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Skepticism and freedom

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The video that could see Sanal Edamaruku jailed for “blasphemy”

At Leicester Skeptics in the Pub on June 19th, I’ll be talking about the link between skepticism and freedom of speech.

It’s hard to find a more pressing example of the problems that skeptics can face when powerful institutions threaten freedom of speech than that of Sanal Edamaruku, President of the Indian Rationalist Association. On May 10th, Sanal went on Indian TV to debunk a purported “miracle” at a Catholic Church in Mumbai. Now, after local Catholic groups reported him to the authorities, he is facing a criminal prosecution for “deliberately hurting religious feelings and attempting malicious acts intended to outrage the religious sentiments of any class or community”.

The Rationalist Association have set up an online petition calling on the Catholic community to withdraw their complaint, and urging the Catholic authorities elsewhere in the world to speak out against the prosecution.

The Catholic Church in England and Wales has a Twitter account here if you would like to send them a polite message urging them to speak out against the persecution of Sanal Edamaruku.

Things are also reaching a critical point here in the UK as the Libel Reform campaign seeks to ensure that the government’s proposed changes to our laws really do ensure that people asking difficult questions are properly  protected from vexatious prosecutions. The Libel Reform Campaign are now appealing to all those concerned about freedom of speech in Britain to contact their MP and join a mass lobby of Parliament on June 27th.

Written by Richard Wilson

June 18, 2012 at 9:10 pm

British Chiropractic Association follows in the footsteps of David Irving, Robert Maxwell and Matthias Rath

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UK author Simon Singh is being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. Singh had written an article suggesting that the BCA claimed, without evidence, that chiropractic (aka chiropracty) was effective in treating children for “colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying”.

I haven’t yet read Simon Singh’s acclaimed book, “Trick or Treatment”, in which he looks in detail at the scientific evidence behind chiropractic. Nor, until recently, did I know very much about this particular branch of pseudo-medicine. But by bringing this case, the BCA has ensured that thousands of people now know that this is an organisation whose response to public criticism is to seek to prosecute a well-respected writer under the UK’s notoriously one-sided libel laws. And I suspect that a great many observers will, like me, draw their own conclusions as to what this says about the BCA’s confidence in the evidence for their methods.

People say all sorts of things about all sorts of scientific claims all the time. AIDS denialists, for example, will routinely assert that anti-retroviral drugs are not effective against HIV. Sometimes these claims have even made it into the mainstream media. But I’ve yet to come across a case of a pharmaceutical company responding to such claims by suing an AIDS denialist for libel. Why would you need to sue anyone when the evidence speaks for itself?

The BCA, frankly, is not in good company. During the 1980s, the millionaire tycoon Robert Maxwell famously used UK libel law to suppress media coverage of his dubious business practices. At the beginning of this decade, pseudo-historian David Irving, perhaps even more famously, brought a case against the writer Deborah Lipstadt after she had accused him of denying the holocaust and falsifying history. Last year, the AIDS denialist vitamin salesman Matthias Rath sued the Guardian and Ben Goldacre over two articles which exposed his nefarious activities in South Africa.

But even under UK libel law – which is so draconian that a number of US states have passed statutes protecting their citizens from malicious suits initiated in this country – the bad guys can still sometimes lose. David Irving lost his case against Lipstadt, and was bankrupted as a result. Matthias Rath was forced to drop his case after the Guardian produced overwhelming evidence to back their story – and is now in the process of paying back half a million pounds worth of costs.

Libel suits are a messy and expensive way of settling simple matters of fact and evidence. Those who react to criticism by seeking to suppress freedom of speech surely risk tainting their reputations even further. I’ve joined the Facebook group in support of Simon Singh (2,500 members and counting) and am now very much looking forward to reading his book.

George Monbiot launches the Booker prize for pseudo-science…

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It had to happen sooner or later…

From George Monbiot at the Guardian

Today I am launching a new and much-coveted award. It is called the Christopher Booker Prize. It will be presented 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. It is not to be confused with the Man Booker Prize, although that is also a prize for fiction.

The prize consists of a tasteful trophy made from recycled materials plus a one-way solo kayak trip to the North Pole, enabling the lucky winner to see for himself the full extent of the Arctic ice melt. Later this week, I will publish the full terms and conditions and unveil the beautiful trophy, which is currently being fashioned by master craftsmen in mid-Wales.

Is it wrong to highlight the deaths of HIV-positive AIDS denialists who reject medications and urge others to do the same?

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In “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, I look at the role played by the media in promoting dangerous pseudo-scientific ideas under the guise of “balance” in reporting. From the mid-1950s onwards, there was a clear consensus among scientists, based on very strong epidemiological evidence, that smoking caused lung cancer. Yet for several decades, many journalists insisted on “balancing” their reports on each new piece of research with a quote from an industry-funded scientist insisting that the case remained “unproven”.

The tobacco industry’s strategy from an early stage was not to deny outright that smoking was harmful, but to maintain that there were “two sides to the story”. In January 1954, the industry issued its now-famous “Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” – a full-page advertisement published in 50 major newspapers across the US.

“Recent reports on experiments with mice have given wide publicity to a theory that cigarette smoking is in some way linked with lung cancer in human beings”

the industry noted.

“Although conducted by doctors of professional standing, these experiments are not regarded as conclusive in the field of cancer research… we feel it is in the public interest to call attention to the fact that eminent doctors and research scientists have publicly questioned the claimed significance of these experiments.”

The strategy played cleverly to the media’s penchant for “controversy”, and proved remarkably successful. Long after the matter had been decisively settled among scientists, public uncertainty around the effects of smoking endured.

US cigarette sales continued rising until the mid-1970s – and it was only in the 1990s – four decades after the scientific case had been clearly established – that lung cancer rates began to tail off. Harvard Medical Historian Allan M Brandt has described the tobacco industry’s public deception – in which many mainstream journalists were complicit – as “the crime of the century”:

It is now estimated that more that 100 million people worldwide died of tobacco-related diseases over the last hundred years. Although it could be argued that for the first half of the century the industry was not fully aware of the health effects of cigarettes, by the 1950s there was categorical scientific evidence of the harms of smoking.

The motivations of the AIDS denialists may be very different, but their rhetoric and tactics are strikingly similar. During the early 1990s, Sunday Times medical correspondent Neville Hodgkinson was bamboozled into running a series of articles – over a period of two years – claiming that:

“a growing number of senior scientists are challenging the idea that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes AIDS”…

“This sensational possibility, now being contemplated by numerous doctors, scientists and others intimately concerned with the fight against the disease, deserves the widest possible examination and debate.”

Hodgkinson declared in December 1993.

“Yet it has been largely ignored by the British media and suppressed almost entirely in the United States… The science establishment considers itself on high moral ground, defending a theory that has enormous public health implications against the ‘irresponsible’ questioning of a handful of journalists. Their concern is human and understandable, even if we might expect our leading scientists to retain more concern for the truth while pursuing public health objectives.”

As with the tobacco industry’s “scepticism” over the link between smoking and cancer, the views promoted by Hodgkinson tended to focus on gaps in the established explanation (many of which have since been filled) rather than on any empirical research showing an alternative cause. But he did use one of the recurrent rhetorical motifs of the AIDS denial movement – highlighting the case of an HIV-positive “AIDS dissident” who refused to take anti-retroviral drugs but remained healthy.

Jody Wells has been HIV-positive since 1984. He was diagnosed as having AIDS in 1986. Today, seven years on, he says he feels fine with energy levels that belie his 52 years. He does not take the anti-HIV drug AZT…

He feels so strongly about the issue that he works up to 18 hours a day establishing a fledgling charity called Continuum, “an organisation for long-term survivors of HIV and AIDS and people who want to be”. Founded late last year, the group already has 600 members.

Continuum emphasises nutritional and lifestyle approaches to combating AIDS, arguing that these factors have been grossly neglected in the 10 years since Dr. Robert Gallo declared HIV to be the cause of AIDS.

Tragically – if predictably – Jody Wells was dead within three years of the article being written.

Although Hodgkinson left the Sunday Times in 1994, his articles on the “AIDS controversy” continued to be disseminated online, lending valuable credibility to the denialist cause – and have been credited with influencing Thabo Mbeki’s embrace of AIDS denial in the early part of this decade.

When, in 2000, President Mbeki invited several leading denialists to join his advisory panel on HIV and AIDS, Hodgkinson was one among a number who published articles in the South African media praising the decision. Writing in the New African, Hodgkinson called for “a humble, open, inquiring approach on all sides of this debate” – whilst simultaneously declaring that “AZT is a poison” and denouncing “the bankruptcy of AIDS science”.

Hodgkinson also wrote for Continuum’s magazine, which, following Jody Wells’ death was edited by HIV-positive medication refusnik Huw Christie. Christie defiantly launched the “Jody Wells Memorial Prize” (recently satirised here by Seth Kalichman) offering £1,000 to anyone who could prove to his satisfaction that HIV was real.

The magazine finally folded in 2001, with the Jody Wells Memorial Prize still on offer, after Huw Christie died from a disease which fellow denialists insisted was not AIDS-related. “Neither of your illnesses would have brought you down, Huw”, wrote Christie’s friend Michael Baumgartner in 2001. “You simply ran out of time to change gear. We both knew it did not need some ill-identified virus to explain your several symptoms”.

“Huw’s devotion to life has no doubt contributed to a better understanding of AIDS and he saved many who, without hearing a skeptical voice, would have been stampeded down the path of pharmaceutical destruction”

wrote HIV-positive San Francisco AIDS “dissident” David Pasquarelli.

“I readily acknowledge that if it wasn’t for the work of Huw and handful of other AIDS dissidents, I would not be alive today”.

Pasquarelli died at the age of 36 three years later.

The same document includes a tribute from Christine Maggiore, another HIV-positive AIDS “sceptic” who famously rejected medication, and publicly urged others to do the same. As has been widely reported, Maggiore died last month of an illness commonly associated with AIDS.

Connie Howard, writing in today’s edition of VUE Weekly, finds the reaction to Maggiore’s passing distasteful, claiming that: “some AIDS activists are celebrating—not her death exactly, but celebrating a point for their team nonetheless”.

Howard suggests, echoing Hodgkinson, that “Many HIV-positive people who choose an alternative holistic health route defy all odds and stay well and symptom-free for decades”, and that she has “talked to HIV-positive people living well—really well—without drugs.”

According to Howard:

“it’s time that choice and discussion become possible without hate instantly becoming the most potent ingredient in the mix… The vitriol delivered the way of both dissidents and the reporters telling the stories of the dissidents is a crime… Christine Maggiore deserves to have chosen her own path and to be respected for it.”

AIDS denialists and their sympathisers often accuse mainstream AIDS researchers of not being open to “discussion” or “debate”. Yet meaningful discussion is only possible when both sides are operating in good faith. The problem with AIDS and HIV is that the evidence linking the two is so overwhelmingly strong that the only way to maintain a consistently denialist position is to engage in “bogus scepticism” – arbitrarily dismissing good evidence that undermines one’s favoured viewpoint, misrepresenting genuine research in order to create the appearance of controversy where there is none, seeking to give unpublished amateur research equal status with peer-reviewed studies by professional scientists, and treating minor uncertainties in the established theory as if they were knock-down refutations. In such circumstances, reasoned debate simply becomes impossible.

Howard doesn’t specify which AIDS activists she believes “view the death of an AIDS dissident as a victory” or have celebrated Maggiore’s passing, so it’s difficult to evaluate the truth of that particular claim.

But the notion that everyone is duty bound to “respect” Christine Maggiore’s decision to embrace AIDS denial – and counsel others to do the same – does seem a tad problematic.

What Howard chooses not to tell her readers is that Maggiore’s denial extended not only to refusing medical treatment for herself – she also declined to take measures to mitigate the risk of transmission to her young daughter, Eliza Jane, and refused to have her tested or treated for HIV. When Eliza Jane died in 2005 of what a public coroner concluded was AIDS-related pneumonia, Maggiore refused to accept the result, attacked the coroner’s credibility, and claimed that the verdict was biased.

Missing too, is any reference to South Africa, where Maggiore travelled in 2000 to promote her ideas on AIDS and HIV. Maggiore is said to have personally influenced Thabo Mbeki’s decision to block the provision of anti-retroviral drugs to HIV-positive pregnant women. A Harvard study recently concluded that this decision alone resulted in 35,000 more babies being infected with HIV than would otherwise have been the case. Overall, the study concluded, Mbeki’s denialist policies had led to more than 300,000 preventable deaths.

If the Harvard researchers are correct, then AIDS denialism – of which Christine Maggiore was a vocal proponent – has already caused many more deaths than did the war in Bosnia during the early 1990s. Yet the only “crime” that Connie Howard seems prepared to acknowledge in relation to AIDS and HIV is the ill-feeling directed towards Christine Maggiore, her fellow “dissidents”, and the journalists who give space to their denialist views – views which have repeatedly been shown to be based not on science, but on “selective reading of the scientific literature, dismissing evidence… requiring impossibly definitive proof, and dismissing outright studies marked by inconsequential weaknesses”.

Should we “respect” a person’s decision to refuse medical treatment, even if that leads to their own premature death? Arguably we should. But should we also respect that same person’s decision, on ideological grounds, to deny medical treatment to a young child, with fatal consequences? Should we respect their decision to support a pseudo-scientific campaign denying the established facts about a serious public health issue, when that campaign results in hundreds of thousands of deaths?

It is surely possible to agree that Christine Maggiore’s premature death was an appalling human tragedy, whilst pointing out that she was nonetheless dangerously misguided – and that the manner of her passing makes the tragedy all the more poignant.

Christine Maggiore, Jody Wells, Huw Christie, and David Pasquarelli form part of a grim roll-call of HIV-positive medication refusniks who chose to argue publicly that the state of their health cast doubt on the established science around AIDS and HIV, and then went on to die from the disease. For AIDS activists to remain silent in such circumstances would be a dereliction of duty. Publicly highlighting the human cost of AIDS denial, so that similar deaths may be prevented in future, must surely take precedence over showing “respect” to dangerously misguided people, however tragic the circumstances of their demise.

See also: The parallels between AIDS denial and Holocaust negationism

Richard North caught white-washing Booker’s Wikipedia entry

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whitepaint

Wikipedia’s article on Christopher Booker is currently the top search result when you type type his name into Google. Alongside a rather impressive biography, the article references “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, and includes a list of Booker’s false statements on global warming and asbestos (including the notorious claim that white asbestos is “chemically identical to talcum powder“), with links to the various corrections issued over the years by the Health and Safety Executive.

Enter Richard North, Booker’s co-author for the surrealist masterpiece “Scared to Death” (which debunks the dangers of passive smoking, white asbestos, eating BSE-infected beef, CO2 emissions, leaded petrol, dioxins, and high-speed car driving), and erstwhile “chief researcher” of the UK Independence Party.

When The Guardian’s George Monbiot took issue with Booker over his pseudo-scientific claims, North mounted a spirited defence – albeit one that relied on further false claims about asbestos science. But it appears that he also went further. Last month, someone calling themselves “Defence of the realm” cut all critical references from Booker’s Wikipedia entry. The change was quickly reverted, so they did it again the next day, claiming that the criticisms were “libellous”. The edit was again reverted, only for “Defence of the realm” to try it one more time a few days later.

The identity of Booker’s pseudonymous champion would have remained a mystery but for the fact that Wikipedia allows us to browse through a user’s previous contributions to the website. These include an online discussion from November in which an anonymous user first identifies himself as Richard North, gives his email address as RAENORTH at aol.com, and then signs in as “Defence of the Realm”.

It might at least be plausible that an entirely different Richard North had chosen to spring to Booker’s defence, were it not for the fact that Booker himself gives the same email address for “my friend Richard North” in several of his Sunday Telegraph articles. Barring an improbably elaborate conspiracy to frame North as a serial wiki-whitewasher, it would appear that, for all his democratic rhetoric and iconoclastic posturing, Richard North is less than keen on the public knowing the full facts about his co-author’s track record…

Booker’s bogus claims about… Speed cameras

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From The Guardian

In Saturday’s Telegraph, Christopher Booker and Richard North published a long article appropriately titled “Speed cameras: the twisted truth”. A sharp decline in the death rate on the roads suddenly slowed down in the mid-1990s. They attribute this to the government’s new focus on enforcing the speed limits, especially by erecting speed cameras. What they fail to mention is that deaths started falling sharply again in 2003, after the number of speed cameras had doubled in three years…

Their article is a long catalogue of intellectual dishonesty. In support of their claims that speed cameras are worse than useless, they also use a report by the House of Commons transport committee. It said, they maintain, that “an obsession with cameras was responsible for a ‘deplorable’ drop in the number of officers patrolling Britain’s roads”. It says nothing of the kind, and the word “deplorable” does not feature anywhere. But here’s what it does contain: “Well-placed cameras bring tremendous safety benefits at excellent cost-benefit ratios. A more cost-effective measure for reducing speeds and casualties has yet to be introduced.” Booker and North also lay into one of my columns. That’s fair enough: it’s a national sport. But to make their narrative more convincing they alter the date of the column by a year. Their claims about speed cameras, like much of the material in their new book, are pure junk science, cherrypicking the helpful results and ignoring the inconvenient ones.

See also: “Misinformed”, “substantially misleading” and “absurd” – the UK government’s verdict on Christopher Booker’s claims

Comedian Bill Maher on Maggiore’s book “What If Everything You Thought You Knew about AIDS Was Wrong?”

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One of the most striking features of the tragic life of AIDS denialist Christine Maggiore was her success in gaining high-profile support, perhaps most famously from Dave Grohl’s iconic band the Foo Fighters.  Less well-publicised, if equally surprising, was the resounding endorsement given to Maggiore’s book, What If Everything You Thought You Knew about AIDS Was Wrong?, by the outspoken libertarian comedian Bill Maher.

From Aliveandwell.org

“This is a book everyone should read, and not a moment too soon! One of the most corrosive flaws in America is our tendency toward conformity; in the quest to understand AIDS, it has been stifling. Christine Maggiore prompts the kind of questioning that is the lifeblood of scientific inquiry.”

The book has been described elsewhere as “unscholarly, misleading in its presentation of existing evidence and data”, and “based on speculation with no solid evidence to back up claims”.

See also: The parallels between AIDS denial and Holocaust negationism

David Gorski on the insidious myth of “balance” in science reporting

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From Science-based medicine

I believe that most reporters in the media do really want to get it right. However, they are hobbled by three things. First, many, if not most, of them have little training in science or the scientific method and are not particularly valued by their employers. For example, witness how CNN shut down their science division. Second, the only medical or science stories that seem to be valued are one of three types. The first type is the new breakthrough, the cool new discovery that might result in a new treatment or cure. Of course, this type doesn’t distinguish between science-based and non-science-based “breakthroughs.” They are both treated equally, which is why “alternative medicine” stories are so popular. The second type is the human interest story, which is inherently interesting to readers, listeners, or viewers because, well, it’s full of human interest. This sort of story involves the child fighting against long odds to get a needed transplant, for example, especially if the insurance company is refusing to pay for it. The third type, unfortunately, often coopts the second type and, to a lesser extent, the first type. I’m referring to the “medical controversy” story. Unfortunately, the “controversy” is usually more of a manufactroversy. In other words, it’s a fake controversy. No scientific controversy exists, but ideologues desperately try to make it appear as though a real scientific controversy exists. Non-medical examples include creationism versus evolution and the “9/11 Truth” movement versus history. Medical examples include the so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” movement versus science-based medicine and, of course, the anti-vaccine movement.

Liberal Conspiracy on Christopher Booker’s scientific credentials

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From Liberal Conspiracy

Rejoice, people! Whatever you may’ve read, however many chilling predictions you may have heard, however frequently Al Gore might haunt your dreams, telling you that the world will end in a torrent of fire because YOU don’t use energy-saving lightbulbs, I can promise that all those fears are unfounded. For as people across the world glance at 2009 with such foreboding and dread, Christopher Booker has made the jolly discovery that instead of getting much, much worse, climate change doesn’t actually exist all!

Now, I understand that there’s a great deal of misinformation out there in BlogLand, and since I’m not a scientist (well, neither is he, but he sure seems to know a lot more than ‘real scientists’), I have to make sure that all my sources are of the highest calibre. So I did whatever any forensic time-deprived blogger would do, and checked him out on Wikipedia. Without further ado, and just to show how seriously you should take his scientific acumen, here are some of Booker’s greatest hits…

Author Seth Kalichman offers hefty reward to anyone who can prove the existence of David Crowe

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From Denying Aids

Blind romantics still believe that Rethinking AIDS Society President David Crowe actually exists.

But if David Crowe has never been met in person, does he really exist?

Never met in person?

You bet!

I know there are pictures of David Crowe, but are they really him? Do they meet my standards of real photo identification?

Or is that just an actor playing David Crowe in the AIDS denialist videos we see?

David Crowe has a website, but that could be anyone.


David Crowe writes articles for online health food magazines, but there is a conspiracy among naturalists, the vitamin industry, and the herbal medicine cartel that keeps the David Crowe myth going.

Go ahead, prove me wrong.

I am offering a free copy of my book Denying AIDS to anyone who can PROVE that David Crowe exists.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 31, 2008 at 1:09 am

An “unmitigated tragedy”: Los Angeles Times reports the death of leading HIV-positive AIDS-denialist Christine Maggiore

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From the Los Angeles Times

Until the end, Christine Maggiore remained defiant.

On national television and in a blistering book, she denounced research showing that HIV causes AIDS. She refused to take medications to treat her own virus. She gave birth to two children and breast-fed them, denying any risk to their health. And when her 3-year-old child, Eliza Jane, died of what the coroner determined to be AIDS-related pneumonia, she protested the findings and sued the county.

On Saturday, Maggiore died at her Van Nuys home, leaving a husband, a son and many unanswered questions. She was 52…

Jay Gordon, a pediatrician whom the family consulted when Eliza Jane was sick, said Monday that Maggiore’s death was an “unmitigated tragedy.”

“In the event that she died of AIDS-related complications, there are medications to prevent this,” said Gordon, who disagrees with Maggiore’s views and believes HIV causes AIDS. “There are medications that enable people who are HIV-positive to lead healthy, normal, long lives.”

Diagnosed with HIV in 1992, Maggiore plunged into AIDS volunteer work — at AIDS Project Los Angeles, L.A. Shanti and Women at Risk. Her background commanded attention. A well-spoken, middle-class woman, she was soon being asked to speak about the risks of HIV at local schools and health fairs. “At the time,” Maggiore told The Times in 2005, “I felt like I was doing a good thing.”

All that changed in 1994, she said, when she spoke to UC Berkeley biology professor Peter Duesberg, whose well-publicized views on AIDS — including assertions that its symptoms can be caused by recreational drug use and malnutrition — place him well outside the scientific mainstream.

Intrigued, Maggiore began scouring the literature about the underlying science of HIV. She came to believe that flu shots, pregnancy and common viral infections could lead to a positive test result. She later detailed those claims in her book, “What if Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong?”

Maggiore started Alive & Well AIDS Alternatives, a nonprofit that challenges “common assumptions” about AIDS. She also had a regular podcast about the topic.

Her supporters expressed shock Monday over her death but were highly skeptical that it was caused by AIDS. And they said it would not stop them from questioning mainstream thinking…

Scienceblogs and Neurologica have more background on this tragic case.

See also: “Against the evidence”

Roger Darlington’s guide to critical thinking

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From Roger Darlington’s guide to critical thinking:

  • Remember that prominence does not equate to importance. A newspaper may have made its lead story the rumour of a break-up between Britney Spears and her latest boyfriend, but that does not necessarily make it the most important news item that day. Conversely, in 1914 that tiny story about the assassination of an obscure nobleman in some backwater called Sarajevo proved to have rather more repercussions that most readers first appreciated. Try an experiment: one day, buy five or six national newspapers, compare their coverage of the same stories on the same day, and note the different prominence – and the different slant – given to the same stories…
  • Be especially skeptical about surveys and polls. Who is funding the project; how the questions are chosen, worded and posed; how those questioned are selected and the context in which the questions are put to them; how the statistical analysis is carried out and the statistics are interpreted; how the findings are presented and reported (or misreported) – all these factors can have a massive influence…
  • Always look for evidence. The Scottish philosopher David Hulme noted that “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence”. Many Americans believe that the attack on the World Trade Center was engineered by Saddam Hussein, while many Arabs believe that it was planned by the Israeli secret service. They can’t both be right, but they could both be wrong. What is the evidence? It has been widely reported that millions of Americans believe that they have been abducted by aliens and, in many cases, subjected to sexual experiments. They may be right, but again what is the evidence? Are there witnesses or photographs? Are there body marks on the ‘victims’ or do they have souvenirs from the spaceships? It is tempting to seize on evidence that confirms one’s original view or the prevailing orthodoxy and to dismiss evidence that challenges it, but one needs to be open-minded about all the evidence and equally rigorous about establishing its authenticity…
  • Remember Occam’s Razor [the maxim is named after William of Occam, the philosopher who was probably born at Ockham in Surrey]. When two or more explanations are possible on the basis of the same facts, always prefer the simplest possible explanation, unless there are very good reasons for favouring a more complex – and therefore more unlikely – one. For example, the pyramids in Egypt could have been designed and constructed by the Egyptians living at the time of the pharoahs or they could have been built according to plans brought to earth by aliens. Both explanations would explain the observable phenomena, but Occam’s Razor suggests that we should adopt the explanation that requires the fewest assumptions since there is simply no need to make extra assumptions unless there is good evidence to support them. Or, as the scientist Albert Einstein put it: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”.
  • Look for cause and effect. When I get up from bed, the sun comes up – but there is obviously no causality. When I go to bed, I feel refreshed – and there clearly is a relationship. Sometimes relationships are not obvious: in the movie “The Truman Show”, when the Jim Carey character gets up from bed, the ‘sun’ does come up in a causal manner because the Ed Harris character ensures that it does…
  • Be challenging of the seemingly seductive comment “It works”. There are two problems here: agreeing a definition of what ‘works’ means and establishing a cause and effect relationship between action and outcome. If I perform a traditional Indian rain dance in my back garden, it may rain in an hour, a day or a month. Over what period are we going to assume the dance may have an influence? Then, can we reasonably infer a causality here? It may be that my neighbour was performing a different, more effective rain dance in her garden; it may be that the rain clouds had been seeded by a specially charted aircraft to ensure good weather for a sports event tomorrow; it may be that I am in India in the monsoon season and it usually rains at this time of day at this time of year.

George Monbiot on another misuse of UK government’s “sweeping powers”

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From The Guardian

The villagers have marched, demonstrated, and sent in letters and petitions. Some people tried to stop the company from cutting down trees by standing in the way. Their campaign was entirely peaceful. But the power company discovered that it was legally empowered to shut the protests down.

Using the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, it obtained an injunction against the villagers and anyone else who might protest. This forbids them from “coming to, remaining on, trespassing or conducting any demonstrations, or protesting or other activities” on land near the lake. If anyone breaks this injunction they could spend five years in prison.

The act, parliament was told, was meant to protect women from stalkers. But as soon as it came on to the statute books, it was used to stop peaceful protest. To obtain an injunction, a company needs to show only that someone feels “alarmed or distressed” by the protesters, a requirement so vague that it can mean almost anything. Was this an accident of sloppy drafting? No. Timothy Lawson-Cruttenden, the solicitor who specialises in using this law against protesters, boasts that his company “assisted in the drafting of the … Protection from Harassment Act 1997″. In 2005 parliament was duped again, when a new clause, undebated in either chamber, was slipped into the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. It peps up the 1997 act, which can now be used to ban protest of any kind.

Mr Lawson-Cruttenden, who represented RWE npower, brags that the purpose of obtaining injunctions under the act is “the criminalisation of civil disobedience”. One advantage of this approach is that very low standards of proof are required: “hearsay evidence … is admissable in civil courts”. The injunctions he obtains criminalise all further activity, even though, as he admits, “any allegations made remain untested and unproven”.

Last week, stung by bad publicity, npower backed down. The villagers had just started to celebrate when they made a shocking discovery: they now feature on an official list of domestic extremists.

Paedophiles in league with Al Qaeda…

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Terror alert level: Flopsy

Not to be outdone by this week’s Morris-esque Foxnews pseudo-story about the Satanic-Islamic robot baby, the Times has waded in with a surreal piece of fearmongering flimmery of its own – “Dangerous and depraved: paedophiles unite with terrorists online”.

As Rachel North points out, that this comes hot on the heels of the announcement of government plans to monitor and record the activities of every internet and phone user in Britain.

More on Lord West’s distinguished ministerial career…

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From The Guardian, 15 November 2007:

At 8.20 yesterday morning, Lord Admiral Alan West of Spithead, Gordon Brown’s chief security minister, seemed pretty clear in his own mind.

Did he think the police needed more than 28 days to question terrorist suspects?

“I want to have absolute evidence that we actually need longer than 28 days,” the former first sea lord told the BBC.

“I want to be totally convinced because I am not going to go and push for something that actually affects the liberty of the individual unless there is a real necessity for it. I still need to be fully convinced that we absolutely need more than 28 days and I also need to be convinced what is the best way of doing that.”

But less than an hour later, following a breakfast with the prime minister, West had changed tack.

Sounding just as certain as he had barely 45 minutes before, he declared he was “personally convinced” that the 28-day limit needed extending.

“I personally, absolutely believe that within the next two or three years we will require more than that for one of those complex plots. So I am convinced that is the case.”

Written by Richard Wilson

October 17, 2008 at 1:00 am

“Another great plot is building up again” claims UK terrorism minister

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Lord West: Be afraid

Amid the UK government’s heavy defeat in the House of Lords over its demand for “sweeping new powers” to lock people up without charge, the terrorism minister Lord West has claimed – without offering any evidence – that “another great plot is building up again, which we are monitoring“.

According to West, who was in charge of the government’s attempt to get the 42-day detention proposals through the House of Lords, “The [terrorist] threat is huge. It dipped slightly and is now rising again … There are large complex plots. We unravelled one, which caused damage to al-Qaida and the plots faded slightly”. But West claims that another malicious conspiracy has now been discovered.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I argue that conspiracy theories are not the exclusive preserve of dodgy balding men in smoky pubs – dodgy balding men in government sometimes fall for them too.

Strictly speaking, anyone who postulates a secretive, evil plot on the basis of weak or non-existent evidence, is putting forward a conspiracy theory. Recent examples of state-sponsored conspiracy theories include the UK and US governments’ bogus claim that Iraq was harbouring “Weapons of Mass Destruction”, and the suggestion, which we now know was made on the basis of a torture-tainted confession, that the Iraqi regime had offered chemical weapons training to senior members of Al Qaeda.

Given this track record, it seems prudent to treat Lord West’s new – yet decidedly vague – assertions with a heavy dose of scepticism.

Terror Alert Level: Comfortably numb

AIDS denial – the Loch Ness Monster connection

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Via the ongoing and somewhat feisty discussion over at the New Statesman, I was delighted to learn more about the work of AIDS denialist Henry Bauer. While Bauer denies the evidence linking HIV and AIDS – he happily affirms the existence of the Loch Ness Monster along with various other “unorthodoxies”.

The website Avert.org has an excellent summary here on the weird cult of AIDS denialism, its main proponents and its central tenets. Many thanks to David for bringing up that link.

UPDATE - “Michael” comments:

I looked at all of Professor Bauers research into the research on Nessie, and I find nowhere in any of it, that professor Bauer “affirms the existence of the Loch Ness Monster”.

Bauer simply affirms there is yet a possibility for such undiscovered large lifeforms to exist in the lake, and nothing more and nothing less.

Richard, where exactly did you come up with such a nonexistent conclusion that Bauer “affirms the existence”?

Are your conclusions on HIV as the cause of AIDS also as dishonest as what you have so far espoused and concluded about Professor Bauer?

Well thanks for that, Michael. You might want to try checking this page from Mr. Bauer’s website.

The clue is in his statement “I happen to believe that Loch Ness monsters are real animals waiting to be identified”… and “For the evidence that Loch Ness monsters are real, and why so few people know about that evidence, see my LOCH NESS PAGE”.

Sceptic of the week: Christopher Morris

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“Against the evidence” – New Statesman piece

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The New Statesman has just published an article I’ve written, coinciding with the publication of “Don’t Get Fooled Again” (a version read by a strange robotic voice can be found here…)

Throughout the 1960s, the tobacco industry famously spent millions promoting a small group of vociferous “sceptics” who, in the face of overwhelming evidence, continued to deny the link between smoking and cancer. The strategy paid off. Long after a clear scientific consensus had emerged, much of the public still believed that the case remained unproven.

In a sceptical age, even those disseminating wholly bogus ideas – from corporate pseudo-science to 9/11 conspiracy theories – will often seek to appropriate the language of rational inquiry. But there is a meaningful difference between being a “sceptic” and being in denial. The genuine sceptic forms his beliefs through a balanced evaluation of the evidence. The sceptic of the bogus variety cherry-picks evidence on the basis of a pre-existing belief, seizing on data, however tenuous, that supports his position, and yet declaring himself “sceptical” of any evidence, however compelling, that undermines it.

While it is easy to guess the motivations of an industry-funded scientist denying the dangers posed by his commercial sponsor, or a far-right historian expressing “scepticism” about the Holocaust, other cases are more puzzling. It is difficult to explain why, for example, a respected academic would dismiss the mountain of proof that HIV causes Aids. But several have, notably the Berkeley virologist Peter Duesberg.

HIV is a type of “retrovirus”. Duesberg has argued for decades that retroviruses rarely, if ever, harm their hosts. Rather than modify this theory in the light of evidence that one such virus was killing millions, Duesberg in the late 1980s announced his “scepticism” about that evidence, and has stuck to his guns ever since.

Early on, these ideas found a receptive audience among HIV sufferers, desperate for an alternative prognosis. The cause was later taken up by conspiracy theorists convinced that Aids was a money-spinning fabrication of the global pharmaceutical industry.

In South Africa, at the beginning of this decade, Aids scepticism gained currency with a political class dismayed at the prices being charged for life-saving medicines. Under the influence of Duesberg and his fellow “dissidents”, Thabo Mbeki’s government chose to delay for several years public provision of anti-HIV drugs. The economist Nicoli Nattrass estimates that this decision – made amid one of the world’s worst Aids epidemics – may already have cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

Bogus scepticism does not centre on an impartial search for the truth, but on a no-holds-barred defence of a preconceived ideological position. The bogus sceptic is thus, in reality, a disguised dogmatist, made all the more dangerous for his success in appropriating the mantle of the unbiased and open-minded inquirer.

Richard Wilson’s “Don’t Get Fooled Again” is out now, published by Icon Books (£12.99)

Berners-Lee warns over online pseudo-science

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While I was writing “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I came across numerous examples of pseudo-science being disseminated via the net, from the poisonous theories of the AIDS denialists to the clumsy corporate quackery of the industry-funded Chrysotile Institute.

Following the recent scare stories about the CERN project and the MMR vaccine, Tim Berners-Lee, the man often credited with inventing the World Wide Web, has raised concerns over the extent to which unsubstantiated claims about science are often disseminated online. Berners-Lee suggests that we should consider some kind of ratings system (or systems) to give a public measure of the reliability of the multitude of online sources.

Having waded through page after page of the eloquently-worded online nonsense scattered across the net over the last year – and read some of the stories of those who have been persuaded on the basis of a pseudo-scientific conspiracy theory to stop taking medicines that could have saved their lives, it’s easy to agree that there is a very serious issue here.

But I’m not sure that formal ratings systems will really help. Pseudo-scientists like the AIDS denialist Peter Duesberg already claim that their exclusion from the mainstream media, and their failure to get published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, is evidence of the ‘conspiracy of silence’ ranged against him. If some sort of ‘reliability rating’ system is introduced, the conspiracy theorists will simply say the same thing about the fact that their website has been refused a rating (or given a very low one). It seems unlikely that the kind of person who would be taken in by conspiracist claims about peer review and the mainstream media is going to be immune to similarly paranoid arguments about ‘reliability ratings’. Setting up a formal system is just going to give the conspiracy theorists something else to get paranoid about.

It also seems to me that increasing numbers of people are now figuring out for themselves how to gauge the reliability of what they see and read online, and that a more effective way of combatting web tomfoolery might simply be to promote some basic ‘rules of thumb’, drawn from experience, which web users can then apply in their own way.

A further point is that by focussing solely on the dangers of nonsense being spread in the online media, we risk letting established media sources off the hook, when complacency in this area is equally dangerous. In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I found many cases of mainstream journalists being comprehensively duped by dangerous pseudo-scientific ideas – from the bamboozling of the Sunday Times journalist Neville Hodgkinson and the Sunday Telegraph commentator Christopher Booker, to the PR deceptions of the tobacco industry during the 1960s and 1970s.

something awful