Archive for the ‘Pseudo-news’ Category
My first book, Titanic Express, focusses on the death of my sister Charlotte in a massacre in Burundi in December 2000. To give some background on my involvement in the recently launched “Stop Funding Hate” campaign, I wanted to share this excerpt (p42).
There was a knock on the door around three that afternoon. The tactful and sympathetic man on the doorstep was from the Daily Mail, and he was asking to speak to Mrs. Wilson. He told my mother how sorry he was to intrude at such a difficult time, but he had a letter that he would like to give her. Would she be prepared to look at the letter, have a think about what it said and then give him her answer in around an hour? My mother agreed.
The letter from the man from the Mail offered his condolences, and asked if my mother would be willing to give an interview to his newspaper about Charlotte’s life. When he returned an hour later, my mother invited him in, sat him down, and calmly explained why she simply couldn’t do it.
She told him that she was an English teacher, and for the last ten years she had been working with people who’d fled from some of the world’s most troubled countries. Iranians and Iraqis, Congolese, Somalis, Bosnians and Kosovans, Turkish Kurds, Eritreans and Ethiopians – even a couple of Burundians had made it into her classroom. All had lost some members of their family – some had lost everyone.
Several were still receiving treatment for the torture they had suffered. Those who were allowed to work at all had grinding, menial jobs. Large numbers faced the prospect of being forcibly returned to the warzones they had fled, amid government protestations that these countries were “safe”.
She had lost count of the number of times a student had mentioned in class that another loved one back home had been killed. And she had lost count of the number of newspaper articles she had seen portraying refugees as liars, cheats, frauds, “bogus” people.
When the stories had first begun, in the mid 1990s, my mother had dismissed them. But then they’d continued, year after year, painting a picture that she just could not recognise of the desperate, traumatised people that she worked with every day. She and her colleagues had begun to wonder if there was something more complicated going on. It hadn’t escaped their attention that so many of these stories were emanating from the Daily Mail, and its sister paper the Evening Standard. My mother had seen the effect of these stories on government policy, and she’d seen the effect of those increasingly harsh policies on her students. She would feel she was betraying them now if she had anything to do with the Daily Mail.
The man from the Mail took this so well that I felt quite sorry for him. More than anything, though, I felt proud of my mother. I knew something of the horrors she had heard from her students over the years, and the effect she herself had suffered from being so close to such suffering. I knew how angry she had been about the distortion and duplicity of newspapers like the Daily Mail. And yet, just three days after suffering one of the worst blows of her life, faced with a representative of an organisation that she and most of her colleagues regarded as something close to “hate media”, she’d shown a calmness and dignity that I found quite extraordinary.
From Human Rights Watch
Whatever the MoD has whispered into the ear of the Sun, Col McNally and I met only twice, both times in a purely professional capacity, both times at the Nato military HQ in Kabul. Both times we met to talk about civilian casualties from US and Nato air strikes.
What has happened in the last couple of days has been bewildering. I do not understand how these two meetings might have led the British government to accuse McNally of a serious crime that could lead to a hefty jail sentence, and why my government might want to see my reputation dragged through the mud, when I live in a country where a woman’s reputation can mean her life. The meetings seemed unexceptional. A QC retained by Human Rights Watch has confirmed that the kind of information I received is not covered by the Official Secrets Act.
If the ministry had been seriously concerned that one of their officers was leaking information, why leak it to the media? Why was my name released to the media by the MoD, with a (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) libel that our relationship was “close”? They would know exactly what impression they were creating, and presumably decided that my reputation was expendable in order to ensure coverage of their “story”.
Why did journalists from the Sun, the Times and the Mail write this as a story focusing on the MoD’s entirely bogus suggestion that I had some kind of “relationship” with McNally? Why is it that my photograph was published? Why have journalists not been asking questions about why the MoD has been encouraging them to publish a vicious, false slur about me in order stop me from doing my job for Human Rights Watch in asking for information from the Nato official in charge of monitoring civilian casualties?
Living in Afghanistan, where democracy, a free media, freedom of information and freedom of expression are still a faraway dream, I have developed a deep appreciation of the freedoms I grew up believing I had in Britain. I expect better from my own government and from the British media that I used to be a part of.
From The Observer:
Does “on the ground female human rights worker” equate with “slut” these days? Are they perceived as wandering around war zones in cocktail dresses slashed to the thigh, hungry for the next thrill, perhaps a hunky military man to devour, humming the old toe-tapper I Love a Man in Uniform? Or could it be possible that these women pour all their passion and intensity into their jobs?
I only ask because of the curious case of Rachel Reid, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Afghanistan. Last week, it emerged that a senior army officer, Colonel Owen McNally, had been arrested under the Official Secrets Act for allegedly passing classified information to a human rights worker. Unnamed sources were quick to inform the media that McNally was known to be “close” to Reid, who had divulged the secrets after she “befriended him”.
Writing in response, Reid says that, far from being “close” to McNally, she met him twice professionally at the military HQ in Kabul to discuss civilian casualties. (Interestingly, Reid had angered Nato by pointing out that these deaths had tripled between 2006-7.)
Now Reid is horrified that her reputation has been dragged through the mud when she is living in a country “where a woman’s reputation can mean her life”. She is devastated by the “vicious slur” leaked to the media, saying: “They knew exactly what impression they were creating.” Quite. And is anyone else getting deja vu?
As McNally’s investigation is still going on, the full facts have yet to emerge. However, to me, this seems eerily reminiscent of Andy Burnham’s description of MP David Davies and Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti’s “late-night, hand-wringing, heart-melting phone calls” last year.
Intended or not, the impression given was that Chakrabarti and Davies were steaming up Westminster’s windows about more than the 42-day detention period. Briefly but indelibly, Chakrabati was no longer just a human rights professional, she was a femme fatale, pouting and wriggling through the corridors of power.
Is it wrong to highlight the deaths of HIV-positive AIDS denialists who reject medications and urge others to do the same?
In “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, I look at the role played by the media in promoting dangerous pseudo-scientific ideas under the guise of “balance” in reporting. From the mid-1950s onwards, there was a clear consensus among scientists, based on very strong epidemiological evidence, that smoking caused lung cancer. Yet for several decades, many journalists insisted on “balancing” their reports on each new piece of research with a quote from an industry-funded scientist insisting that the case remained “unproven”.
The tobacco industry’s strategy from an early stage was not to deny outright that smoking was harmful, but to maintain that there were “two sides to the story”. In January 1954, the industry issued its now-famous “Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” – a full-page advertisement published in 50 major newspapers across the US.
“Recent reports on experiments with mice have given wide publicity to a theory that cigarette smoking is in some way linked with lung cancer in human beings”
the industry noted.
“Although conducted by doctors of professional standing, these experiments are not regarded as conclusive in the field of cancer research… we feel it is in the public interest to call attention to the fact that eminent doctors and research scientists have publicly questioned the claimed significance of these experiments.”
The strategy played cleverly to the media’s penchant for “controversy”, and proved remarkably successful. Long after the matter had been decisively settled among scientists, public uncertainty around the effects of smoking endured.
US cigarette sales continued rising until the mid-1970s – and it was only in the 1990s – four decades after the scientific case had been clearly established – that lung cancer rates began to tail off. Harvard Medical Historian Allan M Brandt has described the tobacco industry’s public deception – in which many mainstream journalists were complicit – as “the crime of the century”:
It is now estimated that more that 100 million people worldwide died of tobacco-related diseases over the last hundred years. Although it could be argued that for the first half of the century the industry was not fully aware of the health effects of cigarettes, by the 1950s there was categorical scientific evidence of the harms of smoking.
The motivations of the AIDS denialists may be very different, but their rhetoric and tactics are strikingly similar. During the early 1990s, Sunday Times medical correspondent Neville Hodgkinson was bamboozled into running a series of articles – over a period of two years – claiming that:
“a growing number of senior scientists are challenging the idea that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes AIDS”…
“This sensational possibility, now being contemplated by numerous doctors, scientists and others intimately concerned with the fight against the disease, deserves the widest possible examination and debate.”
Hodgkinson declared in December 1993.
“Yet it has been largely ignored by the British media and suppressed almost entirely in the United States… The science establishment considers itself on high moral ground, defending a theory that has enormous public health implications against the ‘irresponsible’ questioning of a handful of journalists. Their concern is human and understandable, even if we might expect our leading scientists to retain more concern for the truth while pursuing public health objectives.”
As with the tobacco industry’s “scepticism” over the link between smoking and cancer, the views promoted by Hodgkinson tended to focus on gaps in the established explanation (many of which have since been filled) rather than on any empirical research showing an alternative cause. But he did use one of the recurrent rhetorical motifs of the AIDS denial movement – highlighting the case of an HIV-positive “AIDS dissident” who refused to take anti-retroviral drugs but remained healthy.
Jody Wells has been HIV-positive since 1984. He was diagnosed as having AIDS in 1986. Today, seven years on, he says he feels fine with energy levels that belie his 52 years. He does not take the anti-HIV drug AZT…
He feels so strongly about the issue that he works up to 18 hours a day establishing a fledgling charity called Continuum, “an organisation for long-term survivors of HIV and AIDS and people who want to be”. Founded late last year, the group already has 600 members.
Continuum emphasises nutritional and lifestyle approaches to combating AIDS, arguing that these factors have been grossly neglected in the 10 years since Dr. Robert Gallo declared HIV to be the cause of AIDS.
Tragically – if predictably – Jody Wells was dead within three years of the article being written.
Although Hodgkinson left the Sunday Times in 1994, his articles on the “AIDS controversy” continued to be disseminated online, lending valuable credibility to the denialist cause – and have been credited with influencing Thabo Mbeki’s embrace of AIDS denial in the early part of this decade.
When, in 2000, President Mbeki invited several leading denialists to join his advisory panel on HIV and AIDS, Hodgkinson was one among a number who published articles in the South African media praising the decision. Writing in the New African, Hodgkinson called for “a humble, open, inquiring approach on all sides of this debate” – whilst simultaneously declaring that “AZT is a poison” and denouncing “the bankruptcy of AIDS science”.
Hodgkinson also wrote for Continuum’s magazine, which, following Jody Wells’ death was edited by HIV-positive medication refusnik Huw Christie. Christie defiantly launched the “Jody Wells Memorial Prize” (recently satirised here by Seth Kalichman) offering £1,000 to anyone who could prove to his satisfaction that HIV was real.
The magazine finally folded in 2001, with the Jody Wells Memorial Prize still on offer, after Huw Christie died from a disease which fellow denialists insisted was not AIDS-related. “Neither of your illnesses would have brought you down, Huw”, wrote Christie’s friend Michael Baumgartner in 2001. “You simply ran out of time to change gear. We both knew it did not need some ill-identified virus to explain your several symptoms”.
“Huw’s devotion to life has no doubt contributed to a better understanding of AIDS and he saved many who, without hearing a skeptical voice, would have been stampeded down the path of pharmaceutical destruction”
wrote HIV-positive San Francisco AIDS “dissident” David Pasquarelli.
“I readily acknowledge that if it wasn’t for the work of Huw and handful of other AIDS dissidents, I would not be alive today”.
Pasquarelli died at the age of 36 three years later.
The same document includes a tribute from Christine Maggiore, another HIV-positive AIDS “sceptic” who famously rejected medication, and publicly urged others to do the same. As has been widely reported, Maggiore died last month of an illness commonly associated with AIDS.
Connie Howard, writing in today’s edition of VUE Weekly, finds the reaction to Maggiore’s passing distasteful, claiming that: “some AIDS activists are celebrating—not her death exactly, but celebrating a point for their team nonetheless”.
Howard suggests, echoing Hodgkinson, that “Many HIV-positive people who choose an alternative holistic health route defy all odds and stay well and symptom-free for decades”, and that she has “talked to HIV-positive people living well—really well—without drugs.”
According to Howard:
“it’s time that choice and discussion become possible without hate instantly becoming the most potent ingredient in the mix… The vitriol delivered the way of both dissidents and the reporters telling the stories of the dissidents is a crime… Christine Maggiore deserves to have chosen her own path and to be respected for it.”
AIDS denialists and their sympathisers often accuse mainstream AIDS researchers of not being open to “discussion” or “debate”. Yet meaningful discussion is only possible when both sides are operating in good faith. The problem with AIDS and HIV is that the evidence linking the two is so overwhelmingly strong that the only way to maintain a consistently denialist position is to engage in “bogus scepticism” – arbitrarily dismissing good evidence that undermines one’s favoured viewpoint, misrepresenting genuine research in order to create the appearance of controversy where there is none, seeking to give unpublished amateur research equal status with peer-reviewed studies by professional scientists, and treating minor uncertainties in the established theory as if they were knock-down refutations. In such circumstances, reasoned debate simply becomes impossible.
Howard doesn’t specify which AIDS activists she believes “view the death of an AIDS dissident as a victory” or have celebrated Maggiore’s passing, so it’s difficult to evaluate the truth of that particular claim.
But the notion that everyone is duty bound to “respect” Christine Maggiore’s decision to embrace AIDS denial – and counsel others to do the same – does seem a tad problematic.
What Howard chooses not to tell her readers is that Maggiore’s denial extended not only to refusing medical treatment for herself – she also declined to take measures to mitigate the risk of transmission to her young daughter, Eliza Jane, and refused to have her tested or treated for HIV. When Eliza Jane died in 2005 of what a public coroner concluded was AIDS-related pneumonia, Maggiore refused to accept the result, attacked the coroner’s credibility, and claimed that the verdict was biased.
Missing too, is any reference to South Africa, where Maggiore travelled in 2000 to promote her ideas on AIDS and HIV. Maggiore is said to have personally influenced Thabo Mbeki’s decision to block the provision of anti-retroviral drugs to HIV-positive pregnant women. A Harvard study recently concluded that this decision alone resulted in 35,000 more babies being infected with HIV than would otherwise have been the case. Overall, the study concluded, Mbeki’s denialist policies had led to more than 300,000 preventable deaths.
If the Harvard researchers are correct, then AIDS denialism – of which Christine Maggiore was a vocal proponent – has already caused many more deaths than did the war in Bosnia during the early 1990s. Yet the only “crime” that Connie Howard seems prepared to acknowledge in relation to AIDS and HIV is the ill-feeling directed towards Christine Maggiore, her fellow “dissidents”, and the journalists who give space to their denialist views – views which have repeatedly been shown to be based not on science, but on “selective reading of the scientific literature, dismissing evidence… requiring impossibly definitive proof, and dismissing outright studies marked by inconsequential weaknesses”.
Should we “respect” a person’s decision to refuse medical treatment, even if that leads to their own premature death? Arguably we should. But should we also respect that same person’s decision, on ideological grounds, to deny medical treatment to a young child, with fatal consequences? Should we respect their decision to support a pseudo-scientific campaign denying the established facts about a serious public health issue, when that campaign results in hundreds of thousands of deaths?
It is surely possible to agree that Christine Maggiore’s premature death was an appalling human tragedy, whilst pointing out that she was nonetheless dangerously misguided – and that the manner of her passing makes the tragedy all the more poignant.
Christine Maggiore, Jody Wells, Huw Christie, and David Pasquarelli form part of a grim roll-call of HIV-positive medication refusniks who chose to argue publicly that the state of their health cast doubt on the established science around AIDS and HIV, and then went on to die from the disease. For AIDS activists to remain silent in such circumstances would be a dereliction of duty. Publicly highlighting the human cost of AIDS denial, so that similar deaths may be prevented in future, must surely take precedence over showing “respect” to dangerously misguided people, however tragic the circumstances of their demise.
I believe that most reporters in the media do really want to get it right. However, they are hobbled by three things. First, many, if not most, of them have little training in science or the scientific method and are not particularly valued by their employers. For example, witness how CNN shut down their science division. Second, the only medical or science stories that seem to be valued are one of three types. The first type is the new breakthrough, the cool new discovery that might result in a new treatment or cure. Of course, this type doesn’t distinguish between science-based and non-science-based “breakthroughs.” They are both treated equally, which is why “alternative medicine” stories are so popular. The second type is the human interest story, which is inherently interesting to readers, listeners, or viewers because, well, it’s full of human interest. This sort of story involves the child fighting against long odds to get a needed transplant, for example, especially if the insurance company is refusing to pay for it. The third type, unfortunately, often coopts the second type and, to a lesser extent, the first type. I’m referring to the “medical controversy” story. Unfortunately, the “controversy” is usually more of a manufactroversy. In other words, it’s a fake controversy. No scientific controversy exists, but ideologues desperately try to make it appear as though a real scientific controversy exists. Non-medical examples include creationism versus evolution and the “9/11 Truth” movement versus history. Medical examples include the so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” movement versus science-based medicine and, of course, the anti-vaccine movement.
In his 41st article on the subject, Booker accuses the BBC of “moral corruption” for highlighting the health risks of asbestos
Earlier this week the BBC’s Today Programme reported a rise in the number of teachers, doctors and nurses dying from the incurable cancer mesothelioma, having been exposed to asbestos in schools and hospitals. The programme highlighted the case of Mary Artherton, a former nurse who had been diagnosed with the disease after working in three hospitals where asbestos was present.
“I was absolutely horrified when I heard the news”, she told the BBC. “I’d nursed people with mesothelioma in the past. I know the prognosis was very poor and it just frightened me, completely.”
The BBC had previously highlighted a new campaign by the Health and Safety Executive to raise awareness of the risks of asbestos exposure among plumbers, electricians and other tradespeople:
The HSE says research suggests exposure kills on average six electricians, three plumbers and six joiners every week and it fears those numbers could grow in the future because of complacency.
It believes only one in 10 current tradesmen recognises the danger and is launching a campaign to raise awareness.
The HSE’s new campaign was also publicised by the UK’s largest cancer charity, Cancer Research UK:
When a person comes into contact with asbestos, they breathe in tiny fibres of the substance and these can irritate and damage the cells lining the lung. Up to 80 per cent of people diagnosed with mesothelioma have been in contact with asbestos, and the risk is greatest among tradesmen who can be exposed to the substance at work. According to the HSE, at least 4,000 people die as a result of asbestos every year. But scientists believe this rate could rise, since people who have been exposed usually do not develop mesothelioma for between 15 and 40 years. The organisation’s new campaign, ‘Asbestos: The hidden killer’, is designed to improve awareness among tradesmen, many of whom underestimate the risk that asbestos still poses despite the ban.
In response to the BBC’s coverage, the Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker has written his 41st article misrepresenting the science around asbestos, and accusing the BBC of “moral corruption” for highlighting the health risks of asbestos exposure:
Last week, the BBC was again publicising the latest scare over asbestos, launched by the Health and Safety Executive and supported by all those who stand to benefit by it, from asbestos removal contractors to ambulance-chasing lawyers (and the trade unions which get £250 for every referral to solicitors specialising in compensation claims).
In the article, Booker also repeats his false claim that the HSE had previously described the risks of white asbestos cement as “insignificant or zero”.
In previous articles he has repeatedly misrepresented one paper by two HSE statisticians, Hodgson and Darnton, which he says drew such a conclusion. The editor of the journal which published that study recently commented here that:
“The paper does not say that the risks from asbestos cement are probably insignificant – it uses this phrase for the chrysotile risks at the lowest exposures. At higher (but still low) exposures, the authors gave estimates of lung cancer risk about 30-40 times lower than those from crocidolite, and did not regard this as insignificant..
The 500 times difference… may apply to the relative risk of mesothelioma, a much less important disease than lung cancer in chrysotile exposure…”
From A Common Reader
Scepticism about media, politics and finances comes naturally to most of us these days, particularly when people who should know better have brought the world to a state of economic crisis (did our rulers really not know that unfettered greed is no basis for an economic world-order?). It is refreshing to read a book like Don’t Get Fooled Again, which takes our vague feeling that “things aren’t quite right” and shows us that gut instincts are often quite correct, and we really shouldn’t believe the utterances of any institution or public figure without first submitting them to some pretty stringent tests.
Richard Wilson puts forward a good case for scepticism, reminding his readers that humanity has a long history of “meekly engaging in depraved acts of inhumanity on the basis of ideas that turned out to be total gibberish”.
Much of his book focuses on the public relations industry, citing a number of case studies to show how opinion can be manipulated. He devotes a whole chapter to the way tobacco companies in the 1950s manipulated news organisations to question the increasingly obvious link between smoking and lung cancer. The strategy consisted of getting an influential academic on-side (geneticist Clarence Cook Little in this case), and using him to question every scrap of evidence which research scientists gathered supporting the need for anti-smoking legislation.
Little insisted that it was not enough to show that lung cancer victims were smokers, but that until the cause of the link could be demonstrated under laboratory conditions, the link was irrelevant. Tests showing that mice contracted cancer when exposed to cigarette smoke were contested, but on the other hand, animal tests which were favourable to the tobacco industry were heavily publicised. Wilson shows that genius of the PR campaign was capitalising on the media’s love of “debate”.
A story really takes off when two sides are seen in opposition, even when it is obvious that the alleged “controversy” is falsely based. This can be observed every day on programmes like BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, when even the most blindingly obvious truth has to be contested by a protagonist with opposing views, with the result that equal weight is given to both nonsense and fact. One million people walked the streets of London to protest about the US/GB invasion of Iraq but this had no effect on those who wanted for a variety of reasons to believe the fantastic reports about Iraq’s offensive capability.
Wilson warns of the dangers of pseudo-science, and its ability to influence government and other decision-makers. Wilson traces this back to Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s favorite scientist who’s wrong-headed ideas about agronomy led to mass starvation throughout Russia. Even worse, Lysenko’s ideas were taken up by Chairman Mao and his followers whose Lysenko-inspired agrarian reforms led to the worst man-made famine in history, with the loss of 30 million lives.
The chapter on “groupthink” describes that way in which a closed group of people can adopts a false belief and then support itself in perpetuating it despite mounting evidence suggesting its falsity. I found myself thinking again of the decision to invade Iraq taken by Tony Blair’s cabinet when I read Richard Wilson’s list of symptoms of groupthink:
- Invulnerability – everything is going to work out right because we are a special group
- Rationalisation – explaining away warnings that challenge the group’s assumptions
- Unquestioning belief in the morality of the group and ignoring moral consequences of the group’s decisions
- Sterotyping those who oppose the group’s view as weak, evil, impotent of stupid
- Direct pressure being placed on any member who questions the group couched in terms of “disloyalty”
- Self-censorship of ideas that stray from the consensus
- The illusion of unanimity among group members with silence being viewed as agreement.
I have worked on many large I.T. projects and have seen these processes at work when projects have begun to fail and careers and reputations are at risk. Project teams easily acquire the need to plough on despite all warning signals to the contrary until finally the project is abandoned far too late for anyone to be able to recover any benefits from it.
Wilson goes on to consider the HIV/AIDS denial movement, begun in America and then influencing the thinking of the South African government where “AIDS dissidents” have had a malign effect on public policy leading to the denial of effective treatment for many. President Tabo Mbeki immersed himself in AIDS denial literature and invited American AIDS dissidents to join a presidential advisory panel on AIDS and HIV, one of whose aims was to inivestigate “whether there’s this thing called AIDS . . . whether HIV leads to AIDS, whether there’s something called HIV”. By 2005, more than 5.5 million South Africans were infected with HIV and 1000 were dying each day from AIDS.
In his concluding chapter, Richard Wilson lists the common threads which run through false and illusory belief systems: fundamentalism, relativism, conspiracy theories, pseudo-scholarship, pseudo-news, wishful thinking, over-idealisation, demonisation of perceived enemies, groupthink. While many of the ideas in this book are nothing new in themselves, Wilson has gathered them together, with many fascinating examples from recent history, to provide a very useful handbook for people who know that things they read in the paper or hear on the television are “not quite right” and need to be challenged.
I was pleased to find that Richard Wilson has a blog Don’t Get Fooled Again in which he reports on many of the topics covered in his book.