Archive for the ‘Absence of evidence’ Category
It’s hard to find a more pressing example of the problems that skeptics can face when powerful institutions threaten freedom of speech than that of Sanal Edamaruku, President of the Indian Rationalist Association. On May 10th, Sanal went on Indian TV to debunk a purported “miracle” at a Catholic Church in Mumbai. Now, after local Catholic groups reported him to the authorities, he is facing a criminal prosecution for “deliberately hurting religious feelings and attempting malicious acts intended to outrage the religious sentiments of any class or community”.
The Rationalist Association have set up an online petition calling on the Catholic community to withdraw their complaint, and urging the Catholic authorities elsewhere in the world to speak out against the prosecution.
The Catholic Church in England and Wales has a Twitter account here if you would like to send them a polite message urging them to speak out against the persecution of Sanal Edamaruku.
Things are also reaching a critical point here in the UK as the Libel Reform campaign seeks to ensure that the government’s proposed changes to our laws really do ensure that people asking difficult questions are properly protected from vexatious prosecutions. The Libel Reform Campaign are now appealing to all those concerned about freedom of speech in Britain to contact their MP and join a mass lobby of Parliament on June 27th.
British Chiropractic Association follows in the footsteps of David Irving, Robert Maxwell and Matthias Rath
UK author Simon Singh is being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. Singh had written an article suggesting that the BCA claimed, without evidence, that chiropractic (aka chiropracty) was effective in treating children for “colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying”.
I haven’t yet read Simon Singh’s acclaimed book, “Trick or Treatment”, in which he looks in detail at the scientific evidence behind chiropractic. Nor, until recently, did I know very much about this particular branch of pseudo-medicine. But by bringing this case, the BCA has ensured that thousands of people now know that this is an organisation whose response to public criticism is to seek to prosecute a well-respected writer under the UK’s notoriously one-sided libel laws. And I suspect that a great many observers will, like me, draw their own conclusions as to what this says about the BCA’s confidence in the evidence for their methods.
People say all sorts of things about all sorts of scientific claims all the time. AIDS denialists, for example, will routinely assert that anti-retroviral drugs are not effective against HIV. Sometimes these claims have even made it into the mainstream media. But I’ve yet to come across a case of a pharmaceutical company responding to such claims by suing an AIDS denialist for libel. Why would you need to sue anyone when the evidence speaks for itself?
The BCA, frankly, is not in good company. During the 1980s, the millionaire tycoon Robert Maxwell famously used UK libel law to suppress media coverage of his dubious business practices. At the beginning of this decade, pseudo-historian David Irving, perhaps even more famously, brought a case against the writer Deborah Lipstadt after she had accused him of denying the holocaust and falsifying history. Last year, the AIDS denialist vitamin salesman Matthias Rath sued the Guardian and Ben Goldacre over two articles which exposed his nefarious activities in South Africa.
But even under UK libel law – which is so draconian that a number of US states have passed statutes protecting their citizens from malicious suits initiated in this country – the bad guys can still sometimes lose. David Irving lost his case against Lipstadt, and was bankrupted as a result. Matthias Rath was forced to drop his case after the Guardian produced overwhelming evidence to back their story – and is now in the process of paying back half a million pounds worth of costs.
Libel suits are a messy and expensive way of settling simple matters of fact and evidence. Those who react to criticism by seeking to suppress freedom of speech surely risk tainting their reputations even further. I’ve joined the Facebook group in support of Simon Singh (2,500 members and counting) and am now very much looking forward to reading his book.
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.
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.
Wikipedia’s article on Christopher Booker is currently the top search result when you type type his name into Google. Alongside a rather impressive biography, the article references “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, and includes a list of Booker’s false statements on global warming and asbestos (including the notorious claim that white asbestos is “chemically identical to talcum powder“), with links to the various corrections issued over the years by the Health and Safety Executive.
Enter Richard North, Booker’s co-author for the surrealist masterpiece “Scared to Death” (which debunks the dangers of passive smoking, white asbestos, eating BSE-infected beef, CO2 emissions, leaded petrol, dioxins, and high-speed car driving), and erstwhile “chief researcher” of the UK Independence Party.
When The Guardian’s George Monbiot took issue with Booker over his pseudo-scientific claims, North mounted a spirited defence – albeit one that relied on further false claims about asbestos science. But it appears that he also went further. Last month, someone calling themselves “Defence of the realm” cut all critical references from Booker’s Wikipedia entry. The change was quickly reverted, so they did it again the next day, claiming that the criticisms were “libellous”. The edit was again reverted, only for “Defence of the realm” to try it one more time a few days later.
The identity of Booker’s pseudonymous champion would have remained a mystery but for the fact that Wikipedia allows us to browse through a user’s previous contributions to the website. These include an online discussion from November in which an anonymous user first identifies himself as Richard North, gives his email address as RAENORTH at aol.com, and then signs in as “Defence of the Realm”.
It might at least be plausible that an entirely different Richard North had chosen to spring to Booker’s defence, were it not for the fact that Booker himself gives the same email address for “my friend Richard North” in several of his Sunday Telegraph articles. Barring an improbably elaborate conspiracy to frame North as a serial wiki-whitewasher, it would appear that, for all his democratic rhetoric and iconoclastic posturing, Richard North is less than keen on the public knowing the full facts about his co-author’s track record…
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.
Comedian Bill Maher on Maggiore’s book “What If Everything You Thought You Knew about AIDS Was Wrong?”
One of the most striking features of the tragic life of AIDS denialist Christine Maggiore was her success in gaining high-profile support, perhaps most famously from Dave Grohl’s iconic band the Foo Fighters. Less well-publicised, if equally surprising, was the resounding endorsement given to Maggiore’s book, What If Everything You Thought You Knew about AIDS Was Wrong?, by the outspoken libertarian comedian Bill Maher.
“This is a book everyone should read, and not a moment too soon! One of the most corrosive flaws in America is our tendency toward conformity; in the quest to understand AIDS, it has been stifling. Christine Maggiore prompts the kind of questioning that is the lifeblood of scientific inquiry.”
The book has been described elsewhere as “unscholarly, misleading in its presentation of existing evidence and data”, and “based on speculation with no solid evidence to back up claims”.