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Archive for March 2009

Geoffrey Alderman suggests Home Secretary’s husband’s porn expense claim was “legitimate research”

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Amid the growing furore over the £93 million of public money that UK MPs claimed last year for various arcane “expenses” – whilst also attempting to block full disclosure of the details – the broadsheet columnists have been coming out in force to defend our poor beleagured politicians.

Writing in the Times, David Aaronovitch suggests that the publishing of Home Secretary Jacqui Smith personal bills – for which she had submitted a public expense claim and which included the cost of two “adult movies” watched by  her husband – was “as big a breach of privacy as one can imagine”.

Aaronovitch clearly needs to try imagining a bit harder, and obviously hasn’t been paying  attention to what Jacqui Smith’s own department has been up to recently. Sadly, there’s nothing “imaginary” about the sweeping powers that the government has been seeking, to monitor every email sent, every phone call made, and every website visited by every person in the UK – or about cases like that of local journalist Sally Murrer, who was bugged for weeks, then arrested, strip-searched and put on trial on trumped up charges (she was acquitted in November last year after an 18-month ordeal) as part of the government’s vindictive campaign of harrassment against the police whistleblower Mark Kearney, who Murrer happened to be friends with.

Just three days ago, Jacqui Smith was being quoted in the Telegraph (where else?) denouncing those who have raised objections about such government encroachments as “people who take an approach to rights which puts the right of privacy above a pretty fundamental right for us to be safe”.

But now that the privacy of Jacqui Smith and her husband have been compromised – albeit chiefly through their own greed and carelessness – the government is threatening to launch a criminal investigation into how the information was leaked.

Writing in the Guardian, Polly Toynbee insists that “Our politicians are among the cleanest in the world” and warns that “Those who abuse, belittle and encourage popular contempt for MPs should consider that we need more good people in politics”. Toynbee suggests that “the excruciating public humiliation of the home secretary’s husband for watching a couple of porn movies” may deter decent candidates from seeking a political career.

This seems entirely to miss the point. What’s primarily at issue is not that Jacqui Smith’s husband watches pay-per-view porn movies – it’s that he got his wife to make an official claim requesting that the costs of his private habit be reimbursed with public money. If Smith hadn’t submitted her husband’s extracurricular activities as a supposedly legitimate “expense”, then the media would never have found out about them in the first place. Anyone who’d be deterred from going into politics by the fear that their dodgy expense claims may lead to public humiliation would clearly be better off out of it for everybody’s sake.

But the prize for the most slavishly forelock-tugging display of deference to our self-serving political elite must surely go to the historian Geoffrey Alderman, also writing in the Guardian. Jacqui Smith and her husband have done nothing wrong and have nothing to apologise for, he insists, and anyway “the rules governing the reimbursement of MPs’ expenses are very unclear”.

Furthermore, says Geoffrey Alderman, for an assistant of the home secretary (Smith’s husband is paid £40,000 from the public purse to do her admin for her), it “might be argued” that watching pay-per-view porn “is legitimate research”. Pure genius…

Labour elite’s slapdash approach to personal privacy comes back to haunt them as MP expense details rumoured to be in the hands of data thieves…

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Following revelations that the UK taxpayer has been helping to fund the Home Secretary’s husband’s porn habit, and former trade minister Nigel Griffiths’ unconventional use of publicly-funded office-space, the government appears to have been dealt further humiliation by rumours that the full, unedited list of MPs expenses has been stolen by data thieves and is being offered for sale to the highest media bidder.

Given the government’s notoriously slapdash approach to everybody else’s personal data, it seems fair enough that information which should never have been deemed confidential in the first place has now escaped into the public domain by similar means. The fact that our engorged mediocrats aren’t even capable of keeping their own dirty secrets secret does seem to raise further questions about the wisdom of giving them an uber-database with all of the UK’s most personal data gathered together in one, easy-to-hack-and-duplicate place.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 31, 2009 at 12:29 am

Sunday Telegraph promotes water-divining enthusiast as an authority on global warming

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In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I highlight the antics of the man well-known as the Sunday Telegraph’s “anti-science correspondent”, Christopher Booker. Booker has now written at least 41 different articles in which he denies or downplays the health risks of white asbestos – articles which the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive has described as “misinformed”, “substantially misleading” and “absurd”.

One of Booker’s other main themes (alongside denying the risks of passive smoking and objecting to Darwin’s theory of evolution) has been his opinion that, contrary to the views of the overwhelming majority of scientific experts on the subject, global warming is not happening, and/or that it is not caused by human activity.

Booker has so excelled himself in this area that the Guardian columnist George Monbiot recently launched the “Christopher Booker prize for climate change claptrap”, to be awarded to whoever “manages, in the course of 2009, to cram as many misrepresentations, distortions and falsehoods into a single article, statement, lecture, film or interview about climate change.”

The Sunday Telegraph’s latest piece from Booker must surely be a strong contender. Announcing that scientists have perpetrated “the greatest lie ever told” in telling us that sea levels are rising, Booker presents the views of a retired Swedish professor, Nils Axel Mörner, who he suggests “knows more about sea levels than anyone else in the world”. According to Booker, Mörner has “for 35 years has been using every known scientific method to study sea levels all over the globe”, and has reached the “uncompromising verdict” that “all this talk about the sea rising is nothing but a colossal scare story”. Booker also gives contact details for Dr. Mörner, so that readers who’d like to buy a copy of his acclaimed booklet, also called “The Greatest Lie Ever Told”, can drop him a line.

What Booker doesn’t tell his readers is that alongside his “uncompromising” views on detectable sea-level changes, Dr. Mörner has claimed to have paranormal abilities to find land-bound water using only a dowsing rod and the power of his imagination. Here’s what James Randi had to say about it back in 1998:

I’ve described here previously how a… “dowsing expert” named Nils-Axel Morner, associate professor of geology from Stockholm University, has consistently refused to be tested for the Pigasus Prize. A helpful correspondent in Sweden referred me to http://www.tdb.uu.se/~karl/dowsing/ [link no longer active] where I found that Morner was tested — amateurishly — on a prominent Swedish TV show, “The Plain & Simple Truth,” on TV2 on February 27th. Morner was first provided the opportunity to brag about anecdotal successes, then he was tested. A local celebrity — a singer — was involved, as is usual with these drearily predictable affairs. The singer chose one of ten cups under which to conceal a packet of sugar. He chose number seven; are we surprised? Morner had designed this test, saying that it was especially difficult for him to do. (???) He said that water or metal could be located “right away,” but not sugar. Morner blathered on about “interference” and mumbled about “influences” and “might be here” and the usual alibis, then chose number eight. Wrong. But, said Morner, it was “in the right sector!” But no cigar.

There were 3 serious errors in what could have been a good test: One, the target was not selected by a random means. (3 and 7 are the most-often-chosen positions in a line-up of 10.) Two, an audience member could have secretly signaled Morner. Three, Morner was allowed to do a test of his own choice, one that he said in advance was difficult and strange for him, instead of doing one which he’d done before, for which he has claimed 100% success. Why were water and/or metal not used? This is ridiculous!

Did Morner mention that I’ve offered him the million-dollar prize if he can do his usual, familiar dowsing trick? No.

Martin Rundkvist has more on Mörner’s bizarre activities here, here and here.

Telegraph newspaper denounces torture investigation

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True to form, the Telegraph newspaper has roundly denounced the news that there is to be a criminal investigation into allegations of complicity in torture by the UK security services, and urged the Attorney General – a political appointee – to intervene in the judicial process in order to stop the investigation.

In the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, and during the subsequent campaign by Bush administration hardliners to convince the world of the need for a war against Iran, the Telegraph security commentator Con Coughlin famously published a series of articles containing  false and misleading information that appears to have been fed to him directly by the intelligence services. Now that those same intelligence services risk facing serious public scrutiny, the Telegraph is leading the calls to get the criminal investigation stopped.

Another bizarre package from the Falkands

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enraged or emphatic?

Last week I mentioned that I’d received a bizarre package with a Falkands postmark, containing two very odd photographs.

In October last year,  several copies of “Don’t Get Fooled Again” had been placed in glass jars, and floated seawards down the river Thames, with a note in English, French and Spanish asking anyone who found them to get in touch, but this was the first time I’d heard anything back.

Now, for the second occasion in as many weeks, another package has arrived, again bearing a Falklands postmark – but this time the photograph it contains seems even odder.

It isn’t clear whether the person pictured is giving the book his emphatic endorsement, or is enraged by something I say in it, or both. Once again, any clues on this would be much appreciated.


PS – On a related note, a reader has left a helpful comment on my other post, saying that “I am from the Falklands where most people know most people, but we don’t recognize this chap. Could be a cruise-ship visitor or a yachtie though, that found it and just posted it from the FI”.

This seems like an interesting possibility – and perhaps now that we have a picture in which my correspondent’s face is a bit clearer this will help to shed further light on things!

Update – 2nd April 2009 – as many readers have guessed, the above account is also not wholly accurate…

African Union sends man who oversaw 300,000 deaths in South Africa to investigate reports of 300,000 deaths in Darfur – assisted by the man who oversaw 300,000 deaths in Burundi

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Hot on the heels of its anguished denunciation of the international indictment of Sudanese President Omar Bashir over war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, the African Union has further cemented its global credibility by appointing ex-South African President Thabo Mbeki to look into the charges.

Mbeki is certainly an interesting choice for a mission whose ostensible aim is to establish the truth about a life-or-death humanitarian issue.

As President of South Africa, Mbeki famously bought into the claims of internet conspiracy theorists who say that HIV does not cause AIDS, and that the illness is actually caused by the medications used to treat the disease. A Harvard study recently concluded that the Mbeki government’s steadfast refusal to make AIDS medicines available to those with HIV may have led to over 330,000 preventable deaths.

To add further gravitas, Mbeki will be assisted, according to Voice of America (who give a slightly different account of the purpose of the mission), by the former President of Burundi, Major General Pierre Buyoya.

Buyoya is widely suspected of orchestrating the 1993 assassination of the man who had defeated him at the ballot box earlier that year, the country’s first democratically-elected Hutu President, Melchior Ndadaye.  The killing triggered a brutal, decade-long ethnic war in which more than 300,000 people, mostly civilians, are believed to have died.

For most of this period, Buyoya was in charge, having seized the Presidency in a coup in 1996. During Buyoya’s reign, forces under his command carried out a series of brutal massacres against the Hutu civilian population – but as the International Criminal Court can only investigate crimes committed after 2003 – the year Buyoya’s rule ended, it’s unlikely that he will face justice any time soon. A long promised UN-aided “special court” for Burundi has yet to materialise.

Harry Collins on science, scepticism and Thabo Mbeki

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From Nature

The term ‘science studies’ was invented in the 1970s by ‘outsiders’, such as those from the social sciences and humanities, to describe what they had to say about science. Science studies have been through what my colleagues and I at the Cardiff School of Social Sciences, UK, see as two waves. In wave one, social scientists took science to be the ultimate form of knowledge and tried to work out what kind of society nurtures it best. Wave two was characterized by scepticism about science.

The recent dominance of this second wave has unfortunately led some from science studies and the broader humanities movement known as post-modernism to conclude that science is just a form of faith or politics. They have become overly cynical about science.

The prospect of a society that entirely rejects the values of science and expertise is too awful to contemplate. What is needed is a third wave of science studies to counter the scepticism that threatens to swamp us all.

We must choose, or ‘elect’, to put the values that underpin scientific thinking back in the centre of our world; we must replace post-modernism with ‘elective modernism’. To support this, social scientists must work out what is right about science, not just what is wrong — we cannot live by scepticism alone. Natural scientists, too, have a part to play: they must reflect on and recognize the limits of their practice and their understanding. Together, we must choose to live in a society that recognizes the value of experience and expertise…

Post-modernists have become comfortable in their cocoon of cynicism. And some natural scientists have become too fond of describing their work as godlike. Others are ready to offer simple-minded criticisms of deeply held beliefs. But the third wave is needed to put science back in its proper place…

By definition, the logic of a sceptical argument defeats any amount of evidence; one can deduce that no inference from observation can ever be certain, that one cannot be sure that the future will be like the past, and that nothing is exactly like anything else, making the process of experimental repetition more complicated than it seems. The work of sociologists was simply to show how this played out in the practice of the laboratory.

Nowadays, however, I wonder if the science warriors might have been right to be worried about the (unintended) consequences of what social constructivists were doing. We may have got too much of what we wished for. The founding myth of the individual scientist using evidence to stand against the power of church or state — which has a central role in Western societies — has been replaced with a model in which Machiavellian scientists engage in artful collaboration with the powerful.

…scientific and technological ideas are nowadays being said to be merely a matter of lifestyle, supporting the idea that wise folk may be justified in choosing technical solutions according to their preferences — an idea horribly reminiscent of ‘the common sense of the people’ favoured in 1930s Germany. Some social scientists defend parents’ right to reject vaccines and other unnatural treatments because a lack of danger cannot be absolutely demonstrated. At the beginning of the century, President Thabo Mbeki’s policies denied anti-retroviral drugs to HIV-positive pregnant mothers in South Africa. Some saw this as a justified blow against Western imperialism, given that the safety and efficacy of the treatment cannot be proven beyond doubt.

A third wave of science studies would mean breaking away from now-routine and secure criticism, and instead taking the risks involved with the synthesis and generalization that build human culture. Mbeki claimed that anti-retroviral drugs had not been proven to reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV, and pointed out that some scientists claim the drugs are poisonous…

The hard problem for social studies of science is to show why, although he was right in logic, he was wrong for all practical purposes. Just showing there is some doubt about an issue, or another side to the story — at which we social scientists are nowadays unbeatable — does not inform you what to do in a case such as this.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 22, 2009 at 1:00 am

Jean-Claude Kavumbagu freed

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Last year I wrote about the arrest of the Burundian journalist Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, who was charged with “defamation” after his news agency wrote about President Nkurunziza’s personal expenditure at the Beijing Olympics. Jean-Claude was a huge help while I was researching and writing my first book, “Titanic Express”.

Following pressure from Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and – crucially – a number of donor governments, Jean-Claude has now been acquitted and freed. His release comes a week after the freeing of the celebrated former journalist and opposition leader Alexis Sinduhije, who was also featured in “Titanic Express”.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 21, 2009 at 12:09 pm

Brian Haw immortalised in Google Streetview

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Google’s latest piece of zoom-able 3D world-mapping wizardry has got the twitosphere all excited, and even London Mayor Boris Johnson has been enthusing. The detail is quite overwhelming – all the way down to the wording on the protest placards in Parliament Square, with Brian Haw himself sitting right in the middle:

Brian Haw on Streetview

Written by Richard Wilson

March 19, 2009 at 2:48 pm

Posted in Other stuff

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Reported assassination attempt against Alexis Sinduhije

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A few days ago I wrote about the release of Burundi opposition leader (and former journalist) Alexis Sinduhije, who I describe meeting in my book “Titanic Express”, and who has been very supportive over the case. I had been following Alexis’s fate since his arrest on trumped-up charges last November.

Now Alexis’s party, the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (renamed recently from “Movement for Security and Democracy” after the authorities ruled it illegal for a party to include the word “Security” in its name) has reported that the bolts on the wheels of Alexis’s car have been tampered with, apparently with the intention of causing an accident. Although the damage was spotted and repaired before any harm could result, Alexis and his colleagues were then followed by the police, arrested, and held for several hours. 

Although Alexis has since been released (again), the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that a number of those arrested with him are still being held.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 19, 2009 at 9:50 am

When empty jargon has deadly consequences

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From The Times

Critical decision units, they called them. Or CDUs, to make them sound important. But they were just rooms with no proper facilities where staff at Mid Staffordshire NHS dumped unassessed patients to meet four-hour waiting-time targets.

In these critical decision units, critical decisions weren’t taken. One didn’t have any staff. In the other, the Healthcare Commission says, patients were left for three days or more. CDUs were a sham, a cheat.

What killed hundreds of people in Mid Staffordshire was semantics; the first big case of death by empty words. It won’t be the last. Incompetence was an accomplice – it always is – but the main culprit was the cloak of evasive language.

The entire health service floats on an Orwellian sea of newspeak strategies, policies, stakeholders, parameters, benchmarking, outcomes, actioning, pathfinding. Third-rate jargon, that great weapon of the inadequate, has become the accepted way to con the public – sorry, service users. And create jobs too – because someone spends a lot of time writing the bloody stuff.

It is all about aggrandisement. Mid Staffs boasts a “finance directorate”, “strategic governance” and a “comprehensive Integrated Business Plan, which contains an extensive analysis of the factors that could drive demand and a detailed PESTLE (political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental) analysis”.

But this “pestle” was useless when it couldn’t predict the unwanted patients shuffled into side rooms.

If managers had spent less time on “a programme of agreed audit activity which facilitates a review of existing controls and recommends appropriate remedial action or systems redesign”, patients might not have had to drink out of flower vases.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 19, 2009 at 9:24 am

Barclays Bank gags Guardian newspaper over leaked tax avoidance documents – info still available on Wikileaks

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From Wikileaks

On Monday 16th March 2009, The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom published a series of leaked memos from the banking giant Barclays, together with the article:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/mar/16/revenue-investigates-barclays-tax-mole-claims

The next day, these documents were removed from The Guardian web archive, as a result of a court injunction obtained in the middle of the night:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/mar/17/barclays-guardian-injunction-tax

Barclays’ lawyers, Freshfields, worked into the early hours to force the Guardian to remove the documents from the website. They argued that the documents were the property of Barclays and could only have been leaked by someone who acquired them wrongfully and in breach of confidentiality agreements.

The Guardian’s solicitor, Geraldine Proudler, was woken by the judge at 2am and asked to argue the Guardian’s case by telephone. Around 2.31am, Mr Justice Ouseley issued an order for the documents to be removed from the Guardian’s website.

The documents are copies of alleged internal memos from within Barclays Bank. They were sent by an anonymous whistleblower to Vince Cable, Liberal-Democrat shadow chancellor. The documents reveal a number of elaborate international tax avoidance schemes by the SCM (Structured Capital Markets) division of Barclays.

According to these documents, Barclays has been systematically assisting clients to avoid huge amounts of tax they should be liable for across multiple jurisdictions.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 17, 2009 at 5:16 pm

“Don’t Get Fooled Again” reaches the Falkland Islands

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dgfafalklands1

In October last year, as regular readers of this blog will know,  several copies of “Don’t Get Fooled Again” were placed in glass jars, and floated seawards down the river Thames, with a note in English, French and Spanish asking anyone who found them to get in touch.

I had more or less given up hope of ever hearing anything further, when a package arrived this weekend containing two rather odd photographs. There was no letter or note, but the post-mark indicates that the package originated in the Falkland Islands, in the far-flung reaches of the South Atlantic.

I’m at something of a loss to know what to make of these two photos, but I’m including them in this post in the hope that someone reading this will be able to give me some ideas.

dgfafalklands2

Update – 2nd April 2009 – as many readers have guessed, the above account is not wholly accurate…

Written by Richard Wilson

March 17, 2009 at 8:00 am

Jon Stewart confronts CNBC finance journalist Jim Cramer over complicity in public deception

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Burundians celebrate the release of Alexis Sinduhije

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Written by Richard Wilson

March 14, 2009 at 9:10 pm

The toxic legacy of Turner and Newall’s asbestos denialism

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In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I highlight the ongoing efforts by the asbestos industry to deny the harm done by its products. The Daily Mirror has just published an in-depth article on the history of one such company’s efforts, and its continuing legacy.

From The Mirror

It was one of the UK’s 100 biggest firms with 60 per cent of the asbestos market.

Annual profits rose from £2million at the start of the 50s to nearly £10million in the 60s.

But a confidential letter to T&N’s directors from solicitors James Chapman & Co, in 1964, revealed their deepest fears. It said: “We have over the years been able to talk our way out of claims or compromise for comparatively small amounts, but we have always recognised that at some stage solicitors of experience would, with the advance in medical knowledge and the development of the law, recognise there is no real defence to these claims and take us to trial.”

The first confirmed T&N mesothelioma death – Frank Brooks – happened that same year. But his widow was never told and was left to discover the truth 18 years later.

A report in 1965 revealed a spate of mesothelioma cases among residents living near the Cape factory in Barking, East London. It closed three years later.

But rather than admit defeat, T&N was determined to fight back.

The board met in 1967 to grapple with “damaging and alarmist statements about the dangers of using asbestos products”.

Hill and Knowlton, a PR firm that had spent the previous 14 years helping the US tobacco industry deny links between cigarettes and cancer, was brought in.

The board’s minutes noted: “Their job will be to combat and, if possible, to forestall adverse publicity.”

Asbestos regulations were tightened again in 1968 but on T&N’s factory floor standards remained slack. Pictures of workers in 1970 showed them wearing no head gear or masks.

Asbestos shipments continued. Imports hit a peak in the early 70s of 190,000 tonnes a year. Meanwhile T&N paid paltry sums to keep the families of dead workers on side.

But in 1982, T&N’s asbestos rollercoaster came off the tracks. The company made a £30million loss, with the costs of compensation payouts topping £6million.

The agonising fight of 47-year-old mum Alice Jefferson against mesothelioma was screened on TV in Alice: A Fight for Life.

Within a week the government announced tighter regulations on asbestos dust. Three years later the two most dangerous types of asbestos were banned outright.

T&N’s compensation payouts rose to tens of millions of pounds a year and then to hundreds of millions. In 1997 it was sold off to a US company, which four years later moved to protect itself against bankruptcy.

More than £90million has since been found to pay sick and dying T&N employees and their families for the next 40 years.

But there is no money for the workers who were exposed before 1965.

Today the site of the heavily-contaminated Rochdale site is derelict, although the new owners plan to build 600 homes there.

Researcher Jason Addy, whose grandfather died after handling T&N’s asbestos, says he wants the site to “rest in peace – like far too many people who worked there”.

Mark Hoofnagle on climate change denial

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From The Guardian

At denialism blog we have identified five routine tactics that should set your pseudo-science alarm bells ringing. Spotting them doesn’t guarantee an argument is incorrect – you can argue for true things badly – but when these are the arguments you hear, be on your guard.

• First is the assertion of a conspiracy to suppress the truth. This conspiracy invariably fails to address or explain the data or observation but only generates more unexplained questions.

But let us think about such conspiracies for a moment. Do they stand up to even a cursory evaluation? Is it really possible to make thousands of scientists, from over 100 countries, and every national academy of every country toe the same line, falsify data, and suppress this alleged dissent? I certainly didn’t get the memo. At the heart of all denialism are these absurd conspiracy theories that require a superhuman level of control of individuals that simply defies reality.

• The second tactic is selectivity, or cherry-picking the data. Creationists classically would quote scientists out of context to suggest they disagreed with evolution. Global warming denialists similarly engage in this tactic, harping on about long discredited theories and the medieval warming period ad nauseum. But these instances are too numerous and tedious to go into in depth.

• Instead, let’s talk about the third tactic, the use of fake experts, where both creationists and global warming denialists truly shine. Creationists have their Dissent from Darwin list of questionable provenance. Similarly, global warming denialist extraordinaire has his list of climate scientists who disagree with global warming.

But don’t look too close! Lots of his big names are the same hacks who used to deny that cigarettes cause cancer for the tobacco companies, others are scientists who are wrongly included because they said something that was quoted out of context, others simply have no credibility as experts on climate like TV weathermen. But the desire of denialists to gain legitimacy by the numbers of scientists (or whoever they can find with letters after their name) used remains despite their contempt for the science they disagree with.

• The fourth tactic – moving goalposts or impossible expectations – is the tendency to refuse to accept when denialists’ challenges to the science have been addressed. Instead, they just come up with new challenges for you to prove before they say they’ll believe the theory. Worse, they just repeat their challenges over and over again ad nauseum.

This may be their most frustrating tactic because every time you think you’ve satisfied a challenge, they just invent a new one. The joke in evolutionary biology is that every time you find a transitional fossil all you do is create two new gaps on the fossil record, one on either side of the discovery. Similarly with global warming denialism, there is no end to the challenges that denialists claim they need to have satisfied before they’ll come on board.

It’s important to recognise that you shouldn’t play their game. They’ll never be satisfied because they simply don’t want to believe the science – for ideological reasons. In the US, global warming denialism usually stems from free-market fundamentalism that is terrified of regulation and any suggestion there should be control of business.

• Finally, the fifth tactic is the catch-all of logical fallacies. You know you’ve heard them. Al Gore is fat! His house uses lots of energy! Evolutionary biologists are mean! God of the gaps, reasoning by analogy, ad hominem, you name it, these arguments, while emotionally appealing, have no impact on the validity of the science.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 13, 2009 at 1:00 am

Alexis Sinduhije thanks European nations for pressure to secure his release

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From Reuters

BUJUMBURA (Reuters) – A political activist jailed in Burundi four months ago for insulting President Pierre Nkurunziza was freed on Thursday and thanked Western nations which had pushed for his release.

Alexis Sinduhije, a prominent former journalist who founded a political party in 2007, was named in Time magazine’s 2008 list of the 100 most influential people in the world, under the category “Heroes & Pioneers”.

Hundreds of supporters, some diplomats and several human rights activists gathered from early morning outside the main prison in the capital Bujumbura. Some waved placards bearing his picture alongside U.S. President Barack Obama.

“I would like to thank particularly European countries like Britain, France, Germany and Belgium,” Sinduhije told reporters after his release. “I have got back my freedom because those countries put a lot of pressure on the Burundian authorities.”

Burundi was seen as an African success story after a long U.N.-backed peace process led to the election in 2005 of former rebel leader Nkurunziza. But the central African nation is often criticised for the way it deals with dissent, and Sinduhije had been especially harsh about its record on human rights.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 12, 2009 at 9:00 pm

“A victory for truth and justice” – Burundi opposition leader Alexis Sinduhije acquitted following major international pressure

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See also: Alexis Sinduhije jailed for “insulting the President”

Alexis Sinduhije speaks about his activism in an interview last year

-Update - the MSD say that Alexis is now free following his acquittal: “Bonne nouvelle – maintenant c’est vrai – il quitte la prison central. Tout le monde fête sa liberté – la ville de Bujumbura est devenue une grande célébration – les véhicules ne circulent pas… Merci pour le soutien”

Alexis Sinduhije, the Burundian former journalist (and now an opposition activist) who has been supportive of the Titanic Express case, and who I wrote about in my book of the same name, was arrested last November and charged with contempt for the President.

The CNDD-FDD ruling party, an ex-militia group led by  a warlord-turned “born again Christian”, Pierre Nkurunziza, took particular exception to Alexis having launched his own political party, the Movement for Security and Democracy (now renamed the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy, after the government announced that it was illegal for any political party to include the word “security” in its name).

Having risen to prominence as founder and director of “Radio Publique Africaine”, a radio station promoting reconciliation between the Hutu and Tutsi communities, Alexis is a popular figure in Burundi. Amid growing discontent over its corruption and brutality, CNDD-FDD fears that it may lose the 2010 elections and has been doing all it can to suppress any serious political opposition.

But the problem for a corrupt ex-militia group bent on preserving its own power in a small poverty-stricken nation heavily dependent on foreign aid, is that there comes a point at which European aid donors’ embarrassment at the way their money is being used starts to overcome their traditional reticence about human rights abuses by “client states” such as Burundi.

From Agence France Presse

BUJUMBURA (AFP) — A Burundi court acquitted leading opposition leader and former journalist Alexis Sinduhije Wednesday who had been charged with contempt for the president, his lawyer and judicial sources said.

“This is a victory for justice and truth that we owe to a great extent to pressures exercised on this country’s authorities,” Sinduhije’s lawyer Prosper Niyoyankana told AFP.

Several European ministers had urged Bujumbura to release Sinduhije, who was detained in November with 37 other founding members of his Movement of Security and Democracy party. The others were released shortly after.

Prosecutors in February demanded a two-and-a-half year sentence against Sinduhije for allegedly blaming purported corruption and murder scandals of the ruling CNDD-FDD party on “the man who spends all his time in prayer service.”

President Pierre Nkurunziza is said to be a born-again Christian who frequently organises large religious services.

Sinduhije, 42, founded the popular Radio Publique Africaine (African Public Radio) in 2001 in a bid to foster reconciliation between Tutsi and Hutu communities.

He then launched his party in December 2007 and vowed to run for the presidency in 2010.

He was picked by Time magazine last April in its annual selection of the world’s 100 most influential people.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 11, 2009 at 6:23 pm

UN condemns UK government over torture complicity

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From The Guardian:

Britain is condemned today in a highly critical UN report for breaching basic human rights and “trying to conceal illegal acts” in the fight against terrorism.

The report is sharply critical of British co-operation in the transfer of detainees to places where they are likely to be tortured as part of the US rendition programme. It accuses British ­intelligence officers of interviewing detainees held ­incommunicado in Pakistan in ­”so-called safe houses where they were being tortured”.

It adds that Britain, and a number of other countries, sent interrogators to Guantánamo Bay in a further example of what “can be reasonably understood as implicitly condoning” torture and ill-treatment. It said the US was able to create its system for moving terror suspects around foreign jails only with the support of its allies.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 10, 2009 at 5:24 pm