Crap, Hogwash, Wikipedia and Other Strong Evidence


Crap, Hogwash, Wikipedia and Other Strong Evidence.

By rossleighbrisbane

“I mean in the end this whole thing is a question of fact, not faith, or it should be a question of fact not faith and we can discover whether the planet is warming or not by measurement. And it seems that notwithstanding the dramatic increases in man made CO2 emissions over the last decade, the world’s warming has stopped. Now admittedly we are still pretty warm by recent historical standards but there doesn’t appear to have been any appreciable warming since the late 1990s.”

Tony Abbott: A REALIST’S APPROACH TO CLIMATE CHANGE Speech – July, 2009

From Abbott’s Interview with Andrew Bolt:

Bolt: (Volunteering to fight) the fires. Was there an element of running away from the office?

PM: Ha! Mate, I got up to the station at 4pm Saturday and I got back to the station at 10 Sunday morning. So there’s no question of running away from the office, because the office is closed then. The office is closed.

AB: I’ve been struck by the insanity of the reaction in the media and outside, particularly linking the fires to global warming and blaming you for making them worse potentially by scrapping the carbon tax.

PM: I suppose, you might say, that they are desperate to find anything that they think might pass as ammunition for their cause, but this idea that every time we have a fire or a flood it proves that climate change is real is bizarre, ’cause since the earliest days of European settlement in Australia, we’ve had fires and floods, and we’ve had worse fires and worse floods in the past than the ones we are currently experiencing. And the thing is that at some point in the future, every record will be broken, but that doesn’t prove anything about climate change. It just proves that the longer the period of time, the more possibility of extreme events … The one in 500 year flood is always a bigger flood than the one in 100 year flood.

Bolt: The ABC, though, has run on almost every current affairs show an almost constant barrage of stuff linking climate change to these fires.

Abbott: That is complete hogwash.

Bolt: It is time to really question the bias of the ABC?

Abbott: But people are always questioning the “bias” of the ABC.

Later in the same interview:

PM: I would say that there tends to be an ABC view of the world, and it’s not a view of the world that I find myself in total sympathy with. But, others would say that there’s a News Limited view of the world.

     From “The most depressing Discovery about the Brain, Ever”

“In other words, say goodnight to the dream that education, journalism, scientific evidence, media literacy or reason can provide the tools and information that people need in order to make good decisions.  It turns out that in the public realm, a lack of information isn’t the real problem.  The hurdle is how our minds work, no matter how smart we think we are.  We want to believe we’re rational, but reason turns out to be the ex post facto way we rationalize what our emotions already want to believe.

For years my go-to source for downer studies of how our hard-wiring makes democracy hopeless has been Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth.

Nyan and his collaborators have been running experiments trying to answer this terrifying question about American voters: Do facts matter?

The answer, basically,  is no.  When people are misinformed, giving them facts to correct those errors only makes them cling to their beliefs more tenaciously.”

And just in case you missed it at the time:

“I am, as you know, hugely unconvinced by the so-called settled science on climate change.”

People are entitled to their own point of view. We all accept that. It’s a free country, after all. I’m sure that Andrew Bolt would agree that we’re all entitled to express a point of view. Even if it’s demonstrably wrong. For goodness sake, if Bolt had to rely on facts for his point of view, he wouldn’t have a column.

The trouble with the exchange of opininons is that it very rarely goes beyond, “You’re wrong and  I’m right, therefore nothing you have to say could change my mind.”

And so I find our beloved leader’s comments – the ones I highlighted – in the Bolt interview disturbing. Tony Abbott seems to be saying that extreme events aren’t evidence of anything, and it doesn’t matter how many we have, that’s just the nature of things. Records are made to be broken, after all.

This is fairly consistent with the way in which climate deniers view things. One extreme weather event is just the exception. Two is just coincedence. Three, well, that’s the norm – we have weather like this all the time.

Now, I think that there is a discussion to be had about how much of a link can be drawn between climate change and the current bushfires. And I have some sympathy for the view that maybe Adam Bandt could have timed his comments a little more sensitively. I can accept that we’ve always had large bushfires and that, in the distant past, some of them even occured in October.

However, I think that we need to actually look very closely at the evidence – even if it means hours on the computer looking up Wikipedia. To say, as one person wrote in response to the Climate Council’s Bushfires and Climate Change in Australia – The Facts (which suggested that bushfires in the last thirty years had been more frequent),  that we had large bushfires in the past too. The person then went on to talk of three over the space of sixty years prior to 1983.

It’s difficult to argue about climate change when people like Bolt and Abbott seem to suggest that every event can be taken in isolation and therefore nothing is part of any pattern. Bolt may be right. There may be no significant warming. But he is no more of less qualified to assert his position than the bloke down at the pub who tells me that Greater Western Sydney will make next year’s Grand Final. He is not an expert and lacks formal training in the area – something that he is quick to point out about those he disagrees with. After arguing for years that the climate is actually cooling, Bolt jumped on the IPCC report which suggested the planet wasn’t WARMING as fast as they predicted, completely ignoring the fact that this went against his contention.

So, records are always being broken, according to the Prime Minister. Linking the fires to climate change is “complete hogwash”. We don’t need a Climate Commission to look at evidence. We know these things. Who needs a Science Minister? It’s either part of trade, or something you do at school. Science, itself, what’s that?

As for the Audit Commission, who thinks that they may recommend delaying or scaling back the Liberal’s Direct Action initiatives?

Pseudoscientist Rupert Sheldrake Is Not Being Persecuted, And Is Not Like Galileo


Pseudoscientist Rupert Sheldrake Is Not Being Persecuted, And Is Not Like Galileo

BY JERRY A. COYNE

 Rupert Sheldrake is a pseudoscientist who has made his name promoting various kinds of woo, including telepathy (including in dogs!), immaterial minds, and his crazy idea of “morphic resonance,” a Jung-ian theory in which all of nature participates in some giant collective memory. (He was once a real scientist, trained in biochemistry and cell biology at Cambridge, but somewhere went off the rails.)

Many of you might know of Sheldrake. He enjoys a certain popularity in the US and UK among those who think that there must be “something more out there”—with “more” meaning psychic phenomena. I don’t really understand a penchant for things that aren’t supported by evidence, but that’s probably a failure of empathy on my part—as well as a product of my scientific training to doubt. I am sure, though, that some of the same psychological tendencies that promote sympathy for woo also promote sympathy for religion.

Sheldrake and his supporters always defend themselves as beleaguered scientists whose correct theories are unfairly attacked or neglected because they buck the current “materialistic paradigm.” That is, he thinks himself an unrecognized genius, persecuted like Galileo. The proper answer to this is given on the NeuroLogica website:

The definitive assessment of this comparison comes from the original version of the movie, “Bedazzled.” Dudley Moore’s character calls Satan a nutcase (for claiming to be Satan), and Satan replies, “They said the same of Jesus Christ, Freud and Galileo.” Moore then replies, “They said it of a lot of nutcases too.”

Last summer someone decided to fix Sheldrake’s Wikipedia article, which, edited by his supporters, had been promoting Sheldrake’s woo in violation of Wikipedia policy on fringe science and pseudoscience. Perhaps you don’t know about this policy, but you can read about it at the link. It begins like this:

When discussing topics that reliable sources say are pseudoscientific or fringe theories, editors should be careful not to present the pseudoscientific fringe views alongside the scientific or academic consensus as though they are opposing but still equal views. While pseudoscience may in some cases be significant to an article, it should not obfuscate the description or prominence of the mainstream views.

It’s a pretty good policy, and prevents people like Sheldrake and his deluded supporters from editing Wikipedia articles to give unwarranted credibility to their pseudoscience. And that policy allowed the rationalists to come in and clean up Sheldrake’s page, which they did.

This summer, soon after the TED controversy, a commando squad of skeptics captured the Wikipedia page about me. They have occupied and controlled it ever since, rewriting my biography with as much negative bias as possible, to the point of defamation. At the beginning of the “Talk” page, on which editorial changes are discussed, they have posted a warning to editors who do not share their biases: “A common objection made by new arrivals is that the article presents Sheldrake’s work in an unsympathetic light and that criticism of it is too extensive or violates Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View policy.”

If you want some amusement, have a look at the Wikipedia “talk” page on Sheldrake’s bio. It will give you a newfound respect for Wikipedia editorsas the skeptics are over there just trying to ensure, as per Wikipedia policy, that Sheldrake’s pseudoscience is not presented as credible science.

 Sheldrake continues his rant on his blog, blaming the editing of his page on the “Guerilla Skeptics on Wikipedia” (GSoW), a group dedicated to policing dubious pseudoscientific claims and giving skeptics themselves decent Wikipedia pages. Sheldrake writes:

The Guerrilla Skeptics are well trained, highly motivated, have an ideological agenda, and operate in teams, contrary to Wikipedia rules. The mastermind behind this organization is Susan Gerbik [sic]. She explains how her teams work in a training video. She now has over 90 guerrillas operating in 17 different languages. The teams are coordinated through secret Facebook pages. They check the credentials of new recruits to avoid infiltration. Their aim is to “control information”, and Ms Gerbik glories in the power that she and her warriors wield. They have already seized control of many Wikipedia pages, deleted entries on subjects they disapprove of, and boosted the biographies of atheists.

The “ideological agenda” here, though, is simply this: false or unsupported claims should not be presented as credible. If that’s an agenda, I’m all for it.

But Sheldrake is dead wrong in his accusations. The person who did most of the woo-removing edits of Sheldrake’s page, not a member of GSoW, has posted an article decisively refuting the claim that there is a Guerrilla Skeptic “conspiracy” to debunk Sheldrake. Tim Farley of Skeptical Software tools has investigated the edits thoroughly and confirmed that no Guerrilla Skeptics seem to have been involved.  Farley also checked with the GSoW boss, Ms. Gerbic, who denies involvement. Farley concludes:

. . . the central claim, that Guerrilla Skeptics are controlling Sheldrake’s bio, is demonstrably false.  It is a classic conspiracy theory. I asked Susan Gerbic directly, and she confirmed that Sheldrake’s bio was not on their current project list. But you don’t need Susan’s word, just search for the name “Sheldrake” at the project blog and you find only a post about a related article, and no indication they had worked on Sheldrake’s bio. (Believe me, they’re not shy about showing off their work – it’s part of their outreach efforts).

Look in the editing history of the people actually editing Sheldrake’s article, and you’ll find only cursory overlap with articles the Guerrilla Skeptics have bragged about editing.

So Sheldrake and Weiler et. al. are actually complaining about the wrong thing entirely! Instead of floating conspiracy theories about the Guerrilla Skeptics, they should be studying the Wikipedia rules and trying to understand why it is their edits keep getting rejected.

Finally, a humorous comment on my own website by “Julie,” a member of the Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia group, denies involvement:

Hahaha we didn’t touch his page, even with our minds! We have a list of pages we want to edit and Sheldrake isn’t even on it! Maybe that’s the real reason for his tantrum.

Great blog! Brings all the facts together. I had no idea the BBC were involved in criticising us so I just had a rant about their terrible reporting on the program’s Facebook page! I expected more from the Beeb. [More on the BBC below.]

I love the bit about “even with our minds”!

So Sheldrake not only paints himself as a martyr again, but singles out the wrong group for “persecuting” him.

 Sadly, now the BBC World Service itself is being played a fool by Sheldrake, as they have put The Woomeister on their station to proclaim his conspiracy theories.

If you go here on the BBC, and listen to the 5-minute interview with Sheldrake (starts 8:02, ends 12:44), you’ll see the sympathetic ear that the BBC interviewer lends to Sheldrake, not questioning his claims in the least.

Much of what Sheldrake says in the interview is untrue, and it’s all in service of telling the world not to believe his Wikipedia page because it was sabotaged by Guerrilla Skeptics, which also is “distorting hundreds of pages on Wikipedia.” That is wrong, and Sheldrake should know better because that segment was broadcast on November 5, three weeks after Farley’s piece was published. Nor does the BBC interviewer talk to the Guerrilla Skeptics, seek any contrary views, or ask Sheldrake any hard questions. The interviewer apparently didn’t investigate this whole issue beforehand. It’s just dreadful reporting. To be fair, the BBC says that they’ll talk about the “reliability of Wikipedia and Sheldrake’s Wikipedia page” this week. If anybody hears that segment, let us know. [Note: the BBC interviewer, Dan Damon, describes himself and his wife as “keen churchgoers.“]

But I’m wondering why the BBC gives Sheldrake a voice at all. Why should their readers hear his paranoid rants? Would they allow a creationist to go on the air and argue that mainstream biologists are in a conspiracy to suppress the truth of a young earth and creation ex nihilo? Does a report of a new medical advance need to be “balanced” by the opinion of a homeopath?

Finally, Sheldrake’s American counterpart, Deepak Chopra, has written a piece on his own website decrying Wikipedia skepticism and the persecution of Sheldrake. Indeed, it takes one purveyor of pseudoscience to understand another. In a piece called “The rise and fall of militant skepticism,” Chopra writes:

You can see the results at the Wikipedia entry for Rupert Sheldrake, the British biologist who has served as a lightning rod for militant skeptics for several decades. Intelligent, highly trained, an impeccable thinker, and a true advocate for experimentation and validation, Sheldrake had the temerity to be skeptical about the everyday way that science is conducted. He made his first splash by questioning the accepted assumptions of Darwinian evolution, and most recently he published a cogent, well-received book about the hidden weaknesses in the scientific method, titled Science Set Free. His avowed aim is to expand science beyond its conventional boundaries in the hope that a new path to discovery can be opened up.

But you’d never know it from Sheldrake’s Wikipedia entry, which is largely derogatory and even defamatory, thanks to a concerted attack by a stubborn band of militant skeptics. Since I am close to Sheldrake personally and have Wikipedia woes of my own, it’s not fair for me to offer accusations over the extent to which Wikipedia is under attack. But the skeptics have been caught in the act, which is the pickle they find themselves in, as I mentioned at the outset of this post.

You can read a detailed account in a series of online posts written by Craig Weiler at his blog The Weiler Psi. Confronting the militant pests at Wikipedia resembles taking hold of a tar baby, as Weiler relates in his most recent post, pointedly entitled “Wikipedia: The Only Way to Win Is Not to Play.” The unsavory fact is that skeptics have figured out how to game Wikipedia’s attempts to provide fairness, and we are all the loser for it.

But the real loser is Chopra, whose own lucrative brand of woo is finally exposed as a lot of scientifically-sounding psychobabble.

Steve Novella has written a cogent takedown of the paranoia of both Chopra and Sheldrake on a post on Skepticblog called ”Chopra shoots at skepticism and misses.” Novella also has a few interesting words about whether the idea of God is a testable hypothesis.

There is, I suppose, a form of “militant skepticism” that is so skeptical that it won’t accept anything. But I’m not aware of anyone adhering to that view, except perhaps some postmodernists. Others are skeptical of some things that are, to all reasonable people, demonstrably true (there are some of these folks.) But the critics of Sheldrake and Chopra are not “militant skeptics.” They’re simply people who demand solid evidence for extraordinary claims of psychic phenomena and universal consciousness.

Let’s face it: we’ll never be free of people who lap up the woo of people like Chopra and Shedrake. There’s something about human psychology that is susceptible to this kind of stuff. All we can do is decry it as often as we can, and hope that those on the fence will listen to us. That is what Steve Novella and the Guerrilla Skeptics are doing, and more power to them.

A version of this post first appeared on WhyEvolutionIsTrue.

Jerry A. Coyne is a Professor of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago and author of Why Evolution is True, as well as the eponymous website.

Huckster of Woo Deepak Chopra Cocks Leg at Skepticism and Pisses on Self


Chopra Shoots at Skepticism and Misses

      Published by

Deepak Chopra apparently has no love for organized skepticism. This is not surprising and his particular brand of spiritual pseudoscience has been a favorite target of skeptical analysis. He is also not the only one who has decided to fight back against the skeptics – if you cannot defend yourself against legitimate criticism, then shoot the messenger.

In a recent article Chopra renews his attack against what he calls “militant skepticism.” This is a blatant attempt, of course, to portray skeptics as extremist and on the fringe, a strategy that has been used against “militant atheists.” Chopra also uses his article to conflate skepticism with atheism, almost as if he is completely unaware of the internal discourse that has been taking place for decades within the skeptical movement.

Chopra writes:

The rise of militant skepticism clouded the picture, however, beginning with its popular attack on religion. The aim of Richard Dawkins, as stated in his best seller, The God Delusion, was to subject “the God hypothesis” to scientific scrutiny, the way one would subject anti-matter or black holes to scrutiny. In fact he did no such thing with God, for the scientific method requires experiments that can be replicated and facts that can be verified. Dawkins offered no experiments to prove or disprove the existence of God. What he actually did was to subject religion to a barrage of scorn and ridicule, attacking it on the rational improbability – as he sees it – that a deity could possibly exist.

This is an interesting bit of historical revisionism, although I think it probably just reflects Chopra’s complete unfamiliarity with his subject matter. The modern skeptical movement predates Dawkins by decades. We have had a clear philosophy and scope long before Dawkins appeared on the scene.

Dawkins is a highly respected figure among skeptics because of his powerful writing, his popularizing of science, and his unflinching criticism of pseudoscience. Most skeptics are atheists, and we also respect his defending science from the intrusion of religion and spirituality.

Where many skeptics, myself included, disagree with Dawkins is precisely in treating “the God hypothesis” as if it were only a scientific question. I say “only” because certainly it is possible to treat any supernatural hypothesis as if it were in the realm of methodological naturalism, and there is general agreement among skeptics when approached in this way the only reasonable conclusion is that there is no credible evidence to support the conclusion that any god exists, or that the laws of the material universe need to be extended to account for any alleged supernatural phenomena. If you frame God as a scientific hypothesis, it can be scientifically refuted. Looked at another way, the psychocultural hypothesis is a far better and more parsimonious explanation for belief in God than the actual existence of such a being.

The big “but” is that not everyone believes in God as a scientific fact. Some people choose to have faith in an unfalsifiable god, one that resides outside the realm of science. Once someone’s faith has retreated outside the realm of science, then science is no longer the tool by which one should address such faith. Logic and philosophy are now more appropriate, but you cannot say, by definition, that an unfalsifiable God can be scientifically proven to not exist.

In practice most people blur the line between an empirical God and an unfalsifiable God, in which case I believe the best approach is to point out the self-contradiction, and force them squarely either inside or outside the arena of science. Once completely outside the arena, they must surrender any pretense to actual knowledge and admit their beliefs are solely personal faith. If any part of their belief dips into the arena of science, however, then it is scientific fair game.

This is the debate, at least, that has been raging ever since there has been a modern skeptical movement. There are two basic camps, loosely referred to as the atheists and the skeptics (yes, there are lots of permutations and subtleties, but that’s the basic picture). Over time the relationship between these two camps has waxed and waned. At times we predominantly celebrate our intellectual overlap and common cause, at others our philosophical differences come home to roost.

Chopra appears to be aware of none of this. This would not be a problem as he is not part of the skeptical movement, but then he should not presume to write on a subject about which he apparently has such complete ignorance (not typically an obstacle for Chopra).

After setting up and knocking down a couple more straw men, Chopra writes:

The God Delusion, aided by a handful of other best sellers attacking religion in the same vein, did have one decisive effect, however. Science became yoked to the tools of rhetoric and demagoguery, going so far as to lose any trace of objectivity.

I have no idea what Chopra is referring to here, but I can guess, based on his previous writing. Now that he has conflated skepticism and atheism, and then falsely accused atheism of demagoguery, he concludes that scientific skepticism is also about demagoguery. Every link in that chain of thought is incorrect. This all serves Chopra’s purpose of attacking skepticism – which really is nothing more than a scientific and logical criticism of his nonsense.

Chopra, however, does not want to have a war with science, because he wants to pretend that his new age spiritualism is science. So he needs a villain, something to blame other than the complete scientific bankruptcy of his ideas. Skeptics are his convenient villain, but skeptics are just scientists or science promoters who are bothering to apply scientific reasoning to his claims. This is something with which most mainstream scientists will not sully themselves (which I think is a mistake, but that’s another post). So he conflates skepticism with atheism, and he has created his villain.

Chopra’s skeptical villain is a complete fiction, but that is a realm in which Chopra apparently feels comfortable.

Chopra finally gets to the specifics of his current boogeyman:

A distressing example has been occurring at Wikipedia, where a band of committed skeptics have focused their efforts to discredit anyone whom they judge an enemy.

He is correct in that there is a project within skeptical circles to keep Wikipedia scientifically accurate. Chopra would like his readers to think this is “militants” attacking their “enemies.” From the skeptical point of view, of course, this is simply a project for Wikipedia to accurately present scientific information about controversial topics. The goal is to prevent promoters of nonsense and pseudoscience from using Wikipedia for free advertising and spreading propaganda.

The more neutral perspective is that Wikipedia is a common battle ground for ideological opponents. This is a serious issue for Wikipedia, as they have to deal with editing wars. They partly deal with this by labeling certain entries as controversial, and also allowing different sections within an entry for the various perspectives. I guess Chopra would like to have free reign in Wikipedia without any opposing opinions being expressed.

For example:

You can see the results at the Wikipedia entry for Rupert Sheldrake, the British biologist who has served as a lightning rod for militant skeptics for several decades. Intelligent, highly trained, an impeccable thinker, and a true advocate for experimentation and validation, Sheldrake had the temerity to be skeptical about the everyday way that science is conducted.

Chopra would have you believe that Sheldrake in an “impeccable thinker” wrongly targeted by “militant skeptics.” The most generous characterization, rather, is that Sheldrake is a highly controversial figure. He is trying to actually change the nature and scope of science. He should not be shocked that there is pushback. Sheldrake is also, in my opinion, completely wrong, and is a very sloppy thinker who is trying to erode scientific standards in order to admit his particular brand of supernaturalism.

Of course, that is the debate. Let’s have it.

Conclusion

In my opinion, the big picture here is that Chopra is desperately trying to avoid actually engaging with science and skepticism. If he thinks he and Sheldrake and others he would consider his intellectual allies have a point, then make it. Bring it on.

The best way to promote your ideas, especially if you have the hubris to think they are revolutionary, is to engage with your critics. There are many careful and thoughtful public intellectuals (Dawkins included) who have put forward very cogent philosophical and scientific arguments against what Chopra is selling. If Chopra wants to promote his ideas he should try to understand and engage with those critics.

Instead, Chopra is building a cardboard villain to rail against. In so doing he is exposing his intellectual shallowness.

You will notice what Chopra has not done is address any of the actual intellectual pillars of scientific skepticism. If he wishes to do so, I would be happy to engage with him on this issue.

Hardline Republicans: Arrogance, Greed & Disregard for Human Life


Hardline Republicans: Arrogance, Greed & Disregard for Human Life

by

russianabortionposter

Russian Abortion Poster

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The post below: “Perish if you wish; I’m safe” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau) is an antique.  However, it has not lost its relevance.  I am deeply shocked by extremist Republicans who are making pronouncements as though they were experts.

Birth control and abortions are questions for a woman to discuss with her doctor.  There are times when a responsible doctor will not think it advisable for a patient to carry a child.  Moreover, choosing whether or not to carry a child is a woman’s right.

Recently, while researching human rights, I discovered that to force a woman to carry child is a violation of human rights.  I was looking for information on a different subject and cannot remember what the subject was.  It may have been the use of chemical weapons.  At any rate, I will search again.

But, when I look at my mother’s life, I grieve.  Her first children were relatively healthy, but she lost a very large a number of children to a congenital blood disease.  Every year she bore a child who did not stand a chance of surviving.  The parish priest would not allow her to skip a year.  She would have been refused communion.

As for her doctors, every dead child was a corpse they could study in their attempts to cure my father and one sister who were victims of this disease.  We buried a child every year.  Given such circumstances, one reaches the “age of reason” prematurely and feels considerable compassion for those who suffer.

Narrow-minded Republicans should remember that too many people have died because insurance companies considered their illness a pre-existing condition.  That was greed, but it was also disregard of human life.  Americans have a right to affordable health care.

And now, extremist Republicans are concocting a possible global economic recession because they oppose Affordable Health Care.  How were these individuals elected into office?

However, there’s progress.  This is the latest:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-24510273

Conspiracy Theories Used as Propaganda | Operation INFEKTION | The KGB and Anti-American AIDS Conspiracies


Government use of conspiracy theory: Operation INFEKTION
Art: Burning heart by Leslie Ann O’Dell. Listening: Black Star by Lustmord.

A future common theme on this blog will be that governments don’t just partake in conspiracies, but they also create and amplify conspiracy theories. Note the difference here. The former is legal term about individuals colluding in secret; while the latter pertains to a narrative about these collusions. One is ontological to do with the world; while the other is epistemic to do with beliefs about the world.
There are various reasons why governments would need to create a belief in conspiracy. Sometimes it is to cover up black projects or intelligence failures, i.e. covering up real conspiracies. Other times the conspiracies are created as offensive weapons against some international actor, i.e. creating fake conspiracies. For the moment, I’d like to discuss the aforementioned reason from a case that is in actual scholarly literature: Operation INFEKTION, which was the Soviet disinformation campaign to pin the origin of AIDS on the USA.

A good source on this disinformation operation is an essay entitled “AIDS Made in the USA”: Moscow’s Contagious Campaign, which is from the book The New Image Makers: Soviet Propaganda & Disinformation Today. The author is the noted historian of counterintelligence Roy Godson. You won’t find this essay published on the Internet, which is unfortunate given it is a well-reasoned argument giving us a clear example of governments creating conspiracy theories (I may get around to scanning it, and putting it up on this blog). The reason why this clear example is so important is because it allows us to draw some broader themes of how governments go about spreading disinformation. True believers in high weirdness and conspiracy circles often accuse each other of spreading disinformation, and it sometimes becomes hard to sort the wheat from the chaff. A clear non-bullshit example can be quite illuminating.
Godson argues in the essay that the “AIDS was made in the USA” disinformation campaign was created by the KGB in 1985. They continued this disinformation campaign for around two years. Godson identifies five reasons why they did this:

  1. To discredit the United states by falsely claiming that AIDS originated in CIA-Pentagon experiments.
  2. To discourage undesirable political contact with Westerners by portraying them as potential carriers of the disease.
  3. To create pressure for removal of US military bases overseas on the grounds the US service personnel spread AIDS.
  4. To undermine US credibility in the Third World by maintaining that hypotheses about the African origin of AIDS are an example of Western, and especially American, racism, and;
  5. To divert attention from Soviet research on biological warfare and genetic engineering and to neutralize accusations that the Soviet Union has used biochemical agents in Asia.

Notice the two wider themes here of using conspiracy theory. (1) to (4) are all examples of undermining the ethos or moral stature of some actor or groups. (5) is an example of diverting attention away from an actual conspiracy. These twin themes of undermining ethos and diverting attention from actual conspiracies will arise again in future posts about government use of disinformation. Also, when I say ethos, I mean in the rhetorical sense. To undermine someone’s ethos in rhetoric is to undermine their character. This is important in rhetoric, as building rapport with the audience by appealing to one’s character and moral stature is one of the foundations for a rhetorical speech.

I won’t recount the timeline of how this disinformation campaign came about. You can read the Wikipedia article above on the operation to recount this. But some other tidbits worth noting here are the following:
The disinformation campaign started in newspapers in Russia and India. They then spread to radio, and then other sources from around the world picked up on the disinformation. This disinformation campaign was also backed by pamphlets, which were spread in Africa. One of these pamphlets was written by biologist named Jacob Segal, and was backed by (what appeared to be) scientific reasoning. Segal was then cited in a news article in England, which then spread the disinformation about the planet like wildfire. Once major papers from around the planet picked up on it, the KGB no longer used their primary sources. Instead they started spreading the disinformation by stating other major papers from around the planet had confirmed the theory about AIDS. What we can learn from these is that:

  • disinformation can be sophisticated. It can use individuals that people trust (like scientists), and can dress itself up with reasonable arguments.
  • disinformation campaigns can use multiple sources (radio, newspapers, pamphlets).
  • disinformation campaigns will try to hide the original sources. Once the campaign is in the open, they may switch to sources that their targets may trust (in this case, domestic newspapers). In rhetoric this is a combination of using kairos (the opportune moment to switch sources), combined with exploiting ethos (sources people trust).

Godson also has a lengthy paragraph on how the AIDS campaign was, “a diversionary tactic against claims that the Soviet Union has used biochemical weapons in Cambodia, Laos, and Afghanistan and is engaged in genetic-weapon research.” The first claim about chemical weapons pertains to Yellow Rain. Those interested in disinformation should also read that Wikipedia article on Yellow Rain for a possible similar campaign conducted by the USA. The second claim about genetic-weapons pertains to US attempts to undermine Soviet bioweapons research via UN arms control treaties (Godson quotes a State Department report here). Godson states that one of the aims was to “muddle the debate” between bio-chemical weapons and AIDS.
So finishing up, we have the two aims of government use of conspiracy theory:

  1. To undermine ethos, and;
  2. To divert attention away from actual conspiracies.

We also have some general properties of these disinformation campaigns:

  • They can be epistemologically sophisticated.
  • The sources will change themselves according to the opportune moment for spreading the disinformation.
  • They will take into consideration the targets of the campaign, and will use sources that the target trusts.

Now, true-believing conspiracy theorists might state something along the lines of, “Yeah, but how do we know this Operation happened? It could be a conspiracy theory about a conspiracy theory.” The answer to this, is that it actually happened. You can look up old news archives and find the disinformation spread in actual newspapers. There are also multiple corroborating sources that this event occurred, including sources from the Russian parliament and members of the East German Stasi admitting to the campaign. Godson has 26 footnotes to his essay, most of which are primary sources. I will endeavour to upload a scan of this essay in the future.

Is The Meme “Nuclear Iran” a Cover For Iran’s Killing and Torture of Dissenters?


The meme of “nuclear Iran” is plastered in every media. This makes convenient cover for Iran’s internal killings and human rights violations. Little attention is given to the slaughter, torture and persecution of minorities, women, atheists, perceived heretics and dissenters!

US Blasts Iran Over Torture And Death Of Blogger

Posted by:– chainsoff

English: Mr. Sayyed Mohammad Beheshti
English: Mr. Sayyed Mohammad Beheshti (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The U.S. has strongly condemned Iran for thetorture and death of Iranian blogger and labor activistSattar Beheshti (35), who as reported, died earlier this week while undergoing interrogation in Evin Prison. “We are appalled by reports that Iranian authorities tortured and killed blogger and activist Sattar Beheshti during a prison interrogation. Besheshti had been arrested for a crime no greater than expressing his political opinion online,” saidVictoria Nuland, U.S. Department spokesperson.

Nuland said that the Iranian government must “investigate this murder, hold accountable those responsible for Beheshti’s arrest, torture, and killing, and immediately cease all reported harassment of Beheshti’s family.” GVF reported that Beheshti’s death occured just one week after his arrest by Iran’s cyber police.

Beheshti was arrested by Iran’s cyber police on national security charges on October 30, who also confiscated the activist’s personal belongings, including his computer and handwritten notes.

Beheshti, the family’s only breadwinner, was reportedly active on Facebook. Iran’s cyber police was launched in January 2011 as part of the nation’s crackdown on online activism. “Sattar Beheshti is just one of thousands of victims of the Iranian government’s campaign of violent repression and efforts to curtail basic freedoms at all costs,” Nuland said