This final chapter is a look at the absurdities of the modern world where rationale and reason should rule. It will contain the following sections:
- Twisting the Truth
- Fake News and Flagrant Lies
- Myths and Fake News
- Seeking Affirmation Rather Than Truth
- Religion and Political Extremes
- A Cure for Homosexuality
- Superstition in the Modern World
- Bad Science
- Why People Believe Bad Science and Fake News
- Ideas That Have Had Their Day
- Conspiracy Theories and Q-Anon
- The Woke Movement and Cancel Culture
- And Finally
- Further Resources
- Site Index
The Age of Reason, also known as the Age of Enlightenment, was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. It was a time when dogma was challenged, and evidence and reason ruled in the scientific world. We should still be in an Age of Reason in all things, but often, I wonder.
Science moved from pure thought to observation, then experimentation. Galen advocated experimentation and observation and yet, in his name, rigid and unquestionable dogma was held for many centuries.
Charles II founded the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Observatory, and it was around then that the Age of Reason took over from the superstition and groundless dogma of the past. He founded the Royal Navy and Royal Marines and in his reign economic expansion was led by science and innovation. The country began to compete with others in Europe, doing what they did but better. That includes the slave trade. Nevertheless, he is renowned for his many mistresses and illegitimate children, rather than the achievements of his reign.
More than 300 years on, I find myself still searching for the Age of Reason in 21st century life. We should live in a world that is based on rationale and reason with evidence as the key. Instead people still embrace superstition, ill-founded theories with nothing to support them and the patently absurd. Many newspapers and magazines publish horoscopes, presumably because people read them. Look at the popularity of so-called complementary and alternative medicine that has no evidence that it works and a rationale that is fanciful to absurd. At the same time people refuse vaccines on spurious grounds and embrace conspiracy theories that lack all credibility. People want to believe spiritualists and the likes of Uri Geller although he was exposed by James Randi early in his career, but it still survived. I admire conjurers who honestly deceive but not those who claim to speak to the dead or who claim supernatural powers by fraud.
We have seen absurd beliefs in many of the other chapters on this website, not least those about complementary and alternative medicine and Fake News and Vaccine Scares as well as in A Very Brief History of Science And Medicine. The aim here is not to duplicate those parts but to have a further look at the absurdities of the age and to ask why they exist. The chapter COVID-19. What You Need to Know also addressed the issue of fake new and disinformation, including how to recognise it. So too does the chapter Finding Medical Advice and Evidence Based Medicine.
Twisting the Truth
Fake news and spin are nothing new. I define fake news as the intentional spread of stories that are untrue and often malicious. This distinguishes it from genuine error. Spin is putting a positive orientation on events or news. It does not involve falsehoods, but it is highly selective in choosing what to present and how. It was certainly not invented by New Labour.
Propaganda is not new. Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and Darius I of Persian were all adept. An ancient example of propaganda, spin or even frank fake news comes in the form of steles commissioned by Rameses II, also known as Rameses the Great, after the Battle of Kadesh, around 1274BC. The story gives the impression of a great victory over the Hittites. Rameses’ chariot charge at the end did save the day but to call it a score draw is over-generous.
The term “propaganda” first appeared in 1622 when Pope Gregory XV established the Sacred Congregation for Propagating the Faith (Congregatio de Propaganda Fide).1A Brief History of Propaganda. Changing Minds. Propaganda is aimed at convincing people about the veracity of a given set of ideas. The term propaganda has negative connotations in our culture but in some it is neutral or even positive. It is said that the first casualty of war in the truth, and in the First World War the British Government propagated absurd stories about German atrocities and it is possible that this led people to be unduly sceptical about The Holocaust in the Second World War, at least until the liberation of concentration camps showed the horrific truth and scale. Joseph Goebbels, who was Hitler’s minister for propaganda from 1933 to 1945, said that if you tell people lies often enough, they will believe you. He was right. Many people still feel a sense of uncertainty when the MMR vaccine is mentioned.
This old Soviet propaganda poster showing the “ideal” in soviet society includes the rainbow flag which nowadays has connotations that they would find unacceptable
Sometimes it is difficult to believe that newspapers are reporting the same story with such differing accounts, being selective in information and how it is presented. Less often it is frankly untrue. Such stories include left-wing councils banning “Ba-ba black sheep” as racist or insisting that manholes are called person-holes. However, even the least fastidious of the national newspapers is pristine in terms of truth and reliability compared to Internet blogs and social media. In particular, re-tweets can accelerate a fake story to be believed by many thousands in a very short time. I fear that many young people do not use the mainstream media of newspapers or television news but get their information from such sources on the Internet. Hence, in this information age, they can be so badly informed.
Fake News and Flagrant Lies
Newspapers are not as reliable as we may like to believe. They are selective in how they present and interpret news and in what stories they tell and what they do not. In the early 1800s, before its early editors established it as the newspaper of record, The Times partly financed itself by threatening to publish unchecked gossip unless the subject agreed to pay a suppression fee.2Truth will overcome peddlers of fake news. The paper built its reputation from 1817 onwards by abandoning such practices and adhering to the truth while others are less fastidious.
On 16thJuly 1900, the London Daily Mail, reporting on the Boxer Rebellion in China, published a report that the Boxers had been besieging the capital, Peking, it had been overrun and all foreigner had been massacred. There were stories of great heroism by Europeans, including mercy killing of women and children, and tales of Russians boiled to death in oil. The story was fabricated by a reporter in Shanghai. He had been nowhere near the scene. The Boxers had not reached Peking either. The story was printed because it was what the readers wanted to read, a story of the great moral superiority of the Europeans over the primitive Chinese. What the readers want to read is still too often the motive for a story rather than the unbridled truth.
People use absurd phrases such as “no smoke without fire” to suggest that any allegation must have had some basis when they may be totally baseless and malicious. This applies particularly to suggestions of sexual impropriety. We are a very prudish society.
Before about 1980, reports of sexual abuse of children were usually dismissed as fabrication. Since then far more credence has been granted and this is good. However, the pendulum can swing far too far the other way. The paediatricians in Cleveland who falsely diagnosed so many children as having been sexually abused and the social workers who accepted this were mentioned in the chapter Ethics in Practice and Research. When a fantasist called Carl Beech made claims about a VIP paedophile ring, involving sexual abuse and even murder, the police were for too eager to believe his fragile story, ruining the old age of a number of prominent people who had served their country with distinction. The unwarranted and unacceptable raid on Cliff Richard’s house with a BBC helicopter filming it was an example of the leading officer wanting to believe rather than examining the evidence. In the meantime, Jimmy Saville was revered until soon after his death when his atrocities were at last revealed. People did not want to investigate them while he brought in money and Jimmy Saville was always ready to threaten legal action against anyone about to expose him, and few can afford a court battle. Robert Maxwell also suppressed the truth, when alive, by threat of the courts.
There is nothing new about telling lies and or even conspiracy theories. They have just reached a new level. The irony of the “Information Age” is that people accept whatever they are told in a totally uncritical way, especially if it accords with a message that they would like to hear. The ease with which such stories can be spread, and apparently believed, is illustrated in COVID-19. What You Need to Know
In this Information Age, the spread of blatant lies, however transparently absurd, has reached a new level with ordinary people able to contribute to the hysteria and paranoia on social media. For those who are fixed on the fiction, nothing will change them. They will not accept evidence because they believe it to be fake while their own narrative has been suppressed. In 2020, Donald Trump was tweeting about corruption in the voting system before the polls had even closed. It was a technique he had planned to use in 2016 after losing to Hillary Clinton, but he won the election with more electoral college votes despite having fewer votes overall. Judges have found no evidence for his claims and they have been scathing about them. Still his supported insist that the election has been stolen.
A major problem is that it is very easy to get people to believe what they want to believe, however tenuous the evidence, and very difficult to get them to believe what they do not want to believe, however cogent the evidence. Stories such as 5G accelerating the spread of COVID-19 or Bill Gates putting nanochips in vaccines to track everyone are so obviously ridiculous that it defies reason that anyone should believe them.
As explained in previous chapters, everyone should be aware of fake news and know certain traits that suggest it.
- Has the story been reported elsewhere? If so where?
- Is it from a reliable source such as the BBC or is it from a retweet?
- Is there a photo or image that has been taken out of context?
- Does the story seem feasible? Eg lions patrolling streets of Russia, sipping warm water every 20 minutes kills COVID-19
- Fake news is usually emotive as it aims to make you angry.
- Try putting the story in a search engine along with “hoax”.
- There is a British website called Fullfact which can be found at https://fullfact.org/ Try putting in the headline.
An investigation by The Times revealed that university academics had used their positions to spread fake news.3Conspiracy theories spread by academics with university help The Organisation for Propaganda Studies (OPS) has referred to a number of stories including casting doubt about the official version about the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks. They suggest that Russia was being framed over the shooting down of an airliner over Ukraine in 2014. Other topics include the White Helmets humanitarian rescue group in Syria, the antivax movement and the origins of the coronavirus. Bristol and Sheffield universities, both in the elite Russell Group, have owned the OPS domain since it was formed as a private, not-for-profit company in 2018, it has emerged. They provided the organisation with an academic website address ending in .ac.uk, an honour normally restricted to distinguished bodies.
Myths and Fake News About COVID-19
This next section is adapted from the chapter COVID-19. What You Need to Know.
The pandemic was sure to attract myths, fake news, conspiracy theories and peddlers of fake cures. When you read a story and you wonder if it is true, there are several questions to ask. Where did you see it? Was it the website of a reputable newspaper, the BBC or the Gov.uk website or was it something less reliable such as a re-tweet or a website that you had not heard of? How is it presented? Fake news if often emotive as it is designed to make you angry. Can you find the story elsewhere and that does not include a re-tweet? Pictures can be taken out of context. An example was a picture of Italian troops who were said to be facing COVID riots but in reality they were returning from a routine exercise. Put the claim in a search engine with “hoax” and see what comes up. You can also use the British website https://fullfact.org/.
In the early stages of the pandemic, The Times had an article called 4Don’t let fake news infect the war on Covid-19 This is an interesting article which includes Donald Trump’s tweet, “HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE and AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine. Hopefully they will BOTH be put in use IMMEDIATELY. PEOPLE ARE DYING, MOVE FAST, and GOD BLESS EVERYONE.” (His block capitals, not mine. They are the Twitter equivalent of shouting). The evidence soon showed that this was unwise, unfounded and untrue that was.
Fake new can spread at a phenomenal speed. Suppose that a group of 20 on Whatsapp gets a false story and relays it to another 20 people who all do the same. If this happens 5 times, it reaches more than 3.2 million people.
In the early days the BBC also had an article on its website called 5Coronavirus: The fake health advice you should ignore. This looked at six silly stories. The most notable were:
- Garlic has been advised. We have seen in the chapter Herbal Remedies that garlic does not prevent or cure the cold. It does not work for this either.
- Then came the “miracle mineral supplement”, called MMS which contains the bleach chlorine dioxide. Youtube have censored videos that promoted it. The proponents blame “Big Pharma” as they “want people ignorant”. This MMS is also mentioned in the chapter Introduction to Alternative Healthcare in the section on regulation, lamenting the appalling rubbish that is peddled, including this bleach as a cure for autism, malaria and much more. These people are dangerous.
- There was home-made hand sanitiser that might be effective on surfaces but it was far too caustic for the skin
- The use of colloidal silver was promoted on US television evangelist Jim Bakker’s show. Colloidal silver is tiny particles of the metal suspended in liquid. A guest on the show claimed the solution kills some strains of coronavirus within 12 hours (while admitting it hadn’t yet been tested on Covid-19). It can cause serious side effects including kidney damage, seizures and argyria which is a condition that makes the skin turn blue.
The BBC had another amazing article in May 2020, looking at serious illness as a result of fake stories around the world.6Coronavirus: The human cost of virus misinformation Most came from the USA, but the stories were widespread and some were from the UK too. The article makes worrying reading. People can be so stupid.
A Russian disinformation campaign aims to undermine the Oxford University coronavirus vaccine and to spread fear. Pictures, memes and video clips portraying the British vaccine as dangerous have been devised in Russia and middlemen are now “seeding” the images on social media around the world. The crude theme is that the vaccine could turn people into monkeys because it uses a chimpanzee virus. This is as absurd as James Gilray’s cartoon of cows spurting from the bodies of people who had received smallpox vaccination but this was in 1802. The campaign is aimed at countries where Russia aims to sell its own Sputnik V vaccine, as well as the west. It has the potential to damage not just the Oxford programme but the whole wider global effort to protect against the virus by encouraging conspiracy theorists and the anti-vaccination movement.
A Russian TV programme implying that the British vaccine will turn people into monkeys.
There is evidence that some Russian officials were involved in its organisation and dissemination and it is thought unlikely that in a system as centralised as Russia, that it could have happened without a nod from the top. Reports featuring some of the images appeared on the Vesti News programme in Moscow, described as the equivalent of BBC’s Newsnight.
The messages of the campaign echo statements from high-level Kremlin officials describing a “monkey vaccine” and contrasting it with the Russian vaccine derived from a human adenovirus. In fact, the British “monkey vaccine” is inherently safer. The Oxford labs have been hit by cyberattacks from Russia and intelligence officials are concerned that the dark arts of disinformation would be used.
In the UK in July 2020, it was reported that a survey, conducted on behalf of the research group Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), found that 6% would definitely not get vaccinated, 10% would “probably not” get vaccinated, while 15% said they did not know. Only 38% said they would “definitely” get vaccinated, and 31% said they “probably” would. According to The Times, CCDH said that the results come amid a sharp rise in the presence of social media channels promoting anti-vaccine content. “Our hope for a return to normal life rests with scientists developing a successful vaccine for coronavirus. But social media companies’ irresponsible decision to continue to publish anti-vaccine propaganda means a vaccine may not be effective in containing the virus.” In a way, I welcome the absurdity of the monkey vaccine misinformation as it shows the utterly idiotic stand of the fake news and anti-vaxx campaigners.
When it comes to promoting fake news or bad advice, we have to return to Donald Trump yet again. At a press conference he seemed to be suggesting that because disinfectants and ultraviolet light kill the virus, that swallowing or injecting disinfectant was a possible remedy or shining light inside the body. He said that he was just thinking aloud but the fact that he even thinks such things shows how pitifully uneducated he is. Disinfectants work by killing the cells of bacteria or viruses. They also kill the cells of the body. The “magic bullet” of antibiotics is something that can kill the infection without harming the host. He later said that he was being sarcastic but this sounded like someone back-pedalling. It is frightening to think that the most powerful man in the world had so little knowledge and such crass contempt for the truth.
Researchers at Cornell University in New York analysed 38 million articles about the virus in English-language media and found that references to Mr Trump comprised almost 38% of the “misinformation conversation”.7Trump ‘worst offender’ for spreading fake health news The study searched for 11 kinds of misinformation, such as a conspiracy theory claiming that the pandemic had been manufactured by the Democratic Party to coincide with the president’s impeachment trial at the start of the year, and supposed miracle cures such as treatment with anti-malarial drugs including hydroxychloroquine. The president of the United States was the single biggest driver of misinformation. On 24th April, the day after Mr Trump suggested at a White House press conference that disinfectants and ultraviolet light could treat the virus, there was a surge in misinformation about miracle cures.
A day or two after this article appeared, it was announced that Donald Trump had contracted COVID-19, as had his wife and several of his aids. He was admitted to hospital and even the bulletins from the doctors seemed contradictory and economical with the truth at times. The story gave an opportunity for a cartoon in The Times from Peter Brookes which said what so many of us must have been thinking.
Another very silly story concerned 5G, the latest technology for mobile phones. It has been the victim of conspiracy theories before the pandemic with allegations that it impairs the immune system.8Coronavirus: False Claims About 5G, Inhaling Steam and Skin Colour There have even been claims that the virus is spread via the network, which is a ridiculous and implausible idea. Telecoms engineers have been threatened. 5G masts have been attacked.9Twitter bans incitement to attack 5G towers If you are still unsure, try 105G is not accelerating the spread of the new coronavirus. Fullfact Ofcom says that theories linking Covid-19 and 5G theories are the most common misinformation
The BBC also examined 11The seven types of people who start and spread viral misinformation They included conspiracy theorists, politicians and celebrities.
The Charity Commission has widened an inquiry into a “church” in South London that was selling a fake “plague protection kit” which it claimed would protect users against COVID-19. The Commission said it now wanted to investigate the finances of The Kingdom Church GB. The kits contain cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet yarn to wrap around the wrist as “an invisible barrier to the powers of darkness”. They were on sale for £91.12Charity regulator launches inquiry into church found promoting fake Covid-19 protection kits I have had a look online at various other products that they sell. They include Divine Cleansing Oil, Scarlet Yarn to tie around the wrist and a Special Divine Protection Miracle Prayer Card all for £50. No Weapon Stop Them Anointing Oil sells for £10. They also make claims about “curing” homosexuality. The shop is called “Prophet Climate Megastore” but I could not see if they make any claims about climate change or if it is just related to prophecy. Every person that I saw in every picture on their website was of Afro-Caribbean race.
Finally, we have to turn to that man again. Donald Trump says that the virus was engineered in a Chinese lab and released by accident. His own experts say that there is no evidence that it was engineered and it occurred naturally.13Trump says he’s seen evidence coronavirus came from Chinese lab. US intelligence agencies say it was not man-made As we shall see below, I think that the virus came from a Chinese laboratory, but it was being stored, not synthesised. The genetic code of the virus suggests that it was not synthesised.14No, COVID-19 Coronavirus Was Not Bioengineered. Here’s The Research That Debunks That Idea The British Intelligence Services also believe that the virus originated in a wet market in Wuhan.
At last, Twitter has started to flag up some of Donald Trump’s tweets as fake news. Like any petulant despot, he has threatened to close them down.15Trump threatens to shut Twitter for censuring him He should have just boycotted them instead. Alternatively, they could ban him for repeated violations.
Seeking Affirmation, not Truth
It is common to find that articles, assertions or even research, aim to substantiate a preconceived idea rather than to seek the truth. As we have seen in COVID-19. What You Need to Know, there seems to be a great need to show that racial minorities are suffering disproportionately, when really it is related more to social class and occupation than race. There is a racial element, but it is not as marked as crude figures would suggest. At the same time, 70% of deaths occur in men, yet the male preponderance goes unmentioned most of the time. It does not accord with the narrative.
The Royal College of General Practitioners even suggested that people from ethnic minorities should be given precedence for the vaccine. No one has suggested that men should be given priority and women should wait but that would be far more evidence based, but not PC. Men account for 70% of deaths from COVID-19, meaning that they are more than twice as susceptible as women.
A similar line of narrative comes from a story on a medical website that says, “GPs’ gender pay gap at 35%. Female GPs earn on average £40,000 a year less than their male colleagues and a broken ‘two-tier system’ is to blame, a think-tank has revealed.” I have not given a reference as it is not available without password access. It is important to remember that “think tanks” are not independent academic bodies, but pressure groups with a strong political agenda.
What do you make of the story? Do you think that women are paid substantially less than men for doing the same job with the same qualifications? That has been illegal for years. When the most senior doctors were in medical school, the intake was about 60 to 70% male. When the most junior doctors were in medical school, the intake was about 60 to 70% female. Hence, we may expect to find that male doctors are the majority at the higher levels of seniority awards and female doctors are the majority of those yet to have practised long enough to get such an award. Furthermore, we may expect female doctors to be more likely to take time out to raise a family and this will slow their progress to the higher awards.
In addition, we may find that women are less likely than men to become partners in a practice, with the commitment that this involves as women prefer a looser contract as employees. They are also more likely to be part-time. The figures may claim to look at full-time equivalent, but what is seen as full time varies considerably. Men are also likely to do a greater share of out-of-hours work which pays well but it is very disruptive.
We see that an over-simplified story hides the truth. This is a common way of “proving” a narrative but as we have seen so often in other chapters, association and causation are not the same. We need to examine causes much more closely. We must constantly ask if there could be another explanation.
In 2014 a study by academics at the University of York suggested that creationism should be tackled by science teachers to engage their religious pupils.16Science classes ‘must include creationism’ This was to avoid alienating those of strong faith. The argument was that children can see both sides of the story and form their own opinions. A pertinent question is, “If the big bang and evolution are true, would we expect to find them in the Book of Genesis or a much simpler story for a primitive people, thousands of years ago?” Education certainly is a problem. Science tends to be taught as a series of facts rather than a quest for evidence to show the truth. It should teach how to think. There is more thinking and analysis in school History or English Literature than in Science.
The Creation of Adam, painted by Michelangelo is on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
GK Chesterton wrote, “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”17Good Reads They may be tempted into a new religion with fanaticism and murder or they may embrace environmental causes or extreme politics with religious zeal.
An analysis of the anti-science movement going back to the time of Newton originates from a Wikipedia source and I have previously advocated care with this source. However, this article called “Anti-science” is worth reading.18Antiscience. Absolute Astronomy It explains how antagonism to science comes from the political left, the political right and sometimes from religion. The “creationist movement” which insists that the Bible must be taken literally, and that the human embryo becomes a person at fertilisation is not really a religious but an extreme right-wing political movement. Examples of religious anti-science are the Church of Rome’s opposition to birth control in a world that increased the population from 6 billion to 7 billion in just 12 years and the lies they tell about the ineffectiveness of condoms in preventing the spread of AIDS.
Along with this goes a conspiracy theory that science is just for profit and not to benefit mankind. Of course, profit is involved but it comes from offering a real service and benefit. Science can make a very much better case for this than hedge funds. The “New Age” concept suggests that drugs are toxic and ineffective whilst there are herbs or diets that can achieve better more safely. They are said to have been around for many years but conveniently ignored. In fact, they have not been adequately tested for efficacy or toxicity and the dose is unreliable between batches. Even absurdities such as crystal therapy are embraced. People who offer unproved or ineffective therapies are far guiltier of exploitation that those whose treatments are evidence based and effective. The labourer is worthy of his hire but the man who peddles quack remedies is a thief. Not everyone who embraces this philosophy is a bead and caftan wearing hippy, but they often have such leanings. However, even those who are not like that but who do not understand the concept of evidence can be lured in by sales talk of “natural healing” and the pseudoscience that accompanies it. It is not just the stupid or uneducated who are duped.
At its best, American science leads the world, but the ignorance of ordinary Americans is quite astounding. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science at a meeting in Chicago in 2014, more than 2,200 people in the United States were asked nine questions about physical and biological science and their average score was 6.5 correct. Just 74% of respondents knew that the earth revolved around the sun whilst only 48% knew that human beings evolved from earlier species of animals.19One in four Americans unaware that Earth circles Sun
Linus Pauling is not the only scientist to have “gone over to the dark side”. Henry M Morris (1918-2006) was an American who trained and worked in civil engineering. In 1951 he became a professor of civil engineering at the University of Louisiana. He then served as a professor of applied science at Southern Illinois University and then as the department chair of civil engineering at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. In 1963 he was amongst nine “young earth creationists” who founded the Institute for Creation Research.20Man of Science; Man of God. Henry H Morris He lectured and wrote extensively in defence of a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis, particularly the first 11 chapters that describe the creation of the world and all living things, the great flood and Noah’s ark, and the human dispersion at Babel. For a man with a PhD in a scientific subject this is quite incredible.
The word “Research” in the Institute for Creation Research should not be taken to mean testing a hypothesis. That requires an open mind. It is more like research in the political sense in which the aim is to find anything to corroborate the predetermined stance, no matter how tenuous, whilst stridently ignoring any evidence that is contradictory. They claim that the stars, planets and all life including mankind were created over a period of six days or 144 hours. The flood covered the whole globe, northern and southern hemisphere and Noah took on board all species, of which there are many thousands, including panda bears, polar bears, kangaroos, lemurs that are native only to Madagascar and dodos. Presumably, they also had sabre-toothed tigers, woolly mammoths, and all species of dinosaurs although perhaps these perished in the flood. Their website may seem remarkably authentic and convincing. They like to find a shortcoming in evidence for a hypothesis and from that they claim that the hypothesis is disproved. This is incorrect. More evidence may follow later. Darwin was open about the shortcomings in evidence for evolution at the time but much more has been discovered since.
Religion and Political Extremes
The anti-science movement attracts the religious right. This movement is far stronger in the USA than anywhere else. The origins in neo-conservatism go back to the 1960s but it did not really gain much prominence until after the attacks of 11th September 2001. There was opposition to the teaching of evolution in schools in the USA in the first half of the 20th century. Much of its rhetoric is a reaction to what it sees as a deterioration of moral standards and hence its opposition to abortion, extramarital sex, and homosexuality. Although the neo-conservative agenda claims to want to impose democracy on the world whether they like it or not, they are quite happy to support totalitarian regimes that are basically pro-American. The religious agenda is as totalitarian as the Taliban. It is easy to dismiss these people as ignorant bumpkins and such stalwarts as Sarah Palin are a standing joke but their power within the American electorate is not to be underestimated. Look at the success of Donald Trump. The ignorance of the most powerful man in the world was frightening.
These two groups often have different beliefs. The left wing “New Age” eagerly accept global warming as evidence that science and technology as used by big business are destroying the planet. The right, on the other hand regard it as a plot to undermine the oil industry. The left is appalled at the interference in nature of genetic modification although farmers have selectively bred crops and animals for centuries. The right are Christian fundamentalists but the left associates Christianity with the establishment and for spiritual guidance turn instead to Buddhism, oriental mysticism, or the druids. Both may react against immunisations. The left sees them as business driven and the right as state intervention. They want children to get their immunity naturally. That means as they did in the days of horrific childhood mortality. Serious diseases are resurging because of poor uptake of vaccines.
The anti-science movement is not limited to just idiots and the deranged. Much of the gullibility of the public is based on ignorance of how to obtain evidence and how to assess it. People are swayed by emotion in television programmes that may be inaccurate, and they do not trust experts. They see them as stooges of the Government and big business. They also seem to be more impressed by the opinion of a “celebrity” who may have personal experience of one case but who has no idea of the research and evidence relating to it. A single anecdote, which is all that they have, is not evidence. There are also many people who claim to have expertise in fields where they have none. Nutritionists often have no real qualifications in nutrition as outlined in the chapter Basics of Nutrition, and anyone can call themselves an environmentalist. Activists require no qualifications at all, except perhaps a closed mind and extreme views. As we have seen, Leonardo di Caprio did not even finish high school, yet he has addressed the United Nations on Climate Change, a complex and difficult subject which is totally beyond him.
However, even the well-educated are at risk. Steve Jobs was the CEO of Apple. He was a scientist and a brilliant man. However, when he received a diagnosis of cancer of his pancreas, he wasted six months on a macrobiotic diet before turning to evidence-based medicine.21Jobs ‘tried to beat cancer with special diet’ This may well have cost him his life. He did have something of a “hippy” background. Tony and Cherie Blair are both well-educated and intelligent people, but they let a “life-style guru” gain unwarranted influence. In his book Bad Science, Ben Goldacre devotes a whole chapter to “Why clever people believe stupid things.”
As we have seen from Karl Popper, we should aim to disprove a hypothesis and lack of evidence does not disprove. On the other hand, where claims are made that the earth, all life and the universe is about 6,500 years old and certainly less than 10,000 years old, evidence from geological strata refutes this as does carbon-14 dating of fossils. The evidence points to creation being billions of years old and this is a fatal blow to the biblical creationists. Sometimes people argue that for the gaps that science fails to explain the explanation is God. However, this “God of gaps in the evidence” is unacceptable to either scientists or theologians.
A “Cure” for Homosexuality
The religious right invokes pseudoscience in the “curing” of homosexuality. This starts with the premise that it is a disease. I was aware that aversion therapy to “cure” homosexuals was practised until the 1960s but I was shocked to find that it was still in use in the 1980s. Homosexuality ceased to be a criminal offence in the 1960s. Dr Christian Jessen is well known as a presenter of such television series as “Super-Size versus Super skinny” and “Embarrassing Bodies”. In March 2014 he had a television programme on Channel 4 in which he personally tried a number of these supposed therapies. He had a validated assessment of his sexual orientation called the Cornell test and much to the distress of millions of women throughout the country, he was decidedly homosexual with no apparent interest in female bodies. According to the boys in the cartoon series South Park there is gay, really gay, and Liberace gay. He was Liberace gay.
He bravely tried aversion therapy in the UK with the aid of someone who used to help with it in the 1960s but has not done so since. It was distressing and humiliating. He went to the USA and saw a psychoanalyst who had no medical training. The therapist asked him to colour in a diagram of the brain so that he could make interpretations from the colours used for the different areas. However, like many psychoanalysts, his diagnosis was the same for everyone. There must have been some traumatic event in childhood even if it is not remembered and there is no evidence of any. The therapist also told him that the thyroid gland and the adrenal glands were in the brain. That shows how little the therapist knew about the brain or even basic biology. There was a group in America that paraded people who claimed to have been cured of their homosexuality. He challenged them to undergo assessment of their orientation with the Cornell test, but all refused.
Finally, he returned to England and witnessed exorcisms to cure homosexuality. There was plenty of shouting and exhortation but nothing to convince a rational person. Finally, he repeated the assessment to see if his orientation had changed at all and those was no difference. This was television rather than a vigorous scientific assessment, but it did show what incredible nonsense is promoted.
Superstition in a Modern World
We live in a country where people are supposed to be well educated and well informed and where superstition has given way to reason. We live in the “information age” but quantity and quality must not be confused.
In 2010 Professor Brian Cox made the BBC series Wonders of the Solar System, in which he made the remark, “Despite the fact that astrology is a load of rubbish, Jupiter can in fact have a profound influence on our planet.” He was talking about the effect of gravity. The BBC received complaints, including one from a viewer who said that he made his comment with no “alternative opinion being allowed.” The programme made no attempt to “consider such questions from the perspective of an astrologer, who draws upon a very different body of observation and knowledge built over thousands of years.” Brian Cox later gave a statement which said, “I apologise to the astrology community for not making myself clear. I should have said that this new age drivel is undermining the very fabric of our civilization.”22When balance is bias The BBC refused to issue it. As Michael Crichton said, “Science is based on evidence and proof, not popular consensus”. The BBC does not feel the need to let every lunatic political view be perpetrated as if it had validity, and there is no reason why anti-science should be treated any differently.
No one takes alchemy seriously nowadays, but many newspapers and magazines offer horoscopes. The publications tend to be aimed at the less well educated. Ronald Regan consulted astrologers when president of the USA23(What Does Joan Say?: My Seven Years As White House Astrologer to Nancy and Ronald Reagan) and his wife Nancy did so to increase his security after the attempted assassination.24(My Turn. The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan)
We may expect the Hong Kong business community to be modern and pragmatic rather than superstitious. However, buildings in Hong Kong including the skyscrapers of internationally renowned businesses are expected to conform to the principles of Feng Shui. There was outrage when the new Bank of China was erected as it ignored these principles and its sharp corners pointing at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank were seen as aggressive and intended to bring bad luck.
The chapter Mobile Phones, Masts, Wi-Fi and Electro-sensitivity includes an incredible story about an investigation into the safety of 5G technology led by Glastonbury town council. The committee interviewed spiritual healers, conspiracy theorists and flower essence practitioners. Scientists resigned from the committee saying that it was hijacked by “pseudoscience, conspiracy theories and personal fantasies”. Members of the committee included a full-time activist who believes in a connection between Wuhan having 5G mobile phones and the coronavirus outbreak, a spiritual healer who dowses homes to cleanse them of negative energy, an administrator of the Facebook group “Glastonbury Stop 5g and Smart Meters” and a man who believes 5G is a tool for mind control.” I shall not go further as it is covered in more detail in the section Mobile Phones, Masts, Wi-Fi and Electro-sensitivity.
In 1993, The Sunday Times ran a story that claimed that AIDS was nothing to do with the HIV virus.25AIDS; Why we won’t be silenced. The Sunday Times has an enviable history of uncovering stories of note such as the thalidomide scandal and the Russian spy Kim Philby but this is an atrocious example of an article that no reputable paper should have published. Nevertheless, the science editor Neville Hodgkinson and the general editor Andrew Neal were determined to run it. It ranks with the Sunday Times scoop of The Hitler Diaries.26Hitler diaries scandal: ‘We’d printed the scoop of the century, then it turned to dust’. Originally the diaries were authenticated by Lord Dacre, better known as the eminent historian Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, but he had reservations shortly before publication. However, this was personally overruled by Rupert Murdoch despite the terms that allowed him to buy the Times and Sunday Times which stated that he must not interfere with editorial policy.27(The Murdoch Archipelago ) The reputation of The Times and The Sunday Times as a papers of quality has suffered greatly since Rupert Murdoch was allowed to own it.
Another story that ran far despite having little to support it except prophets of doom was the millennium computer bug, often abbreviated to Y2K. The story was that when the year changed from 1999 to 2000 computers that used just 2 digits for the year would not be able to cope as they would see it as going back in time. In fact, it was not a new concept as computers had needed to look to future dates for pensions, mortgages and much more. We were told that without attention to the problem, banks and pension funds would have their data erased, missiles from Eastern Europe would spontaneously fire at the west and just about everything that has a computer to manage it would crash or even explode. When the 1st January 2000 arrived, the predicted Armageddon did not. Some countries and organisations had spent much on the problem. Some spent little or nothing. All had the same result; a big nothing. It was simply the predictions of doom that had made the story run. It was based on ignorance. The story just disappeared. There was no post-mortem or apology. Journalists are very keen to demand apologies or resignations from others but more than reticent about giving any themselves.
The Chernobyl incident in which an old-fashioned nuclear reactor was used in a way that contravened all safety regulations led to the release of a cloud of radiation and with it a cloud of disinformation from groups with an agenda. The media was falling over itself to find the most gruesome stories. The “death cloud” around the plant was said to have killed thousands. There was a report of 15,000 bodies being bulldozed into a massive grave. However, when the World Health Organisation spent three years on its report which was issued in September 2005, they found that the total death toll was 56. This is rather less than the death toll on British roads in a fortnight, and we have an enviably good safety record on our roads. There was an increase in the incidence of thyroid cancer in children who had drunk milk from cows in contaminated pastures in the week after the incident, but most was successfully treated. There were no other malignancies in excess and no excess of deformed babies or miscarriages.
Greenpeace replied with its own research in April 2006 claiming that the real death toll was 90,000.28(Flat Earth News) However, this was a misinterpretation of a report that admitted much uncertainty and which claimed to be looking at not deaths that had occurred but extrapolating 70 years to 2056. This is discussed in more detail on the “Flat Earth” website.29Flat Earth News website. Media falsehoods and propaganda, Chernobyl Greenpeace is an organisation that values dogma and sound-bites above evidence. We have already seen how blindness from vitamin A deficiency in thousands of African children can be blamed on Greenpeace’s opposition to genetically modified golden rice. What is astounding is that anyone takes any notice of them.
The one thing that organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth do very well is getting on television and getting quoted by newspapers. They are very adept at pushing themselves forward to get their message broadcast whilst proper scientists hang back waiting to be asked. Journalists are given a story and they take it. We need more pushy people who know what they are talking about.
There have been many conscious attempts to undermine scientific experts over the years. The tobacco industry attempted to discredit the overwhelming evidence against it. The food and alcohol industries are not without guilt. Purveyors of quack remedies and nonsense nutrition have tried to convince people that they know better than the experts. Predicting weather is very difficult, especially in the UK with four or five weather systems and the jet stream all having an effect. Time and again the clip is shown of Michael Fish denying that a hurricane will arrive. No one shows the many thousands of times that he got it right. Since then weather forecasting has improved considerably.
The BSE crisis was an example of poor communication from Government sources. There were problems with the ability to communicate risk to the public and possibly politicians trying to put across issues that they failed to understand. The risk of contracting new variant CJD was really very small and the risk lay far more in material found in sausages and burgers or in gelatine than in steaks or joints of beef. Nevertheless, steak and beef were what was removed from menus. The response of other EU countries was joy at being able to ban the competition of British beef rather concern about public health. For example, Aberdeen Angus herds have feeding practices that do not put them at risk, but they were still banned. In both this and foot and mouth epidemics the response has often been political rather than scientific.
Even the invasion of Iraq on the premise of weapons of mass destruction and the failure to find them caused scepticism. Most people believed that Iraq had them as Russia and the west had sold them the equipment and they had been used on the Kurds. However, we did not learn until much later that the evidence was so poor. The “dodgy dossier” was based on Tony Blair telling the intelligence services to find what they could to support his stance rather than to assess the situation. In 2014 Israeli intelligence were ordered to dig up intelligence showing that supporters of an economic boycott are linked to terrorists and enemy states. This was another political ploy to use selected intelligence to paint a preconceived picture.30Israel starts new propaganda war to beat boycott
A lucrative business that preys on people’s false hopes is cryopreservation of dead bodies in liquid nitrogen in the hope that one day medical science will have progressed so far that they can be reanimated and cured of the fatal disease. It is far more popular in the USA than the UK. Cryopreservation of small embryos or human tissue is feasible and has been done successfully, but preserving a whole body is another matter.31What does cryopreservation do to human bodies? Even cryopreserving organs for transplantation has not been successful.
In the UK, a group of volunteers trained in cryonics takes care of the body as soon after death as possible but I still doubt that this can be soon enough to prevent serious brain damage. They start the process of freezing the body and arrange for it to be shipped to the country where it is to be stored. The body is at a low temperature in solid carbon dioxide. At the storage facility, they are infused with cryoprotectants which are like antifreeze, to prevent ice crystal formation which would kill cells, before the temperature is slowly lowered and they are preserved in liquid nitrogen at extremely low temperatures of below -130oC. The eventual aim is that one day they will be rewarmed and revived, but there is no evidence or guarantee that they can be.
Several hundred people have already paid to have their bodies cryogenically preserved in three existing facilities in the USA and Russia, with 10 of them from the UK. There are as many as 1,250 on waiting lists. I see this as this as exploitation of people’s hopes and fears with a total lack of realism.
Why People Believe Bad Science and Fake News
It is often disappointment with conventional medicine that makes normally rational people seek alternative therapies. If a GP is rushed or a consultant is abrupt, this is to be depreciated but that does not make them wrong. The television comedy Doc Martin portrays a doctor whose manner with patients and social skills are hilariously limited, but his diagnosis and treatment is usually right.
Sometimes the problem is that there is no cure and so desperate people seek help elsewhere. If a sympathetic person spends an hour with them, they are satisfied, even if it was of no real benefit. Spurious tests and pseudoscientific talk will impress the unwary. People are taken in by complementary and alternative medicine which usually has a rationale that leaves any rational thinker agog. The fact that they had to pay at the point of access may also make them reluctant to think that they have wasted their money and perhaps the more they were charged, the more delighted they will be. Not all conventional medicine is truly evidence based. Indeed, a remarkable amount is not. However, at least there is a will to improve that situation rather than a state of denial. There are more complementary and alternative medicine practitioners earning a living in the UK than General Practitioners.
Dramatic breakthroughs are not how science progresses, although this is how the media like to present it. It is in small and verified steps. When the OPERA experiment seemed to show that neutrinos could travel faster than the speed of light, instead of calling a press conference to announce that Einstein was wrong, the authors presented a paper to their peers, having looked diligently for errors in their calculations to ask the scientific community to tell them where they had gone wrong.32The OPERA Collaboration. Measurement of the neutrino velocity with the OPERA detector in the CNGS beam This was not refusal to accept that something radical had been discovered but it was appropriate scientific scepticism and integrity. Eventually a repetition of the experiment came to the conclusion that neutrinos do not travel faster than the speed of light but at the same speed.33Neutrinos clocked at light-speed in new Icarus test This is in keeping with the observation that neutrinos from a distant exploding star arrived at earth at the same time as the light. Einstein’s theory of special relativity is still safe.
Much of the blame for the misunderstanding, misinterpretation or rejection of science must lie with the media. Newspapers and television are usually run by graduates in the humanities. They have no understanding of the issues involved but they know that sensationalism is the way to attract readers or viewers. Individual journalists may know rather better, but they may be constrained by editorial policy with the need to sell newspapers. Nick Davies points out in his book Flat Earth News, it is often not the fault of journalists that they fail to research the issue and form a firm opinion. There are fewer journalists working on more stories and they are not allowed the time to do so. Newspapers are owned by people who want minimum expenditure for maximum profit. Most of what is printed comes from news sources such as Press Agency in the UK and Reuter’s for foreign news. Much is produced by public relations companies and it may be presented uncritically or even just copied and pasted. To sell newspapers editors are told to give people what they want. This means sensation, not accuracy. It means not challenging stories that are obviously PR. It means less foreign news and more celebrity gossip. It means not rocking the boat and not thinking.
One experienced editor claimed that the publication of “bad news” is not a journalistic vice but a clear instruction from the market. He had found that too much good news people reduced the sales of is newspaper, but a mix of doom and gloom will swell the circulation. The “shock, scare” story includes the newly discovered and exaggerated dangers of drugs and vaccines. If this is later found to be untrue, a reassurance story will not follow as reassurance does not have the same news value of “shock, horror”. Science funding is also more likely if predicting doom and gloom. Climate change is no the only field where this is true.
A further problem is that journalists can be as lazy as anyone else. If someone gives them a story it is much easier just to print this. It is easier to accept the donor’s analysis than to analyse the story independently. Often authors or organisations with a vested interest will present journalists with a story that they would like printed. This may be the marketing department of a commercial enterprise or a pressure group. Sometimes they print stories about research that is not published in any journal where it can be reviewed by experts in the field and so this is seen by the public without any peer criticism. Quite often when I see these stories, it is something I have known about for a long time. I wonder where they obtained this sudden news. It was probably a pressure group producing a PR story.
The media oversimplifies scientific research to give stories that can be misleading. They do not explain what was done along with the implications and limitations. They may make inappropriate extrapolations. Readers of science are treated far worse than in any other field. Attempts are made to explain economics or the complexity of foreign policy. Sports pages do not simply list the results, but they give an analysis of the match. Science is dumbed down and treated far worse than sport.
Scientists are also guilty. Sometimes they are too eager for their 15 minutes of fame and take stories to the press far sooner than they should. The press conference called by the authors of the now notorious paper on the MMR vaccine was totally unjustified by the importance of a dozen case reports that were not even research.
Not all journalists are lazy, ignorant and misinterpret science. We can be grateful to Brian Deer for his work on uncovering the MMR scandal with an article in The Sunday Times34Revealed: MMR research scandal that led to a retraction of the infamous paper in The Lancet35Editors of the Lancet. Retraction—ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children and the GMC hearing that resulted in Andrew Wakefield’s erasure from the Medical Register. Another article in The Sunday Times showed that the data that had been used was fraudulent.36MMR doctor fixed data on autism We have every reason to be grateful to him for such tenacious investigative journalism. Brian Deer now has a book published called The Doctor who Fooled the World: Andrew Wakefield’s War on Vaccine.
Brian Deer continues to live modestly while Andrew Wakefield moved to the USA after he was struck off the medical register and there, he is feted by many, including Donald Trump. He continues to live the high life of fame and fortune. An analysis of he MMR scandal is found in the chapter Fake News and Vaccine Scares. This is a fraud which has been well and truly exposed, yet many people still choose to believe it.
It is the old problem that people cannot easily be swayed from believing what they want to believe, no matter how strong the evidence. Brian Deer says that it is especially the mothers of children with autism who are the most vehement anti-vaxx campaigners. It offers them someone to blame and even someone to sue over their child’s disability. They do not blame themselves, whether it is their genetics or their child-rearing. They have a scapegoat instead and this is much more comfortable.
Unsurprisingly, Brian Deer has been the target of bile by some autism groups, although I would say that he did them a favour by exposing the truth. It seems that some prefer to follow the lie if it is more comfortable.
Even The Times is sometimes very uncritical of articles commending complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) to its readers. It would not print articles commending useless ways to invest on the stock market. The lobby against GM food has been incredibly successful in getting the public to accept their message on an almost subliminal basis without the inconvenience of having to offer any evidence. They have managed to achieve a great deal by inference and innuendo. The best argument they seem to offer is that it is a leap into the unknown. GM food has been grown extensively in both North and South America and throughout the world for decades without apparent harm to people or the environment. The notable exception is the EU which maintains an irrational antipathy to GM. It is not the unknown.
CAM exponents can promote their wares directly to the public and here it is really a question of advertising standards and honesty. The Trades Descriptions Act states that if something is claimed to do something, it should. If goods are sold as something they are not, the trader can be prosecuted. Products such as paint or washing machines must do what is claimed. Therefore, when claims are made for health benefits from a product there should at least be good, verifiable evidence that it will do what is claimed. A couple of anecdotes are not evidence. The Advertising Standards Authority promotes the slogan “decent, honest, truthful”. It seems that not offending puritanical values is more important than honesty. Honesty and truth are not the same. Truth is not telling lies even if it involves being “economical with the truth”.37The Phrase finder. Economical with the truth Honesty includes admitting to shortcomings.
CAM circumvents requirements by not making any overt claim about any specific disease. If they did, they would be classed as a medicine and have to have evidence and a product licence. Demanding evidence is not persecuting CAM but putting it on an equal footing with conventional medicine which is what they so often claim they want. It does not stop people from spending their money as they like. It protects the gullible from exploitation. Sometimes the claims are inferential rather than direct. There is a vast amount of evidence to say that vitamin C is no use for the common cold but many products such as cough mixtures and paracetamol are advertised as containing vitamin C. They do not actually say that it helps the cold, but it is implied. Diffuse and general assertions manage to bypass the inconvenient need for evidence. Hence, they claim, “Enhances your immune system” rather than “Cures the common cold”. I would like to challenge how they measure the immune system. The claims are often so implicit that it is easy to think that a specific claim has been made. If a shortage of a substance impairs the immune system, that does not mean that in the absence of deficiency, taking more will enhance it.
In September 2014 the British Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (PSA) announced that it endorsed a register of qualified homeopaths. This was met with an outcry from scientific health care professionals including Simon Singh.38Outcry as register of homeopaths gets official backing According to The Times, Harry Cayton, chief executive of the authority said, “It’s a matter of opinion. The people who use homeopathy have an opinion.” Science is not about opinion. It is about evidence. He also said that the register is about consumer protection. He said that the PSA had no opinion on whether homeopathic treatment was effective. Rather, it wanted to offer potential customers reassurance that practitioners met the training and standards set out by homeopaths themselves. If a treatment is totally useless, does it matter if it is given by someone who is on a register or not? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who guards the guards?) If the regulator does not know if it is regulating an effective branch of healthcare then it is unable to offer the public any protection.
What then is the answer to this widespread public ignorance and deceit? There is no easy or quick fix as much must lie in better public education. However, most people would prefer to watch a “reality TV” show rather than something more enlightening. The education curriculum in schools should include basic concepts about looking for evidence and questioning suppositions. As far as I can see, multiple choice questions in GCSE are about giving the politically correct answer, especially for climate change and the MCQ format does not permit analysis of evidence. It assesses factual knowledge and nothing else. An MCQ is easy to mark and objective. Always ask, “Is there another explanation for this?” If we could start in school, it might filter to parents too. It would be good for science. If politicians were challenged for evidence, it would be good for democracy.
Perhaps a more critical approach to everyday life would have benefits in terms of resisting drugs or carrying knives. Why do so many teenage girls have sex without contraception and then wonder why they get pregnant?
If all else fails, there is still the “morning after” pill that can be bought without a prescription
I do not believe that journalists set out to deceive the public. They are not all bent on acquiring scoops by hacking mobile phones or obtaining medical records by deceit. Most want to inform the public with the truth. The problem is a mixture of their lack of understanding and the need for sensation in reporting. At the same time there is no appetite for balanced reporting that the last sensation was unfounded to redress the balance as that is not sensational. Even an effective Press Complaints Commission would not be the answer and the old PCC was the most amazingly toothless watchdog. The Leveson Inquiry into ethical standards in the press spent much time examining criminal behaviour such as phone hacking and paying police officers for information. An important aspect of ethics that was totally ignored was the basic ethical requirement of telling the truth. Perhaps as scientists we need to complain more about misrepresentation. We should demand that science is treated with at least the diligence afforded to the sports pages. The organisation “Sense About Science” tries to get redress but it is a difficult struggle. Few have even heard of it.
Enforcement of laws to prevent invalid claims for pseudoscience will only be achieved if politicians think that it is high on the agenda of the electorate. For this we need to get the media on-side. People would not accept false claims for cars or washing powder. They should not accept fraudulent claims about health and science either.
People must learn how to think and not to accept trite explanations without question. Ideally, this should start in school, but it is never too late in life to start. Teachers may not be well placed to teach critical thinking as they do not understand it themselves. Analysis in History or English Literature is encouraged, so why not in Science? Anecdotes are not evidence. Celebrities are not experts. Ask if there is there an alternative explanation that is feasible.
In the past, field trials of GM crops have been destroyed by criminal vandals. They do not want the tests to be conducted because they do not want to know the results. We have also seen terrorists attacking people who are involved with experiments that use animals.
It is essential for the future prosperity of the country that people develop an inquiring mind. This is a country without the ability to feed ourselves and with limited mineral resources. We cannot compete with developing countries in terms of cheap manufacturing, but we can offer manufacturing in high technology. However, this requires an educated workforce and leaders with the capacity for innovation. Quin Xuesen was one of the men who helped China to develop the atomic bomb. When he was in hospital dying at the age of 94, he was visited by Prime Minister Wen Jiaboa who asked him what he would like to say at the end of his life. He said, “We need more innovation. We are not producing any creative people. We are only making technicians.”39(Cited by Rob Gifford in China Road) If this is true for China, it is even truer for Great Britain. James Watt improved the steam engine and George Stevenson made it light enough to run on wheels. Frank Whittle invented the jet engine and Barnes Wallace’s bouncing bomb was intuitive thinking. Professor Tim Berners-Lee founded the Internet. We have a proud record of innovation but for this to continue we need free thinkers. We need open and questioning minds. We also need to capitalise on our ideas, rather than letting others develop them.
We also need to be wary of those who intend to deceive us. Claims are often inferential rather than overt as there is no evidence to support them. We must see through this. Much of the research on drugs is financed by the pharmaceutical industry and we are given their interpretation of the results.40(Bad Pharma) Pressure groups also sponsor research to achieve a predetermined end. Beware of selective publication. Climate scientists must not be allowed to pretend that only they are clever enough to understand their work whilst well qualified people are denied access even to their raw data to judge is their conclusions are valid. There are organisations that care nothing for the truth. Only their preconceived message matters.
Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University in Oregon, faced dismissal after he helped to create spoof academic papers that lampooned scholarship in various fields, including the gender studies, homosexuality and obesity. He and two collaborators dashed off 20 papers, each deliberately ridiculous and spiked with what the authors later described as “a little bit of lunacy”. Seven were accepted by peer-reviewed journals. One with the title “Our Struggle is My Struggle: Solidarity feminism as an intersectional reply to neoliberal and choice feminism”, was a rewrite of chapter 12 of Hitler’s Mein Kampf with feminist “buzzwords” inserted.41Professor faces sack over hoax that fooled academic journals
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided abundant opportunities for fake news. This is discussed much further in the chapter COVID-19. What You Need to Know. This includes that the most prolific purveyor of fake news was none other than the American president of the time.
A worrying story appeared in The Times called 42Coronavirus: NHS staff join anti-vax group It said, “Hundreds of NHS and care home staff have formed a group opposed to vaccinations, wearing masks and testing in hospitals. The group, NHS Workers for Choice, No Restrictions for Declining a Vaccine, has gained more than 250 Facebook members in a month. They include a GP, several accident and emergency nurses, healthcare assistants, lab workers, and private and public care home staff.” To put it into perspective, this is just one GP of more than 40,000 in the NHS and she is known for her “natural health” inclinations. I wonder how many of the accident and emergency nurses are real. Other are healthcare assistants and those outside of clinical care. The total is 250 out of many thousands of people who work for the NHS and care services. The Times reports, “It says it is not an anti-vaccine group and exists to support healthcare workers, but The Times found posts saying that the Pfizer-BionTech coronavirus vaccine was a new frozen virus, similar to smallpox, to be “unleashed” on the world. They compared it to ‘poison’.” The vaccine is nothing like smallpox.
The article mentions a surgeon who said that Covid-19 was a hoax, was suspended by the General Medical Council in July. There is also a former nurse who was suspended by the Nursing and Midwifery Council over her statements about the supposed dangers of vaccines and 5G technology. She has likened coronavirus restrictions to Nazi atrocities. In her speeches, she tells audiences that the vaccine will “hijack the protein machinery in your cells” A former events manager who raised £4,500 to organise an anti-lockdown rally in London was fined £10,000. She told The Times that she subscribed to a conspiracy theory that a UN resolution, aimed at sustainable development, was the linchpin in a “depopulation” plot to subjugate humanity under an eco-totalitarian regime.
I encourage scepticism, but scepticism means asking questions, not rejecting Government data in exchange for unsubstantiated claims. Do the claims make any sense? Why should governments wish to exaggerate illness and death when, if they are inaccurate, it is usually a matter of understatement rather than admitting to disaster on their watch? Do these claims come from unsubstantiated websites or from within the Office of National Statistics? If cases and deaths from COVID-19 are very high and rising, governments have to impose lockdown with disastrous effects on the economy and unemployment. Considering how they are judged on such matters, it makes no sense to score such an own-goal.
I was recently trolled by someone who claimed that COVID-19 vaccines have worse side-effects than the disease. Considering how people may require admission to hospital and even die from the disease, this would be extremely serious. If the disease has a mortality of 1%, that would mean that in a phase 3 trial of 40,000 subjects we may expect at least 400 deaths. Have they all been hushed up? Why would the MRHA license such products? Perhaps it is the old conspiracy theory about big business and politicians. Eventually, I did get her to give her sources and they were conspiracy theory websites. They were certainly not medical websites. When stories make no sense at all, they are probably untrue.
I was surprised when I saw that the BBC had been criticised for “bogus impartiality” favouring dissident science views about global warming.43BBC coverage of IPCC climate report criticised for sceptics’ airtime This was certainly not my experience. I find that all the media is eager to report the prophets of doom as they provide sensationalism whilst ignoring those who say that it is not really as bad because reassurance does not make such exciting news as catastrophe. Television news, unlike newspapers, has a duty to try to be unbiased. The BBC and ITV liked to pretend to be “even handed” about the MMR vaccine and in doing so they gave far more credence to the followers of the fraud than was appropriate. Andrew Miller, the Labour Chairman of the Commons Committee on Science and Technology wants ministers to keep quiet if they are unable to follow the doctrine. In a blatant attempt at censorship he says that BBC should give less airtime to climate sceptics and its editors should seek special clearance to interview them. Whether this is called McCarthyism or Stalinism, it is totally inappropriate for a leader who is supposed to understand science and who works at the centre of one of the world’s great democracies. He has since been replaced. He is no longer an MP and has died. A BBC spokesman said: “The BBC does its utmost to report on this complex subject as clearly as possible using our specialist journalists. While the vast bulk of our interviews are with climate scientists, as part of our commitment to impartiality it is important that dissenting voices are also heard.”44Crackdown ordered on climate-change sceptics The BBC is financed by the taxpayer and it is supposed to be independent and balanced.
Not all newspapers support the position of The Times. The Guardian takes the orthodox line in an article headed, “The top ten global warming ‘skeptic’ arguments answered.”45The top ten global warming ‘skeptic’ arguments answered Why does The Guardian use the American spelling “skeptic” instead of the English “sceptic”? Personally I found the article patronizing and unimpressive. I find that a patronizing and arrogant line is common amongst those who follow the orthodoxy of climate catastrophe. They imply that those who disagree are simpletons who do not understand science. What I find lacking is a reasoned approach. However, when it came to analysing the issues revealed by the emails from the Climate Research Unit, The Guardian was taken aback by the serious scientific malpractice and was not an apologist.
Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Boris Johnson have all been keen to show their “green credentials” and this has merit. However, none of them understands science and they have been rather too keen to accept the orthodoxy. The Stern Review of the economics of climate change had some startling assumptions.46Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change It seemed to imply that there would be no further technological advances over the next 100 years and that if climate changed farmers would still grow the same crops in the same places in the same way.
So, what is the truth? It is difficult to tell. The idea that the science is settled in wishful thinking from those who wish to enforce orthodoxy. Remember that the wisdom of today may be the foolishness of tomorrow. Even what has been happening over the past 10 years is open to considerable variation in interpretation.
The central lesson to be learned from this episode in history is that to create an organisation financially and ideologically dependent upon coming to a single, aprioristic viewpoint, regardless of the objective truth, is to create a monster that ignores the truth. The activities of the IPCC over the past 25 years have done enormous damage to the reputation of science and scientists everywhere.
Ideas That Have Had Their Day
Although science and medicine have improved considerably since the Age of Reason, they have often left much to be desired.
We accept today that certain areas of the brain have certain functions. The idea behind phrenology was that areas of enlargement or reduction of the brain would be reflected by protrusions or depressions in the skull. Hence, from feeling a person’s skull it was possible to deduce that they had certain well-developed attributes, or they were poorly endowed but also that certain patterns reflected a predisposition for mental illness or criminal behaviour. Franz Gall described 27 zones to be examined.47History of phrenology on the web This was supposed to have a firm scientific basis. It was used not just in the 19th but into the 20th century. It was employed in selection of suitable candidates for jobs48Skeptik Report. Mind Games – A look at phrenology in the 1830s and in the USA in 1928 the testimony of a phrenologist was crucial in the conviction of a woman for killing her husband.49Some Convictions Are Based on Questionable Evidence
Back in the 19th century Orson and Lorenzo Fowler formed the Fowler Institute to promote phrenology. They travelled around and, for a fee, gave their opinion about people who would present themselves. In 1872, Mark Twain visited dressed as a lower middle-class man. He was told that he lacked creative ability and lacked any sense of humour. He paid his money and left. Some weeks later he came back dressed in his inimitable attire. On this occasion he was recognised and told that what were formerly depressions on skull were now mountainous protrusions. He had much wit and creative ability. He paid his money and left, to expose the charade in his writing.
Eugenics is roundly condemned nowadays yet the idea that people with desirable attributes should be encouraged to reproduce and those with undesirable ones should be restrained or prevented from reproduction has logic. Most people associate it with the Nazis but political figures that supported it before them include Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, Ramsey Macdonald and the left-wing philosopher Bertram Russell as well as HG Wells, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge, the founder of the welfare state.
In the USA from 1909, around 60,000 “unfit” people forcibly sterilised, a third in California alone.
From time to time we read of people with very large families who do not work but content themselves with living off the backs of the workers, taking far more money in benefits than they could possibly earn by their own industry. Compulsory sterilisation seems innately wrong, but these parasites are diluting the nation’s gene pool with undesirable characteristics, whether inherited or acquired. I cannot help but feel that the concept of eugenics has been unduly denigrated by its association with the Nazis. We often see stories on the news of women who are struggling to cope, usually with four children or more. Why did they have so many children when contraception is so effective and freely available? Where is the father of these children? If he is not around, he should still be contributing financially to the upkeep of his offspring. Even the Nazis had the occasional good idea although perhaps it was how it was enacted that posed the problem. They had the first campaign against cigarette smoking. What I find most worrying about eugenics is that it does seem to have an appealing logic. The problem is where we draw the line between individual freedom and personal responsibility.
Rather than just joining the queue of people who wish to condemn eugenics as it does not accord with modern morality, we need to ask what made it attractive. Similarly, rather than assuming that there was something innately evil in people who were attracted to fascism or communism, we should ask why they were attracted. Understand history and prevent the mistakes of the past from being repeated.
Well after the advent of the Age of Reason the belief that hysteria was a condition limited to women and originating from the uterus remained. A treatment that followed Galen and Avicenna and was used from the 16th century was genital massage. 50(When the Earth was Flat. By Graeme Donald.) The aim was to massage the woman’s genitalia until she went into a “paroxysm”. Nowadays we would call it an orgasm. It was very popular in the 19th century. Water jets and massaging tools were used, and the patients kept coming back for more. Gynaecological massage clinics were set up and advertised in respectable journals. If the doctors failed to understand what they were achieving, it must question their personal competence in the bedroom. In Victorian times it was thought that marriage was a contract from which a man gained sex and a woman gained a family and home. The idea that a woman might enjoy sex was as absurd as the idea that a man might enjoy a home and family. However, one Victorian woman who did enjoy sex but hated her family was Queen Victoria. Whilst women were being treated with therapeutic masturbation, males were warned that similar activity could lead to blindness and insanity. Hysteria ceased to be a formal diagnosis in 1952.
In the first part of the 20th century athletes were given cocaine lozenges by their coaches to enhance stamina and marathon runners received injections of strychnine as they went round the course. They would drink brandy and eat raw eggs during the race. Coaches recommended smoking as a way of enhancing lung volume. These amazing activities are described in more detail in 51(Sex and drugs and sport and cheating.) Even today much of the science behind athletics coaching is far less robust than we may think. The exhortation to drink plenty whilst exercising is based more on the marketing of sports drinks than the dangers of dehydration.
Conspiracy Theories and Q-Anon
We are all aware that there are conspiracy theorists. They are rather more prevalent in the USA but they have their advocates in the UK too. The CIA was behind the assassination of President Kennedy and it killed Marilyn Monroe are well know examples. Princess Diana was killed in a plot involving the British Secret Security Services and the Duke of Edinburgh is another absurdity. The moon landings were faked. There are people in the USA who believe that COVID-19 is not real, even when they are obviously suffering from the disease. Bill Gates is behind the coronavirus vaccine which contains nanochips to track everyone. Why would he want to, especially when so many voluntarily carry a smart phone which tracks their movements. David Icke is famous for promoting the ridiculous.
Donald Trump liked to promote the transparently false claim that Barack Obama was born outside the USA and so was ineligible to be president. He also promoted the idea of massive election fraud when he lost to Joe Biden. He sacked Christopher Krebs, the top US election cybersecurity official who led efforts to protect the vote and called it “the most secure in American history”. He tweeted that Christopher Krebs, a Republican political appointee as director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, was “terminated” for “highly inaccurate” statements. Mr Krebs set up a “rumour control” website to correct election conspiracy theories and angered the White House by debunking claims repeated by Mr Trump that software supposedly flipped his votes to Mr Biden, calling it “nonsense” and a “hoax”. Many Republicans rejected the Trump conspiracies but a large number continued with the absurdity. As shown in the chapter COVID-19. What You Need to Know. Donald Trump was found to be the greatest purveyor of fake news and false stories about the pandemic, accouting for 37% of the total.
I have seen a plausible story that Donald Trump did not invent the “election fraud” narrative in 2020 but in 2016 when he expected to lose to Hillary Clinton. He was going to claim election fraud then but had to stay silent when he won. He had fewer total voters than Hillary Clinton but won more Electoral College votes.
There are even people who deny that the Holocaust happened, saying that it was all a fabrication. It happened within the last century, not hundreds of years ago. We have testimony from survivors and a few are still alive today. We have testimony from former guards and from allied troops who liberated the camps. The latter were traumatised by the shocking experience. There is evidence from the sites. The Nazis were also very meticulous at keeping records. The evidence is exceptional and yet still some think it was a conspiracy.
An organisation called Q-anon is a conspiracy theory group which started in the USA. It is briefly described in David Aaronovitch’s article in The Times called 52The biggest cult you’ve never heard of . The cult associates many high-ranking people, especially within the Democratic Party, with organised paedophilia, killing babies, stealing elections and their saviour who understands all this and who will come to their aid is Donald Trump. It may be tempting to believe “only in America” but this cult has following in the UK too. They are not simply a rather large group of harmless lunatics as it does not take much for their rhetoric of war to be translated into domestic terrorism. The Q-Anon ideology states that a global network of elite politicians, celebrities and charities kidnaps children, abusing them and harvesting their blood. Devotees believe that, thanks to Trump, a Great Awakening is coming in which those responsible will be arrested or executed, leading to salvation and utopia for survivors.
Another article in The Times said that 53 Far-right US cult Q-Anon finds a ready ear in Britain A British online cult that has lured 12,000 UK members, believes Donald Trump is waging war against a cabal of devil-worshipping paedophiles. Its founder, who previously used social media to sell smoothies and self-help courses, is recruiting members, many of whom are young mothers, to Freedom for the Children UK. She started a Facebook group in July 2020, inspired by the #SaveOurChildren protests in the US, which claimed to want to bring greater awareness of child trafficking. It is entwined with Q-Anon, and has grown rapidly since the lockdown.
In September 2020, members of Freedom for the Children took the streets in 12 cities including London, Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester. Many held signs with slogans such as “End child trafficking”, “Stop protecting paedophiles” and “Our children are not for sale”. Some wore Q-Anon T-shirts and held pieces of cardboard displaying the Q-Anon motto WWG1WA (Where We Go One, We Go ALL). One sign said: “Royals eat babies.” One protestor said: “We are in the depths of World War Three. There is a satanic force in the universe. The enemy is scheming against us.”
The article quoted a 50 years old electrician from Orpington, Kent who said: “Friends of mine have been on about the new world order for years, but I was asleep. It’s lockdown that woke me up. There are thousands of children being held in tunnels. A lot of them are underneath London. We have Trump to thank for everything that is coming out.”
Much of this does seem to have started or exploded during lockdown when people have had too much time on their hands and have found conspiracy websites. When people go on about mental health during lockdown, I think that they are associating normal responses of anxiety of loneliness with mental illness and in doing so they trivialise real mental health problems. However, Q-Anon and Freedom for the Children seem to promote ideas that are highly suggestive of paranoid schizophrenia. This is a serious mental illness that can lead to harm of self and others.
The Woke Movement and Cancel Culture
Sir Winston Churchill said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Our history has much to learn from but also much to be proud of.
The Magna Carta of 1215 is still the basic foundation of human rights. Our parliament is the basis of most democracies. It has been a struggle over the centuries to gain universal suffrage. My paternal grandmother used to chain herself to the railing outside Buckingham Palace in a bid for votes for women.
The British Empire, covering a quarter of the globe, was not built as a charity but it did much good to those it met. We did not invent slavery, but the British started the abolition movement. We deserve credit.
In my lifetime we have seen the abolition of the death penalty and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Politics, ethics, society, science, and technology all evolve and those from the past should be judged by the times in which they lived. The world was not created in the 21st century with the “woke” puritanism, self-righteousness and mindless dogma but it evolved through struggle over a long time. Attitudes towards homosexuality and race show that laws can be changed overnight but attitudes require a much longer evolution to change.
Some arrogant and ignorant people want to impose their mantra on us all, vandalising our history and culture, being oblivious of how the past shapes the present. They want to demolish a statue of Baden Powell as he had been attracted by some aspects of fascism, as had many others at the time. He has left a great legacy in the scouting movement and without him the guides would not exist either. Many people have been attracted by the equally abhorrent system of communism, but the shrine to its founder remains unthreatened in Highgate Cemetery. Would they also wish to destroy the acropolis and the coliseum along with many other Greek and Roman monuments as they had slaves and slaves were almost certainly involved in building them?
It is this so-called anti-racist movement with its dogma and actions, which have much in common with fascism, with its destruction, intimidation, and self-righteous intolerance of other views. We must stand up for history, heritage, and democracy.
Some have succumbed to the ignorance and removed statues of Cecil Rhodes, the founder of Rhodesia. If he subjugated the people, then he should be replaced by the man who freed his people so that they could experience democracy, freedoms, and economic growth. They should erect a statue of Robert Mugabe. Let the world see, learn and tremble.
Eugenics has come under fire as it offends the dogma of the modern age. No attempt is made to understand why it was attractive. We also need to understand the attractions of fascism and communism. Understand the past or repeat it.
Along with the woke movement goes cancel culture. This aims to put out of business anyone who does not toe the line. It is an impressive an intent as any totalitarian movement could offer. One such person who has fallen victim to the cult is the author JK Rowling who has managed to get so many of the population of all ages reading. She fell victim for expressing views about women being women, which I regard as blindingly obvious. Nowadays, I find myself in the peculiar position of agreeing wholeheartedly with feminists such as Germaine Greer. An article in The Times was called, 54 Harry Potter and the curse of cancel culture — why JK Rowling was disowned by a generation . To quote from it, “My stepdaughter is 25 and went overnight from worshipping Rowling to thinking she’s the devil, simply on the basis of headlines. I’ve read Rowling’s blog, it’s very thoughtful and acknowledges complexities, but my stepdaughter refuses to read it because she won’t listen to the words of [someone she considers] a transphobe.”
I find the refusal even to look at the evidence but just to accept the dictum of an extreme organisation a matter of great concern, especially as she is far from alone in this approach. Cancel culture is not really new in that there were movements to boycott South Africa during apartheid days and to boycott Israeli goods because of their treatment of the Palestinians. Cancel culture could be a force for good if they really wanted to. They could boycott all drug dealers as they finance organised crime and spread misery wherever they go. However, doing something as useful as wiping out drug dealing is not on their agenda.
Another person who has been attacked by cancel culture is Marie Stopes. She was a doctor and a feminist pioneer who fought the Church of Rome and the medical establishment to open Britain’s first birth control clinic. She wanted to give women control over their fertility so that they were not just baby machines. She also campaigned for eugenics. As we have seen, so did many other prominent and altruistic people. For this she is officially a non-person in the eyes of the Marie Stopes International charity, named in her honour, which now wishes to be identified as MSI Reproductive Choices. The chief executive said, “We’re absolutely not trying to erase her from history, or what she did.” However, there is no plainer way of airbrushing the historical record than removing a person’s name.55The Marie Stopes makeover is a case of cancel culture
In June 2019, the Galton lecture theatre at University College London, named after the Victorian polymath and scientist Sir Francis Galton, was renamed lecture theatre 115. It sounds like some bleak Soviet establishment. Galton was the founder of eugenics and had racist views as did the majority of people back then. He also played a pivotal role in developing the science of genetics, devised the first weather map and invented a method for classifying fingerprints. Nevertheless, he was dismissed as the “inventor of racism” and his name was erased. Do they really believe that racism was invented in the 18th century? Read the New Testament and examine the attitude towards Samaritans.
In the modern world, political correctness is the new “Bible” and if anyone is called racist, sexist or any other -ist, it is unnecessary to develop an argument against them. That is enough. People are reluctant to challenge the ideas of those around them. They all think the same way. This is “group-think” or social psychologists call it homologous sorting. It can lead people to fail to challenge within their groups, as we have seen with regard to climate science in Global Warming and Climate Change. Groupthink is the tendency for small homogenous groups to make poor decisions due to a lack of diversity, independent thinking and a desire for conformity. As information that contradicts the group’s wisdom is either excluded or dismissed as obviously mistaken, members come away from meetings with their opinions reinforced. Homogenous groups are more likely to become cohesive than diverse groups and as this occurs they become more reliant on the group, more insulated from external influence and as a result more certain that the group’s view on an important issue is correct. It takes courage to challenge one’s peers. This can be especially difficult for young people. They may fear bullying as a result and in these days of the Internet and social media, bullying can be on an almost “industrial” scale.
If people have opinions that you find objectionable, the answer is not to ban them or “no-platform” them but to encourage open debate and discussion. The woke do not want this as they prefer it if their snowflakes are not challenged to think and they may decide that the woke are wrong. If people are racist, anti-vaxx, woke or religious extremists, them banning them makes them see themselves as martyrs. Challenge them instead.
Groupthink enables political extremists and followers of conspiracy theories to believe that their views are held by the majority. Discipline and conformity is essential for efficient function in the military but groupthink can be a big problem. The psychologist Irving Janis published a book in 1972 in which he claimed that groupthink was responsible for the USA not being prepared for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. Admiral Kimmel and his staff ignored clear warnings about a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour because of a culture of group cohesion and lack of critical thinking. The disastrous airborne attack on Flanders in 1944, portrayed in the film “A Bridge Too Far” was another example. The Dutch resistance had warned of two Panzer divisions in the region but they wee dismissed as unreliable or the units were not serviceable as this did not conform with the generals’ wishes. Irving Janis also argued that the Bay of Pigs disaster which was the planned invasion of Castro’s Cuba in 1961, was also caused by groupthink. More recent examples include policy in the Middle East. No one would deny that Saddam Hussain and Colonel Gaddafi were bad. However, the idea that their overthrow would lead to a western-style liberal democracy was fanciful at best. James Surowiecki in The Wisdom of Crowds argues that the greater the influence a group’s members have on each other, and the more personal interaction there is between members, the more likely they will make a poor decision.
I hope that this website has helped the reader to understand how science has developed and how questions are researched in the medical world. I hope that it has helped to show how to find answers and how to be sceptical. I hope that it has helped to foster an enquiring mind, always ready to ask why and to ask if there is an alternative explanation. We need this in science. We need this in politics and in everyday life.
I never cease to wonder at the lack of common sense that prevails. Why do young people take up smoking when it is unpleasant and the very considerable dangers have been widely known for more than half a century? Why do people start taking drugs that they know to be addictive, believing that somehow they will be the one who can just turn away from it when they choose? Why do people fail to use contraception and then seem surprised when pregnancy occurs? I say “people” as it takes two and contraception is a joint responsibility. Why do people believe fake news and conspiracy theories when they are so implausible and so easy to debunk? Why do people embrace “alternative medicine” that is so implausible and irrational as well as being untested for efficacy or safety.
People need to think. They need to ask questions and not to take all that they read or hear as irrevocable despite it origins. Why do people believe social media over mainstream news?
It is not about being a cynic but seeking for truth. It is about the best use of resources and avoiding the waste of following false paths. Just because something has been done that way for years does not mean that it is the only or the best way. Nevertheless, we have to understand the past to understand the present. The philosophy of Galen held for well over a millennium and a half. Today’s wisdom may be tomorrow’s absurdities. Seek truth. Seek answers and remember that you can be absolutely certain about nothing.
Beware of groupthink. As Walter Lippman said, “When all think alike, then no one is thinking”.
I am afraid that, in my despair, I must leave the last work to Eric Idle’s The Galaxy Song which forms the finale of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. Click on the title in blue to see the YouTube video with subtitles. The final words of the song are,
“And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space,
Because there’s bugger all down here on earth.
- Bad Science by Ben Goldacre. Fourth Estate, London 2009.
A very important and easily readable book. Relevant chapters here include How the media promote the public misunderstanding of science, Why clever people believe stupid things and Health scares. Two chapters are devoted to false prophets. They are Dr Gillian McKeith PhD who is an unqualified nutritionist and Professor Patrick Holford who advocated vitamin C for AIDS
- Irrationality: The Enemy Within. Stuart Sutherland. Pinter and Martin 2007.
A very interesting and challenging book by a professor of psychology. It asks,” Why do doctors, army generals, high-ranking government officials and other people in positions of power make bad decisions that cause harm to others? Why do prizes serve no useful function? Why are punishments so ineffective? Why is interviewing such an unsatisfactory method of selection?”
- Scared to Death by Christopher Booker and Richard North. Cambridge Press 2007.
This book looks at many scares over the years and explains how something that is totally unjustified can gain a life of its own and rationality is nowhere to be found.
- Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All by Dr Eli Adashi. New York: Basic Books 2011
From an American perspective but an important insight into how the public are duped about alleged dangers of vaccines and the outcome of poor uptake.
- Sense About Science.http://www.senseaboutscience.org/
It describes itself as equipping people to make sense of science and evidence. A very useful and interesting site.
- Quack Watch. http://quackwatch.com/
It describes itself as “Your Guide to Quackery, Health Fraud, and Intelligent Decisions.” An American site but very useful to help sort the good from the bad.
- Flat Earth News by Nick Davies. Chatto and Windus, London. 2008. Also Flat Earth News website at http://www.flatearthnews.net
A book by a journalist that explains how journalistic practices lead to false stories and misinformation. A very important book for anyone who reads newspapers or follows current affairs. It explains how misleading and even false stories are told and told again by all sections of the press so that eventually everyone believes them.
- Advertising Standards Authority. http://www.asa.org.uk/
Perhaps we should be more ready to complain to then about misleading or unwarranted advertising. Their remit is to be the UK’s regulatory agency across all media including websites. They have tackled unfounded claims for homeopathy in the past. We should give them more examples of misleading advertisements in the field of health and healing.
- Post Truth. The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back. Matthew Ancona. Ebury Press 2017.
A look at how truth is corrupted or ignored in politics and in life as people accept what they want to hear and what gels rather than what is evidence based.
- How I talk to the victims of conspiracy theories By Marianna Spring, Specialist disinformation reporter, BBC News https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-trending-54738471
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the BBC set up a unit to counter fake news and disinformation. The author explains how she talk to those who have been victims of conspiracy theories, perhaps with devastating consequences.
- Groupthink. Why do small homogenous groups make poor decisions? Conversion Uplift UK
A British business advice group give some very sound advice about the dangers of groupthink.
- A Brief History of Propaganda. Changing Minds.
- Truth will overcome peddlers of fake news. The Times 1 January 2020
- Conspiracy theories spread by academics with university help. The Times 13 June 2020.
- Don’t let fake news infect the war on Covid-19. The Times 8 April 2020
- Coronavirus: The fake health advice you should ignore. BBC News 8 March 2020
- Coronavirus: The human cost of virus misinformation. BBC News 27 May 2020
- Trump ‘worst offender’ for spreading fake health news. The Times 2 October 2020
- The News Explained. Coronavirus: False Claims About 5G, Inhaling Steam and Skin Colour. Reality Check’s Chris Morris tackles the latest false claims. BBC 3 minute video.
- Coronavirus: Twitter bans incitement to attack 5G towers. BBC News 23 April 2020
- 5G is not accelerating the spread of the new coronavirus. Fullfact 31 March 2020.
- Coronavirus: The seven types of people who start and spread viral misinformation. BBC Trending 4 May 2020
- Charity regulator launches inquiry into church found promoting fake Covid-19 protection kits. The Charity Commission. 26 August 2020.
- Trump says he’s seen evidence coronavirus came from Chinese lab. US intelligence agencies say it was not man-made. USA Today 4 May 2020.
- No, COVID-19 Coronavirus Was Not Bioengineered. Here’s The Research That Debunks That Idea. Bruce Lee. Forbes Magazine 17 March 2020.
- Trump threatens to shut Twitter for censuring him. The Times 27 May 2020
- Science classes ‘must include creationism’ by Ruth Gleadhill. The Times 22nd February 2014
- Good Reads
- Antiscience. Absolute Astronomy
- One in four Americans unaware that Earth circles Sun. Tony Bonnici. The Times 15th February 2014.
- Man of Science; Man of God. Henry H Morris. Institute for Creation Research
- Jobs ‘tried to beat cancer with special diet’. The Times. 21st October 2011.
- Jackson T. When balance is bias. BMJ2011;343:d8006
- Quigley J. What Does Joan Say?: My Seven Years As White House Astrologer to Nancy and Ronald Reagan. Birch Lane Press 1992.
- Reagan N, Novak W. My Turn. The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan. Random House, 1989
- AIDS; Why we won’t be silenced. By Neville Hodgkinson. The Sunday Times (London) 12 Dec. 1993
- Hitler diaries scandal: ‘We’d printed the scoop of the century, then it turned to dust’. Brian MacArthur. The Daily Telegraph. 25th April 2008
- The Murdoch Archipelago by Bruce Page. Simon & Schuster UK. 2003.page 476.
- Davies N. Flat Earth News. Chatto and Windus 2008. Pages 40-42
- Flat Earth News website. Media falsehoods and propaganda Chernobyl
- The Times. Israel starts new propaganda war to beat boycott. 11th February 2014.
- What does cryopreservation do to human bodies? BBC 18November 2016
- The OPERA Collaboration. Measurement of the neutrino velocity with the OPERA detector in the CNGS beam. Cornell University Library. 22nd September 2011.
- Jason Palmer. Neutrinos clocked at light-speed in new Icarus test. BBC News.
- Deer B. Revealed: MMR research scandal. Sunday Times 22 February 2004.
- Editors of the Lancet. Retraction—ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet2010;375:445 [not free access]
- Deer B. MMR doctor fixed data on autism. Sunday Times2009 Feb 8
- The Phrase finder. Economical with the truth.
- Outcry as register of homeopaths gets official backing. The Times 16th September 2014
- Cited by Rob Gifford in China Road, Bloomsbury Books 2007, page 118.
- Bad Pharma. Ben Goldacre. Fourth estate. 2012.
- Peter Boghossian: Professor faces sack over hoax that fooled academic journals. The Times 9th January 2019.
- Coronavirus: NHS staff join anti-vax group. The Times. 16 November 2020
- Frances Harvey. BBC coverage of IPCC climate report criticised for sceptics’ airtime. The Guardian 1 October 2013
- Crackdown ordered on climate-change sceptics. The Times. 2nd April 2014.
- The top ten global warming ‘skeptic’ arguments answered. The Guardian. 6th May 2014.
- Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change. Short executive summary.
- John van Whye. History of phrenology on the web.
- Skeptik Report. Mind Games – A look at phrenology in the 1830s. 1st December 2006.
- Some Convictions Are Based on Questionable Evidence. 29th December 2012.
- When the Earth was Flat. By Graeme Donald. Michael O’Mara Books Ltd 2012
- Sex and drugs and sport and cheating. Paul Anthony. DB publishing 2014. Available on Kindle
- The biggest cult you’ve never heard of. David Aaronovitch The Times 29 July 2020.
- Far-right US cult QAnon finds a ready ear in Britain. The Sunday Times 20 September 2020
- Harry Potter and the curse of cancel culture — why JK Rowling was disowned by a generation. The Times 9 July 2020
- The Marie Stopes makeover is a case of cancel culture. Jawad Iqbal. The Times 18 November 2020
This website is now completed, although I shall continue to do updates. The following list shows the sections or chapters. Just click on the topic in blue to go to that part of the site.