Posts Tagged ‘Pseudo-news’
From Human Rights Watch
Whatever the MoD has whispered into the ear of the Sun, Col McNally and I met only twice, both times in a purely professional capacity, both times at the Nato military HQ in Kabul. Both times we met to talk about civilian casualties from US and Nato air strikes.
What has happened in the last couple of days has been bewildering. I do not understand how these two meetings might have led the British government to accuse McNally of a serious crime that could lead to a hefty jail sentence, and why my government might want to see my reputation dragged through the mud, when I live in a country where a woman’s reputation can mean her life. The meetings seemed unexceptional. A QC retained by Human Rights Watch has confirmed that the kind of information I received is not covered by the Official Secrets Act.
If the ministry had been seriously concerned that one of their officers was leaking information, why leak it to the media? Why was my name released to the media by the MoD, with a (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) libel that our relationship was “close”? They would know exactly what impression they were creating, and presumably decided that my reputation was expendable in order to ensure coverage of their “story”.
Why did journalists from the Sun, the Times and the Mail write this as a story focusing on the MoD’s entirely bogus suggestion that I had some kind of “relationship” with McNally? Why is it that my photograph was published? Why have journalists not been asking questions about why the MoD has been encouraging them to publish a vicious, false slur about me in order stop me from doing my job for Human Rights Watch in asking for information from the Nato official in charge of monitoring civilian casualties?
Living in Afghanistan, where democracy, a free media, freedom of information and freedom of expression are still a faraway dream, I have developed a deep appreciation of the freedoms I grew up believing I had in Britain. I expect better from my own government and from the British media that I used to be a part of.
Is it wrong to highlight the deaths of HIV-positive AIDS denialists who reject medications and urge others to do the same?
In “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, I look at the role played by the media in promoting dangerous pseudo-scientific ideas under the guise of “balance” in reporting. From the mid-1950s onwards, there was a clear consensus among scientists, based on very strong epidemiological evidence, that smoking caused lung cancer. Yet for several decades, many journalists insisted on “balancing” their reports on each new piece of research with a quote from an industry-funded scientist insisting that the case remained “unproven”.
The tobacco industry’s strategy from an early stage was not to deny outright that smoking was harmful, but to maintain that there were “two sides to the story”. In January 1954, the industry issued its now-famous “Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” – a full-page advertisement published in 50 major newspapers across the US.
“Recent reports on experiments with mice have given wide publicity to a theory that cigarette smoking is in some way linked with lung cancer in human beings”
the industry noted.
“Although conducted by doctors of professional standing, these experiments are not regarded as conclusive in the field of cancer research… we feel it is in the public interest to call attention to the fact that eminent doctors and research scientists have publicly questioned the claimed significance of these experiments.”
The strategy played cleverly to the media’s penchant for “controversy”, and proved remarkably successful. Long after the matter had been decisively settled among scientists, public uncertainty around the effects of smoking endured.
US cigarette sales continued rising until the mid-1970s – and it was only in the 1990s – four decades after the scientific case had been clearly established – that lung cancer rates began to tail off. Harvard Medical Historian Allan M Brandt has described the tobacco industry’s public deception – in which many mainstream journalists were complicit – as “the crime of the century”:
It is now estimated that more that 100 million people worldwide died of tobacco-related diseases over the last hundred years. Although it could be argued that for the first half of the century the industry was not fully aware of the health effects of cigarettes, by the 1950s there was categorical scientific evidence of the harms of smoking.
The motivations of the AIDS denialists may be very different, but their rhetoric and tactics are strikingly similar. During the early 1990s, Sunday Times medical correspondent Neville Hodgkinson was bamboozled into running a series of articles – over a period of two years – claiming that:
“a growing number of senior scientists are challenging the idea that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes AIDS”…
“This sensational possibility, now being contemplated by numerous doctors, scientists and others intimately concerned with the fight against the disease, deserves the widest possible examination and debate.”
Hodgkinson declared in December 1993.
“Yet it has been largely ignored by the British media and suppressed almost entirely in the United States… The science establishment considers itself on high moral ground, defending a theory that has enormous public health implications against the ‘irresponsible’ questioning of a handful of journalists. Their concern is human and understandable, even if we might expect our leading scientists to retain more concern for the truth while pursuing public health objectives.”
As with the tobacco industry’s “scepticism” over the link between smoking and cancer, the views promoted by Hodgkinson tended to focus on gaps in the established explanation (many of which have since been filled) rather than on any empirical research showing an alternative cause. But he did use one of the recurrent rhetorical motifs of the AIDS denial movement – highlighting the case of an HIV-positive “AIDS dissident” who refused to take anti-retroviral drugs but remained healthy.
Jody Wells has been HIV-positive since 1984. He was diagnosed as having AIDS in 1986. Today, seven years on, he says he feels fine with energy levels that belie his 52 years. He does not take the anti-HIV drug AZT…
He feels so strongly about the issue that he works up to 18 hours a day establishing a fledgling charity called Continuum, “an organisation for long-term survivors of HIV and AIDS and people who want to be”. Founded late last year, the group already has 600 members.
Continuum emphasises nutritional and lifestyle approaches to combating AIDS, arguing that these factors have been grossly neglected in the 10 years since Dr. Robert Gallo declared HIV to be the cause of AIDS.
Tragically – if predictably – Jody Wells was dead within three years of the article being written.
Although Hodgkinson left the Sunday Times in 1994, his articles on the “AIDS controversy” continued to be disseminated online, lending valuable credibility to the denialist cause – and have been credited with influencing Thabo Mbeki’s embrace of AIDS denial in the early part of this decade.
When, in 2000, President Mbeki invited several leading denialists to join his advisory panel on HIV and AIDS, Hodgkinson was one among a number who published articles in the South African media praising the decision. Writing in the New African, Hodgkinson called for “a humble, open, inquiring approach on all sides of this debate” – whilst simultaneously declaring that “AZT is a poison” and denouncing “the bankruptcy of AIDS science”.
Hodgkinson also wrote for Continuum’s magazine, which, following Jody Wells’ death was edited by HIV-positive medication refusnik Huw Christie. Christie defiantly launched the “Jody Wells Memorial Prize” (recently satirised here by Seth Kalichman) offering £1,000 to anyone who could prove to his satisfaction that HIV was real.
The magazine finally folded in 2001, with the Jody Wells Memorial Prize still on offer, after Huw Christie died from a disease which fellow denialists insisted was not AIDS-related. “Neither of your illnesses would have brought you down, Huw”, wrote Christie’s friend Michael Baumgartner in 2001. “You simply ran out of time to change gear. We both knew it did not need some ill-identified virus to explain your several symptoms”.
“Huw’s devotion to life has no doubt contributed to a better understanding of AIDS and he saved many who, without hearing a skeptical voice, would have been stampeded down the path of pharmaceutical destruction”
wrote HIV-positive San Francisco AIDS “dissident” David Pasquarelli.
“I readily acknowledge that if it wasn’t for the work of Huw and handful of other AIDS dissidents, I would not be alive today”.
Pasquarelli died at the age of 36 three years later.
The same document includes a tribute from Christine Maggiore, another HIV-positive AIDS “sceptic” who famously rejected medication, and publicly urged others to do the same. As has been widely reported, Maggiore died last month of an illness commonly associated with AIDS.
Connie Howard, writing in today’s edition of VUE Weekly, finds the reaction to Maggiore’s passing distasteful, claiming that: “some AIDS activists are celebrating—not her death exactly, but celebrating a point for their team nonetheless”.
Howard suggests, echoing Hodgkinson, that “Many HIV-positive people who choose an alternative holistic health route defy all odds and stay well and symptom-free for decades”, and that she has “talked to HIV-positive people living well—really well—without drugs.”
According to Howard:
“it’s time that choice and discussion become possible without hate instantly becoming the most potent ingredient in the mix… The vitriol delivered the way of both dissidents and the reporters telling the stories of the dissidents is a crime… Christine Maggiore deserves to have chosen her own path and to be respected for it.”
AIDS denialists and their sympathisers often accuse mainstream AIDS researchers of not being open to “discussion” or “debate”. Yet meaningful discussion is only possible when both sides are operating in good faith. The problem with AIDS and HIV is that the evidence linking the two is so overwhelmingly strong that the only way to maintain a consistently denialist position is to engage in “bogus scepticism” – arbitrarily dismissing good evidence that undermines one’s favoured viewpoint, misrepresenting genuine research in order to create the appearance of controversy where there is none, seeking to give unpublished amateur research equal status with peer-reviewed studies by professional scientists, and treating minor uncertainties in the established theory as if they were knock-down refutations. In such circumstances, reasoned debate simply becomes impossible.
Howard doesn’t specify which AIDS activists she believes “view the death of an AIDS dissident as a victory” or have celebrated Maggiore’s passing, so it’s difficult to evaluate the truth of that particular claim.
But the notion that everyone is duty bound to “respect” Christine Maggiore’s decision to embrace AIDS denial – and counsel others to do the same – does seem a tad problematic.
What Howard chooses not to tell her readers is that Maggiore’s denial extended not only to refusing medical treatment for herself – she also declined to take measures to mitigate the risk of transmission to her young daughter, Eliza Jane, and refused to have her tested or treated for HIV. When Eliza Jane died in 2005 of what a public coroner concluded was AIDS-related pneumonia, Maggiore refused to accept the result, attacked the coroner’s credibility, and claimed that the verdict was biased.
Missing too, is any reference to South Africa, where Maggiore travelled in 2000 to promote her ideas on AIDS and HIV. Maggiore is said to have personally influenced Thabo Mbeki’s decision to block the provision of anti-retroviral drugs to HIV-positive pregnant women. A Harvard study recently concluded that this decision alone resulted in 35,000 more babies being infected with HIV than would otherwise have been the case. Overall, the study concluded, Mbeki’s denialist policies had led to more than 300,000 preventable deaths.
If the Harvard researchers are correct, then AIDS denialism – of which Christine Maggiore was a vocal proponent – has already caused many more deaths than did the war in Bosnia during the early 1990s. Yet the only “crime” that Connie Howard seems prepared to acknowledge in relation to AIDS and HIV is the ill-feeling directed towards Christine Maggiore, her fellow “dissidents”, and the journalists who give space to their denialist views – views which have repeatedly been shown to be based not on science, but on “selective reading of the scientific literature, dismissing evidence… requiring impossibly definitive proof, and dismissing outright studies marked by inconsequential weaknesses”.
Should we “respect” a person’s decision to refuse medical treatment, even if that leads to their own premature death? Arguably we should. But should we also respect that same person’s decision, on ideological grounds, to deny medical treatment to a young child, with fatal consequences? Should we respect their decision to support a pseudo-scientific campaign denying the established facts about a serious public health issue, when that campaign results in hundreds of thousands of deaths?
It is surely possible to agree that Christine Maggiore’s premature death was an appalling human tragedy, whilst pointing out that she was nonetheless dangerously misguided – and that the manner of her passing makes the tragedy all the more poignant.
Christine Maggiore, Jody Wells, Huw Christie, and David Pasquarelli form part of a grim roll-call of HIV-positive medication refusniks who chose to argue publicly that the state of their health cast doubt on the established science around AIDS and HIV, and then went on to die from the disease. For AIDS activists to remain silent in such circumstances would be a dereliction of duty. Publicly highlighting the human cost of AIDS denial, so that similar deaths may be prevented in future, must surely take precedence over showing “respect” to dangerously misguided people, however tragic the circumstances of their demise.
…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”.
From A Common Reader
Scepticism about media, politics and finances comes naturally to most of us these days, particularly when people who should know better have brought the world to a state of economic crisis (did our rulers really not know that unfettered greed is no basis for an economic world-order?). It is refreshing to read a book like Don’t Get Fooled Again, which takes our vague feeling that “things aren’t quite right” and shows us that gut instincts are often quite correct, and we really shouldn’t believe the utterances of any institution or public figure without first submitting them to some pretty stringent tests.
Richard Wilson puts forward a good case for scepticism, reminding his readers that humanity has a long history of “meekly engaging in depraved acts of inhumanity on the basis of ideas that turned out to be total gibberish”.
Much of his book focuses on the public relations industry, citing a number of case studies to show how opinion can be manipulated. He devotes a whole chapter to the way tobacco companies in the 1950s manipulated news organisations to question the increasingly obvious link between smoking and lung cancer. The strategy consisted of getting an influential academic on-side (geneticist Clarence Cook Little in this case), and using him to question every scrap of evidence which research scientists gathered supporting the need for anti-smoking legislation.
Little insisted that it was not enough to show that lung cancer victims were smokers, but that until the cause of the link could be demonstrated under laboratory conditions, the link was irrelevant. Tests showing that mice contracted cancer when exposed to cigarette smoke were contested, but on the other hand, animal tests which were favourable to the tobacco industry were heavily publicised. Wilson shows that genius of the PR campaign was capitalising on the media’s love of “debate”.
A story really takes off when two sides are seen in opposition, even when it is obvious that the alleged “controversy” is falsely based. This can be observed every day on programmes like BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, when even the most blindingly obvious truth has to be contested by a protagonist with opposing views, with the result that equal weight is given to both nonsense and fact. One million people walked the streets of London to protest about the US/GB invasion of Iraq but this had no effect on those who wanted for a variety of reasons to believe the fantastic reports about Iraq’s offensive capability.
Wilson warns of the dangers of pseudo-science, and its ability to influence government and other decision-makers. Wilson traces this back to Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s favorite scientist who’s wrong-headed ideas about agronomy led to mass starvation throughout Russia. Even worse, Lysenko’s ideas were taken up by Chairman Mao and his followers whose Lysenko-inspired agrarian reforms led to the worst man-made famine in history, with the loss of 30 million lives.
The chapter on “groupthink” describes that way in which a closed group of people can adopts a false belief and then support itself in perpetuating it despite mounting evidence suggesting its falsity. I found myself thinking again of the decision to invade Iraq taken by Tony Blair’s cabinet when I read Richard Wilson’s list of symptoms of groupthink:
- Invulnerability – everything is going to work out right because we are a special group
- Rationalisation – explaining away warnings that challenge the group’s assumptions
- Unquestioning belief in the morality of the group and ignoring moral consequences of the group’s decisions
- Sterotyping those who oppose the group’s view as weak, evil, impotent of stupid
- Direct pressure being placed on any member who questions the group couched in terms of “disloyalty”
- Self-censorship of ideas that stray from the consensus
- The illusion of unanimity among group members with silence being viewed as agreement.
I have worked on many large I.T. projects and have seen these processes at work when projects have begun to fail and careers and reputations are at risk. Project teams easily acquire the need to plough on despite all warning signals to the contrary until finally the project is abandoned far too late for anyone to be able to recover any benefits from it.
Wilson goes on to consider the HIV/AIDS denial movement, begun in America and then influencing the thinking of the South African government where “AIDS dissidents” have had a malign effect on public policy leading to the denial of effective treatment for many. President Tabo Mbeki immersed himself in AIDS denial literature and invited American AIDS dissidents to join a presidential advisory panel on AIDS and HIV, one of whose aims was to inivestigate “whether there’s this thing called AIDS . . . whether HIV leads to AIDS, whether there’s something called HIV”. By 2005, more than 5.5 million South Africans were infected with HIV and 1000 were dying each day from AIDS.
In his concluding chapter, Richard Wilson lists the common threads which run through false and illusory belief systems: fundamentalism, relativism, conspiracy theories, pseudo-scholarship, pseudo-news, wishful thinking, over-idealisation, demonisation of perceived enemies, groupthink. While many of the ideas in this book are nothing new in themselves, Wilson has gathered them together, with many fascinating examples from recent history, to provide a very useful handbook for people who know that things they read in the paper or hear on the television are “not quite right” and need to be challenged.
I was pleased to find that Richard Wilson has a blog Don’t Get Fooled Again in which he reports on many of the topics covered in his book.
There’s always somebody trying to pull a fast one, but we can help ourselves. “The antidotes to delusion are logic and evidence, preferably from multiple sources.” The author hopes to give us the tools to avoid being fooled by “pseudo-news”, as well as pseudo-experts, and pseudo-conspiracy theories. Confusingly, many of the people we ought to be sceptical of pretend to be sceptics themselves. The giveaway, as Wilson nicely shows, is that their scepticism is asymmetrical: no evidence is ever enough for someone “sceptical” about anthropogenic global warming (an example not included in this book), and yet they are remarkably credulous about any alternative factoids that might seem to support their own view.
Wilson ranges somewhat loosely over examples contemporary and historical: anti-Aids science in South Africa, Lysenko’s pseudo-agriculture, David Irving’s Holocaust denial, Richard Dawkins’s atheism, and torture at Abu Ghraib, explaining psychological ideas of selection bias and groupthink along the way. He alludes to the X-Files slogan “I want to believe” as an example of dangerous thinking, but to be fair they also say “Trust no one.”
“We are pushing this material to UK media channels, eg a BBC radio programme exposing tensions between AQ leadership and supporters. And a restricted working group will communicate niche messages through media and non-media.”
It’s difficult not to wonder at times about the provenance of some anonymous comments left on internet discussion sites such as the BBC’s “Have Your Say” and the Guardian’s “Comment is Free”. ‘Astro-turfing’ seems almost impossible to prevent in such circumstances, and for anyone with a vested interest in promoting a particular point of view, the temptation must be difficult to resist.
Now the Guardian reports that a UK government counter-terrorism unit is targeting media organisations “as part of a new global propaganda push designed to ‘taint the al-Qaida brand'”. A strategy document recommends that the authorities “channel messages through volunteers in internet forums”.
“We are pushing this material to UK media channels, eg a BBC radio programme exposing tensions between AQ leadership and supporters”, says the leaked document. “And a restricted working group will communicate niche messages through media and non-media.”
While it isn’t hard to understand the rationale for tackling Al Qaeda in this way (and it’s surely preferable to torturing people), the most obvious fear is that those who begin disseminating misinformation for the ‘greater good’ may soon find themselves on a slippery slope. If ‘astroturfing’ to discredit a hostile terror group is acceptable, why not a hostile foreign government? And if spreading misinformation in defence of UK security interests is acceptable, why not our economic interests, which are, arguably, ultimately tied up with our security? Or in defence of an unpopular government policy which ministers feel is essential for the good of the country?
There must be potential for a good few PhD theses in examining the role played by the Catholic Church in recent efforts to shield Uganda’s “Lord’s Resistance Army” rebels from prosecution by the International Criminal Court. When arrest warrants were first issued in 2005, the move was immediately condemned as a threat to peace by senior Catholic clergy in Uganda, and the church has been active in opposing it ever since.
“The entire Acholi population has said, ‘Let us forgive for the sake of peace,’“, announced Father Matthew Ojara earlier this year. “We do not believe in punishment in the sense of imprisoning someone. Once reconciliation is done, you have to walk free and live with your brothers and sisters. There are no prison cells or house arrest. That’s a Western practice.”
But this view contrasts sharply with that we hear from other sources. In August last year the International Center for Transitional Justice released the results of a survey of 2,875 adults from the regions most affected by LRA violence.
According to allafrica.com: “Most respondents wanted those responsible for war crimes and violations of human rights to be held accountable. They distinguished between LRA leaders and lower-ranking LRA members, who, in many cases, had themselves been abducted as civilians. Only a minority (17%) said that the rank-and-file should face trial and/or punishment. Many wanted to see LRA leaders face trials and/or punishment such as imprisonment or death (41%), although many others (52%) also indicated that they favored options including forgiveness, reconciliation, and reintegration into communities.”
One particularly salient issue, it seems to me, is the extent to which religious leaders have sought to speak on behalf of “The entire Acholi population”.
International media coverage on this issue often seems to take at face value claims made by the likes of Ojara about the views of victims, and the inherently forgiving nature of ‘Acholi culture’.
Neither has there been much comment on the irony that many of those most vehemently rejecting the ICC as a ‘western’ imposition – and urging adherence to what they say traditional Acholic culture demands – are fully signed-up members of the single largest ‘western’ religion, Roman Catholicism.
Internationally, one of the organisations most active in lobbying for the ICC warrants to be suspended – and calling, in more or less euphemistic terms, for the LRA to be offered financial payoffs – has been the US-based “Uganda Conflict Action Network”.
Since Uganda-CAN was established in mid-2005, the organisation’s founders, Peter Quaranto and Michael Poffenberger, have made dozens of media interventions portraying the ICC indictments as an obstacle to peace, urging that the US, as a non-signatory, intervenes to “impact the talks in ways that European countries cannot“, highlighting LRA demands for guarantees of their “physical and financial security”, and suggesting that “creative inducements” could persuade the LRA leader to sign a peace deal.
Uganda-CAN – which was launched just months before the ICC issued its arrest warrants for the LRA leaders (and was relaunched recently under the name “Resolve Uganda”) – is itself an initiative of the Washington-based “African Faith and Justice Network“, which – according to its website – was founded by three Catholic missionary congregations in 1983, and whose “support base is primarily built on the Catholic missionary community”.
But the Resolve Uganda website now makes very little of its religious affiliations, listing AFJN as only one among a number of ‘partners’, and presenting itself as a ‘grassroots’ organisation founded and run by students. It’s only when we dig a bit deeper that we learn that one of those “students”, Resolve Uganda’s head honcho Michael Poffenberger, was formerly “Associate Director of the Africa Faith and Justice Network”.
Wikipedia has a little more on the Uganda-CAN phenomenon – along with a handy definition of the PR tactic commonly known as “astroturfing”.