Posts Tagged ‘scepticism’
…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”.
There’s always somebody trying to pull a fast one, but we can help ourselves. “The antidotes to delusion are logic and evidence, preferably from multiple sources.” The author hopes to give us the tools to avoid being fooled by “pseudo-news”, as well as pseudo-experts, and pseudo-conspiracy theories. Confusingly, many of the people we ought to be sceptical of pretend to be sceptics themselves. The giveaway, as Wilson nicely shows, is that their scepticism is asymmetrical: no evidence is ever enough for someone “sceptical” about anthropogenic global warming (an example not included in this book), and yet they are remarkably credulous about any alternative factoids that might seem to support their own view.
Wilson ranges somewhat loosely over examples contemporary and historical: anti-Aids science in South Africa, Lysenko’s pseudo-agriculture, David Irving’s Holocaust denial, Richard Dawkins’s atheism, and torture at Abu Ghraib, explaining psychological ideas of selection bias and groupthink along the way. He alludes to the X-Files slogan “I want to believe” as an example of dangerous thinking, but to be fair they also say “Trust no one.”
There’s no radio show quite like Little Atoms, which broadcasts on Resonance FM from a small studio near London’s Borough Market. In the last few years Neil Denny has interviewed an impressive line-up of leading sceptical thinkers, from Francis Wheen and Alain de Botton to Ben Goldacre, Julian Baggini, Jon Ronson and Stewart Lee.
It was an honour to be on the show, and a pleasure chatting to Neil about Don’t Get Fooled Again, discussing the weird cult of AIDS denial (148 comments on my New Statesman article and counting, with the debate still raging three weeks after it was published), the extraordinary Booker-Bridle asbestos love-in, and lots more besides. The interview should be available online in the next few days, so I’ll post the link when it appears.
From The Herald
Getting more clued up requires understanding why it is we are so frequently fooled. To do this, we need to learn not only about faulty logic, but our psychological weaknesses. For example, we tend to be too impressed by the mere volume of evidence marshalled in support of a case. But no amount of bad evidence adds up to good evidence. Nor should we forget that the size of even a good dossier of evidence can only be judged to be impressive or insufficient when it is compared to the size and contents of the dossier against.
There are signs that people are already equipping themselves to cope with the information tsunami. Between starting to write my own contribution – a book on bad arguments and rhetoric – and it coming out, I’ve noticed other books have also appeared with similar agendas, such as Damian Thompson’s Counterknowledge and Richard Wilson’s Don’t Be Fooled Again.
I’m hopeful that the information overload might be provoking a long-overdue upgrading of the general population’s capacity to distinguish for itself between good and bad arguments. Rather than blaming the internet, we need to attribute responsibility to the right place, which is with people who dish out the falsehoods in the first place, and ourselves for swallowing them too easily.
Julian Baggini‘s latest book is The Duck that Won the Lottery and 99 Other Bad Arguments (Granta).
Throughout the 1960s, the tobacco industry famously spent millions promoting a small group of vociferous “sceptics” who, in the face of overwhelming evidence, continued to deny the link between smoking and cancer. The strategy paid off. Long after a clear scientific consensus had emerged, much of the public still believed that the case remained unproven.
In a sceptical age, even those disseminating wholly bogus ideas – from corporate pseudo-science to 9/11 conspiracy theories – will often seek to appropriate the language of rational inquiry. But there is a meaningful difference between being a “sceptic” and being in denial. The genuine sceptic forms his beliefs through a balanced evaluation of the evidence. The sceptic of the bogus variety cherry-picks evidence on the basis of a pre-existing belief, seizing on data, however tenuous, that supports his position, and yet declaring himself “sceptical” of any evidence, however compelling, that undermines it.
While it is easy to guess the motivations of an industry-funded scientist denying the dangers posed by his commercial sponsor, or a far-right historian expressing “scepticism” about the Holocaust, other cases are more puzzling. It is difficult to explain why, for example, a respected academic would dismiss the mountain of proof that HIV causes Aids. But several have, notably the Berkeley virologist Peter Duesberg.
HIV is a type of “retrovirus”. Duesberg has argued for decades that retroviruses rarely, if ever, harm their hosts. Rather than modify this theory in the light of evidence that one such virus was killing millions, Duesberg in the late 1980s announced his “scepticism” about that evidence, and has stuck to his guns ever since.
Early on, these ideas found a receptive audience among HIV sufferers, desperate for an alternative prognosis. The cause was later taken up by conspiracy theorists convinced that Aids was a money-spinning fabrication of the global pharmaceutical industry.
In South Africa, at the beginning of this decade, Aids scepticism gained currency with a political class dismayed at the prices being charged for life-saving medicines. Under the influence of Duesberg and his fellow “dissidents”, Thabo Mbeki’s government chose to delay for several years public provision of anti-HIV drugs. The economist Nicoli Nattrass estimates that this decision – made amid one of the world’s worst Aids epidemics – may already have cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
Bogus scepticism does not centre on an impartial search for the truth, but on a no-holds-barred defence of a preconceived ideological position. The bogus sceptic is thus, in reality, a disguised dogmatist, made all the more dangerous for his success in appropriating the mantle of the unbiased and open-minded inquirer.
Richard Wilson’s “Don’t Get Fooled Again” is out now, published by Icon Books (£12.99)
In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I highlight the case of Matthias Rath, the German vitamin salesman who has urged HIV sufferers, most notoriously in South Africa, to stop taking real medicines and use ‘nutritional supplements’ instead. Rath has faced increasing international criticism for his activities, including from the Guardian’s Ben Goldacre, who ran a series of articles discussing Rath’s extraordinary claims. In response, Rath launched a libel suit – but this has now backfired disastrously. The evidence against Rath is so clear that he had no real chance of success, even under the UK’s notoriously plaintiff-friendly libel laws. Yesterday it was announced that he had abandoned the suit, with costs awarded of at least £200,000.
Today’s Guardian gives wall-to-wall coverage to Rath and his nefarious activities, with a damning video which discusses several cases of people who have died after being taken in by his bogus claims.
It’s good to be a sceptic, and as Richard Wilson demonstrates in his new book, far too few of us choose to use our critical faculties as often as we should. Our lack of scepticism starts with ourselves – we uniformly believe we are better looking than the average person, better drivers than the average person, more caring and giving than the average person, when common sense dictates we can’t all be (I mean, of course I am, but you know, in general, people just can’t be).
This lack of critical discrimination extends to all walks of life, and Wilson explores far more than just the gullibility of human beings: he looks at a number of areas of life where we would all benefit from more scepticism. There’s an excellent chapter on how the global tobacco industry created a ‘controversy’ that rumbled on for years when in actual fact there was a clear scientific agreement – PR firms and biased academics exploit the interest of journalists in stories with two sides to tell, because conflict is more interesting than consensus. There’s also the curse of relativism – the belief that all points of view are equally valid. While that may be true for opinions of a painting or a piece of music, it clearly can’t be when dealing with issues like the AIDS epidemic, issues that have measurable scientific truths at their heart – yet AIDS denialists have received far more airtime than they deserved due to unthinking relativism, and people have died as a result.
A sceptic must also be alive to the effects of social pressure and expectation on a person’s own behaviour and thinking – there’s an excellent chapter on ‘groupthink’, using examples from the Bay of Pigs to the spiralling cruelty of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which is likened to the famous Stanford Prison experiment. It’s important to be reminded just how unflinchingly people will follow orders (fail to exercise their own scepticism) when they believe that the person giving the instructions knows better than them.
Conspiracy theories are thoroughly debunked, with Wilson suggesting a number of ways to evaluate the plausibility of any given theory. Of course the Internet has been a boon to both conspiracy theorists and sceptics, and the author is a strong advocate of doing independent research whenever you are not convinced by someone’s claims. There’s no substitute for independent verification (so I strongly suggest you read some other reviews of this book too!).
Written in lucid prose, well researched and strongly argued, Don’t Get Fooled Again is a great little book. It has reminded me of the virtues of scepticism (as distinct from cynicism, which is unthinking negativity and expecting the worst in all circumstances). So, if you don’t want to buy a pig in a poke, have the wool pulled over your eyes, or be an unquestioning sheep, then this is the book for you.
UK publisher: Icon Books
Edition reviewed: Hardback
Publication date:18th September 2008
Buy from: Amazon.co.uk