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Archive for the ‘Truthiness’ Category

Steve Salerno on the perils of “positive thinking”

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From The Skeptic

Like many of the touchy-feely messages that flood modern America, The Secret is about the rejection of the “inconvenient” truths of the physical world. In the broad culture, science and logic have fallen out of fashion. We are, after all, a people who increasingly abandon orthodox medicine for mind-body regimens whose own advocates not only refuse to cite clinical proof, but dismiss science itself as “disempowering.” (The rallying cry that “you have within you the energies you need to heal” is one reason why visits to practitioners of all forms of alternative medicine now outnumber visits to traditional family doctors by a margin approaching two-to-one.) What I find most remarkable about The Secret, however, is that it somehow mainstreamed the solipsistic “life is whatever you think it is” mindset that once was associated with mental illnesses like schizophrenia. The Secret was (and remains) the perfect totem for its time, uniquely captivating two polar generations: Baby Boomers reaching midlife en masse and desperate to unshackle themselves from everything they’ve been until now; and young adults weaned on indulgent parenting and — especially — indulgent schooling.

Indeed, if there was a watershed moment in modern positive thinking, it would have to be the 1970s advent of self-esteem-based education: a broad-scale social experiment that made lab rats out of millions of American children. At the time, it was theorized that a healthy ego would help students achieve greatness (even if the mechanisms required to instill self-worth “temporarily” undercut traditional scholarship). Though back then no one really knew what self-esteem did or didn’t do, the nation’s educational brain trust nonetheless assumed that the more kids had of it, the better.

It followed that almost everything about the scholastic experience was reconfigured to support ego development and positivity about learning and life. To protect students from the ignominy of failure, schools softened criteria so that far fewer children could fail. Grading on a curve became more commonplace, even at the lowest levels; community-based standards replaced national benchmarks. Red ink began disappearing from students’ papers as administrators mandated that teachers make corrections in less “stigmatizing” colors. Guidance counselors championed the cause of “social promotion,” wherein underperforming grade-schoolers — instead of being left back — are passed along to the next level anyway, to keep them with their friends of like age.

There ensued a wholesale celebration of mediocrity: Schools abandoned their honor rolls, lest they bruise the feelings of students who failed to make the cut. Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled … and More Miserable Than Ever Before, tells of pizza parties that “used to be only for children who made A’s, but in recent years the school has invited every child who simply passed.” (Twenge also writes of teachers who were discouraged from making corrections that might rob a student of his pride as an “individual speller.”) Banned were schoolyard games that inherently produced winners and losers; there could be no losers in this brave new world of positive vibes.

Amid all this, kids’ shirts and blouses effectively became bulletin boards for a hodge-podge of ribbons, pins and awards that commemorated everything but real achievement. Sometimes, the worse the grades, the more awards a student got, under the theory that in order to make at-risk kids excel, you first had to make them feel optimistic and empowered.

…Tellingly, when psychologists Harold Stevenson and James Stigler compared the academic skills of grade-school students in three Asian nations to those of their U.S. peers, the Asians easily outdid the Americans — but when the same students then were asked to rate their academic prowess, the American kids expressed much higher self-appraisals than their foreign counterparts. In other words, U.S. students gave themselves high marks for lousy work. Stevenson and Stigler saw this skew as the fallout from the backwards emphasis in American classrooms; the Brookings Institution 2006 Brown Center Report on Education also found that nations in which families and schools emphasize self-esteem cannot compete academically with cultures where the emphasis is on learning, period.

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Written by Richard Wilson

May 3, 2009 at 3:00 pm

HRW investigator smeared by UK government’s “unnamed sources”

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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.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 8, 2009 at 12:51 pm

Quackometer lists Don’t Get Fooled Again among the best books of 2008

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From Quackometer

Whereas Goldacre looked at the dangers of nonsense more from a personal and UK point of view, Wilson takes on a more global and political perspective. He tells us how whole areas of Russian science were hijacked by fake experts during the Soviet era who were more adept at playing political games than honestly seeking truth. Lysenko was the master at this as he held back Russian and Chinese biology and agriculture for decades as ideology became more important than evidence. The consequences of this were the death of millions through starvation.

Rath is portrayed as a modern Lysenko as his ideas have enraptured South African politicians. Again hundreds of thousand have died as a result of ideological AIDS denialist nonsense.

Wilson offers a partial solution to some of the problem by suggesting that the regulation of politicians is too light and that we should be holding them to account through the law not just the ballot box. The self regulation of politicians fails. Lying to us should be punishable in court. In the UK, this suggestion was put forward to MPs, most of whom thought is somehow naive. Only 37 out of 646 MPs backed a proposed law saying that it would be an offense for a politician to knowingly lie or deceive.

Liberal Conspiracy on Christopher Booker’s scientific credentials

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From Liberal Conspiracy

Rejoice, people! Whatever you may’ve read, however many chilling predictions you may have heard, however frequently Al Gore might haunt your dreams, telling you that the world will end in a torrent of fire because YOU don’t use energy-saving lightbulbs, I can promise that all those fears are unfounded. For as people across the world glance at 2009 with such foreboding and dread, Christopher Booker has made the jolly discovery that instead of getting much, much worse, climate change doesn’t actually exist all!

Now, I understand that there’s a great deal of misinformation out there in BlogLand, and since I’m not a scientist (well, neither is he, but he sure seems to know a lot more than ‘real scientists’), I have to make sure that all my sources are of the highest calibre. So I did whatever any forensic time-deprived blogger would do, and checked him out on Wikipedia. Without further ado, and just to show how seriously you should take his scientific acumen, here are some of Booker’s greatest hits…

Survey shows that just 22% trust UK government ministers to tell the truth

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From the BBC:

Public trust in senior politicians has fallen in the last two years, according to a survey carried out for the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

The survey suggests 22% of people think government ministers tell the truth – down from 27% in the 2006 survey.

Committee chair Sir Christopher Kelly called the results “deeply disturbing”.

And he said a cause was that greater openness “meant people become aware of things which previously were carried on but they didn’t know about”.

Jenni Russell on the UK government’s crisis of trust

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From Jenni Russell in The Guardian:

Only four months ago, when Smith gave a speech to the Smith Institute on the necessity of parliament’s shoving through the imminent plans for 42-day detention, the tone was much more disdainful. Then we, the audience, were given an imperious lecture that amounted to: We know what the threat is and you don’t, so we must be given whatever powers we need. I said at the time that listening to the speech was like wrestling mentally with jelly. Other than “trust us, we’re the government”, there wasn’t much of an argument involved.

Now, of course, thanks to the Lords, the opposition, the Labour rebels and vociferous opponents around the country, No 10 and the Home Office have had to learn a little humility. Bullying and threatening hasn’t been enough to get the key measures it sought, like 42 days and secret coroners’ inquests, past parliament. And since the government now plans a surveillance project that will dwarf anything that has gone before – a giant database that will track every call, text, email and web visit that we make – they have been forced, belatedly, into attempting to persuade us a little more and hector us a little less.

On the evidence of this speech, the strategy is not having much success. Persuasion is all about emotion backed up with argument, and the emotion was still reserved for “we know best; we truly do!” while the arguments still weren’t there.

Since the last few years of Tony Blair’s time in Downing Street there has been much agonising from the Labour leadership over the decline of public trust in politicians. This is a problem, we are told, because without our being able to take the government at its word on at least some things, the effective functioning of the state becomes impossible. The public therefore ought to be more trusting of politicians, and the current mood of scepticism is clearly – according to Alastair Campbell – the fault of the media.

The very fact that the government seriously expects us to be swayed by this kind of argument seems, to me, to illustrate the real problem with painful clarity. Democracy is clearly in trouble when voters feel the need to be suspicious of every public statement that their government makes on any remotely controversial issue – just as your relationship with your doctor or dentist would be under considerable strain if you felt that you were dealing with a mendacious quack trying to rip you off at every turn.

It seems that the government is asking us to believe that the solution to our democratic crisis is simply for voters to set their doubts aside and trust in the political class again – despite all the examples of state mendacity we’ve seen in recent years. But this seems akin to expecting a patient who’s repeatedly been juiced by their dentist to deal with their concerns simply by suppressing them – and then handing over their money for yet another appointment.

It seems to me the wiser course of action would be to start looking around for a better dentist – and perhaps also seek to get the old one struck off, to stop him from doing more damage in future…

Written by Richard Wilson

October 18, 2008 at 10:31 am

Stephen Colbert on “truthiness”…

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“That’s where the truth lies – right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up.

Now, I know some of you are going to say, ‘I did look it up, and that’s not true.’ That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book. Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works.” 

– Stephen Colbert, White House Correspondents Association dinner, April 2006

Written by Richard Wilson

September 28, 2008 at 6:57 pm