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Time to start calling “alternative medicine” by its proper name?

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Via Ben Goldacre’s Twitter feed comes this story from the Sydney Morning Herald:

THE parents of a nine-month-old girl who died from septicemia were responsible for their baby’s death because they shunned conventional medical treatment for her eczema in favour of homeopathic remedies, a court heard yesterday.

A homeopath, Thomas Sam, 42, and his wife, Manju Sam, 36, are standing trial in the NSW Supreme Court charged with manslaughter by gross criminal negligence after they allegedly resisted the advice of nurses and a doctor to send her to a skin specialist.

Instead Gloria Thomas, who was born in perfect health in July 2001, allegedly died with malnutrition and eczema so severe that her skin broke every time her parents removed her clothes and nappy.

It strikes me that “alternative medicine” is a rather generous term for practices, like homeopathy, which, despite the claims of adherents, have no sound basis in science and no proven benefit beyond the placebo effect.

My dictionary defines medicine as “the science of treating illness”. Dictionary.com gives us “any substance or substances used in treating disease or illness…” and “the art or science of restoring or preserving health or due physical condition, as by means of drugs, surgical operations or appliances, or manipulations”. To apply the term “medicine” to practices such as homeopathy which are neither scientific nor have any impact on illness,  therefore seems both inaccurate and misleading.

Within the natural sciences more widely, ideas which claim to be scientific but which rest on deception, dodgy methodology and exaggerated claims, are typically described not as “alternative science” but as “pseudo-science”. In referring to such ideas within medicine, it seems to me that a more useful and descriptive phrase than “alternative medicine” would simply be “pseudo-medicine”

“Alternative medicine” may sound like a neutral term, but implicit within it are a set of assumptions which skew the argument in favour of quackery from the outset. The very use of the term “medicine” lends credence to the notion that practices such as homeopathy are a) scientific and b) effective. By describing homeopathy as “alternative medicine” we are helping to couch the discussion in terms of either/or, and with it the idea that to accept an unproven quack remedy over the entire canon of evidence-based-medicine is simply another consumer choice, like selecting a different brand of breakfast cereal.

The supposed dichotomy between “alternative” and “mainstream” medicine can skew the debate even further. For many people – perhaps especially those on the left-wing of politics – these are anything but neutral terms. The term “mainstream” carries very negative connotations, suggesting conformity, mediocrity, and compliance with authority, while the term “alternative” represents the polar opposite. Thus we have the contrast between “alternative” and “mainstream” music (eg. Nirvana vs Britney Spears), “alternative” and “mainstream” media (Indymedia vs the Daily Mail), and “alternative” and “mainstream” politics (eg. Greens vs Conservatives).

Anecdotal evidence can obviously only get you so far, but among the people I know who embrace “alternative medicine” and take it seriously, I’ve been struck by the extent to which they see it as a lifestyle choice, fitting in seamlessly with their political views, musical tastes, and media preferences.  It seems to me that one way to tackle this problem at its root would be to start challenging the very terms on which the debate is  being conducted, and stop accepting “alternative medicine” as a valid description of toxic, pseudo-medicinal ideas like homeopathy.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 5, 2009 at 10:44 am

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.”

Booker in shock admission of less-than-wholly-accurate reporting on climate change…

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From Christopher Booker in the Sunday Telegraph:

I owe readers a correction of one or two points in my item last week criticising Lord Stern as one of our “scaremongers in chief” over global warming. When I claimed that Lord Stern was wrong in the figure he gave for the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, I was relying on a newspaper article… From his new book, A Blueprint for a Safer Planet, it appears that he does indeed mean “430 ppm of CO2e” but this was not apparent in either of the articles I cited…

The first step is always the hardest. All we need now is an apology and long series of corrections over Booker’s Sunday Telegraph articles on evolution, passive smoking, BSE, speed cameras and white asbestos

The Liam Byrne instruction manual

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From The Daily Mail

The document, modestly entitled Working With Liam Byrne, reads like a script from the BBC’s political sitcom The Thick Of It about the farcical control-freakery of New Labour in power…

Mr Byrne’s list of do’s and don’ts declares: ‘Coffee/Lunch. I’m addicted to coffee. I like a cappuccino when I come in, an espresso at 3pm and soup at 12.30-1pm.

‘The room should be cleared before I arrive in the morning. I like the papers set out in the office before I get in. The white boards should be cleared.’

‘If I see things that are not of acceptable quality, I will blame you.’

On briefings for questions, he orders officials to tell him ‘not what you think I should know but you expect I will get asked’.

Mr Byrne, 38, even dictates what font size briefing notes should be in (a rather large 16 point), and insists that they should take up no more than one sheet of paper.

He also warns staff: ‘Never put anything to me unless you understand it and can explain it to me in 60 seconds,’ and he goes on: ‘I am often not very clear or my writing is illegible. If I’m in the middle of thinking about something, I might ask you to come back – don’t be put off by this.’

Byrne, who was last month promoted to the Cabinet, where he is responsible for co-ordinating Government departments, has a near obsession with manipulating the media.

He tells his officials: ‘We need to produce a grid . . . outlining [the] story of the week. Once something has been slotted into a grid, my expectation is it will be delivered. Moving something from a grid slot is a very, very big deal.’

Key messages must be set out in ‘big speeches’ and repeated at ‘every, repeat every, opportunity’…


His ‘rules for quotes’ demand a soundbite for every occasion. ‘The precise words you use are crucial. Officials use language that is more appropriate for a dinner party than a newspaper. Insert at least one element from the key message sheet…

Tory MP Philip Davies said: ‘This is not a briefing note for civil servants – it’s a briefing note for slaves. Making sure the Minister gets his cappuccino on time and his soup piping hot is apparently more important than how the country is being run.’…


Guido Fawkes savages the Telegraph’s forelock-tugging political journalists

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From Guido Fawkes in The Telegraph

There are a lot of bitter, jealous journalists at the Telegraph and you have behaved shamefully over the McBride story.  You even tipped off Downing Street in advance as to exactly what I was up to. It reflects on you a lot more than it does on me.

You revealed sources, broke a confidence, breached a signed non-disclosure agreement and behaved like patsys for McBride.

You still failed to spoil the story.  Your political team is about as weak as it gets, that is why you sucked up to Downing Street.

The Telegraph was once run by gentlemen for gentlemen.  This would never have happened under Deedes or Charles Moore.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 13, 2009 at 9:19 am

Telegraph newspaper denounces torture investigation

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True to form, the Telegraph newspaper has roundly denounced the news that there is to be a criminal investigation into allegations of complicity in torture by the UK security services, and urged the Attorney General – a political appointee – to intervene in the judicial process in order to stop the investigation.

In the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, and during the subsequent campaign by Bush administration hardliners to convince the world of the need for a war against Iran, the Telegraph security commentator Con Coughlin famously published a series of articles containing  false and misleading information that appears to have been fed to him directly by the intelligence services. Now that those same intelligence services risk facing serious public scrutiny, the Telegraph is leading the calls to get the criminal investigation stopped.

The toxic legacy of Turner and Newall’s asbestos denialism

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In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I highlight the ongoing efforts by the asbestos industry to deny the harm done by its products. The Daily Mirror has just published an in-depth article on the history of one such company’s efforts, and its continuing legacy.

From The Mirror

It was one of the UK’s 100 biggest firms with 60 per cent of the asbestos market.

Annual profits rose from £2million at the start of the 50s to nearly £10million in the 60s.

But a confidential letter to T&N’s directors from solicitors James Chapman & Co, in 1964, revealed their deepest fears. It said: “We have over the years been able to talk our way out of claims or compromise for comparatively small amounts, but we have always recognised that at some stage solicitors of experience would, with the advance in medical knowledge and the development of the law, recognise there is no real defence to these claims and take us to trial.”

The first confirmed T&N mesothelioma death – Frank Brooks – happened that same year. But his widow was never told and was left to discover the truth 18 years later.

A report in 1965 revealed a spate of mesothelioma cases among residents living near the Cape factory in Barking, East London. It closed three years later.

But rather than admit defeat, T&N was determined to fight back.

The board met in 1967 to grapple with “damaging and alarmist statements about the dangers of using asbestos products”.

Hill and Knowlton, a PR firm that had spent the previous 14 years helping the US tobacco industry deny links between cigarettes and cancer, was brought in.

The board’s minutes noted: “Their job will be to combat and, if possible, to forestall adverse publicity.”

Asbestos regulations were tightened again in 1968 but on T&N’s factory floor standards remained slack. Pictures of workers in 1970 showed them wearing no head gear or masks.

Asbestos shipments continued. Imports hit a peak in the early 70s of 190,000 tonnes a year. Meanwhile T&N paid paltry sums to keep the families of dead workers on side.

But in 1982, T&N’s asbestos rollercoaster came off the tracks. The company made a £30million loss, with the costs of compensation payouts topping £6million.

The agonising fight of 47-year-old mum Alice Jefferson against mesothelioma was screened on TV in Alice: A Fight for Life.

Within a week the government announced tighter regulations on asbestos dust. Three years later the two most dangerous types of asbestos were banned outright.

T&N’s compensation payouts rose to tens of millions of pounds a year and then to hundreds of millions. In 1997 it was sold off to a US company, which four years later moved to protect itself against bankruptcy.

More than £90million has since been found to pay sick and dying T&N employees and their families for the next 40 years.

But there is no money for the workers who were exposed before 1965.

Today the site of the heavily-contaminated Rochdale site is derelict, although the new owners plan to build 600 homes there.

Researcher Jason Addy, whose grandfather died after handling T&N’s asbestos, says he wants the site to “rest in peace – like far too many people who worked there”.