Archive for the ‘denialism’ Category
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
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…
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
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.
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”.
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.
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.
Having disproved man-made global warming, refuted Darwin’s theory of evolution, and proved that white asbestos is “chemically identical to talcum powder”, Christopher Booker this week returned to one of his favourite themes, the all-round-general-beastliness of the BBC.
…while the BBC was refusing to show an appeal for aid to the victims of Israeli bombing in Gaza, on the grounds that this might breach its charter obligation to be impartial, a rather less publicised row was raging over Newsnight’s doctoring of film of President Obama’s inaugural speech, which was used to support yet another of its items promoting the warming scare. Clips from the speech were spliced together to convey a considerably stronger impression of what Obama had said on global warming than his very careful wording justified. While that may have been unprofessional enough, the rest of the item, by Newsnight’s science editor, Susan Watts, was even more bizarre. It was no more than a paean of gratitude that we now at last have a president prepared to listen to the “science” on climate change, after the dark age of religious obscurantism personified by President Bush.
For the record, the full text of Obama’s inaugural address, including his comments on global warming, can be read here.
People commonly referred to as “AIDS denialists” tend to prefer the description “AIDS sceptics”, “AIDS rethinkers” or “AIDS dissidents”, with some regarding “AIDS denialism” as a pejorative term, on a par with racial slurs.
Chris and Mark Hoofnagle define denialism as:
the employment of rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none. These false arguments are used when one has few or no facts to support one’s viewpoint against a scientific consensus or against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They are effective in distracting from actual useful debate using emotionally appealing, but ultimately empty and illogical assertions.
If “pejorative” is defined as “having a disparaging, derogatory, or belittling effect or force”, then “AIDS denialist” would certainly seem to fit the bill – but does that mean that it’s wrong to use the term?
It seems to me that this really depends on whether or not “denialism” is an accurate description of the behaviour of the people-commonly-known-as-AIDS-denialists. There are plenty of terms in our language that have a disparaging meaning – “liar”, “alarmist”, “criminal”, “conspiracy theorist”, “bigot”, “crank” etc. – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s always wrong to use them. It would clearly be unfair to describe as a”liar” someone who had lived a life of impeccable honesty. But where a person appears knowingly to have engaged in a systematic campaign of deception, an insistence on the use of a neutral, non-perjorative, term to describe them and their behaviour would actually be a watering down of the truth, and may even be seized on as a validation of their actions.
This is really the problem I have with labels like “AIDS sceptic” (or “AIDS skeptic”). The website “UK-skeptics” defines “skepticism” as “an honest search for knowledge”. To describe those who deny the evidence linking HIV and AIDS as “sceptics” seems therefore to presuppose that they are both honest, and genuinely searching for knowledge (rather than seeking to defend a particular ideological position), which many would dispute.
The term “AIDS dissident” is arguably even worse, conjuring, as it does, images of Soviet-era democracy campaigners being rounded up and imprisoned for speaking the truth to a dogmatic, authoritarian establishment. Those battling to convince the world that HIV is not the cause of AIDS may well see themselves in a similar light, but in reality there have been no jailings or show trials – and 101 badly-formatted websites testify to the unfettered freedom with which the self-described “dissidents” have been able to make their case.
“AIDS rethinker” is perhaps the least objectionable term – but again its accuracy seems questionable, as it suggests a willingness to rethink one’s ideas which many would argue is precisely what is lacking in those who deny the link between AIDS and HIV. It also seems rather broad. AIDS scientists are continually rethinking and redeveloping their ideas about the disease as new data comes along, and could therefore quite reasonably be described as “AIDS rethinkers” too. If we’re looking for an alternative term that uniquely identifies those commonly referred to as “AIDS denialists”, then “AIDS rethinker” seems to obfuscate matters rather than clarify them.
None of the commonly-used terms for describing those who deny the link between HIV and AIDS seem to me to be value-neutral. “AIDS denialist” is a term with negative connotations – but I’m not sure that this matters. If those negative connotations are justified, then the term is accurate. And when we’re dealing with a problem as serious as HIV and AIDS, accuracy is arguably more important than sparing the feelings of a group of dangerous and misguided people.
Is it wrong to highlight the deaths of HIV-positive AIDS denialists who reject medications and urge others to do the same?
In “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, I look at the role played by the media in promoting dangerous pseudo-scientific ideas under the guise of “balance” in reporting. From the mid-1950s onwards, there was a clear consensus among scientists, based on very strong epidemiological evidence, that smoking caused lung cancer. Yet for several decades, many journalists insisted on “balancing” their reports on each new piece of research with a quote from an industry-funded scientist insisting that the case remained “unproven”.
The tobacco industry’s strategy from an early stage was not to deny outright that smoking was harmful, but to maintain that there were “two sides to the story”. In January 1954, the industry issued its now-famous “Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” – a full-page advertisement published in 50 major newspapers across the US.
“Recent reports on experiments with mice have given wide publicity to a theory that cigarette smoking is in some way linked with lung cancer in human beings”
the industry noted.
“Although conducted by doctors of professional standing, these experiments are not regarded as conclusive in the field of cancer research… we feel it is in the public interest to call attention to the fact that eminent doctors and research scientists have publicly questioned the claimed significance of these experiments.”
The strategy played cleverly to the media’s penchant for “controversy”, and proved remarkably successful. Long after the matter had been decisively settled among scientists, public uncertainty around the effects of smoking endured.
US cigarette sales continued rising until the mid-1970s – and it was only in the 1990s – four decades after the scientific case had been clearly established – that lung cancer rates began to tail off. Harvard Medical Historian Allan M Brandt has described the tobacco industry’s public deception – in which many mainstream journalists were complicit – as “the crime of the century”:
It is now estimated that more that 100 million people worldwide died of tobacco-related diseases over the last hundred years. Although it could be argued that for the first half of the century the industry was not fully aware of the health effects of cigarettes, by the 1950s there was categorical scientific evidence of the harms of smoking.
The motivations of the AIDS denialists may be very different, but their rhetoric and tactics are strikingly similar. During the early 1990s, Sunday Times medical correspondent Neville Hodgkinson was bamboozled into running a series of articles – over a period of two years – claiming that:
“a growing number of senior scientists are challenging the idea that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes AIDS”…
“This sensational possibility, now being contemplated by numerous doctors, scientists and others intimately concerned with the fight against the disease, deserves the widest possible examination and debate.”
Hodgkinson declared in December 1993.
“Yet it has been largely ignored by the British media and suppressed almost entirely in the United States… The science establishment considers itself on high moral ground, defending a theory that has enormous public health implications against the ‘irresponsible’ questioning of a handful of journalists. Their concern is human and understandable, even if we might expect our leading scientists to retain more concern for the truth while pursuing public health objectives.”
As with the tobacco industry’s “scepticism” over the link between smoking and cancer, the views promoted by Hodgkinson tended to focus on gaps in the established explanation (many of which have since been filled) rather than on any empirical research showing an alternative cause. But he did use one of the recurrent rhetorical motifs of the AIDS denial movement – highlighting the case of an HIV-positive “AIDS dissident” who refused to take anti-retroviral drugs but remained healthy.
Jody Wells has been HIV-positive since 1984. He was diagnosed as having AIDS in 1986. Today, seven years on, he says he feels fine with energy levels that belie his 52 years. He does not take the anti-HIV drug AZT…
He feels so strongly about the issue that he works up to 18 hours a day establishing a fledgling charity called Continuum, “an organisation for long-term survivors of HIV and AIDS and people who want to be”. Founded late last year, the group already has 600 members.
Continuum emphasises nutritional and lifestyle approaches to combating AIDS, arguing that these factors have been grossly neglected in the 10 years since Dr. Robert Gallo declared HIV to be the cause of AIDS.
Tragically – if predictably – Jody Wells was dead within three years of the article being written.
Although Hodgkinson left the Sunday Times in 1994, his articles on the “AIDS controversy” continued to be disseminated online, lending valuable credibility to the denialist cause – and have been credited with influencing Thabo Mbeki’s embrace of AIDS denial in the early part of this decade.
When, in 2000, President Mbeki invited several leading denialists to join his advisory panel on HIV and AIDS, Hodgkinson was one among a number who published articles in the South African media praising the decision. Writing in the New African, Hodgkinson called for “a humble, open, inquiring approach on all sides of this debate” – whilst simultaneously declaring that “AZT is a poison” and denouncing “the bankruptcy of AIDS science”.
Hodgkinson also wrote for Continuum’s magazine, which, following Jody Wells’ death was edited by HIV-positive medication refusnik Huw Christie. Christie defiantly launched the “Jody Wells Memorial Prize” (recently satirised here by Seth Kalichman) offering £1,000 to anyone who could prove to his satisfaction that HIV was real.
The magazine finally folded in 2001, with the Jody Wells Memorial Prize still on offer, after Huw Christie died from a disease which fellow denialists insisted was not AIDS-related. “Neither of your illnesses would have brought you down, Huw”, wrote Christie’s friend Michael Baumgartner in 2001. “You simply ran out of time to change gear. We both knew it did not need some ill-identified virus to explain your several symptoms”.
“Huw’s devotion to life has no doubt contributed to a better understanding of AIDS and he saved many who, without hearing a skeptical voice, would have been stampeded down the path of pharmaceutical destruction”
wrote HIV-positive San Francisco AIDS “dissident” David Pasquarelli.
“I readily acknowledge that if it wasn’t for the work of Huw and handful of other AIDS dissidents, I would not be alive today”.
Pasquarelli died at the age of 36 three years later.
The same document includes a tribute from Christine Maggiore, another HIV-positive AIDS “sceptic” who famously rejected medication, and publicly urged others to do the same. As has been widely reported, Maggiore died last month of an illness commonly associated with AIDS.
Connie Howard, writing in today’s edition of VUE Weekly, finds the reaction to Maggiore’s passing distasteful, claiming that: “some AIDS activists are celebrating—not her death exactly, but celebrating a point for their team nonetheless”.
Howard suggests, echoing Hodgkinson, that “Many HIV-positive people who choose an alternative holistic health route defy all odds and stay well and symptom-free for decades”, and that she has “talked to HIV-positive people living well—really well—without drugs.”
According to Howard:
“it’s time that choice and discussion become possible without hate instantly becoming the most potent ingredient in the mix… The vitriol delivered the way of both dissidents and the reporters telling the stories of the dissidents is a crime… Christine Maggiore deserves to have chosen her own path and to be respected for it.”
AIDS denialists and their sympathisers often accuse mainstream AIDS researchers of not being open to “discussion” or “debate”. Yet meaningful discussion is only possible when both sides are operating in good faith. The problem with AIDS and HIV is that the evidence linking the two is so overwhelmingly strong that the only way to maintain a consistently denialist position is to engage in “bogus scepticism” – arbitrarily dismissing good evidence that undermines one’s favoured viewpoint, misrepresenting genuine research in order to create the appearance of controversy where there is none, seeking to give unpublished amateur research equal status with peer-reviewed studies by professional scientists, and treating minor uncertainties in the established theory as if they were knock-down refutations. In such circumstances, reasoned debate simply becomes impossible.
Howard doesn’t specify which AIDS activists she believes “view the death of an AIDS dissident as a victory” or have celebrated Maggiore’s passing, so it’s difficult to evaluate the truth of that particular claim.
But the notion that everyone is duty bound to “respect” Christine Maggiore’s decision to embrace AIDS denial – and counsel others to do the same – does seem a tad problematic.
What Howard chooses not to tell her readers is that Maggiore’s denial extended not only to refusing medical treatment for herself – she also declined to take measures to mitigate the risk of transmission to her young daughter, Eliza Jane, and refused to have her tested or treated for HIV. When Eliza Jane died in 2005 of what a public coroner concluded was AIDS-related pneumonia, Maggiore refused to accept the result, attacked the coroner’s credibility, and claimed that the verdict was biased.
Missing too, is any reference to South Africa, where Maggiore travelled in 2000 to promote her ideas on AIDS and HIV. Maggiore is said to have personally influenced Thabo Mbeki’s decision to block the provision of anti-retroviral drugs to HIV-positive pregnant women. A Harvard study recently concluded that this decision alone resulted in 35,000 more babies being infected with HIV than would otherwise have been the case. Overall, the study concluded, Mbeki’s denialist policies had led to more than 300,000 preventable deaths.
If the Harvard researchers are correct, then AIDS denialism – of which Christine Maggiore was a vocal proponent – has already caused many more deaths than did the war in Bosnia during the early 1990s. Yet the only “crime” that Connie Howard seems prepared to acknowledge in relation to AIDS and HIV is the ill-feeling directed towards Christine Maggiore, her fellow “dissidents”, and the journalists who give space to their denialist views – views which have repeatedly been shown to be based not on science, but on “selective reading of the scientific literature, dismissing evidence… requiring impossibly definitive proof, and dismissing outright studies marked by inconsequential weaknesses”.
Should we “respect” a person’s decision to refuse medical treatment, even if that leads to their own premature death? Arguably we should. But should we also respect that same person’s decision, on ideological grounds, to deny medical treatment to a young child, with fatal consequences? Should we respect their decision to support a pseudo-scientific campaign denying the established facts about a serious public health issue, when that campaign results in hundreds of thousands of deaths?
It is surely possible to agree that Christine Maggiore’s premature death was an appalling human tragedy, whilst pointing out that she was nonetheless dangerously misguided – and that the manner of her passing makes the tragedy all the more poignant.
Christine Maggiore, Jody Wells, Huw Christie, and David Pasquarelli form part of a grim roll-call of HIV-positive medication refusniks who chose to argue publicly that the state of their health cast doubt on the established science around AIDS and HIV, and then went on to die from the disease. For AIDS activists to remain silent in such circumstances would be a dereliction of duty. Publicly highlighting the human cost of AIDS denial, so that similar deaths may be prevented in future, must surely take precedence over showing “respect” to dangerously misguided people, however tragic the circumstances of their demise.
From The Guardian
In Saturday’s Telegraph, Christopher Booker and Richard North published a long article appropriately titled “Speed cameras: the twisted truth”. A sharp decline in the death rate on the roads suddenly slowed down in the mid-1990s. They attribute this to the government’s new focus on enforcing the speed limits, especially by erecting speed cameras. What they fail to mention is that deaths started falling sharply again in 2003, after the number of speed cameras had doubled in three years…
Their article is a long catalogue of intellectual dishonesty. In support of their claims that speed cameras are worse than useless, they also use a report by the House of Commons transport committee. It said, they maintain, that “an obsession with cameras was responsible for a ‘deplorable’ drop in the number of officers patrolling Britain’s roads”. It says nothing of the kind, and the word “deplorable” does not feature anywhere. But here’s what it does contain: “Well-placed cameras bring tremendous safety benefits at excellent cost-benefit ratios. A more cost-effective measure for reducing speeds and casualties has yet to be introduced.” Booker and North also lay into one of my columns. That’s fair enough: it’s a national sport. But to make their narrative more convincing they alter the date of the column by a year. Their claims about speed cameras, like much of the material in their new book, are pure junk science, cherrypicking the helpful results and ignoring the inconvenient ones.
Comedian Bill Maher on Maggiore’s book “What If Everything You Thought You Knew about AIDS Was Wrong?”
One of the most striking features of the tragic life of AIDS denialist Christine Maggiore was her success in gaining high-profile support, perhaps most famously from Dave Grohl’s iconic band the Foo Fighters. Less well-publicised, if equally surprising, was the resounding endorsement given to Maggiore’s book, What If Everything You Thought You Knew about AIDS Was Wrong?, by the outspoken libertarian comedian Bill Maher.
“This is a book everyone should read, and not a moment too soon! One of the most corrosive flaws in America is our tendency toward conformity; in the quest to understand AIDS, it has been stifling. Christine Maggiore prompts the kind of questioning that is the lifeblood of scientific inquiry.”
The book has been described elsewhere as “unscholarly, misleading in its presentation of existing evidence and data”, and “based on speculation with no solid evidence to back up claims”.
I believe that most reporters in the media do really want to get it right. However, they are hobbled by three things. First, many, if not most, of them have little training in science or the scientific method and are not particularly valued by their employers. For example, witness how CNN shut down their science division. Second, the only medical or science stories that seem to be valued are one of three types. The first type is the new breakthrough, the cool new discovery that might result in a new treatment or cure. Of course, this type doesn’t distinguish between science-based and non-science-based “breakthroughs.” They are both treated equally, which is why “alternative medicine” stories are so popular. The second type is the human interest story, which is inherently interesting to readers, listeners, or viewers because, well, it’s full of human interest. This sort of story involves the child fighting against long odds to get a needed transplant, for example, especially if the insurance company is refusing to pay for it. The third type, unfortunately, often coopts the second type and, to a lesser extent, the first type. I’m referring to the “medical controversy” story. Unfortunately, the “controversy” is usually more of a manufactroversy. In other words, it’s a fake controversy. No scientific controversy exists, but ideologues desperately try to make it appear as though a real scientific controversy exists. Non-medical examples include creationism versus evolution and the “9/11 Truth” movement versus history. Medical examples include the so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” movement versus science-based medicine and, of course, the anti-vaccine movement.
From Dean’s World
I don’t want to bring anything loud or contentious to Christine’s memory, or provide a feeding ground for those few vultures whose egos remain tied up in their insatiable death wishes, not only those they projected onto Christine, but onto all HIV positive people they wish to enslave with their cult of fear, and deprive of the fundamental human right to make their own choices.
Christine lived with a (fluctuating) positive HIV status for almost 17 years, not only healthy, but as leader for those who felt voiceless and powerless. She represented, and stood for the highest ideals of truth-seeking, life, love, health, and freedom from tyranny. She represented herself in all that she wrote, said, and enacted, each day that she lived. I defy anybody to find one instance of Christine Maggiore communicating malevolence or ill-will toward any human being, no matter what they had done to her. I also defy anybody to find one example in which her attackers chose to treat her with respect, fairness, dignity, or decency. Find one.
Our actions and words define us. We all get to draw the image of our own face, slowly, into the world around us, and by the time we die, that face will be defined, and it we’re lucky, we will be loved and missed and remembered for who we really were, and wanted to be. We live on in the memory of others. I have been deeply moved by the floods of letters and emails and calls I have been getting from people all around the world who Christine inspired and touched and helped.
From Dean’s World
The news has been shattering to all who loved her around the world. Speaking for myself, I can say that Christine Maggiore was one of the strongest, most ethical, compassionate, intelligent, brave, funny, and decent human beings I have ever had the honor to know. I spoke to her in great depth about all aspects of life, death, love, and this battle we both found ourselves mired in, and I will be writing about her and about those conversations here, in the future. No matter what she was going through, and it was always, frankly, sheer hell–every day of her life, since 2005, she faced, acute grief, sadistic persecution, wild injustice, relentless battle, and deep betrayal–she was always there for her friends, and she never descended to human ugliness. She always tried to take the high road. She always tried to be stronger than any human being could ever be asked to be. I feared for her life, always. I feared the battle would kill her, as I have felt it could kill me, if I couldn’t find enough beauty to offset the malevolence. This is a deeply occult battle, and Christine got caught in its darkest shadows.
She had apparently been on a radical cleansing and detox regimen that had sickened her and left her very weak, dehydrated, and unable to breathe. She was shortly thereafter diagnosed with pneumonia and placed on IV antibiotics and rehydration. But she didn’t make it.
Those who loved her, as I did, have our own interpretations of what ultimately killed her–a combination of unrelenting heartbreak and the effect of being subject to a constant, unrelenting media driven hate campaign, despite the complete legal clearing of her name in the death of her daughter Eliza Jane in 2005, who died after taking an antibiotic, and whose cause of death has been tortuously debated. Christine and her husband Robin were denied the right to adopt a child, or foster a child, due to a single article in the L.A. Times which cast her as a murderer.
From Liberal Conspiracy
Rejoice, people! Whatever you may’ve read, however many chilling predictions you may have heard, however frequently Al Gore might haunt your dreams, telling you that the world will end in a torrent of fire because YOU don’t use energy-saving lightbulbs, I can promise that all those fears are unfounded. For as people across the world glance at 2009 with such foreboding and dread, Christopher Booker has made the jolly discovery that instead of getting much, much worse, climate change doesn’t actually exist all!
Now, I understand that there’s a great deal of misinformation out there in BlogLand, and since I’m not a scientist (well, neither is he, but he sure seems to know a lot more than ‘real scientists’), I have to make sure that all my sources are of the highest calibre. So I did whatever any forensic time-deprived blogger would do, and checked him out on Wikipedia. Without further ado, and just to show how seriously you should take his scientific acumen, here are some of Booker’s greatest hits…
Throughout the 1960s, the tobacco industry famously spent millions promoting a small group of vociferous “sceptics” who, in the face of overwhelming evidence, continued to deny the link between smoking and cancer. The strategy paid off. Long after a clear scientific consensus had emerged, much of the public still believed that the case remained unproven.
In a sceptical age, even those disseminating wholly bogus ideas – from corporate pseudo-science to 9/11 conspiracy theories – will often seek to appropriate the language of rational inquiry. But there is a meaningful difference between being a “sceptic” and being in denial. The genuine sceptic forms his beliefs through a balanced evaluation of the evidence. The sceptic of the bogus variety cherry-picks evidence on the basis of a pre-existing belief, seizing on data, however tenuous, that supports his position, and yet declaring himself “sceptical” of any evidence, however compelling, that undermines it.
While it is easy to guess the motivations of an industry-funded scientist denying the dangers posed by his commercial sponsor, or a far-right historian expressing “scepticism” about the Holocaust, other cases are more puzzling. It is difficult to explain why, for example, a respected academic would dismiss the mountain of proof that HIV causes Aids. But several have, notably the Berkeley virologist Peter Duesberg.
HIV is a type of “retrovirus”. Duesberg has argued for decades that retroviruses rarely, if ever, harm their hosts. Rather than modify this theory in the light of evidence that one such virus was killing millions, Duesberg in the late 1980s announced his “scepticism” about that evidence, and has stuck to his guns ever since.
Early on, these ideas found a receptive audience among HIV sufferers, desperate for an alternative prognosis. The cause was later taken up by conspiracy theorists convinced that Aids was a money-spinning fabrication of the global pharmaceutical industry.
In South Africa, at the beginning of this decade, Aids scepticism gained currency with a political class dismayed at the prices being charged for life-saving medicines. Under the influence of Duesberg and his fellow “dissidents”, Thabo Mbeki’s government chose to delay for several years public provision of anti-HIV drugs. The economist Nicoli Nattrass estimates that this decision – made amid one of the world’s worst Aids epidemics – may already have cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
Bogus scepticism does not centre on an impartial search for the truth, but on a no-holds-barred defence of a preconceived ideological position. The bogus sceptic is thus, in reality, a disguised dogmatist, made all the more dangerous for his success in appropriating the mantle of the unbiased and open-minded inquirer.
Richard Wilson’s “Don’t Get Fooled Again” is out now, published by Icon Books (£12.99)
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
www.whatstheharm.net is a website devoted to highlighting the damage that can be done by bogus ideas.
“Not all information is created equal”, say the site’s creators. “Some of it is correct. Some of it is incorrect. Some of it is carefully balanced. Some of it is heavily biased. Some of it is just plain crazy. It is vital in the midst of this deluge that each of us be able to sort through all of this, keeping the useful information and discarding the rest.”
The website focuses on cases where a lack of critical thinking has had deadly results. One of the key case studies is a grim roll-call of HIV-positive AIDS denialists who have died after deciding to stop taking the anti-retroviral drugs that could have saved their lives.
In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I look in detail at the roots of AIDS denialism, and the impact that it has had – not only on its adherents, but on the thousands who have been affected by the stranglehold that this bogus theory gained over AIDS policy in South Africa.
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, David Irving enjoyed a kind of rogueish mainstream appeal as a “controversial historian”, whose iconoclastic views on Nazi Germany were ruffling feathers in academic circles. Irving had, on the basis of his claimed expertise, dismissed historical accounts about Auschwitz as “baloney”, claimed that the gas chambers never existed, and ridiculed the testimony of holocaust survivors. Many respectable historians who rejected Irving’s political views praised him nonetheless as a good “historian of fascism”, whose historical work deserved to be taken seriously. But all of this changed in 2000, with the conclusion of a libel trial, triggered by Irving’s decision to sue the writer Deborah Lipstadt for describing him as a “holocaust denier”.
It was a decision that backfired, catastrophically. In a damning judgement, Lord Justice Gray rejected Irving’s complaint, concluding that: “He is an active Holocaust denier, anti-Semitic, racist and associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism”. Gray found that “Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence… For the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews.”
During the trial, a team led by the eminent historian Richard Evans had painstakingly gone through four decades-worth of Irving’s work. Evans had, he said been shocked at the “sheer depth of duplicity” he found. Irving had, he concluded, “fallen so far short of the standards of scholarship customary among historians that he doesn’t deserve to be called a historian at all”. Evans was able to show how Irving had, right from the earliest stages of his career in the 1960s, systematically misrepresented the historical sources that he cited in support of his arguments, even as praise was being heaped on him for the quality of his work.
The David Irving is both a prime example of “pseudo-history”, but also as an illustration of how easy it can be for bogus experts to gain uncritical acceptance in the mainstream. In Don’t Get Fooled Again I look at the similarity between Irving’s bogus work and other forms of “denialism” - from the insidious cult of “AIDS denial” to the smoke and mirrors put out by the cigarette industry during the 1960s and 1970s in an attempt to misrepresent the risks from tobacco.
The full ruling from Lord Justice Gray in the Irving vs Lipstadt libel case can be read here.