Richard Wilson's blog

richardcameronwilson AT yahoo dot co dot UK

Archive for August 2009

Déja vu…

leave a comment »

From Hansard, 28 January 1992

Mr Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

Will the Prime Minister now give a categoric assurance that he will not impose any increase in VAT? Will he please answer yes or no?

Mr John Major (Huntingdon)

We have no plans to increase value added tax.

From The Independent, 17 January 1997

Mr Clarke denied any lapse of memory about VAT. “The [1992] manifesto did not say we weren’t going to extend it and I have never said we weren’t going to extend it,” he said.

In fact, Mr Major said the Government had “no plans” to raise VAT, before imposing it on domestic fuel, which had been zero rated.

From Press Association 9 August 2009

The Tories have “absolutely” no plans to raise VAT to 20% if they win the next general election, shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley insisted.

Mr Lansley rejected reports that the move was being “very actively considered” and insisted it had not even been discussed at senior levels.

“As far as I am aware we have absolutely no such plan and I know there have been no such senior level discussions,” he told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 9, 2009 at 11:06 am

Recommended reading

leave a comment »

further reading

If you liked “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, then you may also like (or find interesting):

Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

A  Mind of Its Own: How your brain distorts and deceives, Cordelia Fine

The Cigarette Century, Allan M Brandt

Flat Earth News, Nick Davies

Mortal Questions, Thomas Nagel

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World, Francis Wheen

In Defence of History, Richard J Evans

Denying Aids, Seth Kalichman

Mortal Combat: AIDS Denialism and the struggle for anti-retrovirals in South Africa, Nicoli Nattrass

Bad Science, Ben Goldacre

Trick or Treatment?, Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst

Second Front, John R Macarthur

Toxic Sludge is Good For You, John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton

In Retrospect, Robert S McNamara

King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild

Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton

Real England, Paul Kingsnorth

Counterknowledge, Damian Thompson

Mysticism and Logic, Bertrand Russell (free e-book version available here)

Radical then, Radical Now, Jonathan Sacks

The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins

Written by Richard Wilson

August 8, 2009 at 2:16 pm

Britain’s “rogue state” libel laws strike again…

leave a comment »

Over-rated TV personality threatens to sue journalist for suggesting that he’s stupid and only got his peerage because he was off the telly. Quacklash begins…

From Guido Fawkes

Baron Sugar of Shortarse, you are stupid and the only reason you got your peerage is because you are a telly celebrity. If you weren’t stupid you would realise we all know your chair is raised up in the boardroom so that you don’t look like the chippy, midget tycoon that you really are.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 6, 2009 at 8:27 am

Cat-and-mouse game continues: Alexis Sinduhije re-released

leave a comment »

For more background on this, see yesterday’s post

From Agence France Press

BUJUMBURA — Burundian police on Tuesday freed an opposition leader they had confined to a relative’s house since the weekend for allegedly holding an illegal meeting.

Alexis Sinduhije, a former journalist, had been surrounded by police at a relative’s house in the eastern Ruyigi town since late Sunday, letting no one in or out of the house.

“I do not know why I was detained. I was not questioned and early this morning the police chief called just to say I was free to go and said nothing more,” Sinduhije told AFP by phone.

“The government does what it can to intimidate me because it is afraid of what I stand for. It is scared of losing the 2010 elections,” he added.

Sinduhije, 42, had previously been arrested in November 2008 for contempt against the head of state and freed in March after pressure by the international community.

His Movement for Solidarity and Development was registered as a political party only last month.

He launched the party at the end of 2007 when he stepped down from his job as the director of Radio Publique Africaine, one of the country’s most popular radio stations.

Presidential, national assembly and senate elections are due in Burundi next year. Opposition parties have accused President Pierre Nkurunziza of curbing basic freedoms in recent months in order to secure re-election.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 4, 2009 at 8:23 pm

Charity commission says it has no powers to act against a UK charity putting out dangerous misinformation on AIDS

with 9 comments

I recently blogged about a UK registered charity called the “Immunity Resource Foundation”, whose official objectives include:

“To advance the education of the public in the fields of medicine, health care and medical science”

and

“To relieve sickness and assist sick and disabled persons… by providing them with access to information concerning diseases and medical conditions (and in particular AIDS)…”

But the information promoted on the charity’s website includes the claim that “the AIDS edifice is built upon a false hypothesis”, that AIDS “is not an infectious disease” and that “HIV cannot cause AIDS”. The charity also provides links to a range of AIDS denialist websites, including “Living Without HIV Drugs” – which urges HIV-positive patients to stop taking conventional medications.

As has been well-documented elsewhere, this kind of misinformation around HIV and AIDS has already done enormous damage, with a grim roster of HIV-positive AIDS denialists dying after refusing to take medicines that could have saved their lives, and many thousands more deaths resulting from the application of AIDS denialist ideas by the South African government.

Far from advancing the “education of the public”, any organisation which promotes these ideas is disseminating dangerous misinformation. And far from relieving sickness, the promotion of AIDS denialism under the guise of providing health information can have deadly consequences.

The Charity Commission exists to ensure that charities registered in England and Wales benefit the public interest and act in accordance with their stated objectives.  However, when contacted about the activities of the Immunity Resource Foundation, the Commission stated that:

We do not have the remit or expertise to judge whether they are providing the correct advice. We can only become involved in matters where our regulatory powers permit us to intervene and unfortunately this issue falls outside of that remit.

The upshot of this seems to be that a registered charity is free to make false, misleading and dangerous scientific claims about a major public health issue – even where this runs directly contrary to the charity’s official objectives – because the government body that regulates charities does not have access to the technical expertise necessary to evaluate such claims.

This seems like quite a big loophole, and also something of a double-standard. Whereas a private business that makes false scientific claims about its products is answerable, at least in principle, to the Trading Standards Institute, it would appear that UK registered charities are currently free to disseminate pseudo-science more or less with impunity.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 4, 2009 at 2:38 pm

Naomi Mc on Rent-A-Quote media psychologists

leave a comment »

From Vagina Dentanta

Dr Linda, Celebrity Psychiatrist (sic), is naturally concerned by our consumerist-obsessed society that is fueling dissatisfaction and alienation. Her remedy? Why Lacoste’s new perfume ‘Love of Pink’ for women of course. Just as Dr Linda says:

“The color pink is, in a lot of ways, the essence of what it means to be a young woman – love, romance, femininity and youth are all punctuated by this color. When a young woman wears LACOSTE Love of Pink, she wears the color of love.”

Yeah, Linda, you are totally right. And I realise now that you are the PERFECT person for the government to employ to look into gender stereotypes which are fueling inequality and violence against women.

But it doesn’t stop at perfume, oh no. Remember, this woman is a serious academic. She does SCIENCE. And by science I mean research. And by research I mean stuff that a company makes up to sell shoes. Stuff like, the FACT that women’s heart rate increases when they buy shoes:

“Shoes have a particular draw to women as they are emotionally evocative items to them and they bring out women’s socializing and nurturing instincts,” the Mirror quoted [Dr Linda], as saying.

You know she’s right. A cute pair of Jimmy Choo’s actually makes my womb ache (sorry, she was actually being paid by Brantano, er, who?). In fact there is a direct link between the shoe part of my brain and my genitalia because I’m a woman and therefore incapable of abstract thought.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 4, 2009 at 8:57 am

Alexis Sinduhije detained (again) – reportedly on the orders of Burundi’s “born again” President, Pierre Nkurunziza (again)

leave a comment »

Alexis’s release earlier this year. He was detained again this week.

Alexis Sinduhije is a former Burundian journalist who I’ve been in contact with over my sister’s case for a number of years, and who featured in my first book, Titanic Express. Alexis recently launched a multi-ethnic opposition party, the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD), and has already spent several months in prison for his troubles, prior to his release earlier this year, following massive international pressure.

This arrived by email this morning via the MSD Facebook group:

The commissioner of police in Ruyigi says that Alexis has not been arrested – he is just in for questions……..

Yesterday Alexis went to Ruyigi and in the evening was in the house of the family of a cousin when the house was surrounded by police. He was then removed and taken to the chef lieu where he has been for questioning – a team has gone to join him in Ruyigi and as we get more details we will tell you. The Governor and the Procurer [public prosecutor] are not answering their phones. When Human Rights Watch called the Police Commissioner he said ” that he was not arrested – but just being asked questions”.

It appears that Nkurunziza and co will keep harassing Alexis – one story on the ground is that it was Peter himself that send the instructions for Alexis to be arrested. They do not want him to be with his supporters in the collines! when will freedom of opinion be tolerated?

Click here for more background on the original arrest from Amnesty International.

Click here for some suddenly-relevant-again hip-hop tunes.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 3, 2009 at 7:21 pm

Posted in Titanic Express

Tagged with

Climate change “scepticism” and Spiked Online

with 7 comments

Spiked Online‘s Rob Lyons seems (understandably, I guess) riled by my recent comments on this blog about his magazine’s editorial record, and in response has published an impressively-detailed critique of “Don’t Get Fooled Again”.

While I’m not sure Rob really addressed the points I made about Spiked, he does have some interesting things to say about DGFA, taking me to task for (among other things) more or less ignoring the viewpoint sometimes described as “climate change scepticism”.

Actually it does get a mention in the book, but Rob could be forgiven for missing it, as the mention is very brief (p84), taking up marginally less space than I give to the self-described “sceptics” about Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Though it seems undeniable that the climate change doubters have had a major cultural and political impact, I’m just not convinced that in scientific terms their views are any more significant than those of the people who believe that MMR causes autism, or that homeopathy can cure cancer, or that the moon landings never happened, all of whom also get ignored in the book.

While I do have my own views about climate change “scepticism” (some of which have made their way onto this blog, and some of which I allude to here), and while I do think that there are some easy inferences we can draw based on other examples given in “Don’t Get Fooled Again” (perhaps especially AIDS denialism), I also feel that the subject’s already been very well covered elsewhere (eg. here), and wanted to concentrate on some issues that hadn’t had such a wide airing.

Rob’s criticisms go a fair bit wider than that, and given the emphasis that the book places on debate and discussion, I wish I had a bit more time to respond properly, but I guess this will have to do for the moment…

*Update* – One other key criticism Rob makes is that the book exaggerates the success of the  PR firm Hill and Knowlton in defending the image of the tobacco industry during the 1960s and 1970s. He cites figures from the American Cancer Society which show that smoking rates among both adult males and females in the US, UK and Japan actually fell quite steadily from 1960 onwards. Adults are defined as over 18 in the US, over 16 in the UK, and over 20 in Japan.

This is a fair point, but I’m not sure it gets H&K off the hook. For the US at least (H&K’s home market, and the case study I focus on in the book), while there was a decline in the percentage of adults who smoked, the actual number of cigarettes sold each year continued to grow until the mid 1970s, (see p227 of Allan M Brandt‘s “The Cigarette Century”) – and lung cancer cases only began declining in 1995.  Whether this was because the industry was managing to sell more cigarettes, year on year, to the minority of adults who continued to smoke, or because another group of potential smokers not included in the ACS figures – children, began to play a more important role in the market, or because of some combination of factors, the continued rise in sales for more than two decades after the link between smoking and cancer was first proven suggests that the Hill and Knowlton PR strategy was hardly a commercial disaster.

What Rob doesn’t do, so far as I can see, is clarify the nature of Spiked’s own relationship with Hill and Knowlton, as discussed here.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 1, 2009 at 3:27 pm

Spiked Online give their verdict on “Don’t Get Fooled Again”

with 3 comments

From Spiked Online

Question everything — even environmentalism

A new book on the importance of being sceptical about received wisdom and simplistic spindoctoring mysteriously leaves out one area of life where scepticism is thoroughly frowned on today: climate change.

by Rob Lyons

When Karl Marx was asked by his daughter to fill in a ‘confession’, a light-hearted Victorian questionnaire, he declared that his favourite motto – usually attributed to Rene Descartes – was De omnibus dubitandum. Or, to put it another way, ‘question everything’.

These are wise words. Any serious inquiry into the truth should start with this pithy formulation of scepticism in mind. So when Richard Wilson’s book Don’t Get Fooled Again: The Sceptic’s Guide to Life arrived in the spiked office a few months back, I was looking forward to an illuminating exploration of the role of scepticism today.

Yet while there are some sensible restatements of the basic principles that should steer readers through the modern world, Wilson’s guide seems a little trite. It’s the kind of book that might be an entertaining read for a student heading off to university rather than a sage treatment of an important idea. Judging from the book itself and Wilson’s writings elsewhere, it seems he is unwilling to follow through on the logic of his pro-sceptical approach when it comes to the central issues of our day.

Don’t Get Fooled Again begins with a health warning: people are inclined by nature to a little self-delusion. The average person, Wilson advises, tends to believe that they are above average. Only depressives, it seems, have a realistic assessment of their own worth. This is harmless enough, he argues, as optimistic and self-confident people tend to do better in life. However, this propensity to believe what is convenient is positively dangerous when it comes to wider social issues. From public-relations spin to psuedoscience, Wilson relates numerous instances in which our capacity to swallow a lie has had negative, even deadly consequences. We need to keep our wits about us.

Wilson believes that ‘the basis of scepticism is essentially common sense… to be sceptical is to look closely at the evidence for a particular belief or idea, and to check for things that don’t add up’. He adds: ‘This is not the same thing as being a cynic. Cynics like to assume the worst of people and things. Sceptics try to make as few assumptions as possible.’

He also notes that the mainstream media is a flawed resource in a number of ways, from the way stories are selected as newsworthy to the way PR companies and other interest groups manipulate what is presented. Wilson praises the internet as a means by which we can find the primary sources of information for ourselves and question what is being presented to us as the truth. ‘Just as you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the papers’, he writes, ‘neither should you assume, a priori, that everything that isn’t in the papers isn’t true’.

His first major example is the work of giant public relations agency, Hill & Knowlton (H&K). The firm has been involved in a number of controversial examples of spin. In October 1990, as Wilson reminds us, a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, ‘Nurse Nayirah’, claimed that Iraqi soldiers had stolen incubators from a hospital in Kuwait City, leaving the children that were in them to die. The claim was that more than 300 children had perished as a result. In fact, ‘Nurse Nayirah’ was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US who had been coached to tell this tale by staff at H&K.

If that lie led to the first war against Iraq, Wilson argues that H&K’s past crimes were even worse, leading to the deaths of millions of people. In the 1950s, the agency was hired by tobacco manufacturers to deal with the threat from the emerging medical evidence linking smoking with lung cancer.

H&K’s response was obfuscation: try to convince the public that the link was unproven and that there was genuine controversy, when the link was, in fact, well established. To this end, the firm promoted Clarence Cook Little, an American geneticist, as a leading expert on cigarettes and ill-health when he was nothing of the kind, while creating a Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC) to create the impression that the industry was actively investigating the link. In truth, the TIRC was little more than a PR operation. By 1964, a US government report had confirmed the link but, according to Wilson, H&K’s strategy was so successful that cigarette sales continued to rise before peaking a decade later.

As it happens, Wilson overstates H&K’s success in this matter. As figures from the American Cancer Society note, smoking rates in the USA, UK and Japan were falling before 1964 and have carried on falling ever since (1). Not only that, but the exposure of the tobacco industry’s attempts to downplay the dangers of cigarettes now mean that nothing that any tobacco company ever says is believed, leaving the industry completely unable to make any meaningful intervention on the debate on passive smoking, for example, and tainting anyone who has ever had anything to do with ‘Big Tobacco’. That sounds more like an object lesson in how not to conduct a PR campaign.

Wilson goes on to discuss a variety of other ways in which a failure to examine the evidence and thus fall victim to wishful thinking and ‘groupthink’ has led to disaster. One such example is the pseudoscience of Trofim Lysenko, the ‘barefoot scientist’ whose ideologically agreeable ideas about agriculture and rejection of Mendelian genetics helped place him at the forefront of Soviet science for decades, while leading to crop failures and malnutrition.

Wilson puts much of the blame for the mass starvation of the Great Leap Forward in China from 1958 to 1961 – which claimed 30million lives – on the barmy ideas promoted by Lysenko and adopted by Mao. Again, Wilson almost certainly overstates his case. While Soviet ideas certainly inspired the Chinese regime, the obsession with collectivisation and meeting pointless, centrally decreed targets had more of an impact than the losses incurred due to Lysenko’s dubious methods.

Another tragedy was the rise of AIDS denialism in the 1980s and 1990s. The widely accepted theory that AIDS is caused by a virus, HIV, was rejected both by some researchers – most notably by a high-profile American virologist, Peter Duesberg – and by AIDS activists who were mistrustful of the medical establishment. Retroviral therapies, such as AZT, were regarded as poisons and some even suggested that it was these drugs, not HIV, that were responsible for disease. Sadly, the leading activist proponents of this view died one by one, refusing the treatment that could have saved their lives.

The influence of this denialism was particularly strong in South Africa, a country greatly afflicted by the spread of AIDS. Around the turn of the century, the then-president Thabo Mbeki and his ANC government did everything in their power to delay the widespread use of retrovirals, leading to many unnecessary deaths. The lesson is that once an irrational idea gets a grip in the corridors of power, the consequences can be devastating.

On the other hand, the South African government were not alone in promoting irrational ideas. The British government was happy to use AIDS to try to promote a conservative sexual morality in a politically correct guise, providing a template for health-based scaremongering that continues to this day. While thousands of people in quite specific groups were dying of a new and terrible illness that demanded an all-out research effort to resolve, millions of pounds were being wasted on pointless scare campaigns aimed at everyone. Surely a true sceptic would interrogate these mainstream ideas to reveal the agendas of those promoting them?

In his final chapter, Wilson sums up the main elements of his sceptical outlook. Fundamentalism – the assertion of the ‘absolute literal truth of a particular set of beliefs’ – and relativism – the belief that any view can be true – are, in Wilson’s view, very similar and both are to be avoided since they immunise believers to logic and truth. Wilson also warns against conspiracy theories, pseudo-scholarship (a bogus agenda dressed up as a serious assessment of current knowledge), and pseudo-news (fraud or spin presented as truth).

He also returns to his earlier concerns about wishful thinking and warns against the way debates can be conducted by ‘over-idealising’ the outlook of one’s own side while ‘demonising perceived enemies’, with the upshot being the ‘moral exclusion’ of one side and ‘groupthink’, where ‘doubters and dissenters are stereotyped as weak, disloyal or ill-intentioned’.

This is all sound advice. Yet what is most surprising, given that Wilson’s book is a discussion of scepticism, is that he avoids the one area in which sceptics are most prominent today: climate change. There are plenty of high-profile advocates for action around manmade greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions who exhibit all the dubious behaviour that Wilson rightly criticises elsewhere. Yet Wilson is silent on the matter.

There is little dissent on the idea that the world has got warmer in the past 100 years or so. Nor is there any serious dissent that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas which will tend to make the world warmer as levels of it increase in the atmosphere. And there’s certainly no doubt that human beings have caused the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from industry, transport and agriculture. If economic development continues in its current manner then, all other things being equal, we would expect the Earth’s temperature to rise.

Just how much warmer the world is likely to get is still unknown. What we have is a range of best guesses made on the basis of an incomplete temperature record, computer models that still have some way to go in accurately representing our climate, and genuine and important uncertainties in the basic physics of climate change. So while a warming world is our best available working assumption, how much the world’s temperature may change in the future is still a legitimate subject of scientific inquiry. Quite aside from the complexities of atmospheric physics, there are wider questions to be answered about the consequences of such warming and what the best policy response would be.

Yet the public discussion of climate change often obliterates such subtleties. The science of global warming is not presented as a series of provisional conclusions that must be revised as new evidence arises – which would be a properly sceptical approach following the argument in Don’t Get Fooled Again – but as ‘The Science’, a catechism of received truths that brooks no opposition. Frequently, a moral and political argument about the evils of humanity and industrial society is represented as a set of incontrovertible scientific facts.

Those who seek to question any aspect of this catechism are treated in precisely the terms Wilson warns against. James Hansen, the NASA scientist who has been closely identified with promoting the need for action on climate change, suggested to a US congressional committee in June 2008 that the leaders of the oil and coal industries would be ‘guilty of crimes against humanity and nature’ if they don’t change their ways. In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore derided those who don’t agree with him by questioning their rationality, stating that those who believe that the Moon landings were faked or who think the Earth is flat should ‘get together with the global warming deniers on a Saturday night and party’. Indeed, the very use of the term ‘denier’ to describe a critic of climate change science or policy has very conscious and pointed parallels with Holocaust denial.

Even scientists who firmly argue that the mainstream scientific position is correct, but who have been concerned about some of the alarmist statements made in science’s name, have been criticised as weak, disloyal or ill-intentioned.

Wilson has nothing to say in his book on these things. Yet on his website, he specifically criticises spiked for taking the kind of sceptical approach to the politics of environmentalism that he encourages people to adopt in relation to various other issues (2). Wilson engages in the kind of smearing rhetoric he criticises in other situations, making the defamatory and utterly false suggestion that spiked could only say such ‘pro-corporate’ things because it is paid to do so. He only tolerates a certain kind of scepticism, it seems, the kind that doesn’t question any of the apparently inconvertible truths held by him and other eco-enlightened individuals.

Sadly, Wilson’s own definition of cynics – those who ‘assume the worst of people and things’ – seems all too apt a description of his own outlook.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Don’t Get Fooled Again: A Sceptic’s Guide to Life, by Richard Wilson, is published by Icon Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) The American Cancer Society’s Tobacco Atlas suggests that adult male smoking rates in the USA fell from 51 per cent in 1960 to 44 per cent in 1970 and 38 per cent in 1979, with similar falls in the UK and Japan. These declines are also mirrored for female smokers. H&K clearly weren’t that successful.

(2) Spiked Online: the rohypnol of online news and comment, Don’t Be Fooled Again blog

Written by Richard Wilson

August 1, 2009 at 1:49 pm