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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.

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In his 41st article on the subject, Booker accuses the BBC of “moral corruption” for highlighting the health risks of asbestos

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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…”

Booker’s false claims (42 articles and counting) downplaying the risks of white asbestos

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UPDATE – When I originally wrote this blog post I knew of 38 articles by Booker on this subject. He’s done at least 4 more since, bringing the total now to 42 and counting…

Poll: Is it right for the Sunday Telegraph to mislead the British public about the health risks of asbestos?

So what can you say about a man who makes the same mistake 38 times? Who, when confronted by a mountain of evidence demonstrating that his informant is a charlatan convicted under the Trade Descriptions Act, continues to repeat his claims? Who elevates the untested claims of bloggers above peer-reviewed papers? Who sticks to his path through a blizzard of facts? What should we deduce about the Sunday Telegraph’s columnist Christopher Booker? – George Monbiot, Guardian

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I highlight the false claims made by Christopher Booker in downplaying the health risks of white asbestos.

I thought it might be useful to post a comprehensive list of those articles here. My particular favourite is the frankly surreal (and yes, false) claim that white asbestos is “chemically identical to talcum powder”, which even made it into a Parliamentary question back in 2002. The claim was later regurgitated in this industry press release, and repeated again on John Bridle’s website here.

Striking, too is Booker’s frequent repetition of the asbestos industry’s non-denial-denial that their product poses “no measurable risk to health”.

See also Miningwatch: “Refuting Industry Claims That Chrysotile Asbestos Is Safe” and the HSE: “HSE confirms white asbestos remains a threat”.

1. C. Booker, ‘Billions to be spent on nonexistent risk’, Sunday Telegraph, 13 January 2002 –
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1381270/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
2. C. Booker, ‘“Unnecessary” asbestos bill will top £8bn’, Telegraph, 27 January 2002, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1382802/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
3. C. Booker, ‘The great asbestos cull begins’, Sunday Telegraph,
10 February 2002,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1384329/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
4. C. Booker, ‘Substance abuse’, Sunday Telegraph, 3 March 2002,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1386576/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
5. C. Booker, ‘Asbestos claims on trial’, Sunday Telegraph, 21 April 2002,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1391639/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
6. C. Booker, ‘Asbestos scare costs homeowners millions’, Sunday Telegraph, 19 May 2002,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1394644/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
7. C. Booker, ‘Scaremongers cost industry billions’, Sunday Telegraph, 30 June 2002,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1398805/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
8. C. Booker, ‘No ceiling to the asbestos scam’, Sunday Telegraph, 18 August 2002,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1404693/Christopher-Booker-Notebook.html
9. C. Booker, ‘Tories challenge “sneaky” asbestos legislation’, Sunday Telegraph, 25 August 2002, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1405310/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
10. C. Booker, ‘Our costliest law must wait’, Sunday Telegraph, 8 September 2002,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1406611/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
11. C. Booker, ‘The $350bn scam’, Sunday Telegraph, 15 September 2002,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1407234/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
12. C. Booker, ‘We put the brake on the costliest law in British history’, Sunday Telegraph, 20 October 2002, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1410696/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
13. C. Booker, ‘Commons drubbing fails to stop our costliest statute’, Sunday Telegraph, 27 October 2002, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1411381/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
14. C. Booker, ‘A blast from Burchill’, Sunday Telegraph, 10 November 2002,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/1412709/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
15. C. Booker, ‘Smallholders lumbered with petty regulation’, Sunday Telegraph, 17 November 2002,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1413403/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
16. C. Booker, ‘HSE blunders in new law’, Sunday Telegraph, 7 December 2002,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1415521/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
17. C. Booker, ‘How much longer will the HSE tolerate this racket?’, Sunday Telegraph, 16 February 2003, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1422214/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
18. C. Booker, ‘Home “written off” in mix-up over asbestos’, Sunday Telegraph, 9 November 2003,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1446248/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
19. C. Booker, ‘The BBC helps to sex up the asbestos threat’, Sunday Telegraph, 1 February 2004,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1453151/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
20. C. Booker, ‘Let’s not spend £8bn to get rid of this stuff ’, Sunday Telegraph, 16 May 2004,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1461994/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
21. C. Booker, ‘Keep the asbestos hysteria flying’, Sunday Telegraph, 23 May 2004,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/1462582/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
22. C. Booker, ‘EC offices get a clean bill of health – for £1bn’, Sunday Telegraph, 8 August 2004,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/1468894/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
23. C. Booker, ‘HSE has second thoughts on asbestos rip-off ’, Sunday Telegraph, 13 November 2004,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1476559/Notebook.html
24. C. Booker, ‘“Frivolous asbestos claims” are a serious matter for Names’, Sunday Telegraph, 20 February 2005 – no longer
available on the Telegraph’s website at the time of writing. A pay-for-view version is archived here: http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-8928598.html
25. C. Brooker, ‘A dangerous level of asbestos inexpertise’, Sunday Telegraph, 10 October 2005,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1499690/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
26. C. Booker, ‘Fatal cracks appear in asbestos scam as HSE shifts its ground’, Sunday Telegraph, 11 December 2005,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1505199/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
27. C. Booker, ‘No, Winifred, the “asbestos in the organ” scam is not “very rare”’, Sunday Telegraph, 15 January 2006,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1507831/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
28. C. Booker, ‘Environment Agency shows its asbestos ignorance’, Sunday Telegraph, 5 February 2006,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1509655/Christopher-Booker’s-notebook.html
29. C. Booker, ‘The bizarre death-by-drawing-pin scare’, Sunday Telegraph, 9 April 2006,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1515200/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
30. C. Booker, ‘The Environment Agency turns a livelihood to rubble’, Sunday Telegraph, 16 April 2006,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1515856/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
31. C. Booker, ‘The asbestos sting goes on’, Sunday Telegraph, 25 June 2006,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1522213/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
32. C. Booker, ‘When we are dead and buried we will be hazardous waste’, Sunday Telegraph, 16 July 2006,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1524033/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
33. C. Booker, ‘Great asbestos scam faces a revenue loss of £½bn a year’, Sunday Telegraph, 6 August 2006,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1525683/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
34. C. Booker, ‘The BBC falls for the asbestos scam’, Sunday Telegraph, 15 October 2006,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1531446/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
35. C. Booker, ‘Why would the BBC have a go at the asbestos watchdog?’, Sunday Telegraph, 21 October 2006, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1532048/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
36. C. Booker, ‘BBC bites watchdog again’, Sunday Telegraph, 2 December 2006,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1535834/EU-orders-anend-to-the-Spanish-acquisition.html
37. C. Booker, ‘Asbestos – The most expensive word in history’ – Daily Telegraph, 6 November 2007 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/main.jhtml?xml=/earth/2007/11/06/eaasbes106.xml
38. C. Booker, ‘Farmers face £6bn bill for asbestos clean-up’, Sunday Telegraph, 25 May 2008 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2008/05/25/do2502.xml

UPDATE – here are a few more:

39. C. Booker, ‘The great moonbat is the one who’s spreading “misinformation” about asbestos’, Sunday Telegraph, 28 September 2008 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/christopherbooker/3562445/Carbon-capture-is-not-here-yet.html

40. C. Booker,  ‘White asbestos proved fatal for their livelihood”, Sunday Telegraph, 19 October 2008 http://findarticles.com/p/news-articles/sunday-telegraph-the-london-uk/mi_8064/is_20081019/white-asbestos-proved-fatal-livelihood/ai_n46519650/

41. C. Booker, ‘The BBC keeps the asbestos scare flying’, Sunday Telegraph, 2 November 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/christopherbooker/3563191/Climate-Change-Bill-makes-chilling-reading.html

42. C. Booker, ‘The Great Asbestos Hysteria’, Daily Mail, 23 February 2010 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1253022/The-Great-Asbestos-Hysteria-How-man-claims-BBC-profiteering-firms-politicians-grossly-exaggerated-dangers.html