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Archive for April 2009

Skeptics in the Pub – evidence-based-policy-making versus policy-based-evidence-making

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Monday’s book talk at Skeptics in the Pub certainly wasn’t my best, though things warmed up a bit with the Q&A discussion at the end.

My main focus was on the value of scepticism in, and about, politics – and I put forward three key examples to try to illustrate this: the case of the Soviet pseudo-scientist Trofim Lysenko, the UK government’s misleading statements about Iraq’s “WMD”, and the South African authorities’ embrace of “AIDS denialism” in the year 2000.

All three of these cases arguably involved costly government decisions being made on the basis of bad evidence that had not been properly scrutinised.

Lysenko’s theories about agriculture were far-fetched and unworkable, but they were ideologically agreeable to the Communist regime, and after he rose to prominence the totalitarian nature of the Soviet system made it very difficult for anyone to challenge his authority. When Lysenko’s ideas were implemented in China, they contributed to a famine that is believed to have claimed up to 30 million lives.

The evidence cited by the UK government in support of its view that Iraq possessed chemical weapons was famously “dodgy”. It’s widely believed that the Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair, lied about the strength of that evidence, and about the views of his own experts (many of whom, it later, transpired, had grave doubts about the claims being made), not only to the public at large and the UK’s Parliament, but also to many members of his own cabinet. One ex-minister, Clare Short, has suggested that Blair believed he was engaging in an “honorable deception” for the greater good. But whatever his motives, in lying to his own cabinet and Parliament, Blair was effectively shutting out of the decision-making process the very people whose job it is to scrutinise the evidence on which government policies are based. John Williams, one of the spin doctors involved in drawing up the famous “dodgy dossier” – which at the time the government insisted was the unvarnished view of the intelligence services – later admitted that “in hindsight we could have done with a heavy dose of scepticism” (though it should be said that some of his statements raise more questions than they answer).

In South Africa in the early part of this decade, President Thabo Mbeki chose to believe the unsubstantiated claims of fringe scientists and conspiracy theorists over those of established AIDS researchers – including members of South Africa’s own scientific community. Under the influence of denialists who insist that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, and that AIDS deaths are in fact caused by the lifesaving medicines given to people with HIV, Mbeki’s government chose to block the availability of anti-retroviral drugs in South Africa – even after the pharmaceutical companies had been shamed into slashing their prices and international donors were offering to fund the distribution. It was only after a series of court cases by the indefatigable Treatment Action Campaign that, in 2004, the authorities began to change their position. A recent study by Harvard University concluded that the deliberate obstruction of the roll-out of lifesaving drugs may have cost more than 300,000 lives.

The broad conclusion I think all of this points to is that the truth matters more in politics than ever before. Because of power and influence that governments now hold, the consequences of a bad policy implemented on the basis of bad evidence can adversely affect millions.

In an ideal world governments would be engaging in evidence-based-policy-making: deciding policy on the basis of the best available evidence – rather than policy-based-evidence-making: cherry-picking or concocting evidence to support a decision that has already been made. But obviously this doesn’t always happen, and as a result wholly preventable mistakes continue to be made.

“Don’t Get Fooled Again” now available in the USA

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Written by Richard Wilson

April 25, 2009 at 10:12 am

Denying Aids – The first definitive account of the history and development of AIDS denialism

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AIDS denialism matters because it kills people.

In South Africa at the beginning of this decade, the government of Thabo Mbeki was heavily influenced by a fringe group of conspiracy theorists who claim – in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary – that HIV is not the cause of AIDS and that the symptoms associated with the disease are in fact caused by the drugs given to HIV-positive patients.

When pseudo-science takes hold over government policy, the consequences can be catastrophic. Under the AIDS denialists’ influence, Mbeki’s government chose to obstruct the public distribution of anti-retroviral drugs in South Africa. A recent Harvard study concluded that this decision alone has led to more than 300,000 preventable deaths.  

AIDS denialism matters because it is continuing today, notwithstanding the fact that dozens of HIV-positive self-described “AIDS dissidents”, who believed so strongly in the ideology of denial that they refused to take anti-retroviral drugs themselves, have died prematurely from AIDS-defining diseases. AIDS denialism matters because its proponents are continuing to disseminate misinformation, and are continuing to lead people astray. 

Yesterday I had a fascinating discussion about these issues with Seth Kalichman, whose very readable book “Denying AIDS” gives the first definitive account of the history and psychology of this toxic ideology – from its origins in the US in the late 1980s to its devastating impact in South Africa in the last decade. In writing the book, Seth went undercover to interview and correspond with some of the movement’s leading lights – including the “godfather” of AIDS denialism, Berkeley virologist Peter Duesberg. 

As is normal for anyone writing or speaking publicly on this subject, Seth has been on the receiving end of all manner of brickbats from riled denialists, some of which he’s listed here.  It was great to meet up and compare notes with a co-conspirator (or have I said too much?!).

Also in attendance was Neil Denny, the producer of the excellent Little Atoms podcast, and the formidable Ben Goldacre, the author of Bad Science who famously trounced the AIDS denialist millionaire vitamin quack Matthias Rath after the guy filed a malicious libel suit over his coverage of Rath’s claims. Expect to hear Seth Kalichman on Little Atoms some time in the next few months.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 23, 2009 at 11:53 am

Book talk – Sceptics in the Pub, Monday April 27th

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Book talk – Sceptics in the Pub, 7pm, Monday April 27th

The Penderel’s Oak pub
283–288 High Holborn
WC1V 7HP (map)

Given the disasters, human and financial, that can result when governments lose their grip on reality, it’s arguably in politics that skepticism matters most. Yet from Thabo Mbeki’s disastrous dalliance with AIDS denial in South Africa, to the delusions that led to the Iraq war, our politicians often seem perilously credulous. In “Don’t Get Fooled Again“, Richard Wilson looks at why it is that intelligent, educated people end up time and again falling for ideas that turn out to be nonsense, and makes the case for skeptics to be actively engaged with the political process.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 21, 2009 at 10:06 pm

A Place At the Table – Camden People’s Theatre April 16th – May 2nd

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From Indie London

DAEDALUS Theatre is presenting A Place at the Table at Camden People’s Theatre – from April 15 to May 2, 2009…

A Place at the Table draws on Burundian traditions and mythology and varying accounts of the recent history of the Great Lakes region of Africa in what is described as a bold new work of visual and verbatim theatre.

The international company includes artists from Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo, and campaigner Richard Wilson, who has spoken on and written about Burundi extensively since his sister, Charlotte Wilson, was killed in the country in the year 2000, is an advisor.

Performers include Naomi Grosset, Lelo Majozi-Motlogeloa, Jennifer Muteteli, Anna-Maria Nabirya, Susan Worsfold and Grace Nyandoro (singer).

Melchior Ndadaye, the first democratically elected president of Burundi, was assassinated in October 1993, just three months after his election. His assassination was one of the root causes of the subsequent ten year civil war in Burundi, and is closely tied to the causes and effects of several other conflicts in Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo, particularly those related to Hutu and Tutsi ethnicity.

A Place at the Table is directed, designed and produced by Paul Burgess, who has recently designed Cradle Me (Finborough Theatre), Our Country’s Good (Watermill Theatre), On the Rocks (Hampstead Theatre), Triptych (Southwark Playhouse), The Only Girl in the World (Arcola Theatre) and Jonah and Otto (Manchester Royal Exchange).

Written by Richard Wilson

April 15, 2009 at 8:02 pm

Britain in decline? Panel discussion at the Oxford Literary Festival

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I’m just back from a fun afternoon at the Oxford Literary Festival, where I had come in as a late substitution at a panel discussion chaired by the legendary Martin Bell, on the theme of “Britain in decline”. Also on the panel was the Booker-shortlisted novelist Andrew O’ Hagan, my fellow Icon-author Kieron O’ Hara, whose book on “Trust” was one of the many influences for “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, and the excellent Paul Kingsnorth, with whom I spoke at last year’s Radical Bookfair in Edinburgh.

I’m not convinced that there’s a generalised, across-the-board decline in the UK, and I also think there’s a natural human tendency to believe that things were so much better in the “good old days” even when they weren’t.

But within certain specific areas there are worrying signs of a change for the worse – perhaps most acutely within our political system. Few now doubt that lies were told by the UK government in 2002 and 2003, at the highest level, about the evidence of Iraqi “Weapons of Mass Destruction” . These lies formed the pretext for launching a war which killed hundreds of British soldiers, and thousands of Iraqi civilians – yet there appears to be no mechanism for holding those who misled the country (and its Parliament) personally to account. Worse, the lies have continued – on rendition, on Jack Straw’s complicity in torture in Uzbekistan, and – repeatedly – on official government statistics.

When, earlier this year, Justice Minister Jack Straw announced that he was using his powers to block the release of minutes of the UK cabinet meetings in the run-up to the Iraq war (meetings in which he, as the then-Foreign Secretary, would have featured prominently) – ostensibly on the basis that future cabinet ministers might feel unable to speak openly if they thought that their words might eventually be read by the people who voted for them and paid their salaries – one almost got the sense that he himself didn’t think that anyone would really believe that this was the genuine reason. He was in a position to use his powers to block the release of information that would certainly have embarrassed (and possibly incriminated) him – so naturally he was going to use those powers to cover his back. Once he’d made that the decision, the accompanying lie was perhaps the easiest part – after all he’d had plenty of practice.

While there’s clearly nothing new about politicians behaving dishonestly, back in 2003,  many people went along with what the government was saying about Iraq precisely because they just couldn’t believe that our politicians would lie about something quite so big and important as the circumstances that could lead to a war. Many people I spoke to at the time had the sense that, in our democracy, there were some lines that the political class just wouldn’t cross. What’s worrying is that this feeling now seems to have been replaced with a grudging acceptance that our politicians will routinely lie to us whenever it suits them, and that there’s nothing much we can do about it.

Coupled with this, there seems to be a growing tendency for the government to cite “trump card” excuses, such as “national security” to evade scrutiny of key government decisions or to justify controversial government policies – such as the Attorney General’s decision to halt a criminal investigation into one of Britain’s major arms manufacturers – and a company with links to the Labour party – BAE.

Lastly, and perhaps most worryingly of all, there have been ever-increasing demands by the government for “sweeping powers” – ostensibly to fight terrorism – to lock people up without charge, ban demonstrations, and monitor and record all our email, phone call, and web browsing activities. These demands are almost always made with the assurance that the powers will only be used in rare and exceptional circumstances – but once passed into law they quickly become routine.

This is a problem because the more we chip away at our ability to scrutinise what the government’s up to, and the more arbitrary powers we allow them to wield, the more we create opportunities for corruption and abuse.

At the moment it seems that, too often within our political system, the benefits of lying outweigh the costs, and until that equation changes it seems unlikely that the situation will significantly improve. I made a similar

Kieron O’ Hara talked about the sense of disillusionment over the hopes that were raised when the current Labour government was first elected in 1997, and about the rise of the “database state”, while Paul Kingsnorth discussed the decline of local community institutions and the “blandification” of town centres, although Andrew O’ Hagan also warned against over-generalising beyond specifics, and discussed the pessimistic atmosphere of what he called “declinism” that he’d experienced growing up in Scotland during the 1970s.

On the major points, there was relatively little disagreement voiced between the panel members – though I suspect that this may also have  stemmed from a reluctance to disrupt a good-natured discussion. The audience was more challenging – with one questioner arguing that society’s problems had more to do with a general decline in personal responsibility than the venality of politicians, which is after all nothing new.  Another challenged us to say what, specifically, we proposed could be done about the problems that we had outlined. Andrew O’ Hagan gave a very clear answer, which I felt was among the best of the discussion, arguing that the level of dishonesty and silence-in-the-face-of-dishonesty that we had seen in recent years among government ministers was a significant change from the behaviour of previous regimes, and that one thing we could all do was vow never again to vote for any of the individuals – whose names are well known – who have behaved so disreputably.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 4, 2009 at 7:44 pm

David Davis on UK government complicity in torture

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From The Guardian

Last week, the attorney general referred the case of Binyam Mohamed to the police. This confirms what many of us already knew or suspected, that there is a prima facie case to answer that government agents colluded in the torture of one or several of the detainees picked up in Pakistan. It is important to understand what is meant by “colluded” in this case. It does not mean that British agents wielded the instruments of torture or were present when the pain was being inflicted. But neither does it simply mean negligence, as was suggested by one ill-informed, so-called security specialist on the BBC.

What has happened is that British agents have co-operated with foreign powers when they had good reason to believe that they were torturing British citizens or residents, providing information and questions to these foreign governments. This often involved getting the foreign agencies to put questions A, B and C under torture, so that once they had the answers, British agents could turn up and put the same questions without torture.

Pakistani intelligence service agents have told researchers that this procedure was followed with several different subjects and several different British agents. This is not about one “rogue agent”. It is systemic… It is inconceivable that the requirement for a foreign secretary’s warrant was not included in the standard operating procedure of the agencies involved. Given the severity of the laws against torture, both British and international, it is also inconceivable that it was not clear that the law was being broken.

So one of two things has happened. Either a foreign secretary has approved complicity in torture, in which case that foreign secretary should be on a criminal charge, or the system has suffered a massive breakdown, in which case heads should roll at the agency. But it is going to be difficult for the police, even with access to all the papers and all the British officers, to get to the core of the breakdown. Indeed, that is not their job. They will be looking, quite properly, to bring a criminal case against an individual.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 2, 2009 at 10:08 am

Don’t Get Fooled Again now available in paperback

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I’m pleased to say that Don’t Get Fooled Again is out in paperback today and is available now from Amazon. The book looks at why it is that time and again, intelligent, educated people end up getting fooled by ideas that turn out on closer examination to be nonsense – from everyday high street scams to stock market bubbles and media spin, to the political delusions that led to the Iraq war and all that came with it.

Don’t Get Fooled Again has previously featured in The Guardian here and here, and you can also read online reviews here, here and here.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 1, 2009 at 6:00 am