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Archive for February 2010

Another surrealist masterpiece from Christopher Booker

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Update – False and misleading claims about asbestos are especially galling for those actually living with mesothelioma, a cancer whose only known cause is asbestos exposure. A Mesothelioma action group have now set up a Facebook campaign criticising the Daily Mail over its misleading coverage on this issue.

Compare and contrast…

1. From Christopher Booker in today’s Daily Mail:

Yesterday saw the launch of yet another scare campaign.

As so often before championed by the BBC, it warned us again of the deadly dangers posed by asbestos – this time in Britain’s schools.

It is true that most older school buildings contain asbestos products of one kind or another, such as asbestos cement roof slates or ceiling tiles.

But almost all of these products contain relatively harmless white asbestos, encapsulated in cement or other materials, from which it is virtually impossible to extract even a single dangerous fibre…

…when it is encapsulated in cement, as it most often is, it is virtually impossible for those fibres to escape and be breathed into the lungs at all..

==> From the UK government’s Health and Safety Laboratory, 2007

Epidemiology has shown that chrysotile is a human carcinogen…

The claim that respirable airborne chrysotile fibres are not able to be released from asbestos cement products was refuted by the individual airborne fibres sampled during the breaking of the test sample with a hammer.

2. From Christopher Booker in today’s Daily Mail:

The dangers from such products are so vanishingly small – as many scientific studies have shown – that, in the cautious words of a report by the HSE itself, they are ‘insignificant’. The risks of their causing lung cancer are ‘arguably zero’.

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Written by Richard Wilson

February 23, 2010 at 10:45 am

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

Tagged with ,

Book talk: Skeptics in the Pub, Winchester, Thursday 25th February

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I’ll be speaking at Winchester Skeptics in the Pub this coming Thursday, convened by the  excellent Crispian Jago. Here’s the blurb:

The Roebuck Inn, 57 Stockbridge Road, Winchester, SO22 6RP
7:30pm Thursday 25th February 2010

Sceptics are people who are prepared to ask difficult questions, and point out uncomfortable truths. In societies where freedom of speech is denied, such habits can be seen as subversive, and even dangerous. One of the most famous sceptics in history, the philosopher Socrates, was sentenced to death for “corrupting the young” by encouraging Athenians to question accepted wisdom. Even in democratic states, sceptical thinkers can face difficulties. Journalists who expose quackery and corruption may find themselves on the receiving end of crippling libel suits, while scientific advisers are sacked for questioning government policy.

Societies that exclude scepticism become incapable of acknowledging and correcting their mistakes. At the extreme, the consequences can be fatal. In Soviet Russia and Maoist China, millions starved through the imposition of pseudo-scientific agricultural policies that few could question freely. In the modern era, the application of archaic media laws can allow corporate negligence and malpractice to go undiscovered.

Yet while today’s sceptics still face many challenges, modern technology also creates new opportunities for defending and extending the freedoms on which scepticism relies. In “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, Richard Wilson highlights the relationship between scepticism and freedom of speech, and talks about the tools that modern-day sceptics can use to help preserve it.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 21, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Relativist poster-boy Paul Feyerabend finally gets his way

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From Feyerabend’s Against Method, 1975:

A mature citizen is a person who has learned how to make up his mind and who has then decided in favour of what he thinks suits him best… he will study science as a historical phenomenon and not as the one and only sensible way of approaching a problem. He will study it together with other fairy-tales such as the myths of ‘primitive’ societies so that he has the information needed for arriving at a free decision.

An essential part of a general education of this kind is acquaintance with the most outstanding propagandists in all fields, so that the pupil can build up his resistance against all propaganda, including the propaganda called ‘argument’… His decision in favour of science – assuming he chooses science – will then be much more ‘rational’ than any decision in favour of science is today…

Scientists will of course participate in governmental decisions… But they will not be given overriding authority. It is the vote of everyone concerned that decides fundamental issues such as the teaching methods used, or the truth of basic beliefs such as the theory of evolution, or the quantum theory, and not the authority of big-shots hiding behind a non-existing methodology…

From The Guardian, 12th February 2010:

Carbon dioxide is “essentially harmless” to human beings and good for plants. So now will you stop worrying about global warming?

Utah’s House of Representatives apparently has at least. Officially the most Republican state in America, its political masters have adopted a resolution condemning “climate alarmists”, and disputing any scientific basis for global warming.

The measure, which passed by 56-17, has no legal force, though it was predictably claimed by climate change sceptics as a great victory in the wake of the controversy caused by a mistake over Himalayan glaciers in the UN’s landmark report on global warming.

But it does offer a view of state politicians’ concerns in Utah which is a major oil and coal producing state.

The original version of the bill dismissed climate science as a “well organised and ongoing effort to manipulate and incorporate “tricks” related to global temperature data in order to produce a global warming outcome”. It accused those seeking action on climate change of riding a “gravy train” and their efforts would “ultimately lock billions of human beings into long-term poverty”.

In the heat of the debate, the representative Mike Noel said environmentalists were part of a vast conspiracy to destroy the American way of life and control world population through forced sterilisation and abortion.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 13, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Groundhog Day in Burundi…

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I spoke to a Burundian friend earlier this evening who is deeply concerned about rising tensions in his home country ahead of elections scheduled for June. A video on the “Burundi Transparence” website purports to show the ruling CNDD-FDD party’s youth militia acting out a show of strength in scenes worryingly reminiscent of pre-genocide Rwanda in 1994.

Human Rights Watch put out a detailed report on the militias mid-way through last year:

Beginning in December 2008, residents of Busoni commune, Kirundo province and Kayogoro commune, Makamba province reported “militia-like” activities by former FDD combatants and members of the CNDD-FDD youth league, known as “Imbonerakure.” The youth, with the acquiescence of local administrative, police, and party officials, carried out harassment and arrests of political opponents…

In Busoni commune, Kirundo province, the CNDD-FDD youth league engaged in “night-time sports,” which involved parading with large sticks in military fashion.[229] According to media reports, these youth also chanted threatening slogans about “crushing their opponents.” Jean Minani, a prominent parliamentarian from Busoni and founder of “Frodebu-Nyakuri,” a splinter group of FRODEBU that generally aligns with CNDD-FDD, told Human Rights Watch he had observed the activities. He confirmed that the youth were armed with sticks and clubs, and chanted slogans in Kirundi which roughly translated as “Those who are not with us will be sent into exile or die.”

The International Crisis Group warned today that:

The CNDD-FDD youth wing’s physical training, war songs and quasi-military organisation raise the spectre of militia violence and a large-scale intimidation campaign. The other former rebels, the Forces nationales de libération (FNL) and the Front pour la démocratie au Burundi (FRODEBU) are mobilising their own youth wings to oppose intimidation tactics. The police have remained passive or become accomplices to the ruling party’s abuses.

The ICG recommends that the international donor community:

Warn Burundian political leaders that those responsible for atrocity or other grave political crimes will be prosecuted – by the International Criminal Court or a special tribunal if necessary – and that targeted sanctions will be imposed on those resorting to massive fraud or violence to win the elections.

On the face of it this might sound reasonable enough, but to someone who’s been following the situation in Burundi for nearly a decade now, there’s an eerie sense of déja vu.

Here’s a report from 2005 on the violence that preceded the elections last time around:

[Nureldine] Satti demanded an investigation into mortar attacks that wounded five in the suburbs of the capital Bujumbura on Tuesday night, and recent reports of summary executions in Bujumbura Rural province… “We want to know the truth. The UN and the international community will not tolerate war crimes anymore. Any individual, any group responsible for war crimes will be held accountable for its acts,” he told a press conference.

And here’s a report from 2004, after Hutu-extremists massacred 160 Tutsi refugees at the Gatumba refugee camp in Burundi:

“The people who committed this terrible crime must be out of their heads. They are really terrorists,” Mrs [Agnes] Van Ardenne told reporters after visiting the refugee camp at the weekend. She said the suspects should be tried by the International Criminal Court. The FNL has indicated it will face its responsibility and appear before the court in The Hague. There will be no mercy for the perpetrators of the massacre, Mrs Van Ardenne said.

And here’s a UN security council statement from 1996:

The Council shares the Secretary-General’s deep concern at the situation in Burundi, which has been characterized by daily killings, massacres, torture and arbitrary detention. It condemns in the strongest terms those responsible for such actions, which must cease immediately… It reiterates that all who commit or authorize the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law are individually responsible for such violations and should be held accountable.

Not one of these declarations has been honoured. Efforts to refer the Gatumba massacre to the International Criminal Court quickly stalled amid a lack of political will – and silence from the International Crisis Group. The UN’s longstanding promise of a “special chamber” for Burundi remains little more than a twinkle in Ban Ki Moon’s eye, having got lost in endless negotiations with the same Burundian government officials who would likely become defendants were it ever to get off the ground.

Threatening to prosecute people – as distinct from actually putting war criminals on trial – certainly has the advantage of being free and not particularly timeconsuming. But if the International Crisis Group is really in the business of trying to stop Burundi’s political elite from organising yet more mass-killings, it’s difficult to see how, on past form, getting donors to issue yet more empty threats is likely to make any difference at all to the situation. 

Written by Richard Wilson

February 12, 2010 at 11:59 pm

“He never has to know the actual facts of any issue; instead he’s equipped himself with a persuasive ploy which enables him to make non-experts believe he knows more than experts.”

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Here’s Plato’s take on experts, evidence, and evidence of expertise. These words were first written more than 2,000 years ago – it seems both intriguing and perhaps also a bit depressing that they still have so much currency today.

The text below is from a dialogue between Socrates and Gorgias, a well-known ‘sophist’ who made his living from teaching the art of persuasion – aka “rhetoric”. The word ‘sophistry’ is today synonymous with arguments that are superficially plausible, yet nonetheless bogus…

From Plato’s Gorgias

Socrates: …You claim to be able to train up as a rhetorician anyone who’s prepared to listen to your teaching on the subject. Yes?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: And you’ll teach him all he needs to know to persuade a crowd of people – not to make them understand, but to win them over. Is that right?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: Now you claimed a little while back that a rhetorician would be more persuasive than a doctor even when the issue was health.

Gorgias: Yes I did, as long as he’s speaking in front of a crowd.

Socrates: By ‘in front of a crowd’ you mean ‘in front of non-experts’, don’t you? I mean, a rhetorician wouldn’t be more persuasive than a doctor in front of an audience of experts, of course.

Gorgias: True.

Socrates: Now, if he’s more persuasive than a doctor than he’s more persuasive than an expert, isn’t he?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: When he isn’t actually a doctor himself. Yes?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: And a person who isn’t a doctor is ignorant, of course, about the things which a doctor knows.

Gorgias: Obviously.

Socrates: So any case of a rhetorician being more persuasive than a doctor is a case of a non-expert being more persuasive than an expert in front of an audience of non-experts. Isn’t that what we have to conclude?

Gorgias: Yes, in this instance, anyway.

Socrates: But isn’t a practitioner of rhetoric in the same situation whatever the area of expertise? He never has to know the actual facts of any issue; instead he’s equipped himself with a persuasive ploy which enables him to make non-experts believe he knows more than experts.

Gorgias: Doesn’t that simplify things, Socrates? Rhetoric is the only area of expertise you need to learn. You can ignore all the rest and still get the better of the professionals!

Written by Richard Wilson

February 7, 2010 at 2:19 pm