Let’s all laugh at this guy, and his ignorance

Sometimes I actually feel sorry for politicians. There, I’ve said it. The other week, when wannabe-POTUS Governor Richard “Rick” Perry suffered his spectacular live-TV retrieval failure in front of millions of people he was trying to impress, I genuinely cringed on his behalf. After all, when seeking election to a post that gives you the PIN number to the world’s deadliest nuclear arsenal, it generally looks bad if your brain freezes. But at least he resisted the temptation to bluff, instead limiting his remarks to a simple faux-comedy “Oops!

Like I said, sometimes I feel sorry for them...

However, some politicians find themselves with too much to say, even when they don’t know quite what they’re talking about. Yeah? And this can be quite a treacherous hazard for politicians who take it upon themselves to discuss complexities relating to science and/or technology. Isn’t that so? Well, certainly that’s the, erm, stereotype:

And this:

And of course we’ll always have this:

So yesterday, I was not entirely surprised to see a large number of suddenly circulated tweets regarding a local politician from rainy Connemara, in the west of Ireland, who apparently misunderstands the basic principle of cloud computing. It is reported that he believes his local area to be particularly suitable to cloud computing…BECAUSE OF ALL THE CLOUDS!

What an idiot, right? Here’s the news story as reproduced on a number of websites:


A GALWAY councillor has refused to apologise for swearing at a County Council committee meeting after he told a fellow councillor to “go **** himself”.

Local area councillor Seamus Tiernan made the amazing outburst after he was told he was a “feckin eejit” for thinking that cloud computing was only suitable in areas with lots of rain.

He had told the Infrastructure Committee meeting this week that his native Connemara would be ideal for cloud computing because it has heavy cloud cover for nine months of the year.”

The Independent councillor said that the Government should be doing more to harness clean industries for the Connemara area and he named wind energy and cloud computing as two obvious examples.

“Connemara in particular could become a centre of excellence for wind energy harnessing, as it is open to the Atlantic. Also in terms of cloud computing, we have dense thick fog for nine months of the year, because of the mountain heights and the ability to harness this cloud power, there is tremendous scope for cloud computing to become a major employer in this region.”

However his mistake was pointed out by an incredulous Cllr Martin Shiels who said that “this is taking the biscuit. I’ve heard it all now. You must be a fecking eejit to think that the cloud computing had anything to do with climate.”

Cllr Tiernan took umbrage at the remarks of his colleague and called for them to be withdrawn. When Cllr Shields refused to do so, Tiernan said “go **** yourself, Cllr Shields.”

Chairman Sile Ni Baoill asked for both councillors to withdraw their comments, but Cllr Tiernan was repentant that Cllr Shields was wrong and that cloud computing is linked to cloud cover.

“Tell me why large companies are opening server farms in cold wet countries then,” he asked Cllr Shields.

The online dismay was palpable. The story led to lots of tweets and retweets, and was widely discussed on message boards. It’s not surprising really, given that it all seems quite plausible. After all, there are certainly clouds in that part of the world…

Plenty of scope for cloud computing. Less so for blue skies thinking.*
(*HT @draziraphale)

…as well as lots of people who swear (or, at least, who say “feck” and “eejit“), and of course loads of local politicians who don’t know anything about the modern world with all its technological gee-whizzery.

So I set about writing an appropriate blog. I had even composed the opening sentence: “This is one of those ‘you’re-never-gonna-believe-it’ kind of stories.” And then, as I usually do, I went looking for the sources. Evidence, in other words.

Unfortunately, to my (kind-of) disappointment, I had difficulty finding the original article. The piece had appeared on a number of discussion boards (such as here, here, and here), but not in any actual news outlet, at least online. Fair enough, I thought, maybe the piece was published only in hard copy, although I did think it strange that no original source was identified on any of the posts. So then I went looking for details about the various councillors, including Martin Shiels, Sile Ni Baoill, and the now infamous Seamus Tiernan. And I discovered there were no councillors of those names serving in Galway, nor in any other council in Ireland.

In other words, the entire story was a hoax. Funny, yes, and maybe even thought-provoking. But a hoax nonetheless.

Which rather scuppered my plans to write about politicians’ lack of grasp on matters scientific and technological.

But maybe this story is blog-worthy anyway. Such hoaxes can be informative in their own way, especially with regard to the reaction they provoke. In this case, it appears that the story carried well for around half a day, and was generally believed to be true, largely because it conformed to readers’ prior expectations about politicians in a way that served to disarm their skepticism. So this gives us an excellent example of confirmation bias, a problem with scientific reasoning that we have seen in these parts before.

Twitter (with dignity redacted)

The helpful thing about this example is that it relates not to sloppy scientists, mad conspiracists, or quack therapists, but rather to folks — myself included — who are genuinely interested in science and technology, but whose initial response was indeed to believe this story.

It reminds us yet again of how human reasoning really works. Instead of allowing evidence to shape how we view the world, all too often we allow our worldviews to shape how we view the evidence. This applies just as much to evidence we see in the media as it does to evidence we see in the laboratory. The big challenge of scientific thinking is to break through this tendency, and to get the right balance between prediction and presumption. If we don’t, then scientists, and science enthusiasts, will (rightly) be accused of being prone to bias.

Of course, there’s only one thing funnier than a rural Irish politician who doesn’t know what cloud computing involves, and that’s a rural Irish politician who actually does know what cloud computing involves. Now that’s hilarious

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  1. It’s a funny story, but I don’t think any Irish news site would write “fecking eejit”. They’d spell it properly. It’s just non-Irish people who think it sounds like that. To them it sounds normal 😉

  2. Excellent. Incidentally, great that Enda had no problem saying he DIDN’T understand cloud computing. It is a good example when public figures openly admit that they don’t know about something technical but recognize it as being important/interesting and say they are going to find out more (and I’m not even mildly ‘blueshirt’) 🙂

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  4. In my defence, I believed it because I read it on the Telegraph site, and I expect broadsheets to fact-check. Do I have to treat them with the same scepticism I treat messageboards with now?

    (It was here, but they’ve removed it. It’s still in the Googlecache though. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/8923103/Councillor-thought-cloud-computing-depended-on-rainy-weather.html )

  5. Brian Hughes

    Excellent! I’ve been having difficulty accessing the cached version. If anyone out there could send it in to me, I’ll post it here and give you a virtual hug…!
    (See bottom of page for contact details)

  6. Just noticed that Sile Ni Baoill, is an anagram of “a billion lies”. Yep trying anything to avoid doing work for an exam!!Great article Brian, by the way.

  7. Pingback: The Telegraph thought councillor thought cloud computing depended on rainy weather | halfblog.net

  8. From GalwayNews.ie…


    November 29, 2011 – 6:11pm


    A Connemara Councillor is seeking a full public apology from the UK’s The Telegraph Newspaper after it published a fake story on its website which ridiculed Galway

    The respected English broadsheet this week published the article ‘Councillor thought cloud computing depended on rainy weather’

    The article describes how a Councillor Seamus Tiernan told an infrastructure meeting that his native Connemara would be ideal for cloud computing because it has heavy cloud for nine months of the year

    It goes on to say that the meeting descended into a foul-mouthed slanging match with another Galway councillor Martin Shiels branding the other a ‘feckin eejit’

    The article is wrong in that in the Connemara electoral area, there are no elected councillors of these names and no infrastucture committee exists

    The article was published on the technology section of the Telegraph website, which gets thousands of hits

    It was also tweeted by the TelegraphTech which has 15 thousand followers

    Galway Bay fm news contacted the Telegraph by email, tweet and phone and was told they were very busy and could not deal with this issue at present

    There was also no explanation as to how such a fabricated piece made it onto the website

    The article was taken down after Galway Bay fm news contacted The Telegraph

    Connemara Councillor Thomas Welby says the Telegraph has a lot to answer for.

  9. Okay then, here are two screen-shots of the original Telegraph article:

    The first is from Foomandoonian‘s fine blog, halfblog.net:

    The second is from Martyn Drake‘s fine blog, drake.org.uk:

  10. And finally (for now), Slate Magazine have covered all of this here (reproduced below).

    Story About Irish Pol Misunderstanding Cloud Computing Too Good To Be True

    Politicians’ attempts to discuss technology have given us some truly delightful moments of misunderstanding. There was George W. Bush’s usetwice!—of “the Internets” during presidential debates. And the late Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska launched a meme with his description of the Internet as “a series of tubes.”

    We nearly had another politico to add to the pantheon of techno-confusion. Last week, a story circulated online that an Irishman on a city council had claimed that his home of Connemara would be perfect for the cloud computing industry because it sees so many overcast days each year—a . For his trouble, the councilor was called a “feckin’ eejit” by a fellow politician, according to the story widely circulated on Twitter. Earlier today, the Telegraph posted a version of the tale.

    This lamentable misunderstanding would have been great fodder for conversation about politicians not comprehending the technologies they are supposed to support as well as regulate. But it seems that it was too good to be true. At the Irish blog the Science Bit, Brian Hughes did some good old-fashioned Googling and found that none of the politicians name-checked in the story exist. But all is not a waste. Hughes writes:

    Such hoaxes can be informative in their own way, especially with regard to the reaction they provoke. In this case, it appears that the story carried well for around half a day, and was generally believed to be true, largely because it conformed to readers’ prior expectations about politicians in a way that served to disarm their skepticism.

    Even the hyper-logical can fall victim to confirmation bias in this manner.

    Read more on the Science Bit.

  11. Pingback: Technology.ie Podcast #10: Cloud Computing in a Cold Climate |Technology.ie News & Views on Gadgets & Tech

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