Posts Tagged ‘pseudo-science’
My latest piece for the New Humanist
A growing number of activists are calling for science to play a larger role in policy. But will it work? Richard Wilson asks the experts
In the latter days of the last Labour government, then Home Office minister Vernon Coaker introduced a law designed to enable the prosecution of those who paid for sexual services. The government had published a lengthy report, “Tackling Demand for Prostitution”, arguing that evidence showed such a change could reduce the violence and exploitation suffered by commercial sex workers.
In the House, Liberal Democrat science spokesman Dr Evan Harris raised concerns that the evidence in the report had not yet been published – and could therefore not be properly scrutinised. Harris cited the fact that the Royal College of Nursing had expressed concern that further criminalisation could actually be counterproductive, driving victims of sexual exploitation further underground, and away from where they might seek help. There was, Harris argued, a need to examine more thoroughly the evidence on which the proposed legislation was based. “We are looking at publishing the evidence,” replied the Minister, but “in the end, you pick the evidence which backs your argument.”
To those familiar with the scientific method this cherry-picking of data to support a preconceived hypothesis is a hallmark of quackery. Watching the debate, “mouth agape”, was Harris’s Parliamentary researcher, and biology graduate, Imran Khan. Khan was astonished that a government minister could think about, or talk about, scientific evidence in this way. He is now Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), a lobby group for science and technology education, and cites this tale as a textbook example of “policy-based evidence-making” – when evidence is chosen only to support or defend an already decided policy. Khan is one of a growing cadre of scientifically literate activists who see it as their job to root out this kind of back-to-front thinking, and to promote instead “evidence-based policy-making”, where rigorous, reputable and, crucially, publicly available evidence plays more than merely a fig leaf role in public policy. These include prominent public figures like Khan’s old boss Harris, who writes the Political Science blog for the Guardian, science writer and scourge of the chiropractors Simon Singh, and the Guardian’s Bad Science columnist Dr Ben Goldacre.
Fraser Nelson, editor of Andrew Neil’s ironic spoof news mag The Spectator, has a track record of being taken in by cranks and pseudoscientists. A little while back he took it upon himself to promote an AIDS denialist film, House of Numbers, apparently in the belief that its makers had intelligent and useful things to say, and ran an op-ed piece dismissing HIV science as “the AIDS religion”. (see here for the original text)
Now The Guardian reports that Nelson has gone one step further, putting the notorious Swedish water-divining enthusiast and “magnetometry” mystic Nils Axel Mörner on The Spectator’s front cover, and leading his readers to believe that the guy is an authority on the effects of climate change on sea levels.
From The Guardian
Nelson’s “find” is a man some of us found years ago and have seen as a source of wild entertainment ever since. He’s called Nils-Axel Mörner, and among his claims to fame are that he possesses paranormal abilities to find water and metal using a dowsing rod, and that he has discovered “the Hong Kong of the [ancient] Greeks” in Sweden.
The celebrated debunker of cobblers James Randi challenged Mörner to demonstrate his expertise with a dowsing rod, but he “consistently refused to be tested”. He did however, allow his paranormal abilities to be examined on Swedish television, using a test that Mörner himself devised: dowsing for a packet of sugar concealed under one of 10 cups. Needless to say, he failed, blaming, as such people so often do, “interference” and “influences”.
In 2007, Mörner and his collaborator, a homeopath and amateur archaeologist called Bob Lind, were reprimanded by the Scania County archaeologist in Sweden for damaging an Iron Age cemetery during their quest to demonstrate the “Bronze Age calendar alignments”, which would somehow help to show that this local graveyard was in fact an ancient Hellenic trading centre.
Reviewing such claims, the archaeologist and chair of the Swedish Skeptics Society, Martin Rundkvist, comments that if Nils-Axel Mörner is associated with a project, it’s “a solid guarantee for high-grade woo.”
Now Mörner turns up on the front cover of the Spectator, under the headline “The Sea Level Scam: the rise and rise of a global scare story”. His wild assertions are published in the magazine without qualification or challenge. Far from it: they are proclaimed in the headline as “The truth about sea levels”. Yet they are as far from the truth as his claims about dowsing and archaeology.
“He never has to know the actual facts of any issue; instead he’s equipped himself with a persuasive ploy which enables him to make non-experts believe he knows more than experts.”
Here’s Plato’s take on experts, evidence, and evidence of expertise. These words were first written more than 2,000 years ago – it seems both intriguing and perhaps also a bit depressing that they still have so much currency today.
The text below is from a dialogue between Socrates and Gorgias, a well-known ‘sophist’ who made his living from teaching the art of persuasion – aka “rhetoric”. The word ‘sophistry’ is today synonymous with arguments that are superficially plausible, yet nonetheless bogus…
From Plato’s Gorgias
Socrates: …You claim to be able to train up as a rhetorician anyone who’s prepared to listen to your teaching on the subject. Yes?
Socrates: And you’ll teach him all he needs to know to persuade a crowd of people – not to make them understand, but to win them over. Is that right?
Socrates: Now you claimed a little while back that a rhetorician would be more persuasive than a doctor even when the issue was health.
Gorgias: Yes I did, as long as he’s speaking in front of a crowd.
Socrates: By ‘in front of a crowd’ you mean ‘in front of non-experts’, don’t you? I mean, a rhetorician wouldn’t be more persuasive than a doctor in front of an audience of experts, of course.
Socrates: Now, if he’s more persuasive than a doctor than he’s more persuasive than an expert, isn’t he?
Socrates: When he isn’t actually a doctor himself. Yes?
Socrates: And a person who isn’t a doctor is ignorant, of course, about the things which a doctor knows.
Socrates: So any case of a rhetorician being more persuasive than a doctor is a case of a non-expert being more persuasive than an expert in front of an audience of non-experts. Isn’t that what we have to conclude?
Gorgias: Yes, in this instance, anyway.
Socrates: But isn’t a practitioner of rhetoric in the same situation whatever the area of expertise? He never has to know the actual facts of any issue; instead he’s equipped himself with a persuasive ploy which enables him to make non-experts believe he knows more than experts.
Gorgias: Doesn’t that simplify things, Socrates? Rhetoric is the only area of expertise you need to learn. You can ignore all the rest and still get the better of the professionals!
Journalist Christopher Booker may affect to doubt the human impact on the environment, and the wisdom of recycling targets for our household rubbish, but he appears to have fewer qualms when it comes to filling up space in his weekly Sunday Telegraph column.
In a warm review for the Spectator last month of the new book by fellow Sunday Telegraph pundit James le Fanu, Booker informed readers that “the greatest stumbling block” in Darwin’s theory of evolution 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…
What is psychologically fascinating about the mindset of the Darwinians is their inability to recognise just how much they do not know. As Le Fanu observes in a comment which might have served as an epigraph to his book, ‘the greatest obstacle to scientific progress is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge’. Blinkered in their vision, armoured in the certainty that they have all the answers when they so obviously don’t, neo-Darwinians such as Richard Dawkins rest their beliefs just as much on an unscientific leap of faith as the ‘Creationists’ they so fanatically affect to despise.
In his column for today’s Sunday Telegraph, Booker tells readers that “one great stumbling block” for Darwin’s theory of evolution is 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…
What is fascinating about the Darwinians is their inability to accept just how much they do not know. Armoured in their certainty that they have all the answers when they so obviously don’t, neo-Darwinians such as Richard Dawkins rest their beliefs just as much on an unscientific leap of faith as the â Creationists’ they so fanatically affect to despise. It is revealing how they dismissively try to equate all those scientists who argue for ‘intelligent design’ with Biblical fundamentalists, as their only way to cope with questions they cannot answer.
In Don’t Get Fooled Again, I highlight Christopher Booker’s recycling of the asbestos industry’s pseudo-science in downplaying the health risks of white (“chrysotile”) asbestos.
It had to happen sooner or later…
Today I am launching a new and much-coveted award. It is called the Christopher Booker Prize. It will be presented to whoever manages, in the course of 2009, to cram as many misrepresentations, distortions and falsehoods into a single article, statement, lecture, film or interview about climate change. It is not to be confused with the Man Booker Prize, although that is also a prize for fiction.
The prize consists of a tasteful trophy made from recycled materials plus a one-way solo kayak trip to the North Pole, enabling the lucky winner to see for himself the full extent of the Arctic ice melt. Later this week, I will publish the full terms and conditions and unveil the beautiful trophy, which is currently being fashioned by master craftsmen in mid-Wales.
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.
Poll: Is it right for the Sunday Telegraph to mislead the public about the health risks of asbestos?
The Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker has now written at least 41 different articles in which he repeatedly denies, downplays or misrepresents the scientific evidence around the health risks of white asbestos, often echoing the PR messages of the industry-funded “Chrysotile Institute”.
But is it fair for us to expect newspapers and newspaper columnists to tell the truth? YOU DECIDE:
In “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, I highlight Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker’s ongoing campaign to downplay the health risks of white asbestos. Both Booker and his main scientific source, John Bridle, have been linked to the industry-run “Chrysotile Institute”, whose claims about asbestos Booker’s columns often echo.
Now a group of health experts in Canada, one of the world’s largest exporters of white (chrysotile) asbestos, have called on the Canadian government to stop subsidising the Chrysotile Institute and it’s “nonsensical claims”:
The Canadian government is funding censorship and perversion of scientific information, charge a number of health experts in a strongly worded letter sent today to Prime Minister Harper.
The experts, from the Université de Laval and other universities across Canada, ask the Prime Minister to stop funding the Chrysotile Institute (formerly the Asbestos Institute) in his government’s January 27 budget.
“The Institute censors information from the world’s leading health authorities, distorts their views and puts forward nonsensical claims, for example that chrysotile asbestos disappears when it is mixed with cement and becomes harmless,” says Dr Colin Soskolne, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Alberta. “This is not science; this is dangerous nonsense.”
“It is a slur on the reputation of the scientific community and people of Canada for the government to be funding such distortion of scientific information,” says Dr Tim Takaro, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences, SFU. “But, more importantly, this misinformation puts people’s lives at risk. This is completely unethical and must stop.”
“Over the past 25 years, the government has given more than $20 million to support the dying asbestos industry in Quebec. Over 90% of the workers have lost their jobs; the remaining approximately 550 workers have had their wages slashed and work part-time; and in 2007, the asbestos mining company filed for bankruptcy protection,” said Kathleen Ruff, senior human rights advisor to the Rideau Institute. “It is time to stop this wasteful and unethical use of government funds. Instead, the government should help the remaining asbestos workers and the community with just transition assistance.”
Is it wrong to highlight the deaths of HIV-positive AIDS denialists who reject medications and urge others to do the same?
In “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, I look at the role played by the media in promoting dangerous pseudo-scientific ideas under the guise of “balance” in reporting. From the mid-1950s onwards, there was a clear consensus among scientists, based on very strong epidemiological evidence, that smoking caused lung cancer. Yet for several decades, many journalists insisted on “balancing” their reports on each new piece of research with a quote from an industry-funded scientist insisting that the case remained “unproven”.
The tobacco industry’s strategy from an early stage was not to deny outright that smoking was harmful, but to maintain that there were “two sides to the story”. In January 1954, the industry issued its now-famous “Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” – a full-page advertisement published in 50 major newspapers across the US.
“Recent reports on experiments with mice have given wide publicity to a theory that cigarette smoking is in some way linked with lung cancer in human beings”
the industry noted.
“Although conducted by doctors of professional standing, these experiments are not regarded as conclusive in the field of cancer research… we feel it is in the public interest to call attention to the fact that eminent doctors and research scientists have publicly questioned the claimed significance of these experiments.”
The strategy played cleverly to the media’s penchant for “controversy”, and proved remarkably successful. Long after the matter had been decisively settled among scientists, public uncertainty around the effects of smoking endured.
US cigarette sales continued rising until the mid-1970s – and it was only in the 1990s – four decades after the scientific case had been clearly established – that lung cancer rates began to tail off. Harvard Medical Historian Allan M Brandt has described the tobacco industry’s public deception – in which many mainstream journalists were complicit – as “the crime of the century”:
It is now estimated that more that 100 million people worldwide died of tobacco-related diseases over the last hundred years. Although it could be argued that for the first half of the century the industry was not fully aware of the health effects of cigarettes, by the 1950s there was categorical scientific evidence of the harms of smoking.
The motivations of the AIDS denialists may be very different, but their rhetoric and tactics are strikingly similar. During the early 1990s, Sunday Times medical correspondent Neville Hodgkinson was bamboozled into running a series of articles – over a period of two years – claiming that:
“a growing number of senior scientists are challenging the idea that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes AIDS”…
“This sensational possibility, now being contemplated by numerous doctors, scientists and others intimately concerned with the fight against the disease, deserves the widest possible examination and debate.”
Hodgkinson declared in December 1993.
“Yet it has been largely ignored by the British media and suppressed almost entirely in the United States… The science establishment considers itself on high moral ground, defending a theory that has enormous public health implications against the ‘irresponsible’ questioning of a handful of journalists. Their concern is human and understandable, even if we might expect our leading scientists to retain more concern for the truth while pursuing public health objectives.”
As with the tobacco industry’s “scepticism” over the link between smoking and cancer, the views promoted by Hodgkinson tended to focus on gaps in the established explanation (many of which have since been filled) rather than on any empirical research showing an alternative cause. But he did use one of the recurrent rhetorical motifs of the AIDS denial movement – highlighting the case of an HIV-positive “AIDS dissident” who refused to take anti-retroviral drugs but remained healthy.
Jody Wells has been HIV-positive since 1984. He was diagnosed as having AIDS in 1986. Today, seven years on, he says he feels fine with energy levels that belie his 52 years. He does not take the anti-HIV drug AZT…
He feels so strongly about the issue that he works up to 18 hours a day establishing a fledgling charity called Continuum, “an organisation for long-term survivors of HIV and AIDS and people who want to be”. Founded late last year, the group already has 600 members.
Continuum emphasises nutritional and lifestyle approaches to combating AIDS, arguing that these factors have been grossly neglected in the 10 years since Dr. Robert Gallo declared HIV to be the cause of AIDS.
Tragically – if predictably – Jody Wells was dead within three years of the article being written.
Although Hodgkinson left the Sunday Times in 1994, his articles on the “AIDS controversy” continued to be disseminated online, lending valuable credibility to the denialist cause – and have been credited with influencing Thabo Mbeki’s embrace of AIDS denial in the early part of this decade.
When, in 2000, President Mbeki invited several leading denialists to join his advisory panel on HIV and AIDS, Hodgkinson was one among a number who published articles in the South African media praising the decision. Writing in the New African, Hodgkinson called for “a humble, open, inquiring approach on all sides of this debate” – whilst simultaneously declaring that “AZT is a poison” and denouncing “the bankruptcy of AIDS science”.
Hodgkinson also wrote for Continuum’s magazine, which, following Jody Wells’ death was edited by HIV-positive medication refusnik Huw Christie. Christie defiantly launched the “Jody Wells Memorial Prize” (recently satirised here by Seth Kalichman) offering £1,000 to anyone who could prove to his satisfaction that HIV was real.
The magazine finally folded in 2001, with the Jody Wells Memorial Prize still on offer, after Huw Christie died from a disease which fellow denialists insisted was not AIDS-related. “Neither of your illnesses would have brought you down, Huw”, wrote Christie’s friend Michael Baumgartner in 2001. “You simply ran out of time to change gear. We both knew it did not need some ill-identified virus to explain your several symptoms”.
“Huw’s devotion to life has no doubt contributed to a better understanding of AIDS and he saved many who, without hearing a skeptical voice, would have been stampeded down the path of pharmaceutical destruction”
wrote HIV-positive San Francisco AIDS “dissident” David Pasquarelli.
“I readily acknowledge that if it wasn’t for the work of Huw and handful of other AIDS dissidents, I would not be alive today”.
Pasquarelli died at the age of 36 three years later.
The same document includes a tribute from Christine Maggiore, another HIV-positive AIDS “sceptic” who famously rejected medication, and publicly urged others to do the same. As has been widely reported, Maggiore died last month of an illness commonly associated with AIDS.
Connie Howard, writing in today’s edition of VUE Weekly, finds the reaction to Maggiore’s passing distasteful, claiming that: “some AIDS activists are celebrating—not her death exactly, but celebrating a point for their team nonetheless”.
Howard suggests, echoing Hodgkinson, that “Many HIV-positive people who choose an alternative holistic health route defy all odds and stay well and symptom-free for decades”, and that she has “talked to HIV-positive people living well—really well—without drugs.”
According to Howard:
“it’s time that choice and discussion become possible without hate instantly becoming the most potent ingredient in the mix… The vitriol delivered the way of both dissidents and the reporters telling the stories of the dissidents is a crime… Christine Maggiore deserves to have chosen her own path and to be respected for it.”
AIDS denialists and their sympathisers often accuse mainstream AIDS researchers of not being open to “discussion” or “debate”. Yet meaningful discussion is only possible when both sides are operating in good faith. The problem with AIDS and HIV is that the evidence linking the two is so overwhelmingly strong that the only way to maintain a consistently denialist position is to engage in “bogus scepticism” – arbitrarily dismissing good evidence that undermines one’s favoured viewpoint, misrepresenting genuine research in order to create the appearance of controversy where there is none, seeking to give unpublished amateur research equal status with peer-reviewed studies by professional scientists, and treating minor uncertainties in the established theory as if they were knock-down refutations. In such circumstances, reasoned debate simply becomes impossible.
Howard doesn’t specify which AIDS activists she believes “view the death of an AIDS dissident as a victory” or have celebrated Maggiore’s passing, so it’s difficult to evaluate the truth of that particular claim.
But the notion that everyone is duty bound to “respect” Christine Maggiore’s decision to embrace AIDS denial – and counsel others to do the same – does seem a tad problematic.
What Howard chooses not to tell her readers is that Maggiore’s denial extended not only to refusing medical treatment for herself – she also declined to take measures to mitigate the risk of transmission to her young daughter, Eliza Jane, and refused to have her tested or treated for HIV. When Eliza Jane died in 2005 of what a public coroner concluded was AIDS-related pneumonia, Maggiore refused to accept the result, attacked the coroner’s credibility, and claimed that the verdict was biased.
Missing too, is any reference to South Africa, where Maggiore travelled in 2000 to promote her ideas on AIDS and HIV. Maggiore is said to have personally influenced Thabo Mbeki’s decision to block the provision of anti-retroviral drugs to HIV-positive pregnant women. A Harvard study recently concluded that this decision alone resulted in 35,000 more babies being infected with HIV than would otherwise have been the case. Overall, the study concluded, Mbeki’s denialist policies had led to more than 300,000 preventable deaths.
If the Harvard researchers are correct, then AIDS denialism – of which Christine Maggiore was a vocal proponent – has already caused many more deaths than did the war in Bosnia during the early 1990s. Yet the only “crime” that Connie Howard seems prepared to acknowledge in relation to AIDS and HIV is the ill-feeling directed towards Christine Maggiore, her fellow “dissidents”, and the journalists who give space to their denialist views – views which have repeatedly been shown to be based not on science, but on “selective reading of the scientific literature, dismissing evidence… requiring impossibly definitive proof, and dismissing outright studies marked by inconsequential weaknesses”.
Should we “respect” a person’s decision to refuse medical treatment, even if that leads to their own premature death? Arguably we should. But should we also respect that same person’s decision, on ideological grounds, to deny medical treatment to a young child, with fatal consequences? Should we respect their decision to support a pseudo-scientific campaign denying the established facts about a serious public health issue, when that campaign results in hundreds of thousands of deaths?
It is surely possible to agree that Christine Maggiore’s premature death was an appalling human tragedy, whilst pointing out that she was nonetheless dangerously misguided – and that the manner of her passing makes the tragedy all the more poignant.
Christine Maggiore, Jody Wells, Huw Christie, and David Pasquarelli form part of a grim roll-call of HIV-positive medication refusniks who chose to argue publicly that the state of their health cast doubt on the established science around AIDS and HIV, and then went on to die from the disease. For AIDS activists to remain silent in such circumstances would be a dereliction of duty. Publicly highlighting the human cost of AIDS denial, so that similar deaths may be prevented in future, must surely take precedence over showing “respect” to dangerously misguided people, however tragic the circumstances of their demise.
From The Guardian
In Saturday’s Telegraph, Christopher Booker and Richard North published a long article appropriately titled “Speed cameras: the twisted truth”. A sharp decline in the death rate on the roads suddenly slowed down in the mid-1990s. They attribute this to the government’s new focus on enforcing the speed limits, especially by erecting speed cameras. What they fail to mention is that deaths started falling sharply again in 2003, after the number of speed cameras had doubled in three years…
Their article is a long catalogue of intellectual dishonesty. In support of their claims that speed cameras are worse than useless, they also use a report by the House of Commons transport committee. It said, they maintain, that “an obsession with cameras was responsible for a ‘deplorable’ drop in the number of officers patrolling Britain’s roads”. It says nothing of the kind, and the word “deplorable” does not feature anywhere. But here’s what it does contain: “Well-placed cameras bring tremendous safety benefits at excellent cost-benefit ratios. A more cost-effective measure for reducing speeds and casualties has yet to be introduced.” Booker and North also lay into one of my columns. That’s fair enough: it’s a national sport. But to make their narrative more convincing they alter the date of the column by a year. Their claims about speed cameras, like much of the material in their new book, are pure junk science, cherrypicking the helpful results and ignoring the inconvenient ones.
The Telegraph’s “war on science” has opened up a new front, prompted, it seems, by the current spell of cold weather. For years, Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker has ploughed a lonely furrow, rigorously applying the pseudo-scientific method to asbestos, speed cameras, passive smoking, and global warming. Now the Daily Telegraph’s science correspondent Richard Alleyne has waded in to support the cause, penning an article on climate change science of which Booker himself would surely be proud.
True to the paper’s in-house standards, Ben Goldacre reports that the Telegraph a) misrepresented the work of a genuine scientist, Birmingham University’s Professor Ian Fairchild, b) attributed a quote to Fairchild copy-pasted from an entirely different context, c) refused to publish a letter from Prof Fairchild pointing out the error, and d) refused even to publish the comment that Prof Fairchild made on the online version of the article, while allowing 23 other comments from people who’d had no involvement in the actual research.
These included such urgent and insightful messages as “I think Global Warming is an experiment to see just how much absurdity Leftist Environmarxists will blindly believe in if the rest of society can be forced to impoverish themselves with draconian energy non-usage”…
I believe that most reporters in the media do really want to get it right. However, they are hobbled by three things. First, many, if not most, of them have little training in science or the scientific method and are not particularly valued by their employers. For example, witness how CNN shut down their science division. Second, the only medical or science stories that seem to be valued are one of three types. The first type is the new breakthrough, the cool new discovery that might result in a new treatment or cure. Of course, this type doesn’t distinguish between science-based and non-science-based “breakthroughs.” They are both treated equally, which is why “alternative medicine” stories are so popular. The second type is the human interest story, which is inherently interesting to readers, listeners, or viewers because, well, it’s full of human interest. This sort of story involves the child fighting against long odds to get a needed transplant, for example, especially if the insurance company is refusing to pay for it. The third type, unfortunately, often coopts the second type and, to a lesser extent, the first type. I’m referring to the “medical controversy” story. Unfortunately, the “controversy” is usually more of a manufactroversy. In other words, it’s a fake controversy. No scientific controversy exists, but ideologues desperately try to make it appear as though a real scientific controversy exists. Non-medical examples include creationism versus evolution and the “9/11 Truth” movement versus history. Medical examples include the so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” movement versus science-based medicine and, of course, the anti-vaccine movement.
From the Los Angeles Times
It is admittedly difficult to spot the moment when a scientific theory becomes an accepted fact. It took hundreds of years for the Catholic Church to acknowledge the work of Galileo, and it still flinches at Darwin. Meanwhile, the rest of the sentient universe long ago accepted that the Earth orbits the sun, and all but the most determined creationists see the undeniable evidence of evolution at work. Still, science is a discipline of questions, and rarely is a fact established so firmly that it will silence all critics. At the Creation Museum near Cincinnati, the exhibit guides visitors “to the dawn of time” — just 6,000 years ago. That makes for some startling conclusions, not the least of which is that dinosaurs and humans were created by God on the sixth day and lived side by side. Call it the Flinstones theory.
Of course, new questions inevitably emerge from new inquiry and new data. How, then, to judge when a theory becomes fact, when it slips beyond legitimate objection? The test lies in balance: A preponderance of evidence accumulates on one side or the other. Those who contest that evidence must demonstrate the plausibility of alternatives and produce evidence to support them. If the alternatives are implausible, they melt away. Eventually, there is nothing left to uphold the view that the sun is circling the Earth or that natural selection is a secular myth.
In some instances, these debates are interesting but not terribly consequential. But sometimes they are of staggering significance. When the theory in question is about the cause of climate change or AIDS, misplaced skepticism, whether cynical or well-intentioned, can lead to grave results. For years, the South African government joined with Maggiore in denying that HIV is responsible for AIDS and resisting antiretroviral treatment. According to a new analysis by a group of Harvard public health researchers, 330,000 people died as a consequence of the government’s denial and 35,000 babies were born with the disease.
Determined to reject scientific wisdom, Maggiore breast-fed her daughter. Eliza Jane died in 2005, at the age of 3. The L.A. County coroner concluded that the cause of death was AIDS-related pneumonia. Maggiore refused to believe it.
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.
…a highly readable book which represents a refreshing gale of common sense and rationality. Wilson critiques a wide range of contemporary nonsense including:
- Pseudo-news such as the testimony of a certain ‘Nurse Nayirah’ in 1990 that Iraqi troops occupying Kuwait had removed babies from incubators or the insistence of American and British politicians that Saddam’s Hussein’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction;
- Pseudo-science such as the efforts to show that smoking does not cause cancer or that white asbestos poses no measurable risk to health or that Trofim Lysenko in the pre-war Soviet Union had revolutionary techniques to transform agriculture or that South African President Thambo Mbeki was right in insisting that the HIV virus does not cause AIDS;
- Conspiracy theories such as the assertion by ex British agent David Shayler that the London bombings of July 2007 were not the act of terrorists;
- Relativism which, in its most radical form, asserts that there are no objective facts, only competing strands of subjective opinion, and even in ‘milder’ forms like cultural relativism rejects logic and evidence as ‘western’ or ‘imperialist’ modes of thinking;
- Religious fundamentalism which requires belivers to accept on faith the absolute truth of a prescribed list of written beliefs even when the relevant texts are obscure, contradictory or contrary to evidence;
- The justifications given for torture by democratic states like the USA and for terrorism given by extremist groups who likewise believe that the ends justify the means.
Wilson helpfully identifies some of the many factors that permit and indeed encourage such acts of irrationality including wishful thinking, over-idealisation, demonising perceived enemies, moral exclusion, and groupthink. In a spirited defence of rationality, he asserts: “The basic principles of logic, consistency, evidence, and ‘inductive reasoning’ are common to every human society and present in all belief systems”.
“Misinformed”, “substantially misleading” and “absurd” – the UK government’s verdict on Christopher Booker’s claims
The Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker has been taking some flack this week over his latest bogus claims on global warming. This in turn has triggered renewed scrutiny of Booker’s denialism on other issues – particularly his assertions about white asbestos, which I examine in “Don’t Get Fooled Again”.
I thought it might be useful to collate some of the responses to Booker’s articles over the years from the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive. Most are letters to the editor, correcting false statements that Booker has made about the HSE and its work. Only the first appears to have been accepted by the Sunday Telegraph for publication – the newspaper usually refuses to print letters which contradict Booker’s bogus claims.
Christopher Booker’s articles on the dangers of white asbestos (Notebook, Jan 13, 27, Feb 10) are misinformed and do little to increase public understanding of a very important occupational health issue.
-Timothy Walker, Director General, Health & Safety Executive, February 2002
The articles in the Sunday Telegraph by Christopher Booker entitled “Fatal cracks appear in asbestos scam as HSE shifts its ground” and “Booker wins asbestos battle” (11 December) highlighted aspects of the current Health and Safety Commission consultation on changes to the asbestos regulations.
While we welcome the emphasis in the articles on evidence-based policy making, I need to correct a comment about our views. While risks from white asbestos may be significantly lower than the risks from blue or brown, HSE does not agree that white asbestos poses no medical risk.
-Jonathan Rees, Deputy Chief Executive, Health and Safety Executive, December 2005
The Health and Safety Laboratory’s research does not confirm that white asbestos in textured coatings poses “no health risk” (Christopher Booker, 6 August). In its report for the Health and Safety Executive, the Laboratory found rather that the level of asbestos fibres in the air from work with textured coatings will not exceed the proposed new lower control limit when carried out using good practice.
Chrysotile asbestos, as found in many textured coatings, is classified as a category 1 carcinogen hazardous by inhalation by both the World Health Organisation and the EU.
-Geoffrey Podger, Chief Executive, Health and Safety Executive, August 2006
HSE does not exaggerate the risks of white asbestos cement fibres as claimed by Christopher Booker (Farmers face £6 bn bill for asbestos clean up’ 25 May). The article was substantially misleading…
The HSE paper quoted in the article in fact makes no specific statement about the risks of asbestos cement. It provides a summary of risk estimates for mesothelioma and lung cancer in relation to blue, brown and white asbestos across a range of exposures. Blue and brown asbestos are substantially more hazardous than white, but all three types can cause mesothelioma and lung cancer.
Finally, HSE in no way promotes the interests of the asbestos removal industry and it is absurd to suggest otherwise.
-Geoffrey Podger, Chief Executive, Health and Safety Executive, May 2008
From “Way of the Woo”:
Did you hear NASA announced that last month was the hottest October on record? No? How about now:
The world has never seen such freezing heat
On Monday, Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), which is run by Al Gore’s chief scientific ally, Dr James Hansen, and is one of four bodies responsible for monitoring global temperatures, announced that last month was the hottest October on record.
That was from the opinion pages of The Telegraph, “Britain’s No. 1 quality newspaper website”. The Investor’s Business Daily says in their Editorial/Opinion section:
Cold, Hard Facts
Despite record snows and low temperatures around the world last month, a major Al Gore supporter says October was the hottest on record.
And Barbara Sowell of the Digital Journal piles on:
Another Dagger in the Heart of Global Warming Advocacy
When GISS made the announcement last week it was shocking. All over the world were reports of unseasonal cold temperatures and record snowfalls. Even the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration registered 115 lowest-ever temperatures for the month of October.
Were you shocked by last week’s announcement? NASA announcing that “October was the hottest on record” is certainly a headline grabber and I have to admit that I was shocked…shocked that my Google newsfeed didn’t pick up on this story. I checked the major news outlets…ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, FOX, etc. I was shocked to find that none of them carried any mention last week of this historical data point in the Global Warming timeline. Of these, only FOX news has posted a quick paragraph on the matter by Britt Hume:
In Hot Water
Last week, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies — one of the four bodies responsible for monitoring global temperatures used by the United Nations — announced last month was the hottest October on record. That was because the institute’s maps showed a 10-degree increase across parts of Russia.
So why didn’t responsible news organizations write a story about NASA’s announcement? You’re not going to believe this but there was no announcement. Christopher Booker, who wrote the original Telegraph article, made it up. Call it a lie, a fantasy, or Booker’s dream story…but it never happened. What did happen was that NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) posted an erroneous data point in their monthly tabulation of global temperature data. A glitch or a program error (or whatever) caused large sections of Russian temperature data from September to be carried over into October. That is, their particular data was duplicated, causing the overall global average temperature to be artificially high. The new data point would suggest that last October was indeed the hottest October on record.
NASA did not issue a press release, did not hold a press conference, did not send out news bulletins…they did not even so much as attempt any kind of ballyhoo around this new figure. Understand that James Hansen would practically drool over such a figure because it would, in the midst of our current economic turmoil and the transition of government power, bring the topic of manmade Global Warming back to the fore.
In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I trace the growth of the insidious cult of AIDS denial, from its origins in the US in the early 1980s, to the moment it was embraced by the South African government of Thabo Mbeki.
The economist Nicoli Nattrass has estimated that 340,000 lives could have been saved had Mbeki not blocked the distribution of lifesaving drugs, under the influence of AIDS “dissidents” including the virologist Peter Duesberg, who insists that HIV does not cause AIDS and is harmless.
Now a study by the Harvard School of Public Health has arrived at a very similar figure, estimating the death toll resulting from Mbeki’s decision to withhold the drugs as “more than 330,000″. The prominent South African HIV treatment access campaigner Zackie Achmat has called for Mbeki to be held to account for his government’s failure, either through a judicial inquiry, or a revived “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”.
For the past six years, the Sunday Telegraph’s Christopher Booker has been trying to convince the world that white asbestos is harmless, regularly parroting the industry’s mantra that the material poses ‘no measurable risk to health’.
In his latest article – his 41st on the subject by my count – Booker repeats a number of the false claims he has made in previous pieces, and accuses the BBC of “moral corruption” for giving coverage to the Health and Safety Executive’s latest campaign to raise awareness of asbestos hazards among those most at risk. According to Booker:
It was telling that when Radio 4′s Today was promoting the HSE’s latest fad last week, it should have used Michael Lees, a veteran anti-asbestos campaigner, whose teacher wife died of mesothelioma, to support the claim that ever more teachers are dying from exposure to asbestos in schools.
Yet when the HSE had earlier investigated Mr Lees’s claims it found that they were “not borne out by the facts”. The mortality rate for female teachers was “in line with the average for the whole of the female population”.
Booker had previously described Mr Lees’ effort to raise awareness of the risk to teachers from asbestos in schools as “The bizarre death-by-drawing-pin scare”.
The Sunday Telegraph usually refuses to publish letters to the editor criticising Booker’s bogus claims, but it has recently begun allowing readers to comment on the online versions of his articles. His latest attack has now drawn this response from Michael Lees himself:
Christopher Booker has made statements about asbestos that are either incorrect or misleading as he has failed to understand, or has chosen to put to one side, the science, statistics and facts. What is of concern is that his statements undermine the good work that is being done by those he criticises.
The deaths from mesothelioma are not as he states calculated on “a complex formula based on no fewer than three arbitrary assumptions,” for they are based on a simple body count. That count shows that the HSE campaign targeted at the building maintenance trades is totally justified. For more than twenty carpenters, electricians and plumbers dying a week from asbestos exposure cannot be described as “the latest scare,” although that is precisely what Mr Booker does. He also equates the BBC report on asbestos in public buildings as being another example of the “moral corruption of the BBC.” He should not judge others by his own standards, for the BBC report was well researched and gave a measured, balanced view of the topic while highlighting the very real dangers from deteriorating and damaged asbestos in buildings. His views about chrysotile are not only incorrect but are contrary to all informed opinion, it also appears that he is unaware that crocidolite has been used, and amosite has been extensively used in the internal structure of schools and hospitals, and therefore as the materials have deteriorated over time they represent a very real and increasing risk to the occupants.
He is as wrong now as he was in his column in April 2006 in which he described my wife’s death as “bizarre.” Not only were his comments distasteful, they were also flawed through lack of the most rudimentary research which in his own words had “taken only seconds to find on the internet.” First he raised the matter of the number of asbestos fibres released from displaying the children’s work by inserting drawing pins in asbestos insulating board. He quoted then, as he has now from a letter sent to me by the HSE Head of Asbestos Policy. If Mr Booker had cared to spend a few seconds longer in his research, he would have discovered that the Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee, WATCH, had dismissed the figures quoted by Mr Booker, for WATCH concluded that the realistic worst case exposure of the teacher would be some 16,000 times greater. I wrote to the editor of the Sunday Telegraph giving the reasons why Mr Booker’s statements were incorrect, however my letter was not published.
The second issue raised in 2006 and repeated in Booker’s latest column concerns the number of teachers dying from mesothelioma. He has again failed to carry out more than the most superficial research. I would have hoped that, as he makes very public statements based on statistics, he understands Proportional Mortality Ratios (PMR), and that for the period between 1980 and 2000 the PMR of 100 amongst female school teachers shows that their deaths from mesothelioma are three times higher than one would expect in a profession where there should be little or no asbestos exposure. As the HSE Statistics Branch stated in connection with school teachers’ deaths “Even if the proportion of mesothelioma deaths amongst teachers was in line with the proportion of females that are teachers one could still draw the conclusion that there are too many deaths among a group which are supposed to have had very little asbestos exposure.” Over the years the numbers of school teachers dying from mesothelioma has been steadily increasing with 15 dying in the period 1980 to 1985 with the latest statistics showing that 64 died in the period 2001 to 2005. In my terms that supports the BBC’s supposition that even more teachers are dying from mesothelioma.
I would therefore suggest that before Mr Booker passes comment in his column, he considers both the facts and the potential damage that his misleading and incorrect statements will cause.
Interestingly, Christopher Booker’s latest article downplaying the health risks of white asbestos comes just before the week in which the UN will debate whether to place further restrictions on international trade in the material. The 120 member Rotterdam Convention is “aimed at helping developing countries more effectively manage potentially harmful imported substances”. If state parties agree to place chrysotile on the treaty’s “watch list” of hazardous materials, then any country exporting it will be obliged to ensure that the recipient country has given its explicit consent to receive it.
Russia and Canada, both major exporters of chrysotile asbestos, are strongly opposed to any such moves, but a debate is raging in Canada over the government’s longstanding efforts to block restrictions on the asbestos industry – including its multi-million dollar subsidy to the industry lobby group, the Chrysotile Institute, to which both “Professor” John Bridle and Christopher Booker have been linked.