Sunday 19th July
Author Richard Wilson talked about the “Paradox of Skepticism” and explain how to protect ourselves from the “Dangers of Bogus Skeptics” and “How not to get fooled by myth and quackery.”
John De Prey’s report on the evening:
“In his talk to Farnham Humanists based on his book “Don’t get fooled again – A Sceptic’s Guide to Life”, Richard Wilson declared that we are all vulnerable to deception and delusion. His book offers practical proposals for us to minimise our risk to being fooled. He gives many examples of contrived misconceptions, such as the pseudo-history of David Irvine who still has a following accepting his Holocaust denial argument; myths and conspiracy theories about UFOs, high profile assassinations and 9/11; and medical quackery like HIV denial
At the absurd end of the spectrum is Casper Schmidt who claimed HIV to be “a self hating group fantasy among gay men and drug addicts”. He connected the appearance of AIDS with the election of President Regan, believing a conservative swing triggered an epidemic of a shame induced depression among the groups now feeling vulnerable to AIDS. He claimed psychotherapy could cure AIDS. Unhappily, he died of an AIDS related illness.
Dr. Peter Duesberg achieved respect for his work on cancer cells and the genetic structure of viruses. However, without offering any research back-up, he rejected the whole HIV hypothesis because he found gaps in the research of others. His alternative hypotheses are that the symptoms arise from recreational drug use, and that the taking of AZT to treat people diagnosed with AIDS actually causes the symptoms. But his field was not HIV and his ideas are not found credible in the scientific community. Unfortunately the media provided him with a platform, talking of “a deathly conspiracy of silence” and “the scientific and medical community gripped by collective insanity”.One damaging consequence of that publicity was that people died prematurely because they elected not to undertake AZT treatment.
A more serious consequence of the publicity was Thabo Mbeki’s refusal to accept medical evidence of the HIV virus. So he became directly responsible for the avoidable deaths of more than a third of a million people in South Africa. Dr Duesberg was among the apparent experts Mbeki consulted.
Such theories often co-opt the language of scepticism and rational inquiry. It is a rhetorical way of getting a foot in the door, appearing to be reasonable and asking questions. Genuine scepticism is good, but how do we differentiate it from bogus scepticism? Richard Wilson argued that genuine scepticism arrises from opinions based on the best available evidence; it should be consistent, even-handed, using evidence that has not been “cherry picked”; and it should be held with intellectual humility on the understanding that “I might be wrong, I might not have all the evidence, I’m subject to prejudices like everyone”. It is not dogmatic.
On the other hand, bogus scepticism tends to use double standards in the approach to evidence. It sets a high bar for proof of established theory. It can reject scientific papers because of a small methodological flaw, using that to reject the whole conclusion. It sets a low standard of proof for the evidence or ideas supporting the ideologically held alternative. A good example is how the tobacco industry misused data to play down the link between smoking and lung cancer.
Wilson recognises parallels between AIDS deniers and those who deny any connection between climate change and carbon dioxide. It was comforting to AIDS sufferers to believe that doctors had it all wrong; likewise it’s comforting to believe climate change scientists are scare-mungers misusing questionable data.He would love the global warming sceptics to be right, and that we have nothing to fear. However he recognises in them the same rhetorical tactics as used in AIDS denial, and suspects that global warming scepticism might turn out to be the most toxic and deadly form of bogus scepticism that the human race has yet been able to come up with.”
Richard Wilson is a writer and activist with a particular focus on scepticism, corruption, human rights and freedom of expression. He studied philosophy at University College London, and has written for the New Humanist, New Statesman, Prospect Magazine and Comment is Free. His first book, Titanic Express, recounts his search for the truth about the death of his sister Charlotte, who was killed in Burundi in 2000.
Skeptics try to take a rational, evidence-based approach to life, yet a cold hard appraisal of the evidence suggests that, for most human beings, rationality is a constant struggle. Even those disseminating wholly bogus ideas, from corporate pseudo-science to paranoid conspiracy theories, have sought to appropriate the language of rational inquiry with increasingly disastrous results. But what are the hallmarks of bogus skepticism, and how can we distinguish it from the genuine article? In this talk, Richard highlights the problems that can arise when peddlers of myth and quackery succeed in portraying themselves as skeptics.
Richard’s book ‘Don’t Get Fooled Again: The Sceptic’s Guide to Life’ highlights the extent to which we are all vulnerable to deception and delusion, and proposes practical ‘rules of thumb’ to minimise the risk of being fooled in future. ‘Don’t Get Fooled Again’ has been praised by George Monbiot as “rigorous, witty and beautifully-written”, slammed by Spiked Online for failing to be sceptical enough about climate change, and cited by the High Court in a strike-out of a defamation case against the Health and Safety Executive by one of those named in the book.