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Max Dunbar reviews Don’t Get Fooled Again

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From Max Dunbar

If you’re new to the explosion in investigative scepticism then Richard Wilson’s book on bullshit past and present serves as an excellent primer. You’ll find excellent chapters on the AIDS denial epidemic that’s killing Africa, the rise and fall of the Holocaust denier and fake historian David Irving, the socially acceptable lunacy of alternative medicine. For critics like Dan Hind who feel that sceptics take on too soft targets, there are savage explorations of America’s internment policies, the cover-up of the link between smoking and cancer and the profligate corruption of the Enron corporation.

But there are also revelations for the seasoned sceptic. Wilson has a fascinating chapter on Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s pet agronomist who denounced Darwinism as ‘bourgeois’ (so much for the rational atheist superstate) and claimed that ‘wheat could be trained to thrive in a cold climate by being soaked in freezing water’. There’s also the asbestos charlatan John Bridle, who claimed for years and despite massive evidence to the contrary that white asbestos was harmless: his assertions were plugged throughout the 2000s by the ludicrous Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker.

As Wilson points out, we must now be sceptical even of sceptics: deniers of the Holocaust and Srebrenica and climate change and 9/11 and 7/7. These are people who use the language of evidence and objectivity in a scramble for the moral high ground. Yet their florid and bizarre claims are only ever backed up with plaintive cries of ‘Open your mind’ or ‘How do we know?’ The pitiful trajectory of David Shayler will serve for all these cases: a former MI5 agent jailed for exposing very real conspiracies, Shayler was reduced to babbling in a Somerset town hall that he was ‘God incarnated as spirit and man… Journalists are asked to arrive with an open mind.’

Wilson draws a firm line between scepticism and denial in a paragraph that should be spraypainted in ten-foot letters on the houses of every smug 9/11 lunatic and apologist for fascism:

Sceptics form their beliefs on the basis of concrete facts, and evaluate each piece of evidence on its own merits. Denialists select their facts on the basis of their pre-existing beliefs, and reject evidence that they dislike, or find inconvenient.

There’s so much gold in Wilson’s book it’s hard to pick out specific examples. Wilson explains in a wonderful aside that the brain regenerates itself every seven years – meaning in effect that you will be a completely different person by November 30 2015. He shatters the postmodern paradigm of a Western imperial Enlightenment forced upon complaining natives by discussing the developing world’s substantial contributions to science.

But somehow Wilson loses his nerve in his chapter on the millennial con-trick of religion. He doesn’t defend its claims about the world (although there was a time when religious apologists did exactly that) rather, he approves of faith as ‘wishful thinking, strategically deployed.’ Theism is ‘a decision to take on, in the apparent absence of compelling evidence either for or against, a set of beliefs that cheer some people up.’ All very comforting, but this is just the Straussianism of the neoconservatives that Wilson rails against in his chapters on Iraq. Only Strauss advocated delusion as a means of keeping the masses under control, rather than a positive lifestyle choice.

‘If religion is the opium of the people,’ Wilson chuckles, ‘then most recreational users I know seem to manage their habit fairly comfortably.’ There’s nothing wrong with lying to yourself to be happy, we all do that from time to time, but there’s something shitty and depressing about the argument that we need to keep these noble lies around to prevent us from killing ourselves. It’s not true, in any case, and for the life of me I don’t understand why advocates of this fashionable pessimism ignore the very real sources of comfort and transcendence in our mortal realm: the appreciation of art and creativity and sport, starting a family, falling in love (which is the defining transcendence for most people).

Wilson also says that ‘It’s not so much faith in God that is the problem – it’s faith in human beings.’ Nope: humanity is more worthy of worship than anything. Ideas, as Wilson has shown in his otherwise essential book, are fair game.

“Against the evidence” – New Statesman piece

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The New Statesman has just published an article I’ve written, coinciding with the publication of “Don’t Get Fooled Again” (a version read by a strange robotic voice can be found here…)

Throughout the 1960s, the tobacco industry famously spent millions promoting a small group of vociferous “sceptics” who, in the face of overwhelming evidence, continued to deny the link between smoking and cancer. The strategy paid off. Long after a clear scientific consensus had emerged, much of the public still believed that the case remained unproven.

In a sceptical age, even those disseminating wholly bogus ideas – from corporate pseudo-science to 9/11 conspiracy theories – will often seek to appropriate the language of rational inquiry. But there is a meaningful difference between being a “sceptic” and being in denial. The genuine sceptic forms his beliefs through a balanced evaluation of the evidence. The sceptic of the bogus variety cherry-picks evidence on the basis of a pre-existing belief, seizing on data, however tenuous, that supports his position, and yet declaring himself “sceptical” of any evidence, however compelling, that undermines it.

While it is easy to guess the motivations of an industry-funded scientist denying the dangers posed by his commercial sponsor, or a far-right historian expressing “scepticism” about the Holocaust, other cases are more puzzling. It is difficult to explain why, for example, a respected academic would dismiss the mountain of proof that HIV causes Aids. But several have, notably the Berkeley virologist Peter Duesberg.

HIV is a type of “retrovirus”. Duesberg has argued for decades that retroviruses rarely, if ever, harm their hosts. Rather than modify this theory in the light of evidence that one such virus was killing millions, Duesberg in the late 1980s announced his “scepticism” about that evidence, and has stuck to his guns ever since.

Early on, these ideas found a receptive audience among HIV sufferers, desperate for an alternative prognosis. The cause was later taken up by conspiracy theorists convinced that Aids was a money-spinning fabrication of the global pharmaceutical industry.

In South Africa, at the beginning of this decade, Aids scepticism gained currency with a political class dismayed at the prices being charged for life-saving medicines. Under the influence of Duesberg and his fellow “dissidents”, Thabo Mbeki’s government chose to delay for several years public provision of anti-HIV drugs. The economist Nicoli Nattrass estimates that this decision – made amid one of the world’s worst Aids epidemics – may already have cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

Bogus scepticism does not centre on an impartial search for the truth, but on a no-holds-barred defence of a preconceived ideological position. The bogus sceptic is thus, in reality, a disguised dogmatist, made all the more dangerous for his success in appropriating the mantle of the unbiased and open-minded inquirer.

Richard Wilson’s “Don’t Get Fooled Again” is out now, published by Icon Books (£12.99)

“Don’t Get Fooled Again” reviewed by Simon Appleby on Bookgeeks

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It’s good to be a sceptic, and as Richard Wilson demonstrates in his new book, far too few of us choose to use our critical faculties as often as we should. Our lack of scepticism starts with ourselves – we uniformly believe we are better looking than the average person, better drivers than the average person, more caring and giving than the average person, when common sense dictates we can’t all be (I mean, of course I am, but you know, in general, people just can’t be).

This lack of critical discrimination extends to all walks of life, and Wilson explores far more than just the gullibility of human beings: he looks at a number of areas of life where we would all benefit from more scepticism. There’s an excellent chapter on how the global tobacco industry created a ‘controversy’ that rumbled on for years when in actual fact there was a clear scientific agreement – PR firms and biased academics exploit the interest of journalists in stories with two sides to tell, because conflict is more interesting than consensus. There’s also the curse of relativism – the belief that all points of view are equally valid. While that may be true for opinions of a painting or a piece of music, it clearly can’t be when dealing with issues like the AIDS epidemic, issues that have measurable scientific truths at their heart – yet AIDS denialists have received far more airtime than they deserved due to unthinking relativism, and people have died as a result.

A sceptic must also be alive to the effects of social pressure and expectation on a person’s own behaviour and thinking – there’s an excellent chapter on ‘groupthink’, using examples from the Bay of Pigs to the spiralling cruelty of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which is likened to the famous Stanford Prison experiment. It’s important to be reminded just how unflinchingly people will follow orders (fail to exercise their own scepticism) when they believe that the person giving the instructions knows better than them.

Conspiracy theories are thoroughly debunked, with Wilson suggesting a number of ways to evaluate the plausibility of any given theory. Of course the Internet has been a boon to both conspiracy theorists and sceptics, and the author is a strong advocate of doing independent research whenever you are not convinced by someone’s claims. There’s no substitute for independent verification (so I strongly suggest you read some other reviews of this book too!).

Written in lucid prose, well researched and strongly argued, Don’t Get Fooled Again is a great little book. It has reminded me of the virtues of scepticism (as distinct from cynicism, which is unthinking negativity and expecting the worst in all circumstances). So, if you don’t want to buy a pig in a poke, have the wool pulled over your eyes, or be an unquestioning sheep, then this is the book for you.

UK publisher: Icon Books
Edition reviewed: Hardback
ISBN: 1848310145
Publication date:18th September 2008
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