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Archive for July 2008

Obscure placenames part IV: Matching Green

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I used to laugh every time I drove anywhere near Matching Green, but what I didn’t know at the time was that one of the next villages along was called Matching Tye. I don’t know which is better…

I’ve also started to notice that oddly-named places seem to come in clusters. For example, not far from Matching Green we also have Red Ho, Brick Ho, and, perhaps best of all, Collin’s Cross. I don’t know who Collin is, but if ever you’re passing Brick Ho, it’s probably best to walk straight ahead and try not to inflame the situation…

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July 31, 2008 at 10:00 am

My Mum’s blog…

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I can’t remember the exact point that I realised there was a difference between writing simply to communicate information, and writing with style (which isn’t to say that I feel I’ve ever fully mastered the distinction). But I think it may have been around the time that my mother had to take me to the doctor, after I’d been hit in the face by a football (sport was never my vocation), and suffered a week of nosebleeds. In her absence note to my junior school teacher, she explained that the doctor had said there would be no lasting damage, so long as in future I “keep out of the way of nose-bound footballs”.

My Mum’s always written a diary, and done various bits of creative writing over the years, but this is her first real venture into the blogging world. The basic idea is to give an account of her effort to walk, over the course of this year, 400 miles in aid of the charity we set up in memory of my sister Charlotte. But there’s a lot more to it than that - I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops.

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July 30, 2008 at 10:03 pm

Sceptic of the week – Rachel North

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One of the great things about the internet is that it allows those who, through no fault of their own, have been catapulted into the public eye, to speak directly, and in their own words, rather than through the distortions of the mainstream media. Those in favour of giving the government ever more ‘sweeping powers’ – in the hope that this will keep us all safe – often seem to assume that victims of terrorism will automatically be in favour of such measures.  But Rachel North, who became a prolific blogger after surviving the July 7th London Bombings has vociferously campaigned against moves to water down basic freedoms in the name of ‘security’. In this eloquent piece for Comment is Free, North argues that “no government can keep us safe, even if they watch over us and film us and check our emails and internet use and hold our most intimate data and fill hundreds of prison cells with people who are merely suspected of, but not charged with, any crime”.

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July 28, 2008 at 10:13 am

First review for “Don’t Get Fooled Again”

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“Richard Wilson’s Don’t Get Fooled Again has been compared to Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World. It provides an objective and philosophical dissection of some commonly-held beliefs. It is also an entertaining collection of anecdotes illustrating how sensible human beings get duped. Almost a self-help book, this provides the reader with the analytical tools to avoid being taken for a ride, as well as being entertaining and informative.”

- Patrick Neale, The Bookseller

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July 28, 2008 at 8:04 am

British MPs sceptical of UK government denials over Iraq torture

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The Observer reports that a committee of MPs has cast doubt on UK government denials over the use of torture in Iraq. Evidence heard during the trial of soldiers implicated in the killing of an Iraqi prisoner, Baha Musa, suggested that the troops had been ordered to use coercive interrogation techniques, including hooding and ‘stress positions’. Now the Parliamentary select committee on human rights has accused the Ministry of Defence of blocking their efforts to trace responsibility further up the command chain. The committee also suggests that public assurances given by former armed forces minister Adam Ingram, and Lieutenant General Robin Brims, have been contradicted by evidence that UK troops had been using banned interrogation techniques following legal advice from their superiors in Iraq.  

Wide-ranging freedom of information laws in the United States have helped to ensure intense public scrutiny of the conduct of American forces in Iraq. A series of legal-rulings compelling the release of previously classified government documents have helped to illuminate the role played by senior figures in helping to make situations such as Abu Ghraib possible.  In Don’t Get Fooled Again I was able to draw on many of these primary sources in seeking to understand Abu Ghraib and other related cases.

But here in the UK, the picture is still far more murky. So far, our senior officials have largely escaped any implication that they ordered or condoned the use of torture or other abusive treatment in Iraq. Cases such as the killing of Baha Musa have largely been seen – as was Abu Ghraib at one time – as the work of ‘bad apples’ rather than the result of systematic, officially-sanctioned, abuses. Britons have so far been able to console themselves over the various fiascos relating to Iraq with the assurance that at least ‘our boys’ would never engage in the kind of systematic depravity pursued by US forces at Abu Ghraib. But in the absence, here in Britain, of the kind of judicially-enforced transparency made possible in the US by robust freedom of information laws, it’s tempting to wonder whether the UK chain of command may simply have been in a better position to cover its tracks.

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July 27, 2008 at 10:45 am

On the value of peer review…

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Previously this post read:

Earlier this week I blogged about the extraordinary transformation of Radovan Karadzic, war criminal, into Dragan Dabic, alternative medicine practicioner. While I’d seen the website of the clinic where he’d been working, what I didn’t know was that Dragan himself actually has his own website, which bears the intriguing title “Healing from Within: The Ever Increasing Need for Alternative Viewpoints in the Modern World”… Odd though it may seem on one level, in a way it makes a kind of sense that Karadzic could so easily switch from one type of cynical psychological manipulation to another… Thanks to Ty for the link.

*UPDATE* - Here’s the rough English translation of DD’s homepage from Google.

Many thanks to JEF for pointing out that the ‘Dragan Dabic’ website looks to have been set up the day after Dabic (aka Karadzic) was arrested! According to www.allwhois.com, the site was created on July 22nd, and is registered to an address in Wisconsin, USA…

An illustration, once again, of the indispensible value of ‘peer review’

See also “Poe’s law”, over at rationalwiki: 

“Poe’s Law relates to fundamentalism, and the difficulty of identifying actual parodies of it. It suggests that, in general, it is hard to tell fake fundamentalism from the real thing, since they both sound equally ridiculous. The law also works in reverse: real fundamentalism can also be indistinguishable from parody fundamentalism.”

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July 25, 2008 at 10:01 am

US Major General who led Abu Ghraib investigation accuses authorities of “war crimes”

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In 2004, it was Major General Antonio Taguba’s damning report – then still a classified document – that triggered the prosecution of a number of the soldiers who had committed abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison, in Iraq. Now, in the preface to a detailed study by Physicians for Human Rights, Taguba states that “there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I look into the deceptions and delusions around the use of torture in Iraq, at the evidence which suggests that Abu Ghraib was anything but an isolated case, and at the striking parallels between the Abu Ghraib abuses, and the notorious “Stanford Prison Experiment”.

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July 24, 2008 at 11:08 am

World’s most notorious ‘alternative medicine’ practicioner arrested on genocide charges

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Somehow, it seems strangely appropriate that the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic – who has just been arrested after evading justice for 13 years – should have been holed up in Belgrade working (under excessive amounts of facial hair) as a practicioner of ‘alternative medicine’. The Guardian charitably refers to Karadzic as a ‘doctor’, but the website of the clinic where he was working has a distinct air of quackery about it. Much of the text is in Serbo-Croat, but we can deduce from the logo that Karadzic’s dayjob may have had something to do with “human quantum energy”.

The inherently fraudulent character of much of what purports to be an ‘alternative’ form of medicine has been well covered elsewhere. But less well-documented has been the odd relationship between ‘alternative medicine’ advocates and the dizzying conspiracy theories around HIV and AIDS. For several years during the early part of this decade, the South African government, under the influence of such theories, attempted to block the distribution of lifesaving anti-retroviral drugs. Professor Nicolli Nattrass, an economist at South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand, has estimated that this delay may have cost upwards of 340,000 lives. If she is right, then it seems possible that the South African government’s dalliance with the ‘alternative’ theories on HIV and AIDS may have dwarfed even Radovan Karadzic’s genocidal excesses.

In Don’t Get Fooled Again, I look in depth at the noxious cult of ‘AIDS denialism’, the damage that it has caused around the world, and at some possible psychological explanations.

The barefoot scientist and the Great Leap Forward

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One of the oddest cases I came across while researching “Don’t Get Fooled Again” was that of Trofim Denisovitch Lysenko, Stalin’s “barefoot scientist”, who must rank as one of the greatest fraudsters of the modern age.

Lysenko, an agronomist by training, first rose to prominence in the late 1920s, when the Soviet state newspaper Pravda credited him with “turning the barren fields of the Transcaucasus green in winter, so that cattle will not perish from poor feeding, and the peasant Turk will live through the winter without trembling for tomorrow”. He managed to hold sway over Soviet science for most of the next four decades, less because of his scientific abilities than for his talents in self-promotion – and for the ruthless way that he dealt with his enemies.

Lysenko managed to present himself as the embodiment of a Communist ideal, the “barefoot scientist”, a peasant genius whose expertise derived not, primarily, from books, but from his practical understanding of the problems facing the Soviet worker, born of his own toil in the fields. His theories were likewise very agreeable to the Communist authorities, both in spirit and in consequence. Lysenko argued that, just as human nature could – as the Soviets believed – be fundamentally remoulded by the application of Marxist-Leninist principles, so the nature of plants could be transformed by the application of Lysenkoism. Wheat could be “trained” to thrive under Arctic conditions, simply by soaking the seeds in freezing water. Lysenko also rejected as “bourgeois” the Darwinist idea that organisms of the same species would naturally compete for resources. He insisted that, on the contrary, crops  that were sowed very close together – be they pea plants or apple trees – would in fact co-operate with each other, and thrive, through a kind of agricultural “class solidarity”.

But there was one very big problem with these theories: they didn’t work. And when they began to be put into practice, lots of people starved. But the famines of the early 1930s seem to have done little to dent Lysenko’s reputation.

When statistical analysis by other Soviet scientists found no evidence to support his claims, Lysenko stepped up his use of inflammatory and politicised rhetoric. He declared that “mathematics has no relevance to biology – that is why we biologists do not take the slightest interest in mathematical calculations that confirm the useless statistical formulas of the Mendelists”. Lysenko rejected whole swathes of work as “bourgeois pseudo-science”, flatly denied the existence of genes as a bourgeois invention, and denounced geneticists as “fly-lovers and people haters”.  In a speech before Stalin in 1935, Lysenko announced that “a class enemy is always an enemy whether he is a scientist or not”. “Bravo, comrade Lysenko!” came the response from the Soviet leader.

Over the next few years, Lysenko and his followers became increasingly vicious in their attacks on their fellow scientists. The geneticists Muralov, Meister and finally one of the country’s leading lights, Nikolai Vavilov, were arrested and jailed. Many others followed, with those who were not deliberately killed often dying in prison, as Vavilov did in 1943. Lysenko, meanwhile, was made President of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and subsequently became - ironically – head of the Institute of Genetics within the prestigious Soviet Academy of Sciences.

Lysenko’s influence in the USSR began to decline after the death of Stalin, but his ideas had begun to spread beyond the Soviet Union. China’s Mao Zedong, in particular, was inspired by the claimed successes of Lysenko’s theories in the USSR, and in 1958 sought to make them a key component of his “Great Leap Forward”. This was a plan to transform Chinese industry and agriculture, by the application of Communist principles, with the aim of economically surpassing the capitalist West within 15 years.  Along with Lysenko ideas about “close planting”, Mao sought to impose the collectivisation of farming, and orchestrated a nationwide campaign to kill every sparrow in China. These measures failed disastrously – agricultural production plummeted Although the extermination of sparrows meant that there were fewer birds eating grain, there were also fewer birds eating locusts. Much of the food that had survived Mao’s efforts to revolutionise agriculture was devoured amid the worst Chinese locust plague in living memory. Historians estimate that more than 20 million people may have died before the Great Leap Forward was abandoned, in 1961. While Lysenko’s ideas were only one component of the disaster, they certainly will not have helped.

Lysenko’s downfall finally came in 1964, following a speech by the Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov, at the General Assembly of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Among Soviet scientists, physicists enjoyed a relatively priveleged position due to their importance to the country’s nuclear programme, and were thus one of the few groups able to speak openly. Sakharov accused Lysenko of being “responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists”. The dam had broken, and within months the Academy of Sciences carried out a damning investigation into Lysenko’s work, which largely destroyed his reputation.

Yet Lysenko’s fate was in sharp contrast to that of his victims. Where Vavilov and his fellow geneticists had been imprisoned or killed, Lysenko was allowed to live out a comfortable retirement, dying in relative obscurity in 1976.

Lysenko was very much a creature of the Soviet era, but he has many heirs. In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I explore some of the parallels between Trofim Lysenko and his modern-day successors.

Written by Richard Wilson

July 22, 2008 at 10:12 am

Calling time on the 7/7 fantasists

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Less well-known than the ubiquitous 9/11 conspiracy theories, but equally offensive to those personally affected, are the persistent “7/7 truthers”, who claim that the July 7th 2005 London bombings were - or could have been - carried out by UK government agents. Or that the explosions were not actually bombings at all but were caused by a “power surge”.  

Like the 9/11 conspiracy theorists, the 7/7ers  characterise themselves as “sceptics”, and seek to advance their alternative theory by presenting minor inaccuracies in official statements as gaping holes, demanding answers to more or less unanswerable questions, or by smearing eyewitnesses as government stooges.

There are even 7/7 conspiracy theorists who seize on the weaknesses in claims made by other 7/7 conspiracy theorists, as evidence not that the whole thing is baloney, but rather that their rivals are themselves government stooges, who are out to “throw you off the trail with half-baked theories. While giving conspiracy theory a bad name”.

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July 8, 2008 at 1:59 pm

Obscure placenames part III: Rosemary Topping, Gloucestershire

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Rosemary Topping overlooks the beautiful Wye valley, near the also-interestingly-named Symond’s Yat Rock, the former sounding like a Delia Smith recipe and the latter like a long-forgotten music genre from the mid 1970s. People also go paintballing there, apparently…

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July 7, 2008 at 10:36 pm

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