Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category
By me, from the New Humanist
Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam by Mark Curtis (Serpent’s Tail)
When Iran’s last democratically elected Prime Minister set about nationalising the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, Britain sought to replace him with a “dictator” – in the words of our then Ambassador to Tehran – who would “settle the oil question on reasonable terms”. In the process, the Foreign Office actively supported a man they saw as “a complete political reactionary,” Ayatollah Kashani, whose hard-line followers organised the large-scale protests that preceded the 1953 coup, which installed the arch-conservative – but pro-Western – Shah. Kashani went on to mentor Ruhollah Khomeini, who in 1979 overthrew the Shah and installed the repressive theocracy that continues in power today.
In Secret Affairs, Mark Curtis delivers an unsettling verdict on the conduct of British foreign policy over the last hundred years. In pursuit of our national interest, the UK has repeatedly sided with the most brutal and conservative forces of political Islam – and aggressively conspired against democratic governments around the globe. While this has yielded temporary gains, in the long run the policy has proved enormously costly, even in its own cynical terms.
Across the Muslim world, for most of the past century, Britain’s chief enemy has been not religious extremism but the secular nationalists who sought to wrest back control of their country’s resources from the former colonial powers. Time and again, from Egypt to Iran to Indonesia, we have sought to undermine such leaders by arming and training their extremist opponents, while giving generous support to Islamist dictators willing to do business on favourable terms. In the process, we have contributed directly to the growth of radical Islam worldwide, and the consequences are now coming home to haunt us.
Eager to retain a strategic foothold in South Asia – in Churchill’s words, to “keep a bit of India” after independence in 1947 – Britain was instrumental in the creation of Pakistan, an artificial state with little to hold it together but its identity as a Muslim nation. In recent decades, successive Pakistani governments have sought to bolster their power by fanning religious fervour at home, and backing militant Islamists across the region. Yet Pakistan has long been treated as a key UK ally, and a favoured recipient of military aid – even as, so Curtis claims, Pakistani intelligence services have continued backing the jihadi groups now fighting British forces in Afghanistan.
Closer still has been our relationship with Saudi Arabia, whose modern form Britain also helped shape, at the close of the colonial era. Seeking to position itself as the leader of the Muslim world, the Saudi state has, since the 1970s, spent an estimated $50 billion promoting its fundamentalist brand of “Wahhabism” around the globe, in what one US think-tank describes as the “largest worldwide propaganda campaign ever mounted”. In positioning the UK as a favoured trading partner for Saudi oil, arms and, latterly, financial investments, Labour and Conservative governments alike have systematically played down the true character of the regime, and its links to global terror.
The picture that emerges is of a nation locked into a series of uncomfortable alliances – of questionable overall benefit even to our narrow self-interest – whose nature our government is unable fully to acknowledge. The issue seems exacerbated by the extraordinary levels of secrecy around UK foreign policy, hindering effective debate about the decisions being taken in our name. Many of the files surrounding Britain’s abortive intervention in Suez, for example, still remain classified half a century later. Due to the UK’s controversial “30-year rule”, much of the more recent historical record is simply missing.
Curtis seems nonetheless to have done an excellent job with the sources available, assembling an impressive array of leaks and government admissions, to argue that, at least in ethical terms, UK foreign policy has changed little in recent decades. He makes a compelling, if somewhat disheartening, case.
From Spiked Online
Question everything — even environmentalism
A new book on the importance of being sceptical about received wisdom and simplistic spindoctoring mysteriously leaves out one area of life where scepticism is thoroughly frowned on today: climate change.
by Rob Lyons
When Karl Marx was asked by his daughter to fill in a ‘confession’, a light-hearted Victorian questionnaire, he declared that his favourite motto – usually attributed to Rene Descartes – was De omnibus dubitandum. Or, to put it another way, ‘question everything’.
These are wise words. Any serious inquiry into the truth should start with this pithy formulation of scepticism in mind. So when Richard Wilson’s book Don’t Get Fooled Again: The Sceptic’s Guide to Life arrived in the spiked office a few months back, I was looking forward to an illuminating exploration of the role of scepticism today.
Yet while there are some sensible restatements of the basic principles that should steer readers through the modern world, Wilson’s guide seems a little trite. It’s the kind of book that might be an entertaining read for a student heading off to university rather than a sage treatment of an important idea. Judging from the book itself and Wilson’s writings elsewhere, it seems he is unwilling to follow through on the logic of his pro-sceptical approach when it comes to the central issues of our day.
Don’t Get Fooled Again begins with a health warning: people are inclined by nature to a little self-delusion. The average person, Wilson advises, tends to believe that they are above average. Only depressives, it seems, have a realistic assessment of their own worth. This is harmless enough, he argues, as optimistic and self-confident people tend to do better in life. However, this propensity to believe what is convenient is positively dangerous when it comes to wider social issues. From public-relations spin to psuedoscience, Wilson relates numerous instances in which our capacity to swallow a lie has had negative, even deadly consequences. We need to keep our wits about us.
Wilson believes that ‘the basis of scepticism is essentially common sense… to be sceptical is to look closely at the evidence for a particular belief or idea, and to check for things that don’t add up’. He adds: ‘This is not the same thing as being a cynic. Cynics like to assume the worst of people and things. Sceptics try to make as few assumptions as possible.’
He also notes that the mainstream media is a flawed resource in a number of ways, from the way stories are selected as newsworthy to the way PR companies and other interest groups manipulate what is presented. Wilson praises the internet as a means by which we can find the primary sources of information for ourselves and question what is being presented to us as the truth. ‘Just as you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the papers’, he writes, ‘neither should you assume, a priori, that everything that isn’t in the papers isn’t true’.
His first major example is the work of giant public relations agency, Hill & Knowlton (H&K). The firm has been involved in a number of controversial examples of spin. In October 1990, as Wilson reminds us, a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, ‘Nurse Nayirah’, claimed that Iraqi soldiers had stolen incubators from a hospital in Kuwait City, leaving the children that were in them to die. The claim was that more than 300 children had perished as a result. In fact, ‘Nurse Nayirah’ was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US who had been coached to tell this tale by staff at H&K.
If that lie led to the first war against Iraq, Wilson argues that H&K’s past crimes were even worse, leading to the deaths of millions of people. In the 1950s, the agency was hired by tobacco manufacturers to deal with the threat from the emerging medical evidence linking smoking with lung cancer.
H&K’s response was obfuscation: try to convince the public that the link was unproven and that there was genuine controversy, when the link was, in fact, well established. To this end, the firm promoted Clarence Cook Little, an American geneticist, as a leading expert on cigarettes and ill-health when he was nothing of the kind, while creating a Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC) to create the impression that the industry was actively investigating the link. In truth, the TIRC was little more than a PR operation. By 1964, a US government report had confirmed the link but, according to Wilson, H&K’s strategy was so successful that cigarette sales continued to rise before peaking a decade later.
As it happens, Wilson overstates H&K’s success in this matter. As figures from the American Cancer Society note, smoking rates in the USA, UK and Japan were falling before 1964 and have carried on falling ever since (1). Not only that, but the exposure of the tobacco industry’s attempts to downplay the dangers of cigarettes now mean that nothing that any tobacco company ever says is believed, leaving the industry completely unable to make any meaningful intervention on the debate on passive smoking, for example, and tainting anyone who has ever had anything to do with ‘Big Tobacco’. That sounds more like an object lesson in how not to conduct a PR campaign.
Wilson goes on to discuss a variety of other ways in which a failure to examine the evidence and thus fall victim to wishful thinking and ‘groupthink’ has led to disaster. One such example is the pseudoscience of Trofim Lysenko, the ‘barefoot scientist’ whose ideologically agreeable ideas about agriculture and rejection of Mendelian genetics helped place him at the forefront of Soviet science for decades, while leading to crop failures and malnutrition.
Wilson puts much of the blame for the mass starvation of the Great Leap Forward in China from 1958 to 1961 – which claimed 30million lives – on the barmy ideas promoted by Lysenko and adopted by Mao. Again, Wilson almost certainly overstates his case. While Soviet ideas certainly inspired the Chinese regime, the obsession with collectivisation and meeting pointless, centrally decreed targets had more of an impact than the losses incurred due to Lysenko’s dubious methods.
Another tragedy was the rise of AIDS denialism in the 1980s and 1990s. The widely accepted theory that AIDS is caused by a virus, HIV, was rejected both by some researchers – most notably by a high-profile American virologist, Peter Duesberg – and by AIDS activists who were mistrustful of the medical establishment. Retroviral therapies, such as AZT, were regarded as poisons and some even suggested that it was these drugs, not HIV, that were responsible for disease. Sadly, the leading activist proponents of this view died one by one, refusing the treatment that could have saved their lives.
The influence of this denialism was particularly strong in South Africa, a country greatly afflicted by the spread of AIDS. Around the turn of the century, the then-president Thabo Mbeki and his ANC government did everything in their power to delay the widespread use of retrovirals, leading to many unnecessary deaths. The lesson is that once an irrational idea gets a grip in the corridors of power, the consequences can be devastating.
On the other hand, the South African government were not alone in promoting irrational ideas. The British government was happy to use AIDS to try to promote a conservative sexual morality in a politically correct guise, providing a template for health-based scaremongering that continues to this day. While thousands of people in quite specific groups were dying of a new and terrible illness that demanded an all-out research effort to resolve, millions of pounds were being wasted on pointless scare campaigns aimed at everyone. Surely a true sceptic would interrogate these mainstream ideas to reveal the agendas of those promoting them?
In his final chapter, Wilson sums up the main elements of his sceptical outlook. Fundamentalism – the assertion of the ‘absolute literal truth of a particular set of beliefs’ – and relativism – the belief that any view can be true – are, in Wilson’s view, very similar and both are to be avoided since they immunise believers to logic and truth. Wilson also warns against conspiracy theories, pseudo-scholarship (a bogus agenda dressed up as a serious assessment of current knowledge), and pseudo-news (fraud or spin presented as truth).
He also returns to his earlier concerns about wishful thinking and warns against the way debates can be conducted by ‘over-idealising’ the outlook of one’s own side while ‘demonising perceived enemies’, with the upshot being the ‘moral exclusion’ of one side and ‘groupthink’, where ‘doubters and dissenters are stereotyped as weak, disloyal or ill-intentioned’.
This is all sound advice. Yet what is most surprising, given that Wilson’s book is a discussion of scepticism, is that he avoids the one area in which sceptics are most prominent today: climate change. There are plenty of high-profile advocates for action around manmade greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions who exhibit all the dubious behaviour that Wilson rightly criticises elsewhere. Yet Wilson is silent on the matter.
There is little dissent on the idea that the world has got warmer in the past 100 years or so. Nor is there any serious dissent that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas which will tend to make the world warmer as levels of it increase in the atmosphere. And there’s certainly no doubt that human beings have caused the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from industry, transport and agriculture. If economic development continues in its current manner then, all other things being equal, we would expect the Earth’s temperature to rise.
Just how much warmer the world is likely to get is still unknown. What we have is a range of best guesses made on the basis of an incomplete temperature record, computer models that still have some way to go in accurately representing our climate, and genuine and important uncertainties in the basic physics of climate change. So while a warming world is our best available working assumption, how much the world’s temperature may change in the future is still a legitimate subject of scientific inquiry. Quite aside from the complexities of atmospheric physics, there are wider questions to be answered about the consequences of such warming and what the best policy response would be.
Yet the public discussion of climate change often obliterates such subtleties. The science of global warming is not presented as a series of provisional conclusions that must be revised as new evidence arises – which would be a properly sceptical approach following the argument in Don’t Get Fooled Again – but as ‘The Science’, a catechism of received truths that brooks no opposition. Frequently, a moral and political argument about the evils of humanity and industrial society is represented as a set of incontrovertible scientific facts.
Those who seek to question any aspect of this catechism are treated in precisely the terms Wilson warns against. James Hansen, the NASA scientist who has been closely identified with promoting the need for action on climate change, suggested to a US congressional committee in June 2008 that the leaders of the oil and coal industries would be ‘guilty of crimes against humanity and nature’ if they don’t change their ways. In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore derided those who don’t agree with him by questioning their rationality, stating that those who believe that the Moon landings were faked or who think the Earth is flat should ‘get together with the global warming deniers on a Saturday night and party’. Indeed, the very use of the term ‘denier’ to describe a critic of climate change science or policy has very conscious and pointed parallels with Holocaust denial.
Even scientists who firmly argue that the mainstream scientific position is correct, but who have been concerned about some of the alarmist statements made in science’s name, have been criticised as weak, disloyal or ill-intentioned.
Wilson has nothing to say in his book on these things. Yet on his website, he specifically criticises spiked for taking the kind of sceptical approach to the politics of environmentalism that he encourages people to adopt in relation to various other issues (2). Wilson engages in the kind of smearing rhetoric he criticises in other situations, making the defamatory and utterly false suggestion that spiked could only say such ‘pro-corporate’ things because it is paid to do so. He only tolerates a certain kind of scepticism, it seems, the kind that doesn’t question any of the apparently inconvertible truths held by him and other eco-enlightened individuals.
Sadly, Wilson’s own definition of cynics – those who ‘assume the worst of people and things’ – seems all too apt a description of his own outlook.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.
Don’t Get Fooled Again: A Sceptic’s Guide to Life, by Richard Wilson, is published by Icon Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
(1) The American Cancer Society’s Tobacco Atlas suggests that adult male smoking rates in the USA fell from 51 per cent in 1960 to 44 per cent in 1970 and 38 per cent in 1979, with similar falls in the UK and Japan. These declines are also mirrored for female smokers. H&K clearly weren’t that successful.
(2) Spiked Online: the rohypnol of online news and comment, Don’t Be Fooled Again blog
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…
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.
Whereas Goldacre looked at the dangers of nonsense more from a personal and UK point of view, Wilson takes on a more global and political perspective. He tells us how whole areas of Russian science were hijacked by fake experts during the Soviet era who were more adept at playing political games than honestly seeking truth. Lysenko was the master at this as he held back Russian and Chinese biology and agriculture for decades as ideology became more important than evidence. The consequences of this were the death of millions through starvation.
…a highly readable book which represents a refreshing gale of common sense and rationality. Wilson critiques a wide range of contemporary nonsense including:
- Pseudo-news such as the testimony of a certain ‘Nurse Nayirah’ in 1990 that Iraqi troops occupying Kuwait had removed babies from incubators or the insistence of American and British politicians that Saddam’s Hussein’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction;
- Pseudo-science such as the efforts to show that smoking does not cause cancer or that white asbestos poses no measurable risk to health or that Trofim Lysenko in the pre-war Soviet Union had revolutionary techniques to transform agriculture or that South African President Thambo Mbeki was right in insisting that the HIV virus does not cause AIDS;
- Conspiracy theories such as the assertion by ex British agent David Shayler that the London bombings of July 2007 were not the act of terrorists;
- Relativism which, in its most radical form, asserts that there are no objective facts, only competing strands of subjective opinion, and even in ‘milder’ forms like cultural relativism rejects logic and evidence as ‘western’ or ‘imperialist’ modes of thinking;
- Religious fundamentalism which requires belivers to accept on faith the absolute truth of a prescribed list of written beliefs even when the relevant texts are obscure, contradictory or contrary to evidence;
- The justifications given for torture by democratic states like the USA and for terrorism given by extremist groups who likewise believe that the ends justify the means.
Wilson helpfully identifies some of the many factors that permit and indeed encourage such acts of irrationality including wishful thinking, over-idealisation, demonising perceived enemies, moral exclusion, and groupthink. In a spirited defence of rationality, he asserts: “The basic principles of logic, consistency, evidence, and ‘inductive reasoning’ are common to every human society and present in all belief systems”.
From Max Dunbar
If you’re new to the explosion in investigative scepticism then Richard Wilson’s book on bullshit past and present serves as an excellent primer. You’ll find excellent chapters on the AIDS denial epidemic that’s killing Africa, the rise and fall of the Holocaust denier and fake historian David Irving, the socially acceptable lunacy of alternative medicine. For critics like Dan Hind who feel that sceptics take on too soft targets, there are savage explorations of America’s internment policies, the cover-up of the link between smoking and cancer and the profligate corruption of the Enron corporation.
But there are also revelations for the seasoned sceptic. Wilson has a fascinating chapter on Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s pet agronomist who denounced Darwinism as ‘bourgeois’ (so much for the rational atheist superstate) and claimed that ‘wheat could be trained to thrive in a cold climate by being soaked in freezing water’. There’s also the asbestos charlatan John Bridle, who claimed for years and despite massive evidence to the contrary that white asbestos was harmless: his assertions were plugged throughout the 2000s by the ludicrous Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker.
As Wilson points out, we must now be sceptical even of sceptics: deniers of the Holocaust and Srebrenica and climate change and 9/11 and 7/7. These are people who use the language of evidence and objectivity in a scramble for the moral high ground. Yet their florid and bizarre claims are only ever backed up with plaintive cries of ‘Open your mind’ or ‘How do we know?’ The pitiful trajectory of David Shayler will serve for all these cases: a former MI5 agent jailed for exposing very real conspiracies, Shayler was reduced to babbling in a Somerset town hall that he was ‘God incarnated as spirit and man… Journalists are asked to arrive with an open mind.’
Wilson draws a firm line between scepticism and denial in a paragraph that should be spraypainted in ten-foot letters on the houses of every smug 9/11 lunatic and apologist for fascism:
Sceptics form their beliefs on the basis of concrete facts, and evaluate each piece of evidence on its own merits. Denialists select their facts on the basis of their pre-existing beliefs, and reject evidence that they dislike, or find inconvenient.
There’s so much gold in Wilson’s book it’s hard to pick out specific examples. Wilson explains in a wonderful aside that the brain regenerates itself every seven years – meaning in effect that you will be a completely different person by November 30 2015. He shatters the postmodern paradigm of a Western imperial Enlightenment forced upon complaining natives by discussing the developing world’s substantial contributions to science.
But somehow Wilson loses his nerve in his chapter on the millennial con-trick of religion. He doesn’t defend its claims about the world (although there was a time when religious apologists did exactly that) rather, he approves of faith as ‘wishful thinking, strategically deployed.’ Theism is ‘a decision to take on, in the apparent absence of compelling evidence either for or against, a set of beliefs that cheer some people up.’ All very comforting, but this is just the Straussianism of the neoconservatives that Wilson rails against in his chapters on Iraq. Only Strauss advocated delusion as a means of keeping the masses under control, rather than a positive lifestyle choice.
‘If religion is the opium of the people,’ Wilson chuckles, ‘then most recreational users I know seem to manage their habit fairly comfortably.’ There’s nothing wrong with lying to yourself to be happy, we all do that from time to time, but there’s something shitty and depressing about the argument that we need to keep these noble lies around to prevent us from killing ourselves. It’s not true, in any case, and for the life of me I don’t understand why advocates of this fashionable pessimism ignore the very real sources of comfort and transcendence in our mortal realm: the appreciation of art and creativity and sport, starting a family, falling in love (which is the defining transcendence for most people).
Wilson also says that ‘It’s not so much faith in God that is the problem – it’s faith in human beings.’ Nope: humanity is more worthy of worship than anything. Ideas, as Wilson has shown in his otherwise essential book, are fair game.
From A Common Reader
Scepticism about media, politics and finances comes naturally to most of us these days, particularly when people who should know better have brought the world to a state of economic crisis (did our rulers really not know that unfettered greed is no basis for an economic world-order?). It is refreshing to read a book like Don’t Get Fooled Again, which takes our vague feeling that “things aren’t quite right” and shows us that gut instincts are often quite correct, and we really shouldn’t believe the utterances of any institution or public figure without first submitting them to some pretty stringent tests.
Richard Wilson puts forward a good case for scepticism, reminding his readers that humanity has a long history of “meekly engaging in depraved acts of inhumanity on the basis of ideas that turned out to be total gibberish”.
Much of his book focuses on the public relations industry, citing a number of case studies to show how opinion can be manipulated. He devotes a whole chapter to the way tobacco companies in the 1950s manipulated news organisations to question the increasingly obvious link between smoking and lung cancer. The strategy consisted of getting an influential academic on-side (geneticist Clarence Cook Little in this case), and using him to question every scrap of evidence which research scientists gathered supporting the need for anti-smoking legislation.
Little insisted that it was not enough to show that lung cancer victims were smokers, but that until the cause of the link could be demonstrated under laboratory conditions, the link was irrelevant. Tests showing that mice contracted cancer when exposed to cigarette smoke were contested, but on the other hand, animal tests which were favourable to the tobacco industry were heavily publicised. Wilson shows that genius of the PR campaign was capitalising on the media’s love of “debate”.
A story really takes off when two sides are seen in opposition, even when it is obvious that the alleged “controversy” is falsely based. This can be observed every day on programmes like BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, when even the most blindingly obvious truth has to be contested by a protagonist with opposing views, with the result that equal weight is given to both nonsense and fact. One million people walked the streets of London to protest about the US/GB invasion of Iraq but this had no effect on those who wanted for a variety of reasons to believe the fantastic reports about Iraq’s offensive capability.
Wilson warns of the dangers of pseudo-science, and its ability to influence government and other decision-makers. Wilson traces this back to Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s favorite scientist who’s wrong-headed ideas about agronomy led to mass starvation throughout Russia. Even worse, Lysenko’s ideas were taken up by Chairman Mao and his followers whose Lysenko-inspired agrarian reforms led to the worst man-made famine in history, with the loss of 30 million lives.
The chapter on “groupthink” describes that way in which a closed group of people can adopts a false belief and then support itself in perpetuating it despite mounting evidence suggesting its falsity. I found myself thinking again of the decision to invade Iraq taken by Tony Blair’s cabinet when I read Richard Wilson’s list of symptoms of groupthink:
- Invulnerability – everything is going to work out right because we are a special group
- Rationalisation – explaining away warnings that challenge the group’s assumptions
- Unquestioning belief in the morality of the group and ignoring moral consequences of the group’s decisions
- Sterotyping those who oppose the group’s view as weak, evil, impotent of stupid
- Direct pressure being placed on any member who questions the group couched in terms of “disloyalty”
- Self-censorship of ideas that stray from the consensus
- The illusion of unanimity among group members with silence being viewed as agreement.
I have worked on many large I.T. projects and have seen these processes at work when projects have begun to fail and careers and reputations are at risk. Project teams easily acquire the need to plough on despite all warning signals to the contrary until finally the project is abandoned far too late for anyone to be able to recover any benefits from it.
Wilson goes on to consider the HIV/AIDS denial movement, begun in America and then influencing the thinking of the South African government where “AIDS dissidents” have had a malign effect on public policy leading to the denial of effective treatment for many. President Tabo Mbeki immersed himself in AIDS denial literature and invited American AIDS dissidents to join a presidential advisory panel on AIDS and HIV, one of whose aims was to inivestigate “whether there’s this thing called AIDS . . . whether HIV leads to AIDS, whether there’s something called HIV”. By 2005, more than 5.5 million South Africans were infected with HIV and 1000 were dying each day from AIDS.
In his concluding chapter, Richard Wilson lists the common threads which run through false and illusory belief systems: fundamentalism, relativism, conspiracy theories, pseudo-scholarship, pseudo-news, wishful thinking, over-idealisation, demonisation of perceived enemies, groupthink. While many of the ideas in this book are nothing new in themselves, Wilson has gathered them together, with many fascinating examples from recent history, to provide a very useful handbook for people who know that things they read in the paper or hear on the television are “not quite right” and need to be challenged.
I was pleased to find that Richard Wilson has a blog Don’t Get Fooled Again in which he reports on many of the topics covered in his book.
There’s always somebody trying to pull a fast one, but we can help ourselves. “The antidotes to delusion are logic and evidence, preferably from multiple sources.” The author hopes to give us the tools to avoid being fooled by “pseudo-news”, as well as pseudo-experts, and pseudo-conspiracy theories. Confusingly, many of the people we ought to be sceptical of pretend to be sceptics themselves. The giveaway, as Wilson nicely shows, is that their scepticism is asymmetrical: no evidence is ever enough for someone “sceptical” about anthropogenic global warming (an example not included in this book), and yet they are remarkably credulous about any alternative factoids that might seem to support their own view.
Wilson ranges somewhat loosely over examples contemporary and historical: anti-Aids science in South Africa, Lysenko’s pseudo-agriculture, David Irving’s Holocaust denial, Richard Dawkins’s atheism, and torture at Abu Ghraib, explaining psychological ideas of selection bias and groupthink along the way. He alludes to the X-Files slogan “I want to believe” as an example of dangerous thinking, but to be fair they also say “Trust no one.”
I’m delighted that “Don’t Get Fooled Again” has been given a generous endorsement by the Guardian columnist and campaigner George Monbiot: “This is an exceptional book: rigorous, witty and beautifully-written. If you want to know how the world works, you must read it.”
From Kushalrani Gulab in the Hindustan Times
Looking at “the myriad ways we can deceive ourselves — and be deceived by others,” the book begins by telling us briefly that we’re usually predisposed to having an idealised view of ourselves and everything that makes up our identities, and then gets into some seriously scary stuff. Stuff like how so many of us delude ourselves into taking people in authority — whether government types, politicians, business people, scientists and ‘experts’ or the media — so seriously that we don’t bother to cross-check, investigate or question what they (or frankly, even what we ourselves) say or do.
Now that we’re dealing with some hardcore terrorism and communalism problems in India, I was particularly gripped by the chapter titled ‘Heroes and Villains’. This uses the example of the US treatment of captured Iraqis in Abu Ghraib to show how easy it is for people to be so single-minded in their zeal to ‘punish evil’ that all rules of humanity go flying. While there’s nothing I’d like better than to have terrorists and communalists caught, tried and punished — and I have to say, the crackdowns do seem justified — I’ve been troubled by the raids on Muslim localities, the controversial Nanavati Report and the fact that, despite assurances from the Centre and the state governments, not much seems to have been accomplished in tracking down the people responsible for the recent violence against Christians, even though the Bajrang Dal has been indicted.
From George Monbiot’s latest column in The Guardian:
So what can you say about a man who makes the same mistake 38 times? Who, when confronted by a mountain of evidence demonstrating that his informant is a charlatan convicted under the Trade Descriptions Act, continues to repeat his claims? Who elevates the untested claims of bloggers above peer-reviewed papers? Who sticks to his path through a blizzard of facts? What should we deduce about the Sunday Telegraph’s columnist Christopher Booker?
This week Richard Wilson’s book Don’t Get Fooled Again is published. It contains a fascinating chapter on Booker’s claims about white asbestos. Since 2002, he has published 38 articles on this topic, and every one of them is wrong. He champions the work of John Bridle, who has described himself as “the world’s foremost authority on asbestos science”. Bridle has claimed to possess an honorary professorship from the Russian Academy of Sciences, to be a consultant to an institute at the University of Glamorgan, the chief asbestos consultant for an asbestos centre in Lisbon, and a consultant to Vale of Glamorgan trading standards department. None of these claims is true. Neither the institute at the University of Glamorgan nor the centre in Lisbon have ever existed. His only relationship with the Glamorgan trading standards department is to have been successfully prosecuted by it for claiming a qualification he does not possess.
None of this deters Mr Booker. Armed with Bridle’s claims, for the past six years he has waged a campaign against asbestos science. White asbestos cement, he maintains “poses no measurable risk to health”. He contends that “not a single case” of mesothelioma – the cancer caused by exposure to asbestos – “has ever been scientifically linked with asbestos cement”. A paper commissioned by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive, he says, “concluded that the risk from white asbestos is ‘virtually zero'”.
Booker tells me he has read this paper. Oh yes? The term he quotes – “virtually zero” – does not appear in it. It does show that white asbestos (chrysotile) is less dangerous than brown or blue asbestos. But, while there is uncertainty about the numbers, it still presents a risk of mesothelioma, which depends on the level of exposure. People exposed to a high dose (between 10 and 100 fibres per millilitre per year (f/ml.yr)) have a risk (around two deaths per 100,000 for each f/ml.yr) of contracting this cancer. Only when the dose falls to less than 0.1 f/ml.yr does it become “probably insignficant”. But Booker’s columns contain no such caveat. He creates the impression that white asbestos is safe at all doses. The paper he misquotes also cites five scientific studies of exposure to asbestos cement, which record “high levels of mesothelioma mortality”.
Two years ago, John Bridle’s misleading CV and dodgy record were exposed by the BBC’s You and Yours programme. So the BBC immediately became part of the conspiracy: in Booker’s words “a concerted move by the powerful ‘anti-asbestos lobby’ to silence Bridle”. He suggested that the broadcasting regulator Ofcom would clear Bridle’s name. In June this year it threw out Bridle’s complaint and published evidence even more damning than that contained in the programme. So has Booker changed the way he sees “Britain’s leading practical asbestos expert”? Far from it. He tells me that “my view of Ofcom has plummeted”: it too has joined the conspiracy.
We are not talking about trivia here. This is a matter of life and death. How many people might have been exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos dust as a result of reading and believing Booker’s columns?
Be it in love or in business, we have an amazing capacity to deceive ourselves and also be deceived by others.
Aha, you may not like to believe that, but alas, that’s a fact, bemoans Richard Wilson in ‘Don’t Get Fooled Again: The Sceptic’s Guide to Life’ (www.iconbooks.co.uk).
“Being human involves an odd dichotomy: we need to delude ourselves that we are exceptional, even if we aren’t, in order to make the most of whatever potential we do have,” Wilson observes. “We thrive on being told how great we are, and we gravitate towards people who are willing to indulge that need.”
When we allow ourselves too much self-delusion, we are in danger of becoming fantasists, wide open to exploitation, he cautions. “And if we are too blind to the flaws of our heroes and idols – and too trusting of those we perceive to be figures of authority – we risk becoming complicit in the actions of criminals or, at the very least, making idiots of ourselves.”
Quite reassuringly, however, we all have the capacity to be sceptics, says Wilson. He explains how the antidotes to delusion are logic and evidence, preferably evidence from multiple sources. “We tend to delude ourselves least about the things that are easiest to measure objectively.”
Where possible, compare information from alternative sources and look for inconsistencies and contradictions, the author guides. This is not the same thing as being a cynic, he distinguishes. “Cynics like to assume the worst of people and things. Sceptics try to make as few assumptions as possible.”
A chapter titled ‘the emperor’s new paradigm’ studies how businesses thrive on a culture where creative thinking has acquired a near-mystical status, and where the gap between rhetoric and reality can be perilously thin.
Wilson is horrified that some organisations pay enormous sums of money “to those promising to help them ‘think outside the box,’ ‘challenge the orthodoxy,’ ‘push the envelope,’ ‘take a blue sky approach,’ ‘drive through change’ or bring about a ‘paradigm shift.’”
In a market where concepts have become a commodity, Wilson warns that it’s possible to make money not only from brilliant new ideas, but also from mediocre ideas cleverly packaged in brilliant-sounding expressions. Watch out, therefore!
Also let us be careful not to demonise ‘all those idiots who get bamboozled by the nonsense, and congratulate ourselves that we would never fall for anything so stupid,’ because if we do that, then we’re much more likely to get fooled ourselves, Wilson advises. For, “The delusion that human nature operates differently for ‘those idiots’ than for us is perhaps the most dangerous one of all.”
We all need a bit of wishful thinking from time to time, he observes, “to get ourselves to sleep at night or out of bed in the morning, or to psych ourselves up for some ghastly public speaking engagement.” His wise counsel is that it is most important to know which stones we are choosing to leave unturned, and to know that this choice is benefiting us rather than leaving us open to exploitation.
To those who are prodded by the politicians and the media to be ever-frightened, the author’s prescription is laughter. “By mocking our fear-mongering political class and their torture-tainted nightmare tales, we not only bring some small measure of accountability to the political process – we can also help to counteract the anxiety culture that threatens both our health and our freedom,” he suggests.
Prescribed read for the hype-harassed and panic-pumped.
It’s good to be a sceptic, and as Richard Wilson demonstrates in his new book, far too few of us choose to use our critical faculties as often as we should. Our lack of scepticism starts with ourselves – we uniformly believe we are better looking than the average person, better drivers than the average person, more caring and giving than the average person, when common sense dictates we can’t all be (I mean, of course I am, but you know, in general, people just can’t be).
This lack of critical discrimination extends to all walks of life, and Wilson explores far more than just the gullibility of human beings: he looks at a number of areas of life where we would all benefit from more scepticism. There’s an excellent chapter on how the global tobacco industry created a ‘controversy’ that rumbled on for years when in actual fact there was a clear scientific agreement – PR firms and biased academics exploit the interest of journalists in stories with two sides to tell, because conflict is more interesting than consensus. There’s also the curse of relativism – the belief that all points of view are equally valid. While that may be true for opinions of a painting or a piece of music, it clearly can’t be when dealing with issues like the AIDS epidemic, issues that have measurable scientific truths at their heart – yet AIDS denialists have received far more airtime than they deserved due to unthinking relativism, and people have died as a result.
A sceptic must also be alive to the effects of social pressure and expectation on a person’s own behaviour and thinking – there’s an excellent chapter on ‘groupthink’, using examples from the Bay of Pigs to the spiralling cruelty of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which is likened to the famous Stanford Prison experiment. It’s important to be reminded just how unflinchingly people will follow orders (fail to exercise their own scepticism) when they believe that the person giving the instructions knows better than them.
Conspiracy theories are thoroughly debunked, with Wilson suggesting a number of ways to evaluate the plausibility of any given theory. Of course the Internet has been a boon to both conspiracy theorists and sceptics, and the author is a strong advocate of doing independent research whenever you are not convinced by someone’s claims. There’s no substitute for independent verification (so I strongly suggest you read some other reviews of this book too!).
Written in lucid prose, well researched and strongly argued, Don’t Get Fooled Again is a great little book. It has reminded me of the virtues of scepticism (as distinct from cynicism, which is unthinking negativity and expecting the worst in all circumstances). So, if you don’t want to buy a pig in a poke, have the wool pulled over your eyes, or be an unquestioning sheep, then this is the book for you.
UK publisher: Icon Books
Edition reviewed: Hardback
Publication date:18th September 2008
Buy from: Amazon.co.uk
“Richard Wilson’s Don’t Get Fooled Again has been compared to Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World. It provides an objective and philosophical dissection of some commonly-held beliefs. It is also an entertaining collection of anecdotes illustrating how sensible human beings get duped. Almost a self-help book, this provides the reader with the analytical tools to avoid being taken for a ride, as well as being entertaining and informative.”
- Patrick Neale, The Bookseller