Archive for October 2008
Ken MacDonald, the outgoing chief prosecutor of England and Wales, has warned against paranoid fears over terrorism being used to justify giving the government ever more “sweeping powers”, the BBC reports.
“We need to take very great care not to fall into a way of life in which freedom’s back is broken by the relentless pressure of a security state”, he said in his final speech.
Following the heavy defeat of government proposals to allow itself to detain people for 42 days without charge, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has announced plans to create a giant database to monitor the telephone, email and internet usage of everyone in the UK – ostensibly on the basis that this will help to fight terrorism. Opposition parties have described the plan as “Orwellian”.
In his speech, Ken Macdonald urged resistance to what he called the “paraphernalia of paranoia”:
“Of course, you can have the Guantanamo model. You can have the model which says that we cannot afford to give people their rights, that rights are too expensive because of the nature of the threats we are facing.
“Or you can say, as I prefer to, that our rights are priceless. That the best way to face down those threats is to strengthen our institutions, rather than to degrade them.
“We would do well not to insult ourselves and all of our institutions and our processes of law in the face of these medieval delusions.”
In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I look at the strange nexus between journalists who whip up public fears over terrorism in order to sell more newspapers, and politicians who exaggerate the threat so as to justify their demands for ‘sweeping powers’ to invade our privacy, evade public scrutiny, and control our behaviour.
Don’t Get Fooled Again, a public forum with with Richard Wilson and Paul Kingsnorth, at the 12th Edinburgh Independent Radical Book Fair 2008
Out of the Blue Drill Hall
30-38 Dalmeny Street
Admission Free! Donations welcome!
Cafe and Bar Open!
Why is it that intelligent and educated people are, time and again, fooled by ideas that turn out to be nonsense? From different perspectives Richard Wilson and Paul Kingsnorth discuss the impact of deception and delusion on our daily lives.
Richard Wilson is the author of Don’t Get Fooled Again: The Sceptic’s Guide to Life .
‘…provides the reader with the analytical tools to avoid being taken for a ride, as well as being entertaining and informative.’ Patrick Neale, The Bookseller
‘An understated but still very effective polemic about the damage done to our real quality of life over the last few decades, and our collective failure to do very much about it.’ Jonathon Porritt , Chairman, Sustainable Development Commission
A report by the anti-bribery group within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has warned that companies doing business with Britain risk “legal and reputational damage because of the lax anti-bribery law and enforcement”. The OECD’s stinging report follows the international outcry over the UK government’s intervention to suspend the criminal investigation into corruption allegations against the arms manufacturer BAE systems.
From Jenni Russell in The Guardian:
Only four months ago, when Smith gave a speech to the Smith Institute on the necessity of parliament’s shoving through the imminent plans for 42-day detention, the tone was much more disdainful. Then we, the audience, were given an imperious lecture that amounted to: We know what the threat is and you don’t, so we must be given whatever powers we need. I said at the time that listening to the speech was like wrestling mentally with jelly. Other than “trust us, we’re the government”, there wasn’t much of an argument involved.
Now, of course, thanks to the Lords, the opposition, the Labour rebels and vociferous opponents around the country, No 10 and the Home Office have had to learn a little humility. Bullying and threatening hasn’t been enough to get the key measures it sought, like 42 days and secret coroners’ inquests, past parliament. And since the government now plans a surveillance project that will dwarf anything that has gone before – a giant database that will track every call, text, email and web visit that we make – they have been forced, belatedly, into attempting to persuade us a little more and hector us a little less.
On the evidence of this speech, the strategy is not having much success. Persuasion is all about emotion backed up with argument, and the emotion was still reserved for “we know best; we truly do!” while the arguments still weren’t there.
Since the last few years of Tony Blair’s time in Downing Street there has been much agonising from the Labour leadership over the decline of public trust in politicians. This is a problem, we are told, because without our being able to take the government at its word on at least some things, the effective functioning of the state becomes impossible. The public therefore ought to be more trusting of politicians, and the current mood of scepticism is clearly – according to Alastair Campbell – the fault of the media.
The very fact that the government seriously expects us to be swayed by this kind of argument seems, to me, to illustrate the real problem with painful clarity. Democracy is clearly in trouble when voters feel the need to be suspicious of every public statement that their government makes on any remotely controversial issue – just as your relationship with your doctor or dentist would be under considerable strain if you felt that you were dealing with a mendacious quack trying to rip you off at every turn.
It seems that the government is asking us to believe that the solution to our democratic crisis is simply for voters to set their doubts aside and trust in the political class again – despite all the examples of state mendacity we’ve seen in recent years. But this seems akin to expecting a patient who’s repeatedly been juiced by their dentist to deal with their concerns simply by suppressing them – and then handing over their money for yet another appointment.
It seems to me the wiser course of action would be to start looking around for a better dentist – and perhaps also seek to get the old one struck off, to stop him from doing more damage in future…
Hot on the heels of the resignation of President Thabo Mbeki – and the removal of his notorious Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the South African government has drawn a line under the era of AIDS denial that began soon after Mbeki’s accession to the Presidency in 1999.
President Motlanthe’s new Health Minister, Barbara Hogan, who was reportedly one of the few MPs to speak out on HIV and AIDS during Mbeki’s time in office, made a speech at an international AIDS vaccine conference in Cape Town in which she stated unequivocally that HIV causes AIDS, and that time had been lost in the struggle against the disease.
From A Common Reader
Scepticism about media, politics and finances comes naturally to most of us these days, particularly when people who should know better have brought the world to a state of economic crisis (did our rulers really not know that unfettered greed is no basis for an economic world-order?). It is refreshing to read a book like Don’t Get Fooled Again, which takes our vague feeling that “things aren’t quite right” and shows us that gut instincts are often quite correct, and we really shouldn’t believe the utterances of any institution or public figure without first submitting them to some pretty stringent tests.
Richard Wilson puts forward a good case for scepticism, reminding his readers that humanity has a long history of “meekly engaging in depraved acts of inhumanity on the basis of ideas that turned out to be total gibberish”.
Much of his book focuses on the public relations industry, citing a number of case studies to show how opinion can be manipulated. He devotes a whole chapter to the way tobacco companies in the 1950s manipulated news organisations to question the increasingly obvious link between smoking and lung cancer. The strategy consisted of getting an influential academic on-side (geneticist Clarence Cook Little in this case), and using him to question every scrap of evidence which research scientists gathered supporting the need for anti-smoking legislation.
Little insisted that it was not enough to show that lung cancer victims were smokers, but that until the cause of the link could be demonstrated under laboratory conditions, the link was irrelevant. Tests showing that mice contracted cancer when exposed to cigarette smoke were contested, but on the other hand, animal tests which were favourable to the tobacco industry were heavily publicised. Wilson shows that genius of the PR campaign was capitalising on the media’s love of “debate”.
A story really takes off when two sides are seen in opposition, even when it is obvious that the alleged “controversy” is falsely based. This can be observed every day on programmes like BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, when even the most blindingly obvious truth has to be contested by a protagonist with opposing views, with the result that equal weight is given to both nonsense and fact. One million people walked the streets of London to protest about the US/GB invasion of Iraq but this had no effect on those who wanted for a variety of reasons to believe the fantastic reports about Iraq’s offensive capability.
Wilson warns of the dangers of pseudo-science, and its ability to influence government and other decision-makers. Wilson traces this back to Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s favorite scientist who’s wrong-headed ideas about agronomy led to mass starvation throughout Russia. Even worse, Lysenko’s ideas were taken up by Chairman Mao and his followers whose Lysenko-inspired agrarian reforms led to the worst man-made famine in history, with the loss of 30 million lives.
The chapter on “groupthink” describes that way in which a closed group of people can adopts a false belief and then support itself in perpetuating it despite mounting evidence suggesting its falsity. I found myself thinking again of the decision to invade Iraq taken by Tony Blair’s cabinet when I read Richard Wilson’s list of symptoms of groupthink:
- Invulnerability – everything is going to work out right because we are a special group
- Rationalisation – explaining away warnings that challenge the group’s assumptions
- Unquestioning belief in the morality of the group and ignoring moral consequences of the group’s decisions
- Sterotyping those who oppose the group’s view as weak, evil, impotent of stupid
- Direct pressure being placed on any member who questions the group couched in terms of “disloyalty”
- Self-censorship of ideas that stray from the consensus
- The illusion of unanimity among group members with silence being viewed as agreement.
I have worked on many large I.T. projects and have seen these processes at work when projects have begun to fail and careers and reputations are at risk. Project teams easily acquire the need to plough on despite all warning signals to the contrary until finally the project is abandoned far too late for anyone to be able to recover any benefits from it.
Wilson goes on to consider the HIV/AIDS denial movement, begun in America and then influencing the thinking of the South African government where “AIDS dissidents” have had a malign effect on public policy leading to the denial of effective treatment for many. President Tabo Mbeki immersed himself in AIDS denial literature and invited American AIDS dissidents to join a presidential advisory panel on AIDS and HIV, one of whose aims was to inivestigate “whether there’s this thing called AIDS . . . whether HIV leads to AIDS, whether there’s something called HIV”. By 2005, more than 5.5 million South Africans were infected with HIV and 1000 were dying each day from AIDS.
In his concluding chapter, Richard Wilson lists the common threads which run through false and illusory belief systems: fundamentalism, relativism, conspiracy theories, pseudo-scholarship, pseudo-news, wishful thinking, over-idealisation, demonisation of perceived enemies, groupthink. While many of the ideas in this book are nothing new in themselves, Wilson has gathered them together, with many fascinating examples from recent history, to provide a very useful handbook for people who know that things they read in the paper or hear on the television are “not quite right” and need to be challenged.
I was pleased to find that Richard Wilson has a blog Don’t Get Fooled Again in which he reports on many of the topics covered in his book.