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

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From Spiked Online

Question everything — even environmentalism

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

by Rob Lyons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

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

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

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

Written by Richard Wilson

August 1, 2009 at 1:49 pm

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

Denying Aids – The first definitive account of the history and development of AIDS denialism

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denyingaids

AIDS denialism matters because it kills people.

In South Africa at the beginning of this decade, the government of Thabo Mbeki was heavily influenced by a fringe group of conspiracy theorists who claim – in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary – that HIV is not the cause of AIDS and that the symptoms associated with the disease are in fact caused by the drugs given to HIV-positive patients.

When pseudo-science takes hold over government policy, the consequences can be catastrophic. Under the AIDS denialists’ influence, Mbeki’s government chose to obstruct the public distribution of anti-retroviral drugs in South Africa. A recent Harvard study concluded that this decision alone has led to more than 300,000 preventable deaths.  

AIDS denialism matters because it is continuing today, notwithstanding the fact that dozens of HIV-positive self-described “AIDS dissidents”, who believed so strongly in the ideology of denial that they refused to take anti-retroviral drugs themselves, have died prematurely from AIDS-defining diseases. AIDS denialism matters because its proponents are continuing to disseminate misinformation, and are continuing to lead people astray. 

Yesterday I had a fascinating discussion about these issues with Seth Kalichman, whose very readable book “Denying AIDS” gives the first definitive account of the history and psychology of this toxic ideology – from its origins in the US in the late 1980s to its devastating impact in South Africa in the last decade. In writing the book, Seth went undercover to interview and correspond with some of the movement’s leading lights – including the “godfather” of AIDS denialism, Berkeley virologist Peter Duesberg. 

As is normal for anyone writing or speaking publicly on this subject, Seth has been on the receiving end of all manner of brickbats from riled denialists, some of which he’s listed here.  It was great to meet up and compare notes with a co-conspirator (or have I said too much?!).

Also in attendance was Neil Denny, the producer of the excellent Little Atoms podcast, and the formidable Ben Goldacre, the author of Bad Science who famously trounced the AIDS denialist millionaire vitamin quack Matthias Rath after the guy filed a malicious libel suit over his coverage of Rath’s claims. Expect to hear Seth Kalichman on Little Atoms some time in the next few months.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 23, 2009 at 11:53 am

African Union sends man who oversaw 300,000 deaths in South Africa to investigate reports of 300,000 deaths in Darfur – assisted by the man who oversaw 300,000 deaths in Burundi

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Hot on the heels of its anguished denunciation of the international indictment of Sudanese President Omar Bashir over war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, the African Union has further cemented its global credibility by appointing ex-South African President Thabo Mbeki to look into the charges.

Mbeki is certainly an interesting choice for a mission whose ostensible aim is to establish the truth about a life-or-death humanitarian issue.

As President of South Africa, Mbeki famously bought into the claims of internet conspiracy theorists who say that HIV does not cause AIDS, and that the illness is actually caused by the medications used to treat the disease. A Harvard study recently concluded that the Mbeki government’s steadfast refusal to make AIDS medicines available to those with HIV may have led to over 330,000 preventable deaths.

To add further gravitas, Mbeki will be assisted, according to Voice of America (who give a slightly different account of the purpose of the mission), by the former President of Burundi, Major General Pierre Buyoya.

Buyoya is widely suspected of orchestrating the 1993 assassination of the man who had defeated him at the ballot box earlier that year, the country’s first democratically-elected Hutu President, Melchior Ndadaye.  The killing triggered a brutal, decade-long ethnic war in which more than 300,000 people, mostly civilians, are believed to have died.

For most of this period, Buyoya was in charge, having seized the Presidency in a coup in 1996. During Buyoya’s reign, forces under his command carried out a series of brutal massacres against the Hutu civilian population – but as the International Criminal Court can only investigate crimes committed after 2003 – the year Buyoya’s rule ended, it’s unlikely that he will face justice any time soon. A long promised UN-aided “special court” for Burundi has yet to materialise.

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”.

Mark Hoofnagle on climate change denial

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From The Guardian

At denialism blog we have identified five routine tactics that should set your pseudo-science alarm bells ringing. Spotting them doesn’t guarantee an argument is incorrect – you can argue for true things badly – but when these are the arguments you hear, be on your guard.

• First is the assertion of a conspiracy to suppress the truth. This conspiracy invariably fails to address or explain the data or observation but only generates more unexplained questions.

But let us think about such conspiracies for a moment. Do they stand up to even a cursory evaluation? Is it really possible to make thousands of scientists, from over 100 countries, and every national academy of every country toe the same line, falsify data, and suppress this alleged dissent? I certainly didn’t get the memo. At the heart of all denialism are these absurd conspiracy theories that require a superhuman level of control of individuals that simply defies reality.

• The second tactic is selectivity, or cherry-picking the data. Creationists classically would quote scientists out of context to suggest they disagreed with evolution. Global warming denialists similarly engage in this tactic, harping on about long discredited theories and the medieval warming period ad nauseum. But these instances are too numerous and tedious to go into in depth.

• Instead, let’s talk about the third tactic, the use of fake experts, where both creationists and global warming denialists truly shine. Creationists have their Dissent from Darwin list of questionable provenance. Similarly, global warming denialist extraordinaire has his list of climate scientists who disagree with global warming.

But don’t look too close! Lots of his big names are the same hacks who used to deny that cigarettes cause cancer for the tobacco companies, others are scientists who are wrongly included because they said something that was quoted out of context, others simply have no credibility as experts on climate like TV weathermen. But the desire of denialists to gain legitimacy by the numbers of scientists (or whoever they can find with letters after their name) used remains despite their contempt for the science they disagree with.

• The fourth tactic – moving goalposts or impossible expectations – is the tendency to refuse to accept when denialists’ challenges to the science have been addressed. Instead, they just come up with new challenges for you to prove before they say they’ll believe the theory. Worse, they just repeat their challenges over and over again ad nauseum.

This may be their most frustrating tactic because every time you think you’ve satisfied a challenge, they just invent a new one. The joke in evolutionary biology is that every time you find a transitional fossil all you do is create two new gaps on the fossil record, one on either side of the discovery. Similarly with global warming denialism, there is no end to the challenges that denialists claim they need to have satisfied before they’ll come on board.

It’s important to recognise that you shouldn’t play their game. They’ll never be satisfied because they simply don’t want to believe the science – for ideological reasons. In the US, global warming denialism usually stems from free-market fundamentalism that is terrified of regulation and any suggestion there should be control of business.

• Finally, the fifth tactic is the catch-all of logical fallacies. You know you’ve heard them. Al Gore is fat! His house uses lots of energy! Evolutionary biologists are mean! God of the gaps, reasoning by analogy, ad hominem, you name it, these arguments, while emotionally appealing, have no impact on the validity of the science.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 13, 2009 at 1:00 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.