Archive for the ‘Other books’ Category
From The Herald
Getting more clued up requires understanding why it is we are so frequently fooled. To do this, we need to learn not only about faulty logic, but our psychological weaknesses. For example, we tend to be too impressed by the mere volume of evidence marshalled in support of a case. But no amount of bad evidence adds up to good evidence. Nor should we forget that the size of even a good dossier of evidence can only be judged to be impressive or insufficient when it is compared to the size and contents of the dossier against.
There are signs that people are already equipping themselves to cope with the information tsunami. Between starting to write my own contribution – a book on bad arguments and rhetoric – and it coming out, I’ve noticed other books have also appeared with similar agendas, such as Damian Thompson’s Counterknowledge and Richard Wilson’s Don’t Be Fooled Again.
I’m hopeful that the information overload might be provoking a long-overdue upgrading of the general population’s capacity to distinguish for itself between good and bad arguments. Rather than blaming the internet, we need to attribute responsibility to the right place, which is with people who dish out the falsehoods in the first place, and ourselves for swallowing them too easily.
Julian Baggini‘s latest book is The Duck that Won the Lottery and 99 Other Bad Arguments (Granta).
I’m currently re-reading Nick Davies’s excellent book, “Flat Earth News“, a detailed investigation of distortion, manipulation and in some cases corruption within the media.
One acute issue is the extent to which TV and radio news channels routinely run interviews with people presented as an “analyst” or “consultant” on some issue or another, without any mention of the fact that this person has a direct vested interest. The classic example – and one that I look at in “Don’t Get Fooled Again” – would be the interviewing of a supposedly unbiased scientific expert about the health risks of smoking, without the public being told that he or she takes a regular “retainer” from the tobacco industry.
Since the early days of PR the use of this tactic has grown exponentially, most especially with the build-up to the Iraq war, and its aftermath. One mild example was the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme’s interview a few months back with the mysterious Canon Andrew White, an Anglican clergyman based in Iraq, who gave a rosy account of the situation there and bemoaned what he said was an overly negative view often presented in the media. No mention was made of the fact that the organisation Canon White founded – the “Foundation for Reconcilation and Relief in the Middle East” (FRRME) – has been heavily funded by the UK Ministry of Defence and various branches of the US government, along with the Orwellian “Iraqi Institute of Peace“, which the FRRME manages.
But this pales into insignificance alongside the exposé from the New York Times – highlighted on the Flat Earth News website – of the lengths the Pentagon has taken to co-opt retired US military officers as unofficial spokesmen for the administration, all the while presenting them as apparently neutral “military analysts” commenting on US policy in Iraq. A further corrupting factor was that many of these former high-ranking army officers had gone on to work for companies bidding for US government contracts for “reconstruction” in Iraq. Retired Lt Col Timur J Eads was one of a number who told the New York Times that they had often held their tongue when interviewed on air, fearing that “some four-star could call up and say ‘Kill that contract'”. Yet rarely, it seems, did the big US TV networks give the public any inkling that these “military analysts” had a clear financial stake in supporting the official US government line.