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Archive for November 2008

The Sun says…

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It’s hardly news that pundits and columnists often talk at cross purposes and contradict themselves, but to do so within two paragraphs of the same article takes some talent.

Today’s Sun newspaper editorial begins in a familiar vein:

IT is shocking that Indian authorities believe British-born Pakistani terrorists took part in the Mumbai massacre. If true, it proves we have still not learned the lessons of London’s 7/7…

That is why we must give our security services the surveillance powers they require. And we must let police detain suspects for as long as they need.

Then in the next paragraph we are told:

The arrest of Tory immigration spokesman Damian Green is a terrible blow to our democracy. Mr Green was pounced on in raids involving 20 anti-terrorist cops. His homes and offices were searched and his private files and computers seized. His Commons room was turned over apparently with the consent of Labour Speaker Michael Martin. Why was MP Mr Green treated like an al-Qaeda bomber?

The answer, at least in part, is that newspapers like The Sun have, for years, slavishly supported every New Labour demand for “sweeping new powers” to bug, and detain indefinitely on vaguely-defined charges anyone who they say might be a terrorist.

All the while the government has been progressively widening the definition of “criminal” or “terrorist” activity – amid barely a squeak of protest from the supine tabloid media.

That paranoid state officials would end up using these arbitrary powers to harass critics and attack opposition politicians was completely predictable.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I look at the strange nexus between politicians who stoke public fears about terrorism in order to extend their own power, and tabloid newspapers that make their money from enthusiastically regurgitating every torture-tainted government scare story.

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Echoes of Sally Murrer case as senior UK opposition politician arrested by counter-terrorism police

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In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I highlight the extent to which government demands for “sweeping new powers”, ostensibly to protect public security, often lead to those powers being used in ways far beyond those originally intended. One among many recent examples was the use of anti-terrorist legislation to freeze Icelandic assets in the UK.

Now counter-terrorism police have arrested the Conservative shadow Home Office minister Damian Green, after he published documents recently released by a government whistle-blower. Green was charged with “aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in public office”.

Following his release on bail, Damian Green said:

“I was astonished to have spent more than nine hours under arrest for doing my job. I emphatically deny that I have done anything wrong. I have many times made public information that the government wanted to keep secret, information that the public has a right to know.

“In a democracy, opposition politicians have a duty to hold the government to account. I was elected to the House of Commons precisely to do that and I certainly intend to continue doing so.”

Interestingly, this charge closely resembles the spurious case brought against the local journalist Sally Murrer, in an apparent attempt to intimidate the police whistleblower Mark Kearney. According to the Press Gazette, Murrer was charged with aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring Kearney to commit the offence of “misconduct in a public office”.

Human Rights Watch on the deadly consequences of UN wishful thinking in Congo

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William Swing

UN Congo chief William Swing withheld
evidence of DRC government atrocities

From Human Rights Watch

The United Nations and a number of bilateral donors invested significant financial and political capital in the [2006] Congolese elections, one of the largest electoral support programs in the UN’s history. But with the polls finished, they have failed to invest comparable resources and attention in assuring that the new government implements its international human rights obligations. For donor governments, concern about winning a favored position with the new government took priority over halting abuses and assuring accountability…

Donor governments said they would devote considerable financial and technical resources to security sector reform programs, but have yet to insist that such programs include adequate vetting to rid the military and law enforcement services of individuals in senior positions who have been implicated in serious human rights violations…

Following the killings in Bas Congo in February 2007, MONUC [the UN peacekeeping force in Congo] sent a multi-disciplinary team to investigate. Its report was not published for five months as it was deemed “too sensitive.” UN officials did not want to criticize the new government before securing its agreement on the role of MONUC in the post-electoral period. Similarly MONUC delayed publication of its report on the March 2007 events for fear of upsetting relations with Kabila.

Both reports were blocked by the head of MONUC, Ambassador William Swing, who deflected repeated requests from the UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in New York and from the then UN high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, for the reports to be made public.

If the reports had been promptly published, they could have contributed to wider awareness of the serious violations committed and might have led to additional diplomatic pressure on the Congolese government to halt the abuses and hold the perpetrators accountable. The March 2007 investigation report was eventually published in French on January 4, 2008, after a copy was leaked to the press; no English version has been made public.

The Naturalist on the crucial difference between fact and fantasy

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From The Naturalist

About the most crucial distinction we can make as cognitive creatures is between appearance and reality, between how things seem and how they really are, between subjectivity and objectivity. We learn, often the hard way, that our impressions and cognitions are sometimes biased, truncated, or in the worst case simply missing. We reach what we assume is the bottom of a stairway, stepping confidently out onto the floor, only to find ourselves plunging yet another step down. We’re sure Congress will pass the (first) 700 billion dollar bailout bill, only to discover in the closing minutes that Republican constituencies will have none of it. For a century we blithely go about our energy consuming, carbon-emitting ways only to discover we’ve been heating up the planet. It seemed our way of life was sustainable; in reality it wasn’t. It seemed (at least to some of us insouciant investors) that unregulated mortgage-based securities could coexist with a stable financial system, that they represented real wealth, but in reality they didn’t. In countless matters great and small we stand corrected in our perceptions and assumptions by feedback from the world. With some notable exceptions to be discussed below, we are perforce commonsense empiricists, wanting to operate under the guidance of an adequate model of reality so that our projects come to fruition. The possibility that we could be mistaken in our modeling should always be present to us, prompting us to gather data in advance of action. If we’re smart we test the waters – depth, purity, temperature – before diving in.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 25, 2008 at 3:04 pm

Burundi’s “forgiving” government criminalises homosexuality

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Burundi’s Christian evangelical President, Pierre Nkurunziza, may be having difficulty living up to the New Testament exhortation to forgive those he sees as his enemies, but he’s following the Old Testament strictures on homosexuality rather more rigidly. The Burundian Parliament has just rushed through legislation which will, for the first time in the country’s history, criminalise gay relationships, and President Nkurunziza is expected to endorse it shortly.

Burundi now appears to be following what we might call the “Ugandan model” of church-led jurisprudence, where those responsible for torture, mass-killings, and rape (so long as the victims are women, obviously) get pardoned by the state, leaving it free to expend its resources persecuting and publicly vilifying men who sleep with other men.

At moments like this it’s traditional for western media types to shrug their shoulders and say things like “Well, it’s their culture, isn’t it? Surely we have to respect their ways”.

So I thought it might be useful to post some thoughts from the veteran Burundian commentator and former statesman Gratien Rukindiza, who describes the new law as “retrograde, reactionary and fundamentalist”, and suggests that Burundi’s leaders “believe they are closest to God when they hurt the Burundian people”.

“The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, is openly gay“, Rukindikiza points out. “He runs a city more populous than the whole of Burundi. The city is wealthier than Burundi. He is a respectable, honest man who will probably one day be President. Does the mayor of Bujumbura dare visit the mayor of Paris knowing that in Burundi, the law would send his host to jail?”

Written by Richard Wilson

November 25, 2008 at 1:32 am

Groupthink, Self-serving bias, Space Cadets and the Stanford Prison Experiment – “Don’t Get Fooled Again” at the Beyond Words book festival

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Earlier this week I had a very enjoyable afternoon discussing “Don’t Get Fooled Again” at University College School’s “Beyond Words” book festival, and looking at some of the more eye-catching bits of psychological research that I came across while writing the book. The audience had some challenging and wide-ranging questions, and I thought it might be interesting to post some more background links here.

I was about halfway through my research when I realised that a great many of the delusions I was looking at seemed to come down, at least in part, to what might once have been called “excessive vanity”: The conspiracy theorists who think that they alone are part of some special group with special knowledge about AIDS/the Illuminati/911 or the “great asbestos scam” while everyone else muddles along in their brainwashed ignorance. Or the crank who’s convinced that, just by using his uncommon “common sense”, he’s managed to find a fatal flaw in a well-established scientific theory that generations of world-renowned biologists have somehow contrived to miss.

But what I hadn’t known was the degree to which almost all of us seem to over-rate ourselves and our own abilities, at least to some degree. The average driver thinks that they’re a better driver than the average driver – and reason dictates that we can’t all be above average. Most people also seem to rate themselves at least slightly better than others in intelligence, and significantly better in warmth, generosity and – my personal favourite – likelihood of leaving the largest slice of pizza for someone else when there are only two slices left. The research link for that particular claim can be found here – and for a more general overview I’d recommend Cordelia Fine’s excellent book “A Mind of Its Own: How your brain distorts and deceives”.

Somewhat less academic but still very interesting was the case of a reality TV show called “Space Cadets” where a Channel Four production company managed to convince a group of contestants that they were being sent into space and put into orbit around the earth. In fact they were sitting in a Hollywood space shuttle simulator at a disused military airbase in Suffolk.

The programme-makers had set out explicitly to recreate a psychological phenomenon known as “groupthink”, where members of a close-knit social group become so focussed on a particular group belief or objective that they lose their ability to think critically. But what hadn’t been predicted was the effect that the experience would have on the actors who were in on the hoax, and whose job it was to pretend to be an ordinary member of the group.

“My poor brain is a scramble of half-truths, astronomical lies and unbridled lunacy”, Skelton wrote in the Guardian, shortly after the hoax was finally revealed.

“I’ve just scribbled a list of what I know for sure: I’ve been a mole on a fake reality show called Space Cadets; I have a Russian doll in my hand luggage; I’ve just spent the past five days in a flight simulator in a hangar on the Suffolk coast; and – last but by no means least – I’ve just spent the past five days in space.

My default brain position aboard Earth Orbiter One was that we were 200 kilometres up, travelling at about seven kilometres per second. Too many things were telling me that for me to think otherwise.”

The psychological manipulation had been so strong that even though Skelton knew, rationally, that
the whole thing was a hoax, he found himself believing it anyway.

The third case study I looked at was the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment, which took place in the early 1970s. Researcher Philip Zimbardo constructed a model prison in the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department, and got a group of students to play the roles of prison guards and prisoners. Within days, a significant proportion of the guards, who just days previously had been seemingly normal college students, had been transformed into brutal sadists, who relished the power that they’d been given and the opportunities for abuse that it gave them. In the end, the experiment had to be terminated early. Full details about the experiment and its wider implications can be found at Zimbardo’s excellent Stanford Prison Experiment website.

Interestingly, when the soldiers implicated in the horrific Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal were put on trial, Philip Zimbardo was one of the key witnesses for the defence, arguing that the “situational pressures” on the guards, stemming from the way the prison had been mismanaged, made such abuses entirely predictable.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I argue that human beings are rather more vulnerable to delusion and manipulation than we are usually be prepared to admit – but that confronting these vulnerabilities, and doing our best to understand them, is crucial in reducing our risk of being fooled in future.

“Misinformed”, “substantially misleading” and “absurd” – the UK government’s verdict on Christopher Booker’s claims

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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