Posts Tagged ‘Don’t Get Fooled Again’
The Immunity Resource Foundation (UK charity 1105986) says that its aims include:
“(I) TO ADVANCE THE EDUCATION OF THE PUBLIC IN THE FIELDS OF MEDICINE, HEALTH CARE AND MEDICAL SCIENCE; AND
(II) TO RELIEVE SICKNESS AND ASSIST SICK AND DISABLED PERSONS …BY PROVIDING THEM WITH ACCESS TO INFORMATION CONCERNING DISEASES AND MEDICAL CONDITIONS (AND IN PARTICULAR AIDS) AND THE TREATMENTS, THERAPIES AND RESEARCH STUDIES RELATING THERETO, AND WITH ADVICE AND SUPPORT;”
But the scientific claims about AIDS published on the organisation’s website are dangerously inaccurate. On this page, Joan Shenton, the organisation’s “Founder and administrator”, suggests that AIDS “is not an infectious disease” and that “HIV cannot cause AIDS”.
The articles linked to on this page all lean in the same direction, and many of them are by known AIDS denialists, notably the discredited virologist Peter Duesberg and the journalists Neville Hodgkinson, Celia Farber and John Lauritsen.
A Harvard study published last year concluded that the adoption of AIDS denial in South Africa by the government of Thabo Mbeki in the early part of this decade had contributed to more than 365,000 preventable deaths. In a speech in 1999, Mbeki had cited “the huge volume of literature on this matter available on the Internet” in support of his position on HIV and AIDS.
A brief jaunt through Google News reveals over 500 “paradigm shifts” in the last three weeks, including:
“A Paradigm shift in Polymer material”, from ‘Materials Views’
A “Paradigm Shift in European Cash Clearing”, from Gerson Lehrman Group
A “paradigm shift in how South Koreans view North Korea”, from the New York Times
Andrew Armour’s very generous review picks up on some of the arguments I make in “Don’t Get Fooled Again” about marketing rhetoric – and in particular the seemingly ubiquitous idea that one new product or another constitutes a “new paradigm”. Armour has a professional marketing background, and witnessed first-hand the “dot com bubble” around the turn of the century:
From Andrew Armour’s Blog
I worked in e-commerce (print management and e-tail)… and remember well the presentations explaining how all retail was going to change, every shopping mall was going to die and banks would become mobile phone companies. I’m surprised we were not told that hover cars were to take us to the centre of the earth and the Mars colony would be open by 2012. Boo.com was going to be the biggest clothing retailer in the Universe, even though nobody really wanted to buy clothes on-line and it was making no money. The ‘old-rules’ did not apply. Marketing forces? Propositions? Mechanics? So, so passe. The smartest lesson I learned from all of this was that channels evolved and very seldom disappeared because alternatives come along. Radio and cinema did not replace theatre. TV did not replace movies and digital music will not replace the live concert. Printed media is the latest to be told it is going to die but I would bet that whilst it will evolve and change it will not go away. Then – Friends Reunited was going to change everything. Then Facebook. Then Twitter. And to be fair, maybe social media channels will change a lot, they will have a place in the mix and will evolve as another tool in the marketing box but let us not avoid critical thinking when listening to the high priests telling us social media will dominate the future…
Wilson points out that the ‘new paradigm’ has a strong cultural base that is often hard to counteract even with logic and evidence… to resist the notion that the new is always brilliant is to appear old, doomed, obsolete and conservative. But – how many new ideas that were championed and promoted passionately as the new paradigm were complete flops? Fascism or communism anyone? Boo.com? Friends Reunited? Balancing radical ideas with rational actions is the increasing challenge of marketers and with the proliferation of marketing channels and tools, it is the decision about what to communicate, to whom and how that will remain. As Kelly famously put it; ‘ In an endless world of abundance the only thing in short supply is human attention’.
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.
Monday’s book talk at Skeptics in the Pub certainly wasn’t my best, though things warmed up a bit with the Q&A discussion at the end.
My main focus was on the value of scepticism in, and about, politics – and I put forward three key examples to try to illustrate this: the case of the Soviet pseudo-scientist Trofim Lysenko, the UK government’s misleading statements about Iraq’s “WMD”, and the South African authorities’ embrace of “AIDS denialism” in the year 2000.
All three of these cases arguably involved costly government decisions being made on the basis of bad evidence that had not been properly scrutinised.
Lysenko’s theories about agriculture were far-fetched and unworkable, but they were ideologically agreeable to the Communist regime, and after he rose to prominence the totalitarian nature of the Soviet system made it very difficult for anyone to challenge his authority. When Lysenko’s ideas were implemented in China, they contributed to a famine that is believed to have claimed up to 30 million lives.
The evidence cited by the UK government in support of its view that Iraq possessed chemical weapons was famously “dodgy”. It’s widely believed that the Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair, lied about the strength of that evidence, and about the views of his own experts (many of whom, it later, transpired, had grave doubts about the claims being made), not only to the public at large and the UK’s Parliament, but also to many members of his own cabinet. One ex-minister, Clare Short, has suggested that Blair believed he was engaging in an “honorable deception” for the greater good. But whatever his motives, in lying to his own cabinet and Parliament, Blair was effectively shutting out of the decision-making process the very people whose job it is to scrutinise the evidence on which government policies are based. John Williams, one of the spin doctors involved in drawing up the famous “dodgy dossier” – which at the time the government insisted was the unvarnished view of the intelligence services – later admitted that “in hindsight we could have done with a heavy dose of scepticism” (though it should be said that some of his statements raise more questions than they answer).
In South Africa in the early part of this decade, President Thabo Mbeki chose to believe the unsubstantiated claims of fringe scientists and conspiracy theorists over those of established AIDS researchers – including members of South Africa’s own scientific community. Under the influence of denialists who insist that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, and that AIDS deaths are in fact caused by the lifesaving medicines given to people with HIV, Mbeki’s government chose to block the availability of anti-retroviral drugs in South Africa – even after the pharmaceutical companies had been shamed into slashing their prices and international donors were offering to fund the distribution. It was only after a series of court cases by the indefatigable Treatment Action Campaign that, in 2004, the authorities began to change their position. A recent study by Harvard University concluded that the deliberate obstruction of the roll-out of lifesaving drugs may have cost more than 300,000 lives.
The broad conclusion I think all of this points to is that the truth matters more in politics than ever before. Because of power and influence that governments now hold, the consequences of a bad policy implemented on the basis of bad evidence can adversely affect millions.
In an ideal world governments would be engaging in evidence-based-policy-making: deciding policy on the basis of the best available evidence – rather than policy-based-evidence-making: cherry-picking or concocting evidence to support a decision that has already been made. But obviously this doesn’t always happen, and as a result wholly preventable mistakes continue to be made.
Book talk – Sceptics in the Pub, 7pm, Monday April 27th
The Penderel’s Oak pub
283–288 High Holborn
WC1V 7HP (map)
Given the disasters, human and financial, that can result when governments lose their grip on reality, it’s arguably in politics that skepticism matters most. Yet from Thabo Mbeki’s disastrous dalliance with AIDS denial in South Africa, to the delusions that led to the Iraq war, our politicians often seem perilously credulous. In “Don’t Get Fooled Again“, Richard Wilson looks at why it is that intelligent, educated people end up time and again falling for ideas that turn out to be nonsense, and makes the case for skeptics to be actively engaged with the political process.