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Posts Tagged ‘Don’t Get Fooled Again

Irony levels around UK government secrecy policies now dangerously high, warn scientists…

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Judge rules that judges who get sacked or reprimanded should enjoy anonymity…

From The Guardian

The government and the judiciary can continue to conceal the names of more than 170 misbehaving judges, a freedom of information tribunal has ruled.

The judge heading the tribunal decided that some members of the judiciary who have been sacked or reprimanded for misconduct would suffer “great distress” if details of their misdemeanours were made public.

Written by Richard Wilson

June 18, 2009 at 8:47 am

Tory poster-boy Dan Hannan MEP voted to cover-up Europarliament expenses scandal

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Tory MEP Dan Hannan (representing Southeast England) has become something of a media poster-boy for honest government in recent months. So it was a surprise to discover that he was among the 47 British MEPs who voted, earlier this year, to cover up details of MEPs expense claims.

The “Open Europe” rankings listed here take a bit of explaining, but the basic idea is that MEPs get 3 points for each pro-transparency vote they cast in the Parliament, and zero for any effort to obstruct reform.

Column I refers to the March 2009 vote to exempt from public information requests any documents relating to how much MEPs are claiming in expenses, and what they are claiming for. “Open Europe” gives Hannan a zero score for that vote, indicating that he supported the cover-up.

It seems that Hannan can talk the talk on transparency and accountability, but his voting record tells a rather different story.

Written by Richard Wilson

June 3, 2009 at 10:31 pm

London’s sleaze-tainted Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MEPs

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NB – post updated – the Open Europe rankings in fact identify the MEPs who voted in 2009 to keep expense details secret, as distinct from those who voted to cover up the results of an internal inquiry in 2008.

London is represented in the European Parliament by 9 MEPs – 3 Labour, 3 Conservative, 1 Liberal Democrat, 1 Green and 1 UK Independence Party.

Of these, only the Green Party (Jean Lambert) and UKIP (Gerard Batten) voted earlier this year against moves to keep MEPs expenses secret.

Conservative MEPs Charles Tannock and John Bowis voted in favour of the cover-up. Syed Kamall failed to turn up for the vote.

Labour MEPs Mary Honeyball, Robert Evans and Claude Moraes also all voted to cover up the expense details.

Liberal Democrat MEP Baroness Sarah Ludford was one of only two Lib Dem MEPs who voted to cover up the expenses. Interestingly, the only other Lib Dem MEP who did so, Emma Nicholson (who represents SE England), is, like Ludford, also a member of the UK’s scandal-stricken second chamber, the House of Lords. Other Liberal Democrats had spoken out strongly against the move.

It appears that only 2 of the 9 MEPs on the London list – Jean Lambert (Green) and Gerrard Batten (UKIP) – believe that the public has a right to know about the financial abuses being committed by their fellow politicians.

More details of the voting record of MEPs across the European Union can be found at the website of the Open Europe campaign.

Written by Richard Wilson

June 3, 2009 at 7:37 pm

Telegraph resumes its role as Britain’s leading pseudo-science journal…

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From The Daily Telegraph:

What is it? Magic? Witchcraft? A load of twaddle? No, it’s radionics, the largely unexplained art of healing someone you’ve never met, who is hundreds, even thousands of miles away.

There are only 80 or so practitioners of radionics in Britain and Rebecka Blenntoft is one of them. She’s also the secretary of the UK Radionic Association and, like her colleagues, she gets to the root of her patients’ problems by holding a pendulum over their hair sample (or “witness”, as it’s called), and seeing what happens…

You don’t believe it? Neither did Blenntoft, until she saw the effect a radionic diagnosis had on a dog in her local village (the treatment can be used not just on humans, but on animals and even crops and soil).

“This dog was in a terrible state, itching and scratching its skin red raw,” she recalls. “A radionics practitioner discovered it was allergic to everything that came out of cows. And within a few days the dog was fine and running around.”

Written by Richard Wilson

June 2, 2009 at 6:18 am

Over-used expressions part I – “Paradigm shift”…

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Written by Richard Wilson

May 30, 2009 at 10:11 pm

Andrew Armour reviews “Don’t Get Fooled Again”

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Andrew Armour’s very generous review picks up on some of the arguments I make in “Don’t Get Fooled Again” about marketing rhetoric – and in particular the seemingly ubiquitous idea that one new product or another constitutes a “new paradigm”. Armour has a professional marketing background, and witnessed first-hand the “dot com bubble” around the turn of the century:

From Andrew Armour’s Blog

I worked in e-commerce (print management and e-tail)… and remember well the presentations explaining how all retail was going to change, every shopping mall was going to die and banks would become mobile phone companies. I’m surprised we were not told that hover cars were to take us to the centre of the earth and the Mars colony would be open by 2012. Boo.com was going to be the biggest clothing retailer in the Universe, even though nobody really wanted to buy clothes on-line and it was making no money. The ‘old-rules’ did not apply. Marketing forces? Propositions? Mechanics? So, so passe. The smartest lesson I learned from all of this was that channels evolved and very seldom disappeared because alternatives come along. Radio and cinema did not replace theatre. TV did not replace movies and digital music will not replace the live concert. Printed media is the latest to be told it is going to die but I would bet that whilst it will evolve and change it will not go away. Then – Friends Reunited was going to change everything. Then Facebook. Then Twitter. And to be fair, maybe social media channels will change a lot, they will have a place in the mix and will evolve as another tool in the marketing box but let us not avoid critical thinking when listening to the high priests telling us social media will dominate the future…

Wilson points out that the ‘new paradigm’ has a strong cultural base that is often hard to counteract even with logic and evidence… to resist the notion that the new is always brilliant is to appear old, doomed, obsolete and conservative. But – how many new ideas that were championed and promoted passionately as the new paradigm were complete flops? Fascism or communism anyone? Boo.com? Friends Reunited? Balancing radical ideas with rational actions is the increasing challenge of marketers and with the proliferation of marketing channels and tools, it is the decision about what to communicate, to whom and how that will remain. As Kelly famously put it; ‘ In an endless world of abundance the only thing in short supply is human attention’.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 30, 2009 at 8:49 pm

For your listening pleasure: Anthony Steen MP vs The Fab Four

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Written by Richard Wilson

May 28, 2009 at 2:07 pm

“Don’t Get Fooled Again” reaches Belgium…

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kid fear

Written by Richard Wilson

May 22, 2009 at 9:20 pm

Scandal-hit Nick Brown was among the 98 who voted to cover up expenses by exempting MPs from Freedom of Information Act

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The latest revelation on MPs expenses is that Labour chief whip Nick Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne East and Wallsend – majority 7,565), was allowed to claim over £18,000, without having to present any receipts, for “food” at his second home. Predictably, Nick Brown was among the 98 MPs who voted to exempt themselves from the Freedom of Information Act, in an apparent attempt to prevent public scrutiny of their expense claims.

Compromised MP Jim Sheridan wades in to support Michael Martin

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As pressure grows on the discredited House of Commons Speaker Michael Martin to resign over the ongoing corruption scandal over MPs’ expenses, a handful of Labour MPs continue to speak in his favour. Yesterday Stephen Pound and Sir Stuart Bell were trying in vain to stem the flow of criticism. Today it was the turn of Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, majority 11,001). Strikingly, all three are among those implicated in the abortive attempt by a group  of MPs, two years ago, to exempt themselves from the Freedom of Information Act.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 18, 2009 at 9:01 pm

Conservative MP Tim Boswell seeks to award himself immunity from prosecution

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Needless to say, the initiator of this bill, Tim Boswell MP (Daventry, majority 14,686) was also among the 98 MPs who voted to exempt themselves from the Freedom of Information Act in an attempt to cover up their expense claims.

From Power to the People

If evidence was needed that members of parliament fear a public backlash, here it is, in the form of a new Bill, Exercise of Reasonable Discretion Bill 2008-09, which is due to get a second reading on the 24th April 2009. Below is a summary of what the Bill sets out to achieve;

The Bill aims to ensure that public authorities and public servants would not be subject to any criminal or civil penalty as a result of the exercise of reasonable discretion in the performance of their functions. Its provisions would cover public authorities, public servants and contracts for public services. The term public authority is defined by the Bill and includes the NHS, the police, local and central and devolved Government and non-departmental public bodies. The formal intent of the Bill is to indemnify public servants, central government, local government and other public agencies from legal action if they take decisions in good faith, as a result of the exercise of reasonable discretion, in the public interest.

In other words, MP’s amongst other public servants which include the Police, local officials and even the NHS, will be able to claim that in effect they acted in good faith, or in the words of the Bill, exercised ‘reasonable discretion’. Any lawyer will tell you that such a defence is subjective, therefore it offer enormous scope for any public servant (including, of course, MP’s) seeking to defend their actions.

So, hypothetically, any Minister taking this country to war on dubious grounds could claim that they had exercised ‘reasonable discretion’ by, for example, commissioning a security assessment of the threat to this country. The information they act on does not have to be factually correct, so long as the Ministers can claim that they acted in good faith. The public would have no right of criminal or civil recourse. No longer will public servants be accountable to the public…and this is a democracy?

Reasonable discretion is defined as being either, in the public interest or in the performance of their functions, in other words, it covers everything. The Bill seeks to include cover for all civil servants (and of course Ministers), for any mistakes they have made related to contracts for public services. Therefore, the civil servants responsible for ordering the new NHS database, which was originally budgeted to cost £2.3bn, has now spiralled to £12bn and is expected to result in a total bill of £32bn, will be able to claim that they exercised reasonable discretion.

What about the Department of Work and Pensions where officials wasted £300m on two cancelled IT projects In 5 years the DWP managed to spend £2.14bn on IT projects, both ongoing and cancelled, with over £500m going to consultants alone. Was reasonable discretion exercised? You decide, because it is unlikely the courts could do anything about it.

Would a Police officer be able to argue that he or she exercised reasonable discretion when they shoot an innocent bystander? Or could a Doctor claim that he or she exercised reasonable discretion when they removed the kidneys of a patient because they pick-up the wrong patients notes? Remember, there is no right of criminal OR civil recourse. Will this prevent people from suing the NHS and/or Doctors for criminal negligence?

This legislation is a danger to all of us, given it is a Rogues Charter that seeks to protect all public servants from accountability to the people they are supposed to serve or represent. It is, perhaps, the most draconian and self-serving legislation ever devised by our parliament. Worst of all, it prevents the public from taking any action (civil or criminal) against MP’s or Ministers, because in virtually every instance, other than a direct and proven lie, they will be able to claim they had exercised reasonable discretion. In fact, even in their lied, they could claim that they did so ‘in the public interest’.

I would urge all fellow bloggers with an interest in justice to use their blogs to publicise this outrageous attempt provide public servants, especially MP’s with a ‘get out of jail free’ card. If this legislation gets through, as it undoubtedly will, then no public servant can truly be held accountable to the public, because a ‘good faith’ defence will always be available!

Written by Richard Wilson

May 18, 2009 at 6:00 am

Compromised MPs spring to defence of discredited Speaker Michael Martin

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As Parliamentarians grow increasingly vocal in demanding that the discredited Speaker of the House, Michael Martin, steps down from his post, it’s interesting to see which MPs are now stepping forward to defend him.

The BBC quotes “Sir” Stuart Bell – who it describes as an ally of Mr. Martin – as insisting that the majority of MPs still wanted to the Speaker to remain in his post. Stephen Pound MP, meanwhile, has said that he supports Michael Martin and dismisses calls for what he describes as a “blood sacrifice”.

Both these MPs have a track record in attempting to block public scrutiny of how taxpayers’ money is being spent. Both were among the 98 who, in May 2007, attempted to pass a law exempting themselves from scrutiny under the Freedom of Information Act.

More recently, Stuart Bell MP proposed that the processing of MPs expenses should be outsourced to a private company, apparently in the belief that this would place the claims beyond the reach of Freedom of Information requests.

Stuart Bell is Labour MP for Middlesbrough, and currently enjoys a thumping majority of 12,567 votes. It will be interesting to see how well that holds up at the next election.

Stephen Pound is Labour MP for Ealing North, and is in a somewhat more precarious position, with a majority of 7,059. Given Labour’s current electoral woes, this would already have put him in some jeopardy ahead of next year’s vote – it’s difficult to see how his track record on expenses will do him any additional favours when the time comes.

The 98 MPs who tried to cover up their expense claims by exempting themselves from the Freedom of Information Act

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In May 2007, 98 MPs voted to exempt themselves from the Freedom of Information Act, with the apparent aim of stopping the public from finding out the details of their Parliamentary expense claims.

The measure was ultimately defeated, and after a long legal battle, the courts last year ordered the publication of the expense claims made by MPs. The government, however, continued to drag its feet until the information was finally (and now famously) leaked to the Telegraph newspaper, amid much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Parliamentary authorities.

Amid the uproar that the last week of revelations has caused among the wider public, attention has understandably focussed on the worst excesses of the worst offenders – the claims for non-existent mortgages, exorbitant gardening bills, and the famous “moat-cleaning” expense.

But alongside this, it now seems worth taking a closer look at the people who helped create the environment in which this behaviour was able to flourish – and who fought so hard to stop the truth from being exposed.

Interestingly, several of the MPs – such as Elliot Morley, Julie Kirkbride and Tony McNulty – who have now been identified as serial abusers of the Parliamentary expenses system, were also among the 98 MPs who, in May 2007, voted to exempt themselves from the Freedom of Information Act. But there are also many others who, to date, seem to have largely escaped public scrutiny. There’s a detailed summary here by the Campaign for Freedom of Information of the bill in its various stages. From this we can see that:

78 of those who supported the bill are Labour MPs:

Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West)
Alan Campbell (Tynemouth)
Alun Michael (Cardiff South and Penarth)
Andrew Dismore (Hendon)
Angela C. Smith (Sheffield Hillsborough)
Angela Eagle (Wallasey)
Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon)
Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East)
Bob Laxton (Derby North)
Brian H. Donohoe (Ayrshire Central)
Caroline Flint (Don Valley)
Claire Ward (Watford)
Clive Betts (Sheffield Attercliffe)
Clive Efford (Eltham)
Colin Burgon (Elmet)
Dari Taylor (Stockton South)
Dave Watts (St Helens North)
David Cairns (Inverclyde)
David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)
David Lammy (Tottenham)
David Marshall (Glasgow East)
David Wright (Telford)
Denis Murphy (Wansbeck)
Desmond Turner (Brighton Kemptown)
Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne North)
Elliot Morley (Scunthorpe)
Frank Doran (Aberdeen North)

Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw)
Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington East)
Gareth Thomas (Harrow West)
George Mudie (Leeds East)
Gillian Merron (Lincoln)
Graham Allen (Nottingham North)
Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)
Huw Irranca-Davies
Ian McCartney (Makerfield)
Ian Stewart (Eccles)
Ivan Lewis (Bury South)
James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington)
Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen)
Jim Dowd (Lewisham West)
Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Canning Town)
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North)
Joan Ryan (Enfield North)
John Heppell (Nottingham East)
John McFall (West Dunbartonshire)
John Robertson (Glasgow North West)
John Spellar (Warley)
Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)
Keith Hill (Streatham)
Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton North East)
Kevan Jones (North Durham)
Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham Perry Barr)
Laura Moffatt (Crawley)
Liz Blackman (Erewash)
Malcolm Wicks (Croydon North)
Maria Eagle (Liverpool Garston)
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside)
Martin Salter (Reading West)
Martyn Jones (Clwyd South)
Meg Munn (Sheffield Heeley)
Michael Foster (Worcester)
Mike Hall (Weaver Vale)
Nick Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne East and Wallsend)
Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester)
Phil Woolas (Oldham East and Saddleworth)
Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)
Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)
Siôn Simon (Birmingham Erdington)
Stephen Pound (Ealing North)
Steve McCabe (Birmingham Hall Green)
Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)
Thomas McAvoy (Rutherglen and Hamilton West)
Tom Harris (Glasgow South)
Tom Levitt (High Peak)
Tom Watson (West Bromwich East)
Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central)
Tony McNulty (Harrow East)
Wayne David (Caerphilly)

The remaining 20 are all Conservative:

Andrew Pelling (Croydon Central)
Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and the Weald)
Ann Winterton (Congleton)
David Maclean (Penrith and the Border)
David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds)
David Tredinnick (Bosworth)
Greg Knight (East Yorkshire)
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East)
John Butterfill (Bournemouth West)
John Randall (Uxbridge)
Julian Lewis (New Forest East)
Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin)
Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
Peter Atkinson (Hexham)
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst)
Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)
Tim Boswell (Daventry)
Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East)

Strikingly, only 26 of Parliament’s 650 MPs turned up to oppose the bill – 5 Conservatives, 9 Labour, 9 Liberal Democrats, 1 Plaid Cymru MP and the Respect MP George Galloway.

Within days of taking office, Zuma sacks Health Minister who restored sanity to AIDS policy after Mbeki

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From The Guardian

Jacob Zuma, the new South African president, today sacked the health minister praised by campaigners for turning around the country’s disastrous policy on Aids.

Announcing his first cabinet, Zuma moved Barbara Hogan from the health ministry to the less influential public enterprises portfolio.

Hogan is replaced by Aaron Motsoaledi, a provincial education minister who is a medical doctor.

Some analysts had predicted Hogan would be ousted after she publicly criticised the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) earlier this year for barring the Dalai Lama from a conference on peace and reconciliation.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 12, 2009 at 8:17 pm

Robert Maxwell – a warning from history…

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From the New York Times, December 1991

How could he get away with it for so long? That is the question posed by the collapse of Robert Maxwell’s empire so quickly after his death.

For years he ran what amounted to an international confidence game, borrowing more and more, covering up his accounts. An official British inquiry in 1971 found him unfit to be in charge of a public company. Yet politicians honored him; and newspapers printed his boasts, hollow though most of them turned out to be.

The Financial Times of London said last week that Mr. Maxwell was not some unimportant figure; his operations affected large interests and many people. “How was it,” the paper asked, “that he was able to play such a role, for so many years, with such apparently cavalier disregard for the normal standards of probity? How could some of the world’s leading banks lend so much money to him?”

It was British corporate regulatory law that failed, The Financial Times said. Yes, it did. But there was another reason why Mr. Maxwell escaped proper scrutiny for so long: Britain’s stringent libel law, which makes it dangerous to write critically about a scoundrel like Mr. Maxwell.

Whenever anyone suggested wrongdoing by Mr. Maxwell, he sued. He brought 21 libel actions against the authors and others connected with two biographies of him. He sued the BBC, Rupert Murdoch, the editors of half a dozen British newspapers.

The threat of a libel suit is so potent in silencing critics in Britain because the law is so favorable to libel plaintiffs. Nearly everyone who sues the press gets a cash settlement or wins a jury verdict at trial — and keeps it on appeal.

Two points of law are critical. When a plaintiff claims that a newspaper has published a false statement about him, the paper has the burden of proving it true. And there is no need for the plaintiff to prove fault, such as negligence, on the publisher’s part; if he made a mistake, however innocent, he pays damages.

American law is to the contrary. The burden is on the plaintiff to prove that a statement about him was false. And he must show that there was some fault on the paper’s part in publishing it…

One lesson of the Maxwell affair, therefore, is that Americans can be grateful for the constitutional rights that prevent suppression of probing journalism. The system is far from perfect. Powerful individuals and companies still use libel as a repressive weapon. But criticism is much freer than in Britain.

The difference in the two countries’ law has lately led a number of libel plaintiffs to sue American publications in Britain. Mr. Maxwell sued The New Republic in England this year over an article about him, although the magazine has only 135 subscribers there…

Written by Richard Wilson

May 8, 2009 at 8:00 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Richard Wilson

May 5, 2009 at 10:44 am

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

Pocket journalism: Telegraph hack Con Coughlin goes into bat for torture

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In the early days of the Iraq war, Telegraph columnist Con Coughlin was famously obliging in disseminating the bogus claims of the US and UK governments about Weapons of Mass Destruction and a supposed link between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

When the focus of US “public diplomacy” switched towards the clamour for military action in Iran, Coughlin was equally helpful in promoting unsubstantiated claims about a link between Al Qaeda and the Iranian government.

Amid growing evidence that many of the false (yet politically useful) intelligence claims used to justify the Iraq war came from confessions extracted through torture, one might think that Coughlin, and the Telegraph, would now treat the assertions of the security services with a little more scepticism.

Instead, Coughlin seems to have gone the other way, cautioning Barack Obama not to “pick a fight with Dick Cheney”, asserting, without offering any evidence, that “We know that at least two major terrorist attacks against the UK were avoided thanks to vital intelligence provided to MI6 and MI5 by the CIA”, and suggesting that “There are always two sides to a story”.

“Are interrogation methods like waterboarding justified if they save lives”, Coughlin asks, “or should we respect the detainees’ human rights, thereby enabling the terror attacks to take place and claim innocent lives? I know which option I’d go for.”

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

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From Christopher Booker in the Sunday Telegraph:

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

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

Daily Mail gets fooled again by Booker’s quack-journalism

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Another corking piece of journo-quackery from Christopher Booker, this time in the Daily Mail. All the usual elements are there, including Booker’s oft-repeated claims about Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease not being linked to BSE, and about a supposed scientific “confusion” about the health risks of asbestos “costing literally hundreds of billions of pounds”. Sam Wong on “Just a Theory” does an excellent debunking of the rest.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 2, 2009 at 11:16 am