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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