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Archive for the ‘Truthiness’ Category

Online poll: Should the Daily Express stop using misleading polls to whip up racial tension in Britain?

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Harsh words from poll guru Anthony Wells:

I might as well waste a few pixels being horrid to the Daily Express, which today claims 98% of people think Britain should close its doors to all new immigrants. It seems almost superfluous to point out that almost any survey in the Express is complete tripe…  Express “phone polls” are premium rate numbers they put in the paper, to get people to ring up to vote yes or no (multiple times if they wish), presumably after reading a foam-flecked Express rant on the subject in question. There is obviously no attempt to get a representative sample and they always show around 97%, 98% in agreement with whatever the Express’s line is….

This raises an obvious question, for which an online poll is surely the best vehicle for providing an answer…

Written by Richard Wilson

November 1, 2013 at 10:21 pm

Robin Esser: An apology

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In an article published yesterday on this website, I invited readers to vote on whether the Daily Mail’s Executive Managing Editor Robin Esser was a “total fliphead” or an “utter nincompoop”.

In comments elsewhere, I said or strongly implied that “total fliphead” was a truthful and appropriate description of Mr Esser. Following the results of the poll, I now accept that this description was inaccurate and wrong. A clear majority of respondents (57% at the time of writing) have concluded that Mr Esser is not, in fact a “total fliphead” but an “utter nincompoop”.

I apologise unreservedly for any offence that these comments may have caused, both to Robin Esser himself and to any total flipheads who felt tainted by this association with Mr Esser and his newspaper. I withdraw the allegation and am happy to set the record straight.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 13, 2010 at 7:58 am

Steve Salerno on the perils of “positive thinking”

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From The Skeptic

Like many of the touchy-feely messages that flood modern America, The Secret is about the rejection of the “inconvenient” truths of the physical world. In the broad culture, science and logic have fallen out of fashion. We are, after all, a people who increasingly abandon orthodox medicine for mind-body regimens whose own advocates not only refuse to cite clinical proof, but dismiss science itself as “disempowering.” (The rallying cry that “you have within you the energies you need to heal” is one reason why visits to practitioners of all forms of alternative medicine now outnumber visits to traditional family doctors by a margin approaching two-to-one.) What I find most remarkable about The Secret, however, is that it somehow mainstreamed the solipsistic “life is whatever you think it is” mindset that once was associated with mental illnesses like schizophrenia. The Secret was (and remains) the perfect totem for its time, uniquely captivating two polar generations: Baby Boomers reaching midlife en masse and desperate to unshackle themselves from everything they’ve been until now; and young adults weaned on indulgent parenting and — especially — indulgent schooling.

Indeed, if there was a watershed moment in modern positive thinking, it would have to be the 1970s advent of self-esteem-based education: a broad-scale social experiment that made lab rats out of millions of American children. At the time, it was theorized that a healthy ego would help students achieve greatness (even if the mechanisms required to instill self-worth “temporarily” undercut traditional scholarship). Though back then no one really knew what self-esteem did or didn’t do, the nation’s educational brain trust nonetheless assumed that the more kids had of it, the better.

It followed that almost everything about the scholastic experience was reconfigured to support ego development and positivity about learning and life. To protect students from the ignominy of failure, schools softened criteria so that far fewer children could fail. Grading on a curve became more commonplace, even at the lowest levels; community-based standards replaced national benchmarks. Red ink began disappearing from students’ papers as administrators mandated that teachers make corrections in less “stigmatizing” colors. Guidance counselors championed the cause of “social promotion,” wherein underperforming grade-schoolers — instead of being left back — are passed along to the next level anyway, to keep them with their friends of like age.

There ensued a wholesale celebration of mediocrity: Schools abandoned their honor rolls, lest they bruise the feelings of students who failed to make the cut. Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled … and More Miserable Than Ever Before, tells of pizza parties that “used to be only for children who made A’s, but in recent years the school has invited every child who simply passed.” (Twenge also writes of teachers who were discouraged from making corrections that might rob a student of his pride as an “individual speller.”) Banned were schoolyard games that inherently produced winners and losers; there could be no losers in this brave new world of positive vibes.

Amid all this, kids’ shirts and blouses effectively became bulletin boards for a hodge-podge of ribbons, pins and awards that commemorated everything but real achievement. Sometimes, the worse the grades, the more awards a student got, under the theory that in order to make at-risk kids excel, you first had to make them feel optimistic and empowered.

…Tellingly, when psychologists Harold Stevenson and James Stigler compared the academic skills of grade-school students in three Asian nations to those of their U.S. peers, the Asians easily outdid the Americans — but when the same students then were asked to rate their academic prowess, the American kids expressed much higher self-appraisals than their foreign counterparts. In other words, U.S. students gave themselves high marks for lousy work. Stevenson and Stigler saw this skew as the fallout from the backwards emphasis in American classrooms; the Brookings Institution 2006 Brown Center Report on Education also found that nations in which families and schools emphasize self-esteem cannot compete academically with cultures where the emphasis is on learning, period.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 3, 2009 at 3:00 pm

HRW investigator smeared by UK government’s “unnamed sources”

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From The Observer:

Does “on the ground female human rights worker” equate with “slut” these days? Are they perceived as wandering around war zones in cocktail dresses slashed to the thigh, hungry for the next thrill, perhaps a hunky military man to devour, humming the old toe-tapper I Love a Man in Uniform? Or could it be possible that these women pour all their passion and intensity into their jobs?

I only ask because of the curious case of Rachel Reid, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Afghanistan. Last week, it emerged that a senior army officer, Colonel Owen McNally, had been arrested under the Official Secrets Act for allegedly passing classified information to a human rights worker. Unnamed sources were quick to inform the media that McNally was known to be “close” to Reid, who had divulged the secrets after she “befriended him”.

Writing in response, Reid says that, far from being “close” to McNally, she met him twice professionally at the military HQ in Kabul to discuss civilian casualties. (Interestingly, Reid had angered Nato by pointing out that these deaths had tripled between 2006-7.)

Now Reid is horrified that her reputation has been dragged through the mud when she is living in a country “where a woman’s reputation can mean her life”. She is devastated by the “vicious slur” leaked to the media, saying: “They knew exactly what impression they were creating.” Quite. And is anyone else getting deja vu?

As McNally’s investigation is still going on, the full facts have yet to emerge. However, to me, this seems eerily reminiscent of Andy Burnham’s description of MP David Davies and Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti’s “late-night, hand-wringing, heart-melting phone calls” last year.

Intended or not, the impression given was that Chakrabarti and Davies were steaming up Westminster’s windows about more than the 42-day detention period. Briefly but indelibly, Chakrabati was no longer just a human rights professional, she was a femme fatale, pouting and wriggling through the corridors of power.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 8, 2009 at 12:51 pm

God, Tony and Torture

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From The Observer

When I talk to people at very senior levels in government, I don’t find them willing to put a hand on heart and swear that British agents were never complicit in torture. British and American intelligence are closely enmeshed; it stretches credulity to snapping point that no one in the Blair government knew what was being perpetrated.

On the same day that the foreign secretary was facing accusations of a cover-up, Tony Blair was in Washington wearing his faith on his sleeve. At a “prayer breakfast” with Barack Obama, the former prime minister made more than 30 mentions of God and declared: “We pray that in acting we do God’s work and follow God’s will.”

Only God knows how Tony Blair reconciles his conscience with his role in this disgraceful period. It was not as if the Bush administration made much pretence about it. “Bad things happen to bad people,” baldly declared Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Did Tony Blair never ask what was going on? If he did not ask, was it because he knew he would not like the answer? His own law officers were highly uncomfortable with the legal black hole created at Guantánamo. Charlie Falconer, not only his lord chancellor but also one of his closest allies, tried to persuade his friend to raise his voice in opposition. He failed. “An anomaly” was all Mr Blair would ever say about Camp Delta when he was prime minister.

The true extent to which British officials colluded in torture is yet to be established. In terms of ethical complicity, I think we can already begin to return a verdict. As the God-fearing Tony Blair knows, there are sins of commission and there are sins of omission. “We have condoned with our silence torture committed by others,” says Charles Guthrie, his favourite general.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 8, 2009 at 8:39 am

Booker attacks… BBC Newsnight science editor Susan Watts

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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.

See also: In his 41st article on the subject, Booker accuses the BBC of “moral corruption” for highlighting the health risks of asbestos

Magic man done it?! – Christopher Booker critiques Darwin’s theory of evolution…

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From The Spectator:

The greatest stumbling block to [Darwin's] argument was that evolution has repeatedly taken place in leaps forward so sudden and so complex that they could not possibly have been accounted for by the gradual process he suggested — the ‘Cambrian explosion’ of new life forms, the complexities of the eye, the post-Cretaceous explosion of mammals. Again and again some new development emerged which required a whole mass of interdependent changes to take place simultaneously, such as the transformation of reptiles into feathered, hollow-boned and warm-blooded birds.

As even Darwin himself acknowledged, these jumps in the story might have seemed to render his thesis ‘absurd’. He might therefore have hypothesised that some other critically important factor seemed to be at work, some ‘organising power’ which had allowed these otherwise inexplicable leaps to take place. But so possessed was he by the elegant simplicity of his theory that, waving such thoughts aside, he made a leap of faith that it must be right, regardless of the evidence — and in the increasingly materialistic mid-19th century, his thesis was an idea whose time had come. Thus has his belief that life evolved solely through a material process continued to possess the minds of scientists to this day.

…and now here’s Robin Ince with an alternative take:

Cheney makes an early start on his “too ill to stand trial” defence…

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pinochet

Compare…                                                                     …and contrast.

Written by Richard Wilson

January 20, 2009 at 9:14 pm

Murray claims victory in phoney libel war with Aegis tycoon…

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From Craig Murray’s website

After just two days, a Google search on the precise phrase “The Catholic Orangemen of Togo brings up 1,810 hits. A great many of these lead to a free download of the book. 23,000 copies of Murder in Samarkand have been sold so far, and most of those have been read by more than one person. But readership of The Catholic Orangemen looks likely to overtake in two weeks the readership that Murder in Samarkand achieved in two years…

Now what of Tim Spicer? Having put the very expensive Schillings on to me, he has either discovered a new commitment to free speech, or he was bluffing. No injunctions have appeared at my home in Sinclair Gardens. So now Spicer has either to sue, or stand revealed to the World as a man who tried to bully the truth out of print.

He will not sue, no matter how much I goad him. Not even if I show him some of my own legal advice:

There is no doubt that Craig is telling the truth. I do not say this because on any question of fact I would believe Craig over Spicer, though that is the case. The simple fact is that Craig can corroborate his story whilst Spicer can’t… Since the comments Craig makes about Spicer are true I would have thought it most unlikely that Spicer would risk bringing a libel action against Craig. This is not just because in a situation where Craig can corroborate what he says whilst Spicer can’t the odds overwhelmingly point to Craig winning. It is because of the serious consequences for Spicer if he were to bring such a case and lost. These would go far beyond damage to reputation and financial loss. If a Court were to find that Craig had not libelled Spicer because Craig was telling the truth, Spicer could find himself once again facing criminal charges for illegal arms trading. His defence (that the the Foreign Office in the person of Craig had given him the green light) would be shot to pieces since it would already have been discredited in advance by the libel Court. The CPS would be looking at an open goal and this time it might be difficult to do what was done back in 1998 and simply close the prosecution down…

See also: Diplomat at the centre of “Arms to Africa” affair braves libel threats and Dog of war builds £62m business on Iraq

Written by Richard Wilson

January 14, 2009 at 10:26 pm

Booker’s bogus claims about… Speed cameras

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From The Guardian

In Saturday’s Telegraph, Christopher Booker and Richard North published a long article appropriately titled “Speed cameras: the twisted truth”. A sharp decline in the death rate on the roads suddenly slowed down in the mid-1990s. They attribute this to the government’s new focus on enforcing the speed limits, especially by erecting speed cameras. What they fail to mention is that deaths started falling sharply again in 2003, after the number of speed cameras had doubled in three years…

Their article is a long catalogue of intellectual dishonesty. In support of their claims that speed cameras are worse than useless, they also use a report by the House of Commons transport committee. It said, they maintain, that “an obsession with cameras was responsible for a ‘deplorable’ drop in the number of officers patrolling Britain’s roads”. It says nothing of the kind, and the word “deplorable” does not feature anywhere. But here’s what it does contain: “Well-placed cameras bring tremendous safety benefits at excellent cost-benefit ratios. A more cost-effective measure for reducing speeds and casualties has yet to be introduced.” Booker and North also lay into one of my columns. That’s fair enough: it’s a national sport. But to make their narrative more convincing they alter the date of the column by a year. Their claims about speed cameras, like much of the material in their new book, are pure junk science, cherrypicking the helpful results and ignoring the inconvenient ones.

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

Douglas Card on Lincoln and Obama

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Douglas Card, eloquent bane of the Holocaust denialists commenting on this blog, has just had an interesting piece published on the historical parallels between Lincoln’s opposition to the US invasion of Mexico and Obama’s criticisms of the war in Iraq.

From the Eugene Register-Guard

What does history tell us about the proper role of American politicians during wartime? Supporters of President Bush like to compare his leadership in pursuing the unpopular Iraqi war to the steadfastness of Abraham Lincoln in his own prosecution of the difficult Civil War.

They believe, as Charles Krauthammer wrote in a recent column, that “history will be kinder than today’s polls,” noting Bush’s “sense of calm and confidence in eventual historical vindication.”

Trouble is, Lincoln had quite a different attitude toward another war, the little-known Mexican War of 1846-48. For this Whig freshman congressman from Illinois, it was a bad war that, as with our current war in Iraq, was begun on a false premise — the claim that Mexican forces had attacked our troops on U.S. territory. Though the war was almost over by the time Lincoln took his seat in Congress, he proceeded to make a controversial name for himself attacking President James Polk’s justification for the war.

In fact, Lincoln led his party’s opposition, denouncing Polk in a series of resolutions that demanded to know at what exact “spot” the war had begun. These resolutions earned Lincoln the derogatory nicknames of “Spotty Lincoln” and even “the Ranchero Spotty.” In a flight of oratory, Lincoln charged that our army had begun the war in a wild attack on a Mexican village, driving out the inhabitants in fear for their safety. Though Lincoln, like most Whigs, voted that the war was not begun in legally, he also voted for whatever war supplies were needed.

Liberals have never found it easy to criticize an American war, and Lincoln’s speeches brought him massive hostility and charges of being unpatriotic. His old friend and law partner Billy Herndon wrote Lincoln that his supporters in Illinois were disgusted with him. Some modern historians have characterized his outspoken opposition to the war as his biggest political mistake — that his attacks were foolish, embarrassing and politically inspired by Eastern Whig leaders…

Lincoln struggled to recover from his tarnished “unpatriotic” reputation, and had a special difficulty in resurrecting his political career in Illinois. When he ran for the Senate as a Republican in 1858, his opponent Stephen Douglas frequently brought up the old “Spotty Lincoln” charges. Lincoln was left on the defensive, repeating that while he had opposed Polk’s reasons for starting the war he had always voted for any necessary military supplies and, afterwards, for the relief of veterans.

Click here for the full article

Written by Richard Wilson

January 7, 2009 at 9:16 pm

Quackometer lists Don’t Get Fooled Again among the best books of 2008

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From Quackometer

Whereas Goldacre looked at the dangers of nonsense more from a personal and UK point of view, Wilson takes on a more global and political perspective. He tells us how whole areas of Russian science were hijacked by fake experts during the Soviet era who were more adept at playing political games than honestly seeking truth. Lysenko was the master at this as he held back Russian and Chinese biology and agriculture for decades as ideology became more important than evidence. The consequences of this were the death of millions through starvation.

Rath is portrayed as a modern Lysenko as his ideas have enraptured South African politicians. Again hundreds of thousand have died as a result of ideological AIDS denialist nonsense.

Wilson offers a partial solution to some of the problem by suggesting that the regulation of politicians is too light and that we should be holding them to account through the law not just the ballot box. The self regulation of politicians fails. Lying to us should be punishable in court. In the UK, this suggestion was put forward to MPs, most of whom thought is somehow naive. Only 37 out of 646 MPs backed a proposed law saying that it would be an offense for a politician to knowingly lie or deceive.

Liberal Conspiracy on Christopher Booker’s scientific credentials

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From Liberal Conspiracy

Rejoice, people! Whatever you may’ve read, however many chilling predictions you may have heard, however frequently Al Gore might haunt your dreams, telling you that the world will end in a torrent of fire because YOU don’t use energy-saving lightbulbs, I can promise that all those fears are unfounded. For as people across the world glance at 2009 with such foreboding and dread, Christopher Booker has made the jolly discovery that instead of getting much, much worse, climate change doesn’t actually exist all!

Now, I understand that there’s a great deal of misinformation out there in BlogLand, and since I’m not a scientist (well, neither is he, but he sure seems to know a lot more than ‘real scientists’), I have to make sure that all my sources are of the highest calibre. So I did whatever any forensic time-deprived blogger would do, and checked him out on Wikipedia. Without further ado, and just to show how seriously you should take his scientific acumen, here are some of Booker’s greatest hits…

Survey shows that just 22% trust UK government ministers to tell the truth

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From the BBC:

Public trust in senior politicians has fallen in the last two years, according to a survey carried out for the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

The survey suggests 22% of people think government ministers tell the truth – down from 27% in the 2006 survey.

Committee chair Sir Christopher Kelly called the results “deeply disturbing”.

And he said a cause was that greater openness “meant people become aware of things which previously were carried on but they didn’t know about”.

Veteran journalist Seymour Hersh on US atrocities in Iraq

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From UC Berkeley News

In the evening’s most emotional moment, Hersh talked about a call he had gotten from a first lieutenant in charge of a unit stationed halfway between Baghdad and the Syrian border. His group was bivouacking outside of town in an agricultural area, and had hired 30 or so Iraqis to guard a local granary. A few weeks passed. They got to know the men they hired, and to like them. Then orders came down from Baghdad that the village would be “cleared.” Another platoon from the soldier’s company came and executed the Iraqi granary guards. All of them.

“He said they just shot them one by one. And his people, and he, and the villagers of course, went nuts,” Hersh said quietly. “He was hysterical, totally hysterical. He went to the company captain, who said, ‘No, you don’t understand, that’s a kill. We got 36 insurgents. Don’t you read those stories when the Americans say we had a combat maneuver and 15 insurgents were killed?’

“It’s shades of Vietnam again, folks: body counts,” Hersh continued. “You know what I told him? I said, ‘Fella, you blamed the captain, he knows that you think he committed murder, your troops know that their fellow soldiers committed murder. Shut up. Complete your tour. Just shut up! You’re going to get a bullet in the back.’ And that’s where we are in this war.”

Written by Richard Wilson

October 25, 2008 at 5:00 am

Jenni Russell on the UK government’s crisis of trust

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From Jenni Russell in The Guardian:

Only four months ago, when Smith gave a speech to the Smith Institute on the necessity of parliament’s shoving through the imminent plans for 42-day detention, the tone was much more disdainful. Then we, the audience, were given an imperious lecture that amounted to: We know what the threat is and you don’t, so we must be given whatever powers we need. I said at the time that listening to the speech was like wrestling mentally with jelly. Other than “trust us, we’re the government”, there wasn’t much of an argument involved.

Now, of course, thanks to the Lords, the opposition, the Labour rebels and vociferous opponents around the country, No 10 and the Home Office have had to learn a little humility. Bullying and threatening hasn’t been enough to get the key measures it sought, like 42 days and secret coroners’ inquests, past parliament. And since the government now plans a surveillance project that will dwarf anything that has gone before – a giant database that will track every call, text, email and web visit that we make – they have been forced, belatedly, into attempting to persuade us a little more and hector us a little less.

On the evidence of this speech, the strategy is not having much success. Persuasion is all about emotion backed up with argument, and the emotion was still reserved for “we know best; we truly do!” while the arguments still weren’t there.

Since the last few years of Tony Blair’s time in Downing Street there has been much agonising from the Labour leadership over the decline of public trust in politicians. This is a problem, we are told, because without our being able to take the government at its word on at least some things, the effective functioning of the state becomes impossible. The public therefore ought to be more trusting of politicians, and the current mood of scepticism is clearly – according to Alastair Campbell – the fault of the media.

The very fact that the government seriously expects us to be swayed by this kind of argument seems, to me, to illustrate the real problem with painful clarity. Democracy is clearly in trouble when voters feel the need to be suspicious of every public statement that their government makes on any remotely controversial issue – just as your relationship with your doctor or dentist would be under considerable strain if you felt that you were dealing with a mendacious quack trying to rip you off at every turn.

It seems that the government is asking us to believe that the solution to our democratic crisis is simply for voters to set their doubts aside and trust in the political class again – despite all the examples of state mendacity we’ve seen in recent years. But this seems akin to expecting a patient who’s repeatedly been juiced by their dentist to deal with their concerns simply by suppressing them – and then handing over their money for yet another appointment.

It seems to me the wiser course of action would be to start looking around for a better dentist – and perhaps also seek to get the old one struck off, to stop him from doing more damage in future…

Written by Richard Wilson

October 18, 2008 at 10:31 am

Catholic aid charity Caritas claims to have stopped supporting LRA rebels, demands thanks from the Ugandan government

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See also: Catholic aid charity Caritas accused of materially supporting LRA terror group

From the Caritas website

Caritas had provided food aid to rebel groups while the peace process that began in 2006 was in place at the request of the Ugandan government and international mediators in line with its humanitarian mission. Caritas ended all food aid distributions once negotiations collapsed and has supplied no food aid since April 2008. The Ugandan government is aware of all these steps.

Government Minister for Disaster Preparedness, Professor Tarsis Kabwegyere said on 30 September, “Caritas should stop giving food to the rebels so that they get under pressure to sign the peace agreement. But as long as they continue to get supplies, they will see no reason of ending the rebellion. There is a moral question on why (rebel leader) Kony continues to receive food. Whoever is sending food to the jungles is committing a mortal sin especially if they are Christians”.

Caritas Uganda National Director Msgr. Dr. Francis Ndamira said, “We would like to clarify this statement which is likely to mislead the public and the world which is already too anxious and waiting for that day of signing the peace agreement. Caritas Uganda is not currently supplying food and medicine to the rebels. When the (peace agreement) signing flopped, Caritas also ended its mandate.

“It is therefore surprising for Hon. Prof. Kabwegyere to make such misleading and irresponsible statements of that kind. On the contrary, he should thank Caritas Uganda and the entire Catholic Church leadership for the peaceful contribution we have made in the peace process and also the spiritual and material help which the respective Churches have given to the suffering people in Northern Uganda.”

Stephen Colbert on “truthiness”…

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“That’s where the truth lies – right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up.

Now, I know some of you are going to say, ‘I did look it up, and that’s not true.’ That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book. Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works.” 

- Stephen Colbert, White House Correspondents Association dinner, April 2006

Written by Richard Wilson

September 28, 2008 at 6:57 pm