Posts Tagged ‘Don’t Get Fooled Again’
In each of the three main parties there are MPs and Peers whose central ideological commitment is self-advancement. These are the people who will slavishly follow the instructions of their leadership rather than questioning the official line, lavish favours on their corporate sponsors, grab every financial perk that Parliament’s opaque and discredited rules allow, threaten to sue for libel when exposed, and steadfastly oppose efforts to reform the UK state’s secretive and corruption-prone political system.
In reality, these people cannot accurately be described as Conservatives, Liberals or Socialists (champagne or otherwise), because the agenda they follow is not actually about political ideology at all. These people are members of the All Party Group for Corruption and Self-Advancement, aka the Corruption Party.
Members of the cross-bench Corruption Party have far more in common with each other than they do with those MPs across the political spectrum who do their best to represent their constituents honestly, and will not be bought off by vested interests.
Many Corruption Party members were among the 98 MPs who, long before the expenses scandal hit the headlines, tried to stop the issue ever coming to light by quietly voting to exempt themselves from the Freedom of Information Act.
Many others were caught up in the outstanding exposé by the Sunday Times last year, and again this month, when Noble Lords and Right Honorable Members were captured on film offering to turn Parliamentary tricks in exchange for hard cash. Many others have yet to be exposed, but doubtless they will be, sooner or later…
And many more have been involved in efforts to railroad through a draconian law, parts of which have been written in their entirety by corporate lobbyists, that could grant the government sweeping powers to block websites and cut off whole households from the internet, if someone, somewhere, claims that their ‘intellectual property’ has been infringed.
In some cases the corruption will be clearly and demonstrably illegal. More often it thrives amid the loopholes and ambiguities of Parliament’s culture of soft-touch self-regulation. The Party’s main manifesto pledge is to Keep Corruption Legal. Their rallying cry is “I acted entirely within the rules”. Their party slogan is “None of your business”.
But the rank and file of the Corruption Party are the civil servants and Parliamentary staff who help to facilitate the crime. The fees office that waved through exorbitant and unfounded expense claims – and even proactively encouraged MPs to claim more. The departmental staff who hold secret meetings with corporate lobbyists. The civil servants who leave government in order to “hawk their contact book to the highest bidder”.
It’s perhaps inevitable that the most high-profile figures – MPs, ministers and ex-ministers – will fall hardest when exposed. But it seems worth asking whether the cumulative sleaze of the faceless civil servants and quangocrats might not actually be more insidious. While the scrutiny of our MPs’ behaviour is welcome, I suspect that the “next big scandal but one” may end up being about the role played by those people whose names seldom make it onto the front pages.
We’re still finalising the details, but on Thursday evening I’ll be unveiling the next step in the ongoing campaign to persuade Trafigura to end their attacks on freedom of speech in the UK. It will involve music, and talking, and cameras, and a number of TBC peaceful, legal activities!
If you’d like to get involved, please do contact me via richardcameronwilson AT yahoo dot co dot uk
I’ve long been a fan of Al Jazeera’s willingness to cover stories and angles that other news media won’t touch, and was pleased to have the chance to contribute to the programme above. I was even more pleased when I saw how it had turned out – definitely one of the best overviews of the story that I’ve yet seen.
UPDATE …on a free speech tangent, the techie guerilla campaign against the litigiousness of UK chiropractors continues with a sneaky pop at the General Chiropractic Council.
Evan Harris MP: My final question relates to the ongoing problems of English libel law in respect of Trafigura. My understanding is that “Newsnight” is being threatened by the lawyers for Trafigura, Carter-Ruck, if it repeats an allegation against Carter-Ruck that deaths were caused by the dumping of toxic waste in Ivory Coast, even though in 2007 Hansard reported the Transfrontier Shipment of Waste Regulations laid by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs before Parliament, and a memorandum of explanation to those regulations stated:
“The recent example of the release of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast leading to the deaths of a number of people and the hospitalisation of thousands underlines the risks involved in the movement and management of waste.”
How can it be that that can be in Hansard, yet there are still threats of legal action against “Newsnight” if it reports the very same wording that is used in there? That cannot be right. Although there are powerful interests at stake, there is a public interest in the fact that there was a settlement made—hundreds of millions of pounds paid over in that settlement—and yet the public in this country are not allowed to know some of the contents of those news reports. We have a responsible media by and large in respect of such matters, and it is about time that English libel laws and English laws in general caught up with that fact.
Tweeters beware: Carter-Ruck’s oil-fuelled attack on press freedom is defeated, for now – but they’ll be back
Trafigura’s cack-handed law firm Carter Ruck have now backed down from their extraordinary attempt to prevent the media from reporting the proceedings of the UK Parliament. It seems that the outrage generated on Twitter last night (which I had a hand in starting) may have had something to do with it. Gone are the days when it was possible to prevent information from becoming public simply by sending a stern legal letter to all the major newspapers and broadcasters. It’s far harder now to control the flow of information across the vast – and increasingly global – network of thousands of individual bloggers and “tweeters” who make up the internet.
In my more optimistic moments I’m hopeful that the net may ultimately help to stamp out the kinds of legal abuses that have kept dodgy libel firms in business for so long. But I think we also need to be cautious.
It seems to me that at the moment we have a massive opportunity to defend and advance freedom of speech, but this is in large part because the corporate law firms and PR hustlers haven’t yet figured out how to deal with the internet – and as time goes on they may get much better at it. They will also be lobbying vociferously – just as the music industry has already done – for governments to pass new laws (and amend old ones) to make it easier for companies to get sensitive websites blocked, and prosecute individuals who damage their interests online. I suspect that in the coming years this will become a major political battle-ground, and something for all democratically-minded people to keep a close eye on.
For as long as there’s someone, somewhere, with a lot of money to spend on stopping information from reaching the public, there will be law firms and PR companies with a strong incentive to find ways to help them do it. Carter Ruck may have been beaten today, but sooner or later they and their kind will be back.
Chiropractic pseudo-regulator ignores ASA instruction to stop claiming spinal manipulation can treat asthma and colic
“We would have hoped they would have taken this down by now.”
“I notice that despite your informal resolution with the ASA, that the text still appears on your patient information leaflet here: http://www.gcc-uk.org/files/link_file/WhatCanI_142_5(Web-Version).pdfAre you intending to take down or change this leaflet?”
“I contacted the GCC following my finding that they had not removed the Patient Information Leaflet from their web site. I had a rather surprising reply from them this morning. They said that they will take it down in reasonable time – and suggested that this would happen once they had taken the time to re-write the document and translate it into several languages.This is shocking. Surely it makes sense for them to take it down now if it breaches ASA standards – or not at all if it doesn’t. Surely while they are re-printing they should not be continuing to distribute the material?Can you clarify the ASA’s position on this?”
“We’d normally expect an advertiser to implement the changes as soon as is ‘reasonably practicable’ (bearing in mind the time involved in printing new leaflets).
However, if it’s a leaflet on a website then it should be taken down as soon as possible.”
- The Chief Executive of the GCC is fully aware that its Patient Information Leaflet violates ASA guidelines.
- The Chief Executive of the GCC is aware that this leaflet is continuing to be made available on their web site.
- The Chief Executive of the GCC is in no rush to do anything about it.
In a democratic society, where compromise can be seen as tantamount to a civic duty, it is easy to assume that there are ‘two sides to every story’ – that, given any pair of opposing views, the truth will always be somewhere between them. The format of many TV, radio and newspaper reports tends to reinforce this mindset. A representative of one side will be invited to make a comment, and then an opposing view will be presented, with the reporter acting as a kind of referee. Even when a journalist isn’t explicitly reminding us that ‘the truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle’, the very fact that these two particular views have made it into the mainstream media automatically confers some degree of legitimacy on them both. And the fact that both are given equal airtime can add to the impression that they are both equally worthy of attention…
But if we take this principle too far, it can lead us into dangerous territory, and here the issue of ‘selection bias’ plays a vital role. The halfway point in a TV interview with a government minister on the issue of racism, for example, will look very different if the opposing view is from a human rights activist rather than a member of Migration Watch or the BNP. Similarly, the halfway point in an interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury will be very different if the counterpoint is from an atheist like Richard Dawkins rather than a Muslim imam. Even where the journalist conducting the discussion takes a meticulously balanced approach, the very choice of interviewees will inevitably constrain the debate and lead the audience in a particular direction…
At worst, the ‘somewhere in the middle’ mindset can be strongly biased in favour of the status quo, pushing us towards a homogenised average of the views that manage to make their way into the media, however barmy, extreme or well-funded… (From Don’t Get Fooled Again)
Gimpy has been doing some excellent work on the Riverdance Film Festival’s endorsement of the AIDS denialist film “House of Numbers”. I really hope that the producers make it available for free on the internet soon so that I can watch it, as I’m keen to find out what the fuss is about.
In the meantime, I was intrigued to see that The Spectator was organising their own showing on October 28th (£35 a ticket, for anyone who’s interested – evidently the credit crunch hasn’t yet reached Savoy Place). This will be followed by a debate between ex-UK Minister of Health Norman Fowler, Brent Leung (the film’s director) and Prof Beverly Griffin, Prof Charles Geschekter, and Dr Joe Sonnabend, who are described as “leading medical authorities”.
It seems to me that this is a really good illustration of two quite interesting nuances: Firstly, the way that a debate can be shaped and constrained from the outset, before a word has been spoken, simply through the selection of debate participants. Secondly, the way that the very existence of a debate can help to perpetuate a discredited ideology.
Beverly Griffin is an Emeritus (retired) Professor from London’s prestigious Imperial College, and a former director of the department of Virology at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith Hospital. She has published widely on the Epstein-Barr virus and on Burkitt’s lymphoma, a cancer commonly associated with AIDS and believed to be caused, in part by Epstein-Barr. Griffin is quoted by the virusmyth website as suggesting, in 1991, that HIV might be “a necessary factor but not a sufficient explanation” of AIDS, or even that the virus might not cause the disease at all. The site also carries a broadly sympathetic 1989 book review by Griffin (originally published in Nature) of Jad Adams’ “AIDS; The HIV myth”.
Dr Joe Sonnabend is a New York physician (now also retired) who has been involved in treating AIDS patients since the early days of the outbreak, and was reportedly a pioneer of “community based research”, overseeing trials of new treatments for AIDS patients. Until the late 1990s, Sonnabend was among those arguing that the link between HIV and AIDS was unproven. He has reportedly since come to a different view, believing that “The evidence now strongly supports a role for HIV”, in causing AIDS, while continuing to argue that other causal factors must also be involved – and that high doses of the AIDS drug AZT “killed thousands” during the 1980s.
Charles Geschekter is a retired Professor of History from the University of Chicago, whose specialist area is African history. Geschekter has denied that there is an AIDS epidemic in Africa – describing it as “The Plague That Isn’t” – and arguing that the belief in such an epidemic was partly the product of racism and “western sexual stereotypes”. Geshekter also served on South Africa’s notorious Presidency AIDS Advisory Panel during Thabo Mbeki’s Presidency in early 2000.
Looking at the track records of the three experts listed, a number of things seem quite striking. Firstly, only Dr Sonnabend appears to have been directly involved in AIDS research – and even this research seems limited to the trialling of treatments, rather than the basic question of the link between HIV and AIDS. Prof Griffin clearly has a credible and longstanding research record, but the only entry on the list that mentions HIV is a reference to her 1989 book review in Nature. Prof Geshekter appears not to be a scientist at all, less still a “leading medical authority”.
What’s also striking is that all three ‘expert’ panelists have, at one time or another, adopted fringe views on HIV and AIDS, and been active in disputing the established scientific consensus. Of the five panel members chosen, only one, the former health minister Lord Fowler, appears unambiguously to share the view held by the overwhelming majority of scientists currently involved in AIDS research. Knowledgeable and eloquent though Norman Fowler doubtless is, he is not, himself, a clinician or researcher. It therefore seems doubtful that he will be able to represent the consensus view in a public debate as effectively as a fully qualified AIDS expert could have done – especially as he will be outnumbered four-to-one by people who take a minority view.
Perhaps one reason for this imbalance is that the real “leading medical authorities” on AIDS will generally refuse to share a platform with AIDS denialists, or engage in debate with them, largely for the same sorts of reasons that evolutionary biologists avoid Creationists, and established historians refuse to debate the Holocaust with the likes of David Irving. It’s possible for a person to be eloquent, reasonable-sounding and good at rhetorical point-scoring yet nonetheless wholly deluded and wrong. Science has arguably long passed the point where specialist questions could meaningfully be resolved through live oratory. The format of a face-to-face debate may make for good theatre, but it will usually be impossible for observers to go away and fact-check every technical claim being made. Where the scientific evidence is being distorted, mis-stated, or even made up completely on the spot, the lay audience will often be none the wiser.
But what is clear is that AIDS denialists such as Charles Geshekter and Brent Leung will benefit from being given such a high-profile platform for their views. The Spectator is, broadly speaking, a mainstream publication, and Savoy Place a prestigious central London venue. This event will, to paraphrase Richard Dawkins, look very good on their CV, and possibly open up further opportunities to spread the AIDS denial creed.
It seems to me unlikely that trying to persuade The Spectator, The Raindance Film Festival, or any other part of the establishment not to show “House of Numbers” is going to lead very far. We all know how much the pay-per-view media loves controversy – real or imagined – and the danger is that by trying to stop the film from being shown one just adds credence to the narrative about a Terrible Truth that the world is desperately trying to suppress. Personally I’d go the other way. If the makers of “House of Numbers” are right about AIDS, and the mainstream scientific community is wrong, then this is surely a message that as many people as possible need to hear. So why not make the film available for free online so that everyone can take a look, do their own fact-checking on the experts being quoted, and make up their own minds?
*Update* – BLBS comments:
It’s destined for youtube eventually anyway, no doubt. It’s cynical and manipulative but in such a dumbed-down way that you can see how some people might not get it if they’re not well informed. One example is Leung citing a Science Daily article with a headline saying something about studies suggesting that “sudden loss of T cells” doesn’t lead to AIDS. He goes right from there to say well, if sudden loss of T cells doesn’t lead to disease, then there “must” be co-factors or maybe HIV isn’t necessary at all.
He doesn’t mention that the studies are about transient CD4 T cell loss from the intestine of monkeys right after they’re infected with SIV. Specifically two monkey species, African green monkeys and sooty mangabeys, that are natural hosts of SIV and rarely develop disease. There is a recent theory that loss of intestinal CD4 T cells right after someone gets infected by HIV plays a key role in pathogenesis, and these studies do suggest that intestinal CD4 T cell depletion on its own is not be sufficient to precipitate disease progression. That’s what the Science Daily headline he’s quote-mining is trying to convey, albeit not very well.
But…the loss of CD4 T cells from the peripheral blood of human beings infected with HIV has been consistently associated with risk of disease and death in every study that’s looked the variables over the last 30 years. And unlike in SIV-infected African green monkeys and sooty mangabeys, loss of CD4 T cells from the intestine of people with HIV is not transient, but persistent.
So the studies do not in any way, shape or form suggest anything about co-factors, let alone that they “must” be required. In fact, these monkey models show the exact opposite, because when SIV from a natural host like the sooty mangabey is transferred across species into a rhesus macaque it causes progressive CD4 T cell loss, leading to opportunistic infections and death. No co-factors necessary. Same thing has happened because of the cross-species transfer of SIVcpz from chimps into humans, and there is of course ample precedent for disease resulting from cross-species transmission with many other pathogens.
Not surprisingly, out of all the people Leung interviews, he doesn’t interview the study authors or ask them about their work, because they’d have told him he’s out to lunch. It’s simply dishonest, and a typical denialist tactic.
From The Guardian
He tore up a copy of the UN charter in front of startled delegates, accused the security council of being an al-Qaida like terrorist body, called for George Bush and Tony Blair to be put on trial for the Iraq war, demanded $7.7tn in compensation for the ravages of colonialism on Africa, and wondered whether swine flu was a biological weapon created in a military laboratory. At one point, he even demanded to know who was behind the killing of JFK. All in all, a pretty ordinary 100 minutes in the life of the colonel.
From Hansard, 28 January 1992
Mr Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)
Mr John Major (Huntingdon)
We have no plans to increase value added tax.
From The Independent, 17 January 1997
Mr Clarke denied any lapse of memory about VAT. “The  manifesto did not say we weren’t going to extend it and I have never said we weren’t going to extend it,” he said.
In fact, Mr Major said the Government had “no plans” to raise VAT, before imposing it on domestic fuel, which had been zero rated.
From Press Association 9 August 2009
The Tories have “absolutely” no plans to raise VAT to 20% if they win the next general election, shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley insisted.
Mr Lansley rejected reports that the move was being “very actively considered” and insisted it had not even been discussed at senior levels.
“As far as I am aware we have absolutely no such plan and I know there have been no such senior level discussions,” he told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show.
If you liked “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, then you may also like (or find interesting):
Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
A Mind of Its Own: How your brain distorts and deceives, Cordelia Fine
The Cigarette Century, Allan M Brandt
Flat Earth News, Nick Davies
Mortal Questions, Thomas Nagel
How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World, Francis Wheen
In Defence of History, Richard J Evans
Denying Aids, Seth Kalichman
Bad Science, Ben Goldacre
Trick or Treatment?, Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst
Second Front, John R Macarthur
Toxic Sludge is Good For You, John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton
In Retrospect, Robert S McNamara
King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild
Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton
Real England, Paul Kingsnorth
Counterknowledge, Damian Thompson
Radical then, Radical Now, Jonathan Sacks
The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins
Charity commission says it has no powers to act against a UK charity putting out dangerous misinformation on AIDS
I recently blogged about a UK registered charity called the “Immunity Resource Foundation”, whose official objectives include:
“To advance the education of the public in the fields of medicine, health care and medical science”
“To relieve sickness and assist sick and disabled persons… by providing them with access to information concerning diseases and medical conditions (and in particular AIDS)…”
But the information promoted on the charity’s website includes the claim that “the AIDS edifice is built upon a false hypothesis”, that AIDS “is not an infectious disease” and that “HIV cannot cause AIDS”. The charity also provides links to a range of AIDS denialist websites, including “Living Without HIV Drugs” – which urges HIV-positive patients to stop taking conventional medications.
As has been well-documented elsewhere, this kind of misinformation around HIV and AIDS has already done enormous damage, with a grim roster of HIV-positive AIDS denialists dying after refusing to take medicines that could have saved their lives, and many thousands more deaths resulting from the application of AIDS denialist ideas by the South African government.
Far from advancing the “education of the public”, any organisation which promotes these ideas is disseminating dangerous misinformation. And far from relieving sickness, the promotion of AIDS denialism under the guise of providing health information can have deadly consequences.
The Charity Commission exists to ensure that charities registered in England and Wales benefit the public interest and act in accordance with their stated objectives. However, when contacted about the activities of the Immunity Resource Foundation, the Commission stated that:
We do not have the remit or expertise to judge whether they are providing the correct advice. We can only become involved in matters where our regulatory powers permit us to intervene and unfortunately this issue falls outside of that remit.
The upshot of this seems to be that a registered charity is free to make false, misleading and dangerous scientific claims about a major public health issue – even where this runs directly contrary to the charity’s official objectives – because the government body that regulates charities does not have access to the technical expertise necessary to evaluate such claims.
This seems like quite a big loophole, and also something of a double-standard. Whereas a private business that makes false scientific claims about its products is answerable, at least in principle, to the Trading Standards Institute, it would appear that UK registered charities are currently free to disseminate pseudo-science more or less with impunity.
Spiked Online‘s Rob Lyons seems (understandably, I guess) riled by my recent comments on this blog about his magazine’s editorial record, and in response has published an impressively-detailed critique of “Don’t Get Fooled Again”.
While I’m not sure Rob really addressed the points I made about Spiked, he does have some interesting things to say about DGFA, taking me to task for (among other things) more or less ignoring the viewpoint sometimes described as “climate change scepticism”.
Actually it does get a mention in the book, but Rob could be forgiven for missing it, as the mention is very brief (p84), taking up marginally less space than I give to the self-described “sceptics” about Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Though it seems undeniable that the climate change doubters have had a major cultural and political impact, I’m just not convinced that in scientific terms their views are any more significant than those of the people who believe that MMR causes autism, or that homeopathy can cure cancer, or that the moon landings never happened, all of whom also get ignored in the book.
While I do have my own views about climate change “scepticism” (some of which have made their way onto this blog, and some of which I allude to here), and while I do think that there are some easy inferences we can draw based on other examples given in “Don’t Get Fooled Again” (perhaps especially AIDS denialism), I also feel that the subject’s already been very well covered elsewhere (eg. here), and wanted to concentrate on some issues that hadn’t had such a wide airing.
Rob’s criticisms go a fair bit wider than that, and given the emphasis that the book places on debate and discussion, I wish I had a bit more time to respond properly, but I guess this will have to do for the moment…
*Update* – One other key criticism Rob makes is that the book exaggerates the success of the PR firm Hill and Knowlton in defending the image of the tobacco industry during the 1960s and 1970s. He cites figures from the American Cancer Society which show that smoking rates among both adult males and females in the US, UK and Japan actually fell quite steadily from 1960 onwards. Adults are defined as over 18 in the US, over 16 in the UK, and over 20 in Japan.
This is a fair point, but I’m not sure it gets H&K off the hook. For the US at least (H&K’s home market, and the case study I focus on in the book), while there was a decline in the percentage of adults who smoked, the actual number of cigarettes sold each year continued to grow until the mid 1970s, (see p227 of Allan M Brandt‘s “The Cigarette Century”) – and lung cancer cases only began declining in 1995. Whether this was because the industry was managing to sell more cigarettes, year on year, to the minority of adults who continued to smoke, or because another group of potential smokers not included in the ACS figures – children, began to play a more important role in the market, or because of some combination of factors, the continued rise in sales for more than two decades after the link between smoking and cancer was first proven suggests that the Hill and Knowlton PR strategy was hardly a commercial disaster.
What Rob doesn’t do, so far as I can see, is clarify the nature of Spiked’s own relationship with Hill and Knowlton, as discussed here.
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
The Immunity Resource Foundation (UK charity 1105986) says that its aims include:
“(I) TO ADVANCE THE EDUCATION OF THE PUBLIC IN THE FIELDS OF MEDICINE, HEALTH CARE AND MEDICAL SCIENCE; AND
(II) TO RELIEVE SICKNESS AND ASSIST SICK AND DISABLED PERSONS …BY PROVIDING THEM WITH ACCESS TO INFORMATION CONCERNING DISEASES AND MEDICAL CONDITIONS (AND IN PARTICULAR AIDS) AND THE TREATMENTS, THERAPIES AND RESEARCH STUDIES RELATING THERETO, AND WITH ADVICE AND SUPPORT;”
But the scientific claims about AIDS published on the organisation’s website are dangerously inaccurate. On this page, Joan Shenton, the organisation’s “Founder and administrator”, suggests that AIDS “is not an infectious disease” and that “HIV cannot cause AIDS”.
The articles linked to on this page all lean in the same direction, and many of them are by known AIDS denialists, notably the discredited virologist Peter Duesberg and the journalists Neville Hodgkinson, Celia Farber and John Lauritsen.
A Harvard study published last year concluded that the adoption of AIDS denial in South Africa by the government of Thabo Mbeki in the early part of this decade had contributed to more than 365,000 preventable deaths. In a speech in 1999, Mbeki had cited “the huge volume of literature on this matter available on the Internet” in support of his position on HIV and AIDS.
In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I highlight the campaign by Sunday Times journalist Neville Hodgkinson during the early 1990s to deny the link between HIV and AIDS.
What I wasn’t aware of until recently (credit to Gimpy for the tip-off), was that loud-mouthed columnist Simon Jenkins (latterly of the Guardian) was also a participant, announcing in the Times in December 1993 that “no causal chain has been proved” from HIV to AIDS, citing the work of discredited virologist Peter Duesberg, and attacking the journal nature for allegedly engaging in a “propaganda war” around the disease.
Whereas Neville Hodgkinson has since largely been exiled to the journalistic wilderness, Jenkins (like Hodgkinson’s editor and champion, Andrew Neil) appears to have walked away more or less unscathed from his romantic entanglement with one of the world’s deadliest ideologies.
Today, Jenkins continues to share his unique brand of lay expertise on topics as diverse as the folly of prosecuting war criminals (“it is always better for a nation to seek atonement within itself”) to the tyranny of smoking bans (“Next the anti-smoking Guardianistas will be coming for dogs and cats”)…
I’ve been away so I’m only just catching up with the amusing developments in the latest wave of the Daily Telegraph’s all-out war against mainstream science…
This is quite possibly the funniest thing I’ve seen all week, and proof positive that ‘doing what feels right to you’ can sometimes be a really, really bad idea.
See also: “Am I the goddess you’re looking for?”