Posts Tagged ‘conspiracy theories’
…a highly readable book which represents a refreshing gale of common sense and rationality. Wilson critiques a wide range of contemporary nonsense including:
- Pseudo-news such as the testimony of a certain ‘Nurse Nayirah’ in 1990 that Iraqi troops occupying Kuwait had removed babies from incubators or the insistence of American and British politicians that Saddam’s Hussein’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction;
- Pseudo-science such as the efforts to show that smoking does not cause cancer or that white asbestos poses no measurable risk to health or that Trofim Lysenko in the pre-war Soviet Union had revolutionary techniques to transform agriculture or that South African President Thambo Mbeki was right in insisting that the HIV virus does not cause AIDS;
- Conspiracy theories such as the assertion by ex British agent David Shayler that the London bombings of July 2007 were not the act of terrorists;
- Relativism which, in its most radical form, asserts that there are no objective facts, only competing strands of subjective opinion, and even in ‘milder’ forms like cultural relativism rejects logic and evidence as ‘western’ or ‘imperialist’ modes of thinking;
- Religious fundamentalism which requires belivers to accept on faith the absolute truth of a prescribed list of written beliefs even when the relevant texts are obscure, contradictory or contrary to evidence;
- The justifications given for torture by democratic states like the USA and for terrorism given by extremist groups who likewise believe that the ends justify the means.
Wilson helpfully identifies some of the many factors that permit and indeed encourage such acts of irrationality including wishful thinking, over-idealisation, demonising perceived enemies, moral exclusion, and groupthink. In a spirited defence of rationality, he asserts: “The basic principles of logic, consistency, evidence, and ‘inductive reasoning’ are common to every human society and present in all belief systems”.
In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I look at the twin delusions of AIDS denial and Holocaust negationism, and examine some of the parallels between them.
AIDS denialists – who will often describe themselves as “AIDS dissidents” or “AIDS sceptics” – are those who deny the overwhelming scientific evidence that HIV causes AIDS. They may believe that HIV is harmless, or deny that there is evidence the virus even exists. In the early 1980s, soon after AIDS was discovered, the psychiatrist Casper Schmidt suggested that the disease was a “group fantasy”, the product of an ” epidemic of shame-induced depression” among gay men, caused by “a vast, society-wide conservative swing” culminating in the election of Ronald Reagan. “One can only hope”, Schmidt concluded, “that we wake up from the trance, and soon”. As with many of the most vocal “dissidents”, Schmidt’s denial seems to have motivated, in part, by a refusal to acknowledge his own illness. Tragically, Casper Schmidt died from AIDS in the mid-1990s – yet even now some die-hard denialists continue to cite his work in support of their claims.
Towards the end of the 80s, amid growing evidence that AIDS was killing thousands, the US virologist Peter Duesberg began challenging the scientific consensus that the disease was caused by a virus, HIV. Duesberg’s work with retroviruses – the class to which HIV belongs – had led him to conclude that all such viruses were essentially harmless. Rather than revise this view in the face of strong and growing epidemiological proof of a close correlation between the presence of AIDS and HIV infection, Duesberg chose instead to reject the new evidence and hang on to his old theory – a position he has stuck to ever since.
Duesberg’s arguably most poisonous claim is that AIDS can in fact be caused by the medications given to HIV sufferers to control the disease, such as the drug AZT. It was partly under Duesberg’s influence that the South African government of Thabo Mbeki chose to delay the public availability of anti-retroviral drugs – a decision which, according to a recent Harvard study – may have cost over 300,000 lives.
Holocaust negationists deny some or all of the established historical facts about Nazi atrocities during World War II. They may refuse to accept that the Holocaust happened at all, or they may – as David Irving has done – concede that atrocities took place but deny that the extermination of Jews and other minorities was a deliberate organisational policy, authorised at the highest level. They may, like Irving, significantly downplay the number of people who died at the hands of the Nazis. Or they may engage in “moral negationism”, acknowledging that Germany persecuted Jews but suggesting that the war-time abuses committed by Soviet or British forces could somehow cancel or diminish the moral gravity of Nazi crimes. Many of these kinds of arguments can be seen in the comment responses to the piece that I wrote about David Irving here.
David Irving has famously denied that he is a Holocaust denier – and went so far as to sue the writer Deborah Lipstadt for having described him in those terms. Some of this seems to come down to semantics. If we define a “Holocaust denier” as someone who is in denial about the established historical facts relating to the Holocaust, then even someone who acknowledges some level of atrocity – as David Irving does – would nonetheless fall into that category.
After a lengthy court battle in which Irving’s historical writings were examined in fine detail, the libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt famously failed, with the judge concluding that:
Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.
Irving has sought to portray himself as a fearless and impartial historical investigator, motivated solely by a desire to establish the truth, bravely challenging the orthodox account of the events of World War II. But the Lipstadt libel trial revealed quite the opposite. Driven by a preconceived attachment to an extreme ideological position, Irving had systematically abused the truth, deliberately misrepresenting his historical sources in order to make them support his political views.
Appearing as an expert witness, the historian Richard Evans, who had painstakingly reviewed Irving’s work, confessed to being shocked at the “sheer depth of duplicity” he had found. Irving had, Evans concluded, “fallen so far short of the standards of scholarship customary among historians that he doesn’t deserve to be called a historian at all”, suggesting that Irving relied on his audience lacking “either the time or the expertise” to check up on his sources.
Another feature of Irving’s work is his tendency to seize on tenuous reinterpretations of the existing evidence and treat them as a knockdown refutation of the claim he is attacking. Irving has argued that forensic tests taken by an unqualified investigator on the walls of the Auschwitz gas chambers in the late 1980s proved that they could not have been used for mass-executions, later claiming that “more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz”.
Irving also applied a clear double-standard in his evaluation of the evidence. At the same time as he embraced tenuous forensic tests taken more than 40 years after the end of the World War II, he was dismissive of the detailed eyewitness testimonies of the thousands of Holocaust survivors still alive at the time.
We see a similar double-standard with many of those who deny the link between HIV and AIDS. A 3-month investigation by Science magazine found no evidence to back Duesberg’s claims. Mainstream AIDS researchers accused him of constructing his arguments through “selective reading of the scientific literature, dismissing evidence that contradicts his theses, requiring impossibly definitive proof, and dismissing outright studies marked by inconsequential weaknesses.”
One big problem faced by both AIDS denialists and Holocaust denialists is the difficulty of explaining why their arguments are almost universally rejected. Here again, the rhetoric is often striking similar. Hardcore AIDS denialists insist that the disease is a “hoax”, a “myth”, and a “deceptive and deadly scam” perpetrated by the “medical industrial complex”, and offer us “Ten reasons HIV is not the cause of AIDS”. Hardcore negationists, meanwhile, talk dismissively about the “Holohoax”, which they describe as a “myth”, perpetrated by “Zionists” with an “agenda of world domination”, and offer us “Ten reasons why the Holocaust is a fraud”.
While I was writing “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I came across numerous examples of pseudo-science being disseminated via the net, from the poisonous theories of the AIDS denialists to the clumsy corporate quackery of the industry-funded Chrysotile Institute.
Following the recent scare stories about the CERN project and the MMR vaccine, Tim Berners-Lee, the man often credited with inventing the World Wide Web, has raised concerns over the extent to which unsubstantiated claims about science are often disseminated online. Berners-Lee suggests that we should consider some kind of ratings system (or systems) to give a public measure of the reliability of the multitude of online sources.
Having waded through page after page of the eloquently-worded online nonsense scattered across the net over the last year – and read some of the stories of those who have been persuaded on the basis of a pseudo-scientific conspiracy theory to stop taking medicines that could have saved their lives, it’s easy to agree that there is a very serious issue here.
But I’m not sure that formal ratings systems will really help. Pseudo-scientists like the AIDS denialist Peter Duesberg already claim that their exclusion from the mainstream media, and their failure to get published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, is evidence of the ‘conspiracy of silence’ ranged against him. If some sort of ‘reliability rating’ system is introduced, the conspiracy theorists will simply say the same thing about the fact that their website has been refused a rating (or given a very low one). It seems unlikely that the kind of person who would be taken in by conspiracist claims about peer review and the mainstream media is going to be immune to similarly paranoid arguments about ‘reliability ratings’. Setting up a formal system is just going to give the conspiracy theorists something else to get paranoid about.
It also seems to me that increasing numbers of people are now figuring out for themselves how to gauge the reliability of what they see and read online, and that a more effective way of combatting web tomfoolery might simply be to promote some basic ‘rules of thumb’, drawn from experience, which web users can then apply in their own way.
A further point is that by focussing solely on the dangers of nonsense being spread in the online media, we risk letting established media sources off the hook, when complacency in this area is equally dangerous. In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I found many cases of mainstream journalists being comprehensively duped by dangerous pseudo-scientific ideas – from the bamboozling of the Sunday Times journalist Neville Hodgkinson and the Sunday Telegraph commentator Christopher Booker, to the PR deceptions of the tobacco industry during the 1960s and 1970s.
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
Publication date:18th September 2008
Buy from: Amazon.co.uk
But one of the most striking things I found while writing the book was the extent to which conspiracy theories are often being disseminated not by lone “nuts” but by established governments.
The Chinese authorities have been at it recently, with a series of increasingly colourful claims about the nefarious global activities of the “Dalai clique” – but the prize of the month has to go to the ruling party in Zimbabwe, who have published several documents, including a letter ostensibly signed by Gordon Brown, detailing a conspiracy involving the British government, the German Central Bank and the Zimbabwean political opposition to invade the country, oust Robert Mugabe, and restore the old white-supremacist state of Rhodesia. Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa reportedly insisted he would stand by the allegations even if the documents were shown to be fake, because “even if Brown hadn’t put it in writing, everyone knows that is what the British are plotting”.
“Don’t Get Fooled Again” is a very different kind of book from “Titanic Express”, but there are some common elements. Both, in their own ways, centre around a search for the truth, personally and politically. Both also look at how we can distinguish what’s true from what isn’t – or at least how we can tell a reasonable assumption from a completely nonsensical one – and why it is that these things matter. And both look in some detail at the issue of conspiracy theories, and the damage they can do.
In “Titanic Express”, the conspiracy theories I came across were often all-encompassing – so much so that at one point I was told that my sisters’ killers suspected me of being part of some devilish global plot to discredit them. And in “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, many of the most disturbing delusions I looked at – such as the belief that HIV doesn’t exist or is harmless, seemed ultimately, again, to rest on the belief in some conspiracy or another. What I wasn’t able to do in “Titanic Express” was to look in detail at the features that define a conspiracy theory, what it is, psychologically, that attracts us to such ideas, and the tools that we can use to unravel them – so it was great to have a chance to go into these questions a bit more in DGFA.