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Archive for December 30th, 2008

Church-aided rebel group rampages through Congo, killing hundreds

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The BBC reports that more than 400 people have been killed in the last few days, after Uganda’s Lords Resistance Army stepped up its war on civilians in the North-Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

The article cites the Catholic aid NGO Caritas as its source for the casualty figures – but fails to mention that the same organisation was earlier this year implicated in supplying food and medicine to the LRA, amid the misguided hope that this would help persuade them to sign a peace deal. In fact, this material support gave the group a vital lifeline, allowing it to sustain its fighters while it reorganised and rearmed under the cover of the ongoing peace negotiations.

As long ago as October 2007, the International Criminal Court had warned that the LRA was selling surplus food aid in order to buy weapons. But the Catholic Church appears to have taken no notice, with Caritas continuing to supply aid until at least April 2008 – six months after the ICC had publicly raised its concerns.

An “unmitigated tragedy”: Los Angeles Times reports the death of leading HIV-positive AIDS-denialist Christine Maggiore

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From the Los Angeles Times

Until the end, Christine Maggiore remained defiant.

On national television and in a blistering book, she denounced research showing that HIV causes AIDS. She refused to take medications to treat her own virus. She gave birth to two children and breast-fed them, denying any risk to their health. And when her 3-year-old child, Eliza Jane, died of what the coroner determined to be AIDS-related pneumonia, she protested the findings and sued the county.

On Saturday, Maggiore died at her Van Nuys home, leaving a husband, a son and many unanswered questions. She was 52…

Jay Gordon, a pediatrician whom the family consulted when Eliza Jane was sick, said Monday that Maggiore’s death was an “unmitigated tragedy.”

“In the event that she died of AIDS-related complications, there are medications to prevent this,” said Gordon, who disagrees with Maggiore’s views and believes HIV causes AIDS. “There are medications that enable people who are HIV-positive to lead healthy, normal, long lives.”

Diagnosed with HIV in 1992, Maggiore plunged into AIDS volunteer work — at AIDS Project Los Angeles, L.A. Shanti and Women at Risk. Her background commanded attention. A well-spoken, middle-class woman, she was soon being asked to speak about the risks of HIV at local schools and health fairs. “At the time,” Maggiore told The Times in 2005, “I felt like I was doing a good thing.”

All that changed in 1994, she said, when she spoke to UC Berkeley biology professor Peter Duesberg, whose well-publicized views on AIDS — including assertions that its symptoms can be caused by recreational drug use and malnutrition — place him well outside the scientific mainstream.

Intrigued, Maggiore began scouring the literature about the underlying science of HIV. She came to believe that flu shots, pregnancy and common viral infections could lead to a positive test result. She later detailed those claims in her book, “What if Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong?”

Maggiore started Alive & Well AIDS Alternatives, a nonprofit that challenges “common assumptions” about AIDS. She also had a regular podcast about the topic.

Her supporters expressed shock Monday over her death but were highly skeptical that it was caused by AIDS. And they said it would not stop them from questioning mainstream thinking…

Scienceblogs and Neurologica have more background on this tragic case.

See also: “Against the evidence”

Roger Darlington’s guide to critical thinking

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From Roger Darlington’s guide to critical thinking:

  • Remember that prominence does not equate to importance. A newspaper may have made its lead story the rumour of a break-up between Britney Spears and her latest boyfriend, but that does not necessarily make it the most important news item that day. Conversely, in 1914 that tiny story about the assassination of an obscure nobleman in some backwater called Sarajevo proved to have rather more repercussions that most readers first appreciated. Try an experiment: one day, buy five or six national newspapers, compare their coverage of the same stories on the same day, and note the different prominence – and the different slant – given to the same stories…
  • Be especially skeptical about surveys and polls. Who is funding the project; how the questions are chosen, worded and posed; how those questioned are selected and the context in which the questions are put to them; how the statistical analysis is carried out and the statistics are interpreted; how the findings are presented and reported (or misreported) – all these factors can have a massive influence…
  • Always look for evidence. The Scottish philosopher David Hulme noted that “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence”. Many Americans believe that the attack on the World Trade Center was engineered by Saddam Hussein, while many Arabs believe that it was planned by the Israeli secret service. They can’t both be right, but they could both be wrong. What is the evidence? It has been widely reported that millions of Americans believe that they have been abducted by aliens and, in many cases, subjected to sexual experiments. They may be right, but again what is the evidence? Are there witnesses or photographs? Are there body marks on the ‘victims’ or do they have souvenirs from the spaceships? It is tempting to seize on evidence that confirms one’s original view or the prevailing orthodoxy and to dismiss evidence that challenges it, but one needs to be open-minded about all the evidence and equally rigorous about establishing its authenticity…
  • Remember Occam’s Razor [the maxim is named after William of Occam, the philosopher who was probably born at Ockham in Surrey]. When two or more explanations are possible on the basis of the same facts, always prefer the simplest possible explanation, unless there are very good reasons for favouring a more complex – and therefore more unlikely – one. For example, the pyramids in Egypt could have been designed and constructed by the Egyptians living at the time of the pharoahs or they could have been built according to plans brought to earth by aliens. Both explanations would explain the observable phenomena, but Occam’s Razor suggests that we should adopt the explanation that requires the fewest assumptions since there is simply no need to make extra assumptions unless there is good evidence to support them. Or, as the scientist Albert Einstein put it: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”.
  • Look for cause and effect. When I get up from bed, the sun comes up – but there is obviously no causality. When I go to bed, I feel refreshed – and there clearly is a relationship. Sometimes relationships are not obvious: in the movie “The Truman Show”, when the Jim Carey character gets up from bed, the ‘sun’ does come up in a causal manner because the Ed Harris character ensures that it does…
  • Be challenging of the seemingly seductive comment “It works”. There are two problems here: agreeing a definition of what ‘works’ means and establishing a cause and effect relationship between action and outcome. If I perform a traditional Indian rain dance in my back garden, it may rain in an hour, a day or a month. Over what period are we going to assume the dance may have an influence? Then, can we reasonably infer a causality here? It may be that my neighbour was performing a different, more effective rain dance in her garden; it may be that the rain clouds had been seeded by a specially charted aircraft to ensure good weather for a sports event tomorrow; it may be that I am in India in the monsoon season and it usually rains at this time of day at this time of year.

Roger Darlington reviews Don’t Get Fooled Again

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From Roger Darlington’s website.

…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”.