Archive for the ‘Bogus sceptics’ Category
My latest in the New Humanist
If there’s someone on your radio right now telling you there are no big ideas in politics any more, or that our risk-averse society is lowering ambition and infantilising adults, or that the outpouring of anguish over Darfur says-more-about-the-anxieties-of-the-western-liberal-elite-than-the-realities-on the-ground, there’s a good chance they’ve got something to do with an organisation called the Institute of Ideas.
The Institute’s purpose, according to its founder, Claire Fox, is to “interrogate orthodoxies and debate the challenges facing society, and to make these things public activities”. It does this in the face of “politically correct etiquette” and an “illiberal liberalism” which “silences genuine public challenges to received wisdom”. The IoI’s annual debating festival, the Battle of Ideas (sponsored by Shell, The Times, Price Waterhouse Coopers and brewing giant SAB Miller), is a “public square within which we can explore the crisis of values”. The Festival “is very much a PUBLIC conversation”. Its motto is “FREE SPEECH ALLOWED”.
When a coalition of humanist, secular and equality groups rallied against the Pope’s state visit to Britain earlier this year, the IoI issued a press release (PDF) describing itself as a “leading British humanist thinktank”, denouncing the “hysterical” arguments of the Vatican’s critics and accusing “fellow-secularists” of conducting a “New Atheist witch-hunt”.
The Institute of Ideas has a close, if ambiguous, relationship with the online magazine Spiked, an outspoken scourge of environmentalism whose memorable slogans include “Bomb the Bans” and “Humanity is under-rated”. Both are orphan children of the magazine formerly known as Living Marxism (subsequently LM), which went bankrupt at the turn of the decade, following a disastrous libel defeat. Both are dominated by ex-members of the UK’s long-defunct Revolutionary Communist Party. Spiked contributors regularly feature in the Institute’s debates, and the magazine often echoes IoI concerns. Ahead of the Papal visit, Spiked ran articles attacking the reaction from secularists, including New Humanist, as a “fear-driven campaign of demonisation”.
Critics have accused the Institute of Ideas and Spiked of knee-jerk contrarianism, of empty sloganeering, of trading the garb of the far-left for that of hard-right libertarians, of being guided more by the interests of their corporate sponsors than by any coherent underlying philosophy.
But whatever else one thinks, Spiked and the IoI have a talent for getting noticed. Claire Fox gets a weekly slot on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze discussion programme. Spiked’s “editor at large”, Mick Hume, has a regular column in The Times. The Institute of Ideas is active in UK schools, as is a related organisation, Worldwrite. Whole websites have been devoted to tracking the influence of ex-RCP figures in the UK media.
So what kind of humanists are they? Do they have a genuine commitment to open debate or is this just a rhetorical conceit? And who’s really defending the legacy of the Enlightenment? I went along to this year’s Battle of Ideas festival to try to find out.
“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.”
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?
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?
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.
Socrates: Now, if he’s more persuasive than a doctor than he’s more persuasive than an expert, isn’t he?
Socrates: When he isn’t actually a doctor himself. Yes?
Socrates: And a person who isn’t a doctor is ignorant, of course, about the things which a doctor knows.
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!
From Christopher Booker in the Sunday Telegraph:
I owe readers a correction of one or two points in my item last week criticising Lord Stern as one of our “scaremongers in chief” over global warming. When I claimed that Lord Stern was wrong in the figure he gave for the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, I was relying on a newspaper article… From his new book, A Blueprint for a Safer Planet, it appears that he does indeed mean “430 ppm of CO2e” but this was not apparent in either of the articles I cited…
The first step is always the hardest. All we need now is an apology and long series of corrections over Booker’s Sunday Telegraph articles on evolution, passive smoking, BSE, speed cameras and white asbestos…
Another corking piece of journo-quackery from Christopher Booker, this time in the Daily Mail. All the usual elements are there, including Booker’s oft-repeated claims about Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease not being linked to BSE, and about a supposed scientific “confusion” about the health risks of asbestos “costing literally hundreds of billions of pounds”. Sam Wong on “Just a Theory” does an excellent debunking of the rest.
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.
From The Guardian:
So here it is: your first sight of the Christopher Booker prize 2009.
It is named in honour of the Sunday Telegraph columnist’s amazing ability to include misinformation and falsehoods in his pieces on climate change and other environmental issues.
Believe it or not, this stylish trophy is made entirely of recycled materials!
Lovingly fashioned by master craftsmen in mid-Wales, it shows what can be done with items that are often treated as mere rubbish!
And this isn’t all. I am suggesting that the winner of the Christopher Booker prize 2009 take the holiday of a lifetime: a one-way solo kayak trip to the North Pole. Following in the footsteps of the great Pen Hadow, the award winner could use the trip to see for him or herself the full extent of the Arctic ice melt. The Guardian will support this intrepid venture by supplying THREE BARS of Kendal mint cake towards the costs of this expedition.
So here’s how you help the winner on his or her way to this prestigious and valuable award:
The award will go to whoever in my opinion and assisted by climate scientists and specialists manages, in the course of 2009, to cram as many misrepresentations, distortions and falsehoods into a single article, statement, lecture, film or interview about climate change. This work must be available online. You score a point for every mistake, though one point will be deducted for every retraction or correction published by the author or the original outlet within a reasonable length of time.
Please use this special nominations page to make suggestions for this illustrious award – and don’t forget to include a link to the piece in question. This page will remain open until 31 December 2009 and I will keep you updated on the blog about some of the choice nominations throughout the year.
It had to happen sooner or later…
Today I am launching a new and much-coveted award. It is called the Christopher Booker Prize. It will be presented to whoever manages, in the course of 2009, to cram as many misrepresentations, distortions and falsehoods into a single article, statement, lecture, film or interview about climate change. It is not to be confused with the Man Booker Prize, although that is also a prize for fiction.
The prize consists of a tasteful trophy made from recycled materials plus a one-way solo kayak trip to the North Pole, enabling the lucky winner to see for himself the full extent of the Arctic ice melt. Later this week, I will publish the full terms and conditions and unveil the beautiful trophy, which is currently being fashioned by master craftsmen in mid-Wales.