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Utter humiliation: Old media meets new media, old media wins…

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Utter humiliation: Bloggers beware…

See also: “Your Freedom” – Hit, Miss or Maybe?, and Memo to John O’ Farrell

I was on BBC Newsnight on Thursday, talking about this and this, though you probably would not have guessed it from the way the issue was presented.

The programme ‘hook’ was the launch of a new UK government website, “Your Freedom”, through which members of the public are invited to nominate laws that need to be scrapped in order to reverse the erosion of civil liberties that took place under the last government. The discussion was broadly in line with most BBC coverage of anything to do with “people from the internet”, and I am ashamed and embarrassed to have been associated with it. Given the BBC’s track record, I really should have seen this coming…

I’d been contacted by a Newsnight researcher who’d seen my blog post suggesting we bin the vaguely-defined crime of “aiding and abetting misconduct in public office”, which has been used in some disturbing court cases against people who receive information from government whistleblowers.

The format was as follows:  Five people who’d each submitted an idea to “Your Freedom” got to speak for about 25 seconds about a law they’d nominated, and the reason they felt it should be scrapped.

Then there was a much longer discussion between the presenter and two ‘experts’ – a guy named Andy Williamson from something called the Hansard Society, and a writer called John O’ Farrell. Although Newsnight chose not to disclose this, O’ Farrell had been actively involved with the government which did so much to attack civil liberties, and whose authoritarian laws the public is now being invited to review.

The last thing I did for TV about the online media (a piece for Al Jazeera on Trafigura/Carter Ruck) had been quite a positive experience, which was partly why I agreed to do this one. The Al Jazeera feature is still online here, and it makes for an interesting comparison with the BBC’s loud-and-proud “old media” approach.

O’ Farrell and the Hansard guy (along with the presenter Gavin Esler) seemed to be competing with each other to flaunt their contempt for the public in general, and the online world in particular. According to O’ Farrell, the five ‘bad law’ examples that had just been featured were nothing more than “single issue obsessions”. According to Williamson, most of the ideas the public had submitted to the new website were “utterly stupid” or from “single issue fanatics”. All the while, the five token faces of Joe Public adorned the wall behind them.

The overarching message seemed to be that the very idea of asking ordinary people to participate in an online policy discussion was completely absurd, and we really ought to leave the thinktankery to people like Andy Williamson and John O’ Farrell.

The Hansard Society modestly purports to be “universally recognised as the independent and non-partisan authority on Parliament and democracy”. I beg to differ (and these guys don’t seem too impressed either).

The Newsnight discussion might at least have been enlightening if O’ Farrell had been bumped, and the guy from Hansard put up against someone who actually understood the relationship between democracy and the web, such as the people behind the excellent website, www.theyworkforyou.com.

As things stood, it was like watching a gruesome TV re-enactment of Radio 4′s “The Moral Maze”, with my own face superimposed in the background the whole time. Utter humiliation…

*UPDATE* – The Hansard Society’s corporate donor list makes for interesting reading. Turns out that this “authority on Parliament and democracy” is bankrolled by MBDA, a subsidiary of the arms manufacturer BAE, whose relationship with British democracy is, let’s say, somewhat questionable

Other donors include the Rio Tinto mining group, who are notorious for their alleged complicity in serious human rights abuses around the world, the lobbying firm Ellwood and Atfield, and, perhaps inevitably, BP.Yet again, the BBC gifts air-time to a corporate front-group without any disclosure of its affiliations…

“He never has to know the actual facts of any issue; instead he’s equipped himself with a persuasive ploy which enables him to make non-experts believe he knows more than experts.”

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Here’s Plato’s take on experts, evidence, and evidence of expertise. These words were first written more than 2,000 years ago – it seems both intriguing and perhaps also a bit depressing that they still have so much currency today.

The text below is from a dialogue between Socrates and Gorgias, a well-known ‘sophist’ who made his living from teaching the art of persuasion – aka “rhetoric”. The word ‘sophistry’ is today synonymous with arguments that are superficially plausible, yet nonetheless bogus…

From Plato’s Gorgias

Socrates: …You claim to be able to train up as a rhetorician anyone who’s prepared to listen to your teaching on the subject. Yes?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: And you’ll teach him all he needs to know to persuade a crowd of people – not to make them understand, but to win them over. Is that right?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: Now you claimed a little while back that a rhetorician would be more persuasive than a doctor even when the issue was health.

Gorgias: Yes I did, as long as he’s speaking in front of a crowd.

Socrates: By ‘in front of a crowd’ you mean ‘in front of non-experts’, don’t you? I mean, a rhetorician wouldn’t be more persuasive than a doctor in front of an audience of experts, of course.

Gorgias: True.

Socrates: Now, if he’s more persuasive than a doctor than he’s more persuasive than an expert, isn’t he?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: When he isn’t actually a doctor himself. Yes?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: And a person who isn’t a doctor is ignorant, of course, about the things which a doctor knows.

Gorgias: Obviously.

Socrates: So any case of a rhetorician being more persuasive than a doctor is a case of a non-expert being more persuasive than an expert in front of an audience of non-experts. Isn’t that what we have to conclude?

Gorgias: Yes, in this instance, anyway.

Socrates: But isn’t a practitioner of rhetoric in the same situation whatever the area of expertise? He never has to know the actual facts of any issue; instead he’s equipped himself with a persuasive ploy which enables him to make non-experts believe he knows more than experts.

Gorgias: Doesn’t that simplify things, Socrates? Rhetoric is the only area of expertise you need to learn. You can ignore all the rest and still get the better of the professionals!

Written by Richard Wilson

February 7, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Review: “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)” by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

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I’m just back from a very relaxing break in which I re-read the absolutely outstanding book “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)” by psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. It has the rare merit of being accessible, well-written, solidly backed-up and jaw-droppingly interesting, all at the same time.

Elliot Aronson was one of the leading pioneers of cognitive dissonance theory, which holds that a prime motivation for human beings in forming new ideas is to justify and defend our pre-existing beliefs, even where this means torturing logic and evidence to breaking point. This, in turn, very often entails (more dangerously) justifying at all costs the decisions we have previously taken, more or less regardless of whether those decisions were right. Dissonance theory predicts that, in general, the more serious and irrevocable a particular decision is, the harder we will work to defend it – and (more dangerously still) to dismiss any evidence that the decision may have been a really bad one. Most dangerously of all, our need to defend a bad decision made on the basis of a flawed principle may lead us into making yet more bad decisions in future: The cost of giving up our flawed principle, and choosing a different path next time, would be to admit that we were wrong and accept responsibility for the damage done by our initial mistake. For most human beings this is an incredibly difficult thing to do. So instead we stick to our guns, and compound our flawed decision with further flawed decisions, regardless of all evidence.

There’s some particularly compelling stuff in the book about the damage done by Freudian pseudo-psychology in the 80s and 90s, when dozens of people were falsely imprisoned on the say-so of psychologists who believed in the now almost wholly discredited notion that child abuse victims would routinely repress and forget traumatic memories, which could later be recovered by hypnosis. In fact, according to Tavris and Aronson there is no reliable evidence that traumatic memories are repressed in this way – if anything, traumatic memories tend to be so clear and intense that the victim is regularly and painfully reminded of them even when they’d rather not be. Worse still, there is strong evidence that hypnosis and the use of leading questions can lead to the creation of ‘memories’ that, whilst compelling and ‘true’ to the person experiencing them, are wholly false. The authors recount a litany of cases where parents and teachers were imprisoned solely on the basis of such ‘recovered’ memories, only later to be exonerated after evidence emerged of just how flawed and unscientific the methods of ‘recovered memory’ specialists actually were.

I found this account especially striking for two reasons: Firstly, I was not aware of just how weak the evidential basis is for so many of the Freudian concepts – like ‘repression’ – which still hold such sway within our culture. Secondly, and more tragically, Tavris and Aronson show how, just as dissonance theory would predict, many of the leading lights of the ‘recovered memory’ movement – including some of those who were later found guilty of professional misconduct for their flawed testimony in court cases – continue to insist that they were right all along. To do otherwise would be to admit to themselves that their incompetence helped imprison dozens of innocent people, and tear apart countless families.

One of the most disconcerting implications of the book is, of course, that dissonance theory applies to all of us, and nobody is immune – the authors give a couple of examples from their own lives to drive this point home. But the good news is that by becoming more aware of our enormous drive towards self-justification, we can – at least on occasions – catch ourselves before we’ve gone too far, and try to steer ourselves back to reality.

A key point that emerged for me – and this is something that I’ve really seen a lot of since I began researching “Don’t Get Fooled Again” – is the extent to which so many of the most dangerous delusions seem to revolve around an over-attachment to our own egos. The quacks and cranks who desperately need to convince the world that they possess a special, earth-shattering insight that the scientific community has somehow missed – or is conspiring to suppress. The corporate executives who have persuaded each other that their cleverly-rebranded variation on the age-old “Ponzi scheme” is in fact a revolutionary “new paradigm” to which the basic laws of economics simply do not apply. The conspiracy theorists who believe that they uniquely can see through the ‘official story’ that everyone else is too stupid or cowardly to question. The antidote, it seems to me, may have something to do with re-emphasising one of the key elements of scepticism (albeit one that often seems to get forgotten) – intellectual humility:

Having a consciousness of the limits of one’s knowledge, including a sensitivity to circumstances in which one’s native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively; sensitivity to bias, prejudice and limitations of one’s viewpoint. Intellectual humility depends on recognizing that one should not claim more than one actually knows. It does not imply spinelessness or submissiveness. It implies the lack of intellectual pretentiousness, boastfulness, or conceit, combined with insight into the logical foundations, or lack of such foundations, of one’s beliefs.

This, of course, is easier said than done

Written by Richard Wilson

July 13, 2009 at 6:23 pm

Pocket journalism: Telegraph hack Con Coughlin goes into bat for torture

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In the early days of the Iraq war, Telegraph columnist Con Coughlin was famously obliging in disseminating the bogus claims of the US and UK governments about Weapons of Mass Destruction and a supposed link between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

When the focus of US “public diplomacy” switched towards the clamour for military action in Iran, Coughlin was equally helpful in promoting unsubstantiated claims about a link between Al Qaeda and the Iranian government.

Amid growing evidence that many of the false (yet politically useful) intelligence claims used to justify the Iraq war came from confessions extracted through torture, one might think that Coughlin, and the Telegraph, would now treat the assertions of the security services with a little more scepticism.

Instead, Coughlin seems to have gone the other way, cautioning Barack Obama not to “pick a fight with Dick Cheney”, asserting, without offering any evidence, that “We know that at least two major terrorist attacks against the UK were avoided thanks to vital intelligence provided to MI6 and MI5 by the CIA”, and suggesting that “There are always two sides to a story”.

“Are interrogation methods like waterboarding justified if they save lives”, Coughlin asks, “or should we respect the detainees’ human rights, thereby enabling the terror attacks to take place and claim innocent lives? I know which option I’d go for.”

Daily Mail gets fooled again by Booker’s quack-journalism

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Another corking piece of journo-quackery from Christopher Booker, this time in the Daily Mail. All the usual elements are there, including Booker’s oft-repeated claims about Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease not being linked to BSE, and about a supposed scientific “confusion” about the health risks of asbestos “costing literally hundreds of billions of pounds”. Sam Wong on “Just a Theory” does an excellent debunking of the rest.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 2, 2009 at 11:16 am

Skeptics in the Pub – evidence-based-policy-making versus policy-based-evidence-making

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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.

“Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”

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From The American Psychological Association

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it

In 1995, McArthur Wheeler walked into two Pittsburgh banks and robbed them in broad daylight, with no visible attempt at disguise. He was arrested later that night, less than an hour after videotapes of him taken from surveillance cameras were broadcast on the 11 o’clock news. When police later showed him the surveillance tapes, Mr. Wheeler stared in incredulity. “But I wore the juice,” he mumbled. Apparently, Mr. Wheeler was under the impression that rubbing one’s face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to videotape cameras…

Written by Richard Wilson

February 18, 2009 at 12:34 am

More on the “Booker prize for climate change claptrap”

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From The Guardian:

So here it is: your first sight of the Christopher Booker prize 2009.

It is named in honour of the Sunday Telegraph columnist’s amazing ability to include misinformation and falsehoods in his pieces on climate change and other environmental issues.

Believe it or not, this stylish trophy is made entirely of recycled materials!

Lovingly fashioned by master craftsmen in mid-Wales, it shows what can be done with items that are often treated as mere rubbish!

And this isn’t all. I am suggesting that the winner of the Christopher Booker prize 2009 take the holiday of a lifetime: a one-way solo kayak trip to the North Pole. Following in the footsteps of the great Pen Hadow, the award winner could use the trip to see for him or herself the full extent of the Arctic ice melt. The Guardian will support this intrepid venture by supplying THREE BARS of Kendal mint cake towards the costs of this expedition.

So here’s how you help the winner on his or her way to this prestigious and valuable award:

The award will go to whoever in my opinion and assisted by climate scientists and specialists 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. This work must be available online. You score a point for every mistake, though one point will be deducted for every retraction or correction published by the author or the original outlet within a reasonable length of time.

Please use this special nominations page to make suggestions for this illustrious award – and don’t forget to include a link to the piece in question. This page will remain open until 31 December 2009 and I will keep you updated on the blog about some of the choice nominations throughout the year.

Poll: Is it right for the Sunday Telegraph to mislead the public about the health risks of asbestos?

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The Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker has now written at least 41 different articles in which he repeatedly denies, downplays or misrepresents the scientific evidence around the health risks of white asbestos, often echoing the PR messages of the industry-funded “Chrysotile Institute”.

But is it fair for us to expect newspapers and newspaper columnists to tell the truth? YOU DECIDE:

Health experts urge Canadian government to stop funding the Chrysotile Institute

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In “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, I highlight Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker’s ongoing campaign to downplay the health risks of white asbestos. Both Booker and his main scientific source, John Bridle, have been linked to the industry-run “Chrysotile Institute”, whose claims about asbestos Booker’s columns often echo.

Now a group of health experts in Canada, one of the world’s largest exporters of white (chrysotile) asbestos, have called on the Canadian government to stop subsidising the Chrysotile Institute and it’s “nonsensical claims”:

The Canadian government is funding censorship and perversion of scientific information, charge a number of health experts in a strongly worded letter sent today to Prime Minister Harper.

The experts, from the Université de Laval and other universities across Canada, ask the Prime Minister to stop funding the Chrysotile Institute (formerly the Asbestos Institute) in his government’s January 27 budget.

“The Institute censors information from the world’s leading health authorities, distorts their views and puts forward nonsensical claims, for example that chrysotile asbestos disappears when it is mixed with cement and becomes harmless,” says Dr Colin Soskolne, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Alberta. “This is not science; this is dangerous nonsense.”

“It is a slur on the reputation of the scientific community and people of Canada for the government to be funding such distortion of scientific information,” says Dr Tim Takaro, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences, SFU. “But, more importantly, this misinformation puts people’s lives at risk. This is completely unethical and must stop.”

“Over the past 25 years, the government has given more than $20 million to support the dying asbestos industry in Quebec. Over 90% of the workers have lost their jobs; the remaining approximately 550 workers have had their wages slashed and work part-time; and in 2007, the asbestos mining company filed for bankruptcy protection,” said Kathleen Ruff, senior human rights advisor to the Rideau Institute. “It is time to stop this wasteful and unethical use of government funds. Instead, the government should help the remaining asbestos workers and the community with just transition assistance.”

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

Yet more pseudo-science from the Telegraph…

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pseudoscientific_method

The Telegraph’s “war on science” has opened up a new front, prompted, it seems, by the current spell of cold weather. For years, Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker has ploughed a lonely furrow, rigorously applying the pseudo-scientific method to asbestos, speed cameras, passive smoking, and global warming. Now the Daily Telegraph’s science correspondent Richard Alleyne has waded in to support the cause, penning an article on climate change science of which Booker himself would surely be proud.

True to the paper’s in-house standards, Ben Goldacre reports that the Telegraph a) misrepresented the work of a genuine scientist, Birmingham University’s Professor Ian Fairchild, b) attributed a quote to Fairchild copy-pasted from an entirely different context, c) refused to publish a letter from Prof Fairchild pointing out the error, and d) refused even to publish the comment that Prof Fairchild made on the online version of the article, while allowing 23 other comments from people who’d had no involvement in the actual research.

These included such urgent and insightful messages as “I think Global Warming is an experiment to see just how much absurdity Leftist Environmarxists will blindly believe in if the rest of society can be forced to impoverish themselves with draconian energy non-usage”…

Written by Richard Wilson

January 9, 2009 at 11:05 pm

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

“Children must never play with matches”: Ophelia Benson on the folly of amateur medicine

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From Butterflies and Wheels

It’s good to question conventional wisdom, except when it isn’t. Conventional wisdom holds that a bridge designed by engineers and built by reputable builders is safer to drive across than one designed by shamans and built by hairdressers. Questioning that conventional wisdom is not really all that productive, and if anyone listens to the questioning, it’s downright lethal.

So with Christine Maggiore.

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.

That’s the risky kind of questioning conventional wisdom – and it risks other people as well as oneself. That’s why Prince Charles makes me angry when he indulges his passion for denouncing non-alternative medicine, and it’s why Juliet Stevenson made me angry when she used her celebrity to denounce the conventional wisdom about the MMR vaccine and autism, and it’s why Christine Maggiore makes me angry even though she’s now dead. It makes me angry that she breast-fed her children and it makes me angry that she went on television to denounce research showing that HIV causes AIDS. People shouldn’t do that. People shouldn’t take on life and death medical issues when they have no training or expertise in the subject. People shouldn’t trust their own judgment that completely.

For years, the South African government joined with Maggiore in denying that HIV is responsible for AIDS and resisting antiretroviral treatment. According to a new analysis by a group of Harvard public health researchers, 330,000 people died as a consequence of the government’s denial and 35,000 babies were born with the disease.

It’s not a subject for hobbyists or cranks or princes or actors. Children must never play with matches.

See also: The parallels between AIDS denial and Holocaust negationism

Lizzy Siddal reviews Don’t Get Fooled Again

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From Lizzy’s Literary Life

We all know that you shouldn’t believe everything that you read in the press , or hear on the news, don’t we?  What’s the definition of lying?  Inventing stories, misappropriating the truth, lies of omission, spin?

Richard Wilson’s Don’t Get Fooled Again is an illuminating compilation of methods and examples  from both the 20th and 21st centuries in which governments and the general public have been duped by flawed thinking:

a)  Pseudo-science – 30 million deaths in China as a result of adopting  Lysenko’s agricultural reforms (already the cause of millions of deaths in Stalin’s Russia!).

b) Relativism - the uncounted number of deaths in Africa as a result of the success of those denying the existence of HIV and AIDS.

c) The power of vested interests and commercial journalism – the decade-long controvery over whether smoking was bad for your health.

d) Groupthink – spiralling terrorism leading inevitability to the second Iraq war and the excesses at Abu Ghraib.

Wilson doesn’t just detail the facts in his examples.  He explains the underlying psychologies.   It’s only by understanding these that we, as individuals, can choose not to get fooled again.  He offers  the following toolkit for spotting manipulation:

1) The antidotes to delusion are logic and evidence, preferably from multiple sources.

2) Remember – it’s not all relative!

3) Spot the false sceptic.  Remarkably credulous about facts which support their viewpoint but always demanding more evidence for those which do not.

4)  Beware of  groupthink.

I haven’t read a newspaper in years because of the underlying – and manipulative – bias of the writing.  I think I might just revisit that policy.  Armed with the above, it will be an interesting exercise.

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…

The parallels between AIDS denial and Holocaust negationism

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In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I look at the twin delusions of AIDS denial and Holocaust negationism, and examine some of the parallels between them.

AIDS denialists – who will often describe themselves as “AIDS dissidents” or “AIDS sceptics” – are those who deny the overwhelming scientific evidence that HIV causes AIDS. They may believe that HIV is harmless, or deny that there is evidence the virus even exists. In the early 1980s, soon after AIDS was discovered, the psychiatrist Casper Schmidt suggested that the disease was a “group fantasy”, the product of an ” epidemic of shame-induced depression” among gay men, caused by “a vast, society-wide conservative swing” culminating in the election of Ronald Reagan. “One can only hope”, Schmidt concluded, “that we wake up from the trance, and soon”. As with many of the most vocal “dissidents”, Schmidt’s denial seems to have motivated, in part, by a refusal to acknowledge his own illness. Tragically, Casper Schmidt died from AIDS in the mid-1990s – yet even now some die-hard denialists continue to cite his work in support of their claims.

Towards the end of the 80s, amid growing evidence that AIDS was killing thousands, the US virologist Peter Duesberg began challenging the scientific consensus that the disease was caused by a virus, HIV. Duesberg’s work with retroviruses – the class to which HIV belongs – had led him to conclude that all such viruses were essentially harmless. Rather than revise this view in the face of strong and growing epidemiological proof of a close correlation between the presence of AIDS and HIV infection, Duesberg chose instead to reject the new evidence and hang on to his old theory – a position he has stuck to ever since.

Duesberg’s arguably most poisonous claim is that AIDS can in fact be caused by the medications given to HIV sufferers to control the disease, such as the drug AZT. It was partly under Duesberg’s influence that the South African government of Thabo Mbeki chose to delay the public availability of anti-retroviral drugs – a decision which, according to a recent Harvard study – may have cost over 300,000 lives.

Holocaust negationists deny some or all of the established historical facts about Nazi atrocities during World War II. They may refuse to accept that the Holocaust happened at all, or they may – as David Irving has done – concede that atrocities took place but deny that the extermination of Jews and other minorities was a deliberate organisational policy, authorised at the highest level. They may, like Irving, significantly downplay the number of people who died at the hands of the Nazis. Or they may engage in “moral negationism”, acknowledging that Germany persecuted Jews but suggesting that the war-time abuses committed by Soviet or British forces could somehow cancel or diminish the moral gravity of Nazi crimes. Many of these kinds of arguments can be seen in the comment responses to the piece that I wrote about David Irving here.

David Irving has famously denied that he is a Holocaust denier – and went so far as to sue the writer Deborah Lipstadt for having described him in those terms. Some of this seems to come down to semantics. If we define a “Holocaust denier” as someone who is in denial about the established historical facts relating to the Holocaust, then even someone who acknowledges some level of atrocity – as David Irving does – would nonetheless fall into that category.

After a lengthy court battle in which Irving’s historical writings were examined in fine detail, the libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt famously failed, with the judge concluding that:

Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.

Irving has sought to portray himself as a fearless and impartial historical investigator, motivated solely by a desire to establish the truth, bravely challenging the orthodox account of the events of World War II. But the Lipstadt libel trial revealed quite the opposite. Driven by a preconceived attachment to an extreme ideological position, Irving had systematically abused the truth, deliberately misrepresenting his historical sources in order to make them support his political views.

Appearing as an expert witness, the historian Richard Evans, who had painstakingly reviewed Irving’s work, confessed to being shocked at the “sheer depth of duplicity” he had found. Irving had, Evans concluded, “fallen so far short of the standards of scholarship customary among historians that he doesn’t deserve to be called a historian at all”, suggesting that Irving relied on his audience lacking “either the time or the expertise” to check up on his sources.

Another feature of Irving’s work is his tendency to seize on tenuous reinterpretations of the existing evidence and treat them as a knockdown refutation of the claim he is attacking. Irving has argued that forensic tests taken by an unqualified investigator on the walls of the Auschwitz gas chambers in the late 1980s proved that they could not have been used for mass-executions, later claiming that “more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz”.

Irving also applied a clear double-standard in his evaluation of the evidence. At the same time as he embraced tenuous forensic tests taken more than 40 years after the end of the World War II, he was dismissive of the detailed eyewitness testimonies of the thousands of Holocaust survivors still alive at the time.

We see a similar double-standard with many of those who deny the link between HIV and AIDS. A 3-month investigation by Science magazine found no evidence to back Duesberg’s claims. Mainstream AIDS researchers accused him of constructing his arguments through “selective reading of the scientific literature, dismissing evidence that contradicts his theses, requiring impossibly definitive proof, and dismissing outright studies marked by inconsequential weaknesses.”

One big problem faced by both AIDS denialists and Holocaust denialists is the difficulty of explaining why their arguments are almost universally rejected. Here again, the rhetoric is often striking similar. Hardcore AIDS denialists insist that the disease is a “hoax”, a “myth”, and a “deceptive and deadly scam” perpetrated by the “medical industrial complex”, and offer us “Ten reasons HIV is not the cause of AIDS”. Hardcore negationists, meanwhile, talk dismissively about the “Holohoax”, which they describe as a “myth”, perpetrated by “Zionists” with an “agenda of world domination”, and offer us “Ten reasons why the Holocaust is a fraud”.

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

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The Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker has been taking some flack this week over his latest bogus claims on global warming. This in turn has triggered renewed scrutiny of Booker’s denialism on other issues – particularly his assertions about white asbestos, which I examine in “Don’t Get Fooled Again”.

I thought it might be useful to collate some of the responses to Booker’s articles over the years from the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive. Most are letters to the editor, correcting false statements that Booker has made about the HSE and its work. Only the first appears to have been accepted by the Sunday Telegraph for publication – the newspaper usually refuses to print letters which contradict Booker’s bogus claims.

Christopher Booker’s articles on the dangers of white asbestos (Notebook, Jan 13, 27, Feb 10) are misinformed and do little to increase public understanding of a very important occupational health issue.

-Timothy Walker, Director General, Health & Safety Executive, February 2002

The articles in the Sunday Telegraph by Christopher Booker entitled “Fatal cracks appear in asbestos scam as HSE shifts its ground” and “Booker wins asbestos battle” (11 December) highlighted aspects of the current Health and Safety Commission consultation on changes to the asbestos regulations.

While we welcome the emphasis in the articles on evidence-based policy making, I need to correct a comment about our views. While risks from white asbestos may be significantly lower than the risks from blue or brown, HSE does not agree that white asbestos poses no medical risk.

-Jonathan Rees, Deputy Chief Executive, Health and Safety Executive, December 2005

The Health and Safety Laboratory’s research does not confirm that white asbestos in textured coatings poses “no health risk” (Christopher Booker, 6 August). In its report for the Health and Safety Executive, the Laboratory found rather that the level of asbestos fibres in the air from work with textured coatings will not exceed the proposed new lower control limit when carried out using good practice.

Chrysotile asbestos, as found in many textured coatings, is classified as a category 1 carcinogen hazardous by inhalation by both the World Health Organisation and the EU.

-Geoffrey Podger, Chief Executive, Health and Safety Executive, August 2006

HSE does not exaggerate the risks of white asbestos cement fibres as claimed by Christopher Booker (Farmers face £6 bn bill for asbestos clean up’ 25 May). The article was substantially misleading…

The HSE paper quoted in the article in fact makes no specific statement about the risks of asbestos cement. It provides a summary of risk estimates for mesothelioma and lung cancer in relation to blue, brown and white asbestos across a range of exposures. Blue and brown asbestos are substantially more hazardous than white, but all three types can cause mesothelioma and lung cancer.

Finally, HSE in no way promotes the interests of the asbestos removal industry and it is absurd to suggest otherwise.

-Geoffrey Podger, Chief Executive, Health and Safety Executive, May 2008