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Archive for August 2008

“We are pushing this material to UK media channels, eg a BBC radio programme exposing tensions between AQ leadership and supporters. And a restricted working group will communicate niche messages through media and non-media.”

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It’s difficult not to wonder at times about the provenance of some anonymous comments left on internet discussion sites such as the BBC’s “Have Your Say” and the Guardian’s “Comment is Free”. ‘Astro-turfing’ seems almost impossible to prevent in such circumstances, and for anyone with a vested interest in promoting a particular point of view, the temptation must be difficult to resist.

Now the Guardian reports that a UK government counter-terrorism unit is targeting media organisations “as part of a new global propaganda push designed to ‘taint the al-Qaida brand'”. A strategy document recommends that the authorities “channel messages through volunteers in internet forums”.

“We are pushing this material to UK media channels, eg a BBC radio programme exposing tensions between AQ leadership and supporters”, says the leaked document. “And a restricted working group will communicate niche messages through media and non-media.”

While it isn’t hard to understand the rationale for tackling Al Qaeda in this way (and it’s surely preferable to torturing people), the most obvious fear is that those who begin disseminating misinformation for the ‘greater good’ may soon find themselves on a slippery slope. If ‘astroturfing’ to discredit a hostile terror group is acceptable, why not a hostile foreign government? And if spreading misinformation in defence of UK security interests is acceptable, why not our economic interests, which are, arguably, ultimately tied up with our security? Or in defence of an unpopular government policy which ministers feel is essential for the good of the country?

Confirmation bias

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One of the most intriguing sources of human delusion is what is sometimes called ‘confirmation bias’. We humans have a strong tendency to seek out evidence that confirms our existing beliefs – or decisions, and ignore evidence that calls those beliefs into question.

This phenomenon has been studied in some depth by behavioural psychologists. Changingminds.org gives one example:

Snyder and Cantor (1979) gave participants a description of a person called Jane that included mixed items such as sometimes showing her as introverted and sometimes as extraverted. A couple of days later, half were asked to assess her for an extraverted job (real estate agent) and the rest asked to assess her for a librarian’s job. Each group were better at remembering the attributes that supported the job for which they were assessing. This implied they were using a positive-test strategy when trying to remember things about Jane.  

Skepdic.org and About.com have more background on this fascinating phenomenon.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 25, 2008 at 5:50 pm

Sceptic of the week – Charles Philipon

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For a period of time during the mid-nineteenth century, openly carrying a pear around the streets of Paris could get you arrested. It all began in 1830, soon after the accession of King Louis-Philippe, when Charles Philipon, a little-known artist, launched a satirical magazine, in which he likened the head of the monarch to a pear. Outraged, the King tried to suppress Philipon’s efforts by ordering his courtiers to buy up every copy of the magazine (possibly not the most effective method of discouraging a fledgling publisher).

When this didn’t work, Philipon was put on trial for having ’caused offence to the person of the King’. Philipon openly mocked the proceedings, urging his prosecutors to go further, and arrest every pear tree in France for disrespecting the corrupt and authoritarian monarch. A six-month prison sentence seems to have done little to deter him – between 1831 and 1832 he was reportedly prosecuted 16 times for his reckless and seditious pear-likening activities – but this only seems to have brought more publicity to his campaign.

As time went on, writes historian David Hopkin:

Other newspapers, even government ones, found it impossible not to mention pears. Puns proliferated, as did pear-shaped graffiti. Fanny Trollope, visiting the Latin Quarter in 1835, found ‘Pears of every size and form… were to be seen in all directions.’ They were also all over the walls of prisons. In 1834 there was even a shop specialising in wax pears. Through the press the language of pears reached the provinces, Philipon claimed they were springing up all over the country.     

Louis Philippe was finally overthrown in the revolution of 1848 – but the mockery didn’t stop there. More than 150 years on, says Hopkin, Philipon’s taunts continue to echo. “Even among historians Louis-Philippe cannot rid himself of this tiresome fruit; it is simply impossible to write about him without the image of the pear floating into one’s mind, the very symbol of an unloved and unlovable monarch”.

Thanks to Philipon, France’s tyrannical monarch will forever be known as “Louis-Philippe, the pear-shaped king”.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 24, 2008 at 5:15 pm

“More doctors smoke camels”!

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The Cigarette Century

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cultural history of the cigarette might not seem like the most obvious choice for a compelling read. But Harvard medical historian Allan M Brandt’s extraordinary work, ‘The Cigarette Century’ is a book that that strays a long way from the obvious. Brandt is both a meticulous historian and an eloquent writer – the book is reportedly the product of 20 years of research. In charting the rise and fall of the cigarette – from its humble and disreputable origins in the 19th century to its pre-eminence in the 1950s, and its gradual decline, in the face of growing evidence of its deadly effects – Brandt also recounts the evolution of modern American society; the growth of mass-production, the growing sophistication of industry lobbyists in Congress and – crucially – the birth of the advertising and public relations industries.

Drawing on confidential industry documents – many of them released under legal duress following a series of law-suits in the 1980s and 1990s – Brandt shows how tobacco companies deliberately sought to suppress evidence of the cigarette’s harmful effects, and deployed cutting-edge PR techniques to manipulate public opinion, creating the impression that the science around smoking and cancer was ‘unproven’ long after a clear consensus had emerged among experts.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I show how the techniques developed by the tobacco industry have become the standard tactic for an industry fighting a rearguard action against overwhelming scientific evidence of the dangers of its products.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 21, 2008 at 1:38 pm

UN calls UK government over attacks on freedom of expression

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Robert Maxwell, UK libel law’s most famous beneficiary

If I had to choose my all-time favourite bill ever passed by the New York State Legislature (a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon if ever there was one), it would have to be the “Libel Terrorism Protection Act”. The specific purpose of this bill is to stop Britain’s ‘rogue state’ libel laws from being used to undermine the constitutionally-protected right to freedom of speech in the state of New York.

Ironically, while the UK government allows our courts no jurisdiction over a murder committed overseas – even when the victim is a British citizen – it’s a different story when a book is published in a foreign country, which happens to offend someone with the time, inclination and (most importantly) cash to pursue their grievance in the UK courts.

The practice of ‘libel tourism’ relies on the fact that, with the internet, any book published anywhere in the world can be deemed to have effectively been published in the UK (and thereby fall under the jurisdiction of the UK libel courts) if it can be bought online and shipped to Britain. UK libel law famously places the burden of proof on the author/publisher of a work rather than on the plaintiff. A UK libel defendant is effectively guilty until proven innocent.

It’s also, I’m told, possible to defend a UK libel case successfully, yet still be left with massive legal costs to cover. Bringing a libel case can be very expensive, and is thus largely beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. So what we effectively have is a legal mechanism for allowing rich people and organisations to inflict crippling costs on anyone who says bad things about them, regardless of whether or not those things are actually true. During the 1970s and 1980s this mechanism was famously – and skillfully – exploited by the fraudster Robert Maxwell to suppress the many questions raised about his business deals. It was only after his somewhat mysterious death that the truth emerged. Perhaps the one saving grace of the law is that, at least in the UK, dead men can’t bring libel cases.

But with the advent of the internet, the phenomenon of ‘libel tourism’ gives the UK’s rapacious libel laws a global reach, and now pose such a threat to freedom of expression worldwide that foreign states are having to create legislation to protect their citizens.

The threat posed by ‘libel tourists’ is just one among a number of issues raised by a recent UN report on the state of human rights in the UK. Equally dangerous – if not more so, as we’ve been familiar with the libel problem for long enough to have at least some ways around it – is the Brown regime’s attempt to make it illegal for any former civil servant to say anything at all about their time in government, ever, without official permission from the state.

According to Craig Murray (ex UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan):

“The idea, of course, is that only the ministers’ version of truth will enter history. You can be confident that Jack Straw’s memoirs will not tell you that he instructed Richard Dearlove that we would use intelligence from torture, or that we colluded with torture and extraordinary rendition in Uzbekistan and elsewhere. You needed my memoirs for that. If Jack Straw had his way, I would not have been able to publish my book telling you the truth; in fact the new regulations were born directly out of Straw’s fury at Murder in Samarkand.”

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, I explore the ease with which deception and delusion can start to creep in – and go unchecked – once freedom of expression has been compromised. An effectively functioning society depends on the free flow of information. The quicker that serious systemic problems can be identified, and analysed, the quicker solutions can be found. Attacks on freedom of expression seriously hinder this process, with the result that, at the extreme (as in the Soviet Union and Communist China), a wholesale national disaster can unfold without those in power ever facing up to the reality of what’s going on – less still being held accountable.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 19, 2008 at 2:24 pm

Latest blurb for DGFA

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All being well, this is the text that will actually appear on the cover!

Why is it that, time and again, intelligent, educated people end up
falling for ideas that turn out on closer examination to be nonsense?

We live in a supposedly rational age, yet crazy notions seem increasingly mainstream. New Age peddlers claim to cure Aids with vitamin tablets. Media gatekeepers stoke panic and regurgitate corporate press releases in the name of ‘balance’. Wild-eyed men in sandwich boards blame it all on CIA… Even the word ‘sceptic’ has been appropriated by cranks and conspiracy theorists bent on rewriting history and debunking sound science.

But while it may be easier than ever for nonsense to spread, it’s never been simpler to fight back….

Don’t Get Fooled Again offers practical tools for cutting through the claptrap and unravelling the spin – tackling propaganda, the psychology of deception, pseudo-news, bogus science, the weird cult of “Aids reappraisal”, numerous conspiracy theories (including the one about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq), and much more.

Richard Wilson’s book is user-friendly, enjoyable, shot through with polemic – and argues forcibly for a positive solution. Don’t be a cynic – be a sceptic!

Written by Richard Wilson

August 10, 2008 at 5:23 pm