qaeda actually collected castor beans and it is absolutely certain that no ‘ricin bomb’ exists.

3.    ‘Since the First World War ricin has had a gruesome reputation as a bioweapon.’ I’d have to accept that this is partially true because ricin does have that reputation in two areas of society. The first being journalists who are obsessed with ricin and won’t allow the facts to change the way they report on it. And the second being people who slavishly believe what the press reports.

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant

During the First World War, it became obvious that ricin was not readily useful as a weapon and that other substances would produce a quicker reward than trying to make ricin useful. Since then, it has never been considered for use as a mass weapon and the reports, some time ago, that it was considered for use on poison darts during World War II are complete bunkum.

4.    But, it is the fourth lie that is most interesting. It’s what some people call a ‘Paragraph 19’ situation. This is where the headline and opening paragraph of a story are shown to be complete nonsense much lower down, typically, the nineteenth paragraph or later. In this case, it is actually paragraph 13 but that is because the story is only thirteen paragraphs in total. It says ‘His team [the research team concerned] is already working on its next projects, including studies on how tumor [sic] cells acquire resistance to chemotherapy’.

What this means is that the research reported in the story was nothing to do with any wish to ‘deal a blow to terrorism’. Like many scientists around the world, this group is looking at how poisons like ricin destroy cells to see if they can find better ways to destroy cancer cells without damaging surrounding tissue.

Incidentally, note the American spelling of ‘tumor’ suggesting the Mail has lifted this paragraph straight from the press release announcing the paper. I can only say ‘suggesting’ because I haven’t been able to find any press release. After much searching, I found the abstract of the paper concerned. Though it does say that ricin is ‘a toxin being used as a bioweapon’ that comment is most likely dropped in without thought. The paper itself clearly has no connection with any alleged offensive use of ricin.

I thought I should comment on the online version of the story on the Mail's website but my comment didn’t appear and the article has, since, been closed to comments; a sure sign I wasn't the only one critical of the Mail's lazy reporting. That's why I decided to write this blog entry. Perhaps I shouldn’t have asked if the Daily Mail employs any sub-editors given that ‘al Qaeda’ in the first lie has become ‘Al Quaida’ by the second lie.

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant

All of this would just be faintly dispiriting and slightly funny if it were not for Asim Kausar. I wrote about Mr Kausar in July Mr Kausar’s family suffered a burglary and provided the police with a memory stick containing CCTV images that might help identify the burglar. Unfortunately for Mr Kausar, the stick also contained what reports of the case describe as ‘a recipe for a deadly poison and documents about how to build bombs’. The news stories name two of the documents found. It took me less than a minute to find one of them online and the second is available to purchase from Amazon. These two are about making explosive devices and disarming them. I’m assuming that ‘recipe for a deadly poison’ is our old favourite the ricin recipe that destroys ricin rather than producing it.

The case is back in the news because Mr Kauser has entered guilty pleas to all four charges and will be sentenced later, possibly to a custodial term.

I’m always the first to say that you shouldn’t rush to comment on the way the criminal justice system works in individual cases based only on the reporting of the case because there can be much that influenced the case that doesn’t make a summary report.

In this case, Mr Kauser had recently returned from a visit to family members in Pakistan and a relative of his had been killed during a political event in Pakistan so he may not have simply been curious, as he claimed, when he downloaded the items. But, the prosecution accepted that he had only ‘skimmed’ them and said there was no evidence that he had any links to terrorists. It seems, probable, that, like many of us, Mr Kauser found something he thought might be interesting but did not find it interesting enough to read immediately and so saved it to look at later.

I don’t know if his defence lawyer suggested the guilty pleas because of an acceptance of the false reputation of ricin but it does look a little as though a British citizen is going to spend time in jail because he is Muslim and because the British press tells lies about ricin.