Archive for April 2009
Monday’s book talk at Skeptics in the Pub certainly wasn’t my best, though things warmed up a bit with the Q&A discussion at the end.
My main focus was on the value of scepticism in, and about, politics – and I put forward three key examples to try to illustrate this: the case of the Soviet pseudo-scientist Trofim Lysenko, the UK government’s misleading statements about Iraq’s “WMD”, and the South African authorities’ embrace of “AIDS denialism” in the year 2000.
All three of these cases arguably involved costly government decisions being made on the basis of bad evidence that had not been properly scrutinised.
Lysenko’s theories about agriculture were far-fetched and unworkable, but they were ideologically agreeable to the Communist regime, and after he rose to prominence the totalitarian nature of the Soviet system made it very difficult for anyone to challenge his authority. When Lysenko’s ideas were implemented in China, they contributed to a famine that is believed to have claimed up to 30 million lives.
The evidence cited by the UK government in support of its view that Iraq possessed chemical weapons was famously “dodgy”. It’s widely believed that the Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair, lied about the strength of that evidence, and about the views of his own experts (many of whom, it later, transpired, had grave doubts about the claims being made), not only to the public at large and the UK’s Parliament, but also to many members of his own cabinet. One ex-minister, Clare Short, has suggested that Blair believed he was engaging in an “honorable deception” for the greater good. But whatever his motives, in lying to his own cabinet and Parliament, Blair was effectively shutting out of the decision-making process the very people whose job it is to scrutinise the evidence on which government policies are based. John Williams, one of the spin doctors involved in drawing up the famous “dodgy dossier” – which at the time the government insisted was the unvarnished view of the intelligence services – later admitted that “in hindsight we could have done with a heavy dose of scepticism” (though it should be said that some of his statements raise more questions than they answer).
In South Africa in the early part of this decade, President Thabo Mbeki chose to believe the unsubstantiated claims of fringe scientists and conspiracy theorists over those of established AIDS researchers – including members of South Africa’s own scientific community. Under the influence of denialists who insist that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, and that AIDS deaths are in fact caused by the lifesaving medicines given to people with HIV, Mbeki’s government chose to block the availability of anti-retroviral drugs in South Africa – even after the pharmaceutical companies had been shamed into slashing their prices and international donors were offering to fund the distribution. It was only after a series of court cases by the indefatigable Treatment Action Campaign that, in 2004, the authorities began to change their position. A recent study by Harvard University concluded that the deliberate obstruction of the roll-out of lifesaving drugs may have cost more than 300,000 lives.
The broad conclusion I think all of this points to is that the truth matters more in politics than ever before. Because of power and influence that governments now hold, the consequences of a bad policy implemented on the basis of bad evidence can adversely affect millions.
In an ideal world governments would be engaging in evidence-based-policy-making: deciding policy on the basis of the best available evidence – rather than policy-based-evidence-making: cherry-picking or concocting evidence to support a decision that has already been made. But obviously this doesn’t always happen, and as a result wholly preventable mistakes continue to be made.
Don’t get fooled by “gay cure” pseudo-science. Rights groups protest Anglican homophobes’ London conference
I won’t be able to make this but thought I should spread the word. The Anglican church does seem to have consistent form for dressing up the nastiest kinds of abuses in woolly platitudes. Grr…
From Nicholas Chinardet on Facebook:
A conference advocating techniques to help ‘cure’ people of homosexuality is to be held in London next weekend.
Held by the Anglican Mainstream Organisation, the event will have “a special focus on how religious professionals and friends/relatives can respond biblically and pastorally to those struggling with unwanted SSA (same-sex attraction)”.
This is my first attempt at organising a demonstration. I do however think that this vile event should not be let to happen unchallenged. A peaceful demonstration by proud gay people (and couples?) would I think be the right answer. Straight allies are very welcome too, of course.
Oh and invite your friends (even if you can’t make it). Thanks.
Date: 25 April 2009
Time: 13:00 – 15:00
Location: Emmanuel Centre
Street: 9-23 Marsham Street
Town/City: London, United Kingdom
Book talk – Sceptics in the Pub, 7pm, Monday April 27th
The Penderel’s Oak pub
283–288 High Holborn
WC1V 7HP (map)
Given the disasters, human and financial, that can result when governments lose their grip on reality, it’s arguably in politics that skepticism matters most. Yet from Thabo Mbeki’s disastrous dalliance with AIDS denial in South Africa, to the delusions that led to the Iraq war, our politicians often seem perilously credulous. In “Don’t Get Fooled Again“, Richard Wilson looks at why it is that intelligent, educated people end up time and again falling for ideas that turn out to be nonsense, and makes the case for skeptics to be actively engaged with the political process.
If the CIA made drinks commercials…
This week’s release by the Obama administration of further details of the CIA’s interrogation policies under Bush-Cheney has triggered a renewed debate about whether or not torture “works”. Some people argue that torture is pointless because the person undergoing it will tell whatever lies they think you want to hear in order to get the torture to stop.
But it seems to me that this is only a problem if you’re concerned about extracting evidence that is accurate and truthful. If what you’re really after is information that is simply going to be politically useful, then the War on Terror surely gives us ample evidence that torture does, indeed, work.
To take just one example, in February 2003, US secretary of state Colin Powell announced disturbing evidence of links between Al Qaeda and the Iraqi government. An unnamed ‘senior terrorist operative’ had told US interrogators that Iraq had offered chemical and biological weapons training to Al Qaeda members over a number of years. One high-ranking militant had allegedly visited Iraq several times, ‘for help in acquiring poisons and gases’.
This was clearly useful information – it added weight to US government claims of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda at a time when the Bush administration was working hard to build public support for its invasion of Iraq. By strengthening the idea that the Iraqis were on the same side as the people who had carried out 911, the information also helped win a tacit acceptance of the use of torture by US forces in Iraq itself, at places like Abu Ghraib, Camp Nama and Forward Operating Base Tiger.
It subsequently emerged that the ‘terrorist operative’ who’d been the source of this information, Ibn al Shaykh al Libi, had made his WMD claims after being subjected to freezing temperatures and controlled drowning (aka “waterboarding”). In November 2005, CIA sources told ABC News that they had concluded that Libi ‘had no knowledge of such training or weapons and fabricated the statements because he was terrified of further harsh treatment’.
Clearly, in this case, the information extracted through torture was neither true nor accurate, but it did nonetheless help the Bush administration to persuade Americans that Iraq was implicated in 911, and that the 2003 invasion was therefore necessary and justified.
If governments are forbidden to torture people who might be in a position to yield such “useful” (albeit false) information, then we’re depriving them of a vital tool for justifying controversial policies that might otherwise meet intractable public opposition. Had the US government not been able to use torture in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, then it would have been incapable of producing much of the key intelligence suggesting that Iraq had WMD and was linked to Al Qaeda.
In fact, it seems possible that without the use of torture-intelligence, the political campaign would have been impossible to get off the ground and that the invasion itself, with all that it entailed, would therefore never have happened. The consequences of such a grim scenario for a whole range of US and UK companies – from Halliburton and Blackwater to Aegis and BAE - seem barely imaginable.