27 June, 2011


Welcome to the most exciting, the most thrilling and the most sexually anticipated series of posts on this inane blog. I thought up most of this text while falling asleep once, and then forgot it all. These are the dregs of my somnambulance. Embrace them.

Falling Asleep

Denialism is the employment of rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none. These false arguments are used when one has few or no facts to support one's viewpoint against a scientific consensus or against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They are effective in distracting from actual useful debate using emotionally appealing, but ultimately empty and illogical assertions.

Hoofnagle and Hoofnagle, What is Denialism?

There are many kinds of denialism. The most well-known, perhaps, is Holocaust denialism; the attempt to deny the facts of the Holocaust, that roughly 6 million Jews and 6 million Slavs, homosexuals, gypsies and others were executed in mass and deliberate killings enacted with the full knowledge of and by the Nazi government with the collusion of governments and citizenry of several nations, through the use of gas chambers built especially for the purpose, and myriad other means of murder. For the most part when they break into our quiet little internet corner we laugh it off or rebuke them with indignation - no serious thinking person could possibly fall for the obvious falsehoods of Holocaust deniers; they are openly driven by puerile interests, and they stand naked and exposed in the light of literal tons of documentary evidence, hundreds of thousands of witnesses, scientific inquiry and confession - so why humour them? This is actually an excellent question, but not one to be answered today.

AIDS denialism is perhaps second in infamy in the West, although its successes internationally are far greater, and far graver; it is the attempt to deny that HIV causes AIDS, and to deny the efficacy of AIDS treatments, which themselves are frequently blamed for symptoms or AIDS itself. The brief adoption of AIDS denialism by the South African government under President Mbeki alone killed hundreds of thousands of people and has resulted in the preventable transmission of the disease to thousands of babies from their infected mothers, and we are suddenly rather less inclined to laugh at them than at Holocaust deniers. It contradicts as much evidence as holocaust denial must. It has as little foundation in fact, although the arguments are more technical and we can't follow them all. But it has been and is taken seriously by very powerful people, and people without such power die as a result.

Closer to home the cost of the tobacco industry's concerted attempts to deny the carcinogenic properties of smoking, and then of second hand smoke, are long-exposed, and to a greater extent the toll is also forgotten despite the immense number of lives tobacco continues to take; with industry efforts to deny climatology, we witness the dangerous pattern emerge again, where industry and faux scholarship are pitted against the scientific community. Homeopaths often, and certainly amongst themselves, deny that 'allopathic' medicine - their jargon term for evidence-based medicine - is effective, and are occasionally exposed, with the aegis of an assumed and fictional authority, advising patients against using well-evidenced treatments and for using a sugar pill, which, numerous studies and a century or two later, still does not have an effect greater than placebo. Similarly anti-vaccine campaigners have tried various ruses in combating medicine, the most well known in America perhaps being the promulgation of the claim that the thiomersal preservative used in some vaccines causes autism. In Britain, where thiomersal usage has always been low, but which has experienced an identical spike in autism diagnoses, the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (known as the MMR 'triple jab') is typically blamed. It contains no thiomersal, and also does not cause autism. The efforts of such people, and a media willing and eager to stoke the flames of sensationalism and fear, have resulted in a drop in the MMR vaccine's usage, and measles is once more endemic in Britain. The diagnoses of autism continue to rise, as they do in America, Japan, and Canada despite the removal of most or all vaccines containing thiomersal, and extensive studies and meta-analyses across each nation demonstrating that neither thiomersal nor the MMR vaccination cause autism.

Clerics in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan have spread rumours that the polio vaccine causes sterility, and is a Western plot to eradicate muslims, leading to drops in coverage which have led to minor outbreaks in the latter countries and larger ones in Africa. The Catholic Church champions opposition to effective condom programmes in Africa, skimping on scientific accuracy when theology fails, hindering efforts to combat AIDS through the simple art of dishonesty regarding the science and statistics of such efforts. Pharmaceutical companies do this sort of thing all of the time; sometimes even twice, before breakfast. The efforts of creationists in the US to suppress biology education in state schools in the US are legion, have been expensive for taxpayers, and have resulted in several generations of children in various locales having their educations hindered for no sane reason, but typically creationists do not enjoy much success in such efforts, at least for very long. Japanese officials and MPs frequently deny the extent of the horrors committed by the Imperial Army during the second world war, and this denial creeps into text books and syllabuses.

Many forms of denialism, regardless of success, seem to be rather less malevolent irrespective of their popularity. Who cares if Bob in accounting thinks George Bush fired a missile into the Pentagon on 9/11 and Neil Armstrong never set foot on the moon? If someone thinks Oliver Stone's JFK is full of ground-breaking revelations does it make a difference to man or beast? No, of course. But the same kind of thinking, the same stalwart opposition to the full weight of evidence, and the same opposition to numerous sciences, mathematics and well-established historical methodologies underpin all of these beliefs. Rather than looking at the validity of the beliefs themselves I'm going to make a series of posts looking at some of the ways in which denialists transmit their ideas, in a mad frenzy of anti-science bingo of how the propaganda is, indeed, catapulted. I believe any reasonably intelligent and well-informed person will readily be able to weigh and find false these various denialist claims, which I've spent a ridiculously long time refuting to little avail anyway - I'll try to resist sticking in the refutations to the individual examples I'll raise, but the flesh is weak. This will be grossly informal of course; the categories I've chosen are based on my own meandering surprise at how often the same kind of arguments, the same strategies of attacking science, are engaged in across the denialist spectrum.

11 June, 2011

Je voudrais une petite mouette s'il vous plait

First France banned the face veil, and then Belgium, of course, followed suit. Much talk was made of protecting Muslim women from discrimination, of protecting France and Belgium's cultural heritage.

For many Muslims, although of course certainly not all, the hijab, the religious requirements of modesty, require an almost-complete covering of the body for women, including a covering of the face through the use of a burkha or nijab. The realisation of hijab is therefore an article of religious devotion for many Muslim women, a recognition of the strength of their faith and personal virtue. It has therefore become something of a battleground between practitioners of the faith and people who know best, who wish to protect home-grown values.

Appeals to tradition are ever the clarion call of narrow-minded tyranny, proclaiming the status quo as a moral good through mere virtue of existing and condemning critical self-evaluation as an insidious evil. It is absurd and wrong that xenophobia and religious oppression should be regarded as a necessary component of one's own nation, that the capacity for personal religious expression be limited under the false veneer of democracy, because democracy exists only insofar as the capacity for self expression exists. As those tools are winnowed so too does democracy become less meaningful. Irrespective of the general trend towards liberty from at least the 19th century onwards throughout most of the western world, fundamental political and legal rights can be and frequently are voted away by a populace engaged in vacuous moral panic. Although the population affected by the ban is small and powerless, although the right voted away is a comparatively small one, each instance in which this happens is the application of a small evil. The fervour in which it has been done, the widespread acceptance of it, is a sad and terrible commentary on the political climates of France and Belgium.

Moreover, the appeal to tradition falls afoul of the fact that typically most of a nation's internal intellectual mosaic must be ignored in order to pretend this view of a monolithic homogeny is accurate. While many French and Belgian people certainly are terrified of Islam and will happily cast it as the Other out of ignorance or cynical political exploitation, most of the republics of France have been borne of Enlightenment ideals, and Belgium is happily part of the same tapestry, sort of. But two of the central ideals developed from the age of reason have been religious tolerance and equality under the law. The modern realisation that women are independent and intelligent beings, sovereign members of our political landscape as responsible and deserving as men in legal and political rights, is one of the most noble and right echoes of those ideals. If a woman chooses to acknowledge her religion through her dress, if she chooses to realise her own understanding of modesty and regard it as a virtue, then there must be an intensely high burden of justification in preventing her from doing so. The mere fact that you personally are made uncomfortable by people who do not dress like you do or that there have not been many around is not such a justification.

The arguments in favour of banning the burkha are entertainingly contradictory and nonsensical. If we take it as a given - for it surely is - that at least some women are forced to wear the burkha against their wishes, that they are so utterly in the thrall of their husband and surrounding communities that their mode of dress is not a matter of their personal choice then the idea that a forced liberation is taking place by banning the wearing of a burkha is laughably naive and myopic: rather, one makes the likelihood of such women being allowed into the public sphere by such a dominating and bullying community that much less likely; it pushes the central issue out of the public eye, but does nothing to correct it or aid the women so afflicted. The issue there is much deeper than the mode of dress. Additionally it is rather absurd to rail against Muslim men making such a choice for a woman, to lament a culture steeped in misogyny, whilst advocating that instead the state should make such a choice for women, because for very many women it is, indeed, a choice. Both forms of control are predicated on the belief that being a Muslim and a woman are both defects in sovereignty. Both are obviously wrong and should be offensive in any modern democracy.

It is the most paltry and shameful rationalisation for taking away the ability for expression of Muslim women, adult people whose religion one happens not to disagree with, because of the belief that they lack the personal responsibility and education to make sound choices by mere virtue of their choice of dress, because they are women, because they are Muslim. To wish to remove the capacity for a person to express their religious devotion in the manner of their choosing, all with the shamefully patriarchal belief that it is for their own good. Such nobility, such a stringent defence of the rights of women to tell them how best they are to serve their own conscience. It is nothing more than religious bigotry with the force of a state behind it, supported by nothing more than a renouncing of the fact that women are legitimate citizens, individuals with the power of choice and with the right of self expression.

Je ne connais pas la réponse.

-The Rev. Schmitt., FCD.