Sunday, April 11, 2010


No Nick in the Observer today, as far as I can see. (I don't buy the paper; FWIW, I buy the weekend FT which does me for the week.) It's a bit off that a political columnist doesn't appear when the election is finally under way.

I do mean to get round to writing about If bombers were a threat once, they still are by our eponymous scribe. (I'm going to wake in the night now, worrying about the Black Death, tuberculosis, and the Vandals[1]). I found the Speech by the Director General of the Security Service, Jonathan Evans, at Bristol University, but need to read and think about it before I can intelligently comment.

Dave's book has been published in the US as I've learned from Oliver Kamm. (Passing thought: is it too late for him to stand with the slogan "Yes we Kamm"? Probably.) Stephen Walt is a smarter reviewer than Ross Douthat. Who knew? Also from Ollie:

If you believe in one conspiracy theory, then you tend to be amenable to that way of thinking in principle. Consider Melanie Phillips, the Daily Mail columnist, whom both David and I count a friend. To my great regret, Melanie defends both Intelligent Design and the absurd notions of Norman Baker MP that the scientist David Kelly was murdered.

I admire both Oliver and DA's ability to have friends who disagree with them. But DA (liberal, easy-going, softly humorous) and 'Mad Mel' (strident, judgmental, intolerant)? It takes all sorts. (I know all three are ethnically Jewish, BTW. We don't do "they're all plotting together" here. Any comments along those lines will be deleted.) It's not always obvious from this blog, but there are things that Oliver Kamm and I agree on. I'm agnostic about David Kelly, but Intelligent Design is utter nonsense.

[1] The ones who sacked Rome, not the ones who took the handles so "the pumps don't work" in the Bob Dylan song.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't ask me where Nick is. I take the Sunday Business Post.

Mad Mel, of course, is a former Guardian scribe and used to be sort of on the left. But I'm not sure Ollie is right. As I keep discovering, there are all sorts of self-proclaimed "sceptics" who are willing to go in for astoundingly wild speculation about areas outside their fields. Some at least of which touches on the realms of the conspiratorial.

But apart from the issue of sceptics being prepared to let evidence-based argument go hang when it suits them... Probably the largest group of conspiracy theorists in Britain are Liverpool supporters, many of whom are absolutely convinced that English (and indeed European) football is an enormous organised conspiracy to keep Liverpool down. Are Scousers more prone than anyone else to believing the world is run by 12-foot lizard men? I think not.

Oh, and Intelligent Design may be bollocks, but it's no more a conspiracy theory than homeopathy is.

4/11/2010 10:11:00 PM  
Anonymous BenSix said...

Truly sceptical people - among whose number I'm not muscling in - probably feel little need to claim that "sceptical" mantle.

O/T - The HSJ's Robin Shepherd has a CiF piece on our "historical mission" that's more of a sermon than an article. We matter because we do. The Special Relationship must be upheld because it must etc.

4/11/2010 10:28:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

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4/11/2010 10:33:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Oh, and Intelligent Design may be bollocks, but it's no more a conspiracy theory than homeopathy is.

I think it is: as I understand Intelligent Design (and I missed saying that I don't buy the Observer because I deliberately haven't since the Grauniad gave a fawning, not to say sycophantic, interview to arch-bullshitter Michael Behe. (I'm aware that may be libellous; and I say, bring it on, son, bring it on.)), it is a conspiracy theory. All these nutters believe that scientists are under hypnotic control of the devil or something. It's loony. It's paranoid. It's reactionary. It's a conspiracy theory to me.

But apart from the issue of sceptics being prepared to let evidence-based argument go hang when it suits them... I recommend Paul Feyerabend on astrology. Really, he's very good on this...

4/11/2010 10:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Martin Wisse said...

Kammmm might have a kernel of truth there, though as per usual the example is strangely warped to fit in with his own worldview. Mad Mel famously not only believes in creationism, but disbelieves global warming (like Kamm himself, right?) and does believe there is a media conspiracy regarding Israel, but it's on the side of the Palestinians.

There does tend to be a clustering in, shall we say, onorthodox beliefs, but what Kammm misses is that these beliefs usually align along fairly obvious political lines.

Rightwingers are vulnerable to belief in creationism and climate change denialism as well as being birthers. Leftwingers run the risk of starting to belief in a full blown Zionist conspiracy or 9/11 was an inside jobism, though the latter is more often seen with largely apolitical people.

And of course conspiracy theories are often true as well. There was an American-led plot to overthrow Allende, as well as Chavez not too long ago, the runup to the Iraq War did saw elite politicians conspiring to distort the truth about Iraqi WMDs, there was even an Europe wide network of underground rightwing groups engaged in political terror which existed unchallenged for decades.

4/12/2010 06:27:00 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

This is strange - Gita Sahgal has left Amnesty (mutually agreed, not sure what happened to lawsuit) and Oliver Kamm has been given the role of announcing (it's mentioned only in one other place, a Sydney Morning Herald article linking to Kamm)

4/12/2010 07:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Asteri said...

As far as conspiracy theories go, the Right has some eyebrow raising one's. The idea that Obama is a Marxist-Muslim, and that there a huge liberal conspiracy in the media to destroy the American way of life.

Or even the Henry 'scoop' Jackson society and their believe in some dastardly, anti-Semitic plot involving Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea and maybe the nation of Greece to take over the world and destroy the "western alliance".

4/12/2010 01:50:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

'Mad Mel' may appear a humourous appellation, but there's more truth to it you may imagine.

I know from an acquaintance who has had dealings with her that she is actually paranoid, and she thinks she is being followed.

Perhaps this goes some way to explaining some of her more hysterical outbursts. Like comparing the UK now, and its treatment of Jews in particular to the Weimar republic. If you demur she compares you to a Nazi or Stalin (as The Guardian's soppy old liberal Jackie Ashley found out).

She actually was once very much part of the liberal left in the '80s and was even mooted as a potential future Guardian editor back then (when the paper was much more on the left than it is today).

What started the long march to the loonier areas of the right was her sending her kids to private schools & the vilification she got for this from fellow Guardian journos.

I doubt this would happen today with most Guardian columnists privately and Oxbridge educated (though come to think of it, the were back then too....)

4/13/2010 12:49:00 AM  
Blogger cian said...

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4/13/2010 08:38:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Congrats to CC for openly professing agnosticism wrt the Kelly death, thus running the gauntlet of the Conspiracism accusation industry.

Kamm: If you believe in one conspiracy theory, then you tend to be amenable to that way of thinking in principle.

What way of thinking, what kind of principle? He really doesn't manage to mean much more than that if you subscribe to a thesis he doesn't agree with, you are likely to (prior credence should be raised that you) subscribe to others. Of the course the domain of the term 'thesis' here is restricted somewhat by the need to shoehorn a belief (or suspicion) into the CT category, but that is easily done.

If you don't believe me, a challenge: name a belief and I'll give a superficially appealing characyterisation of it as a CT.

And sorry to keep chipping away, esp at Chardonnay Chap with whom I'm broadly in sympathy on most issues (inc. now it appears Kelly), but I'm with splinteredsunrise on the ID issue.

That's a standard move by the anti-CT tendency, most obvoiously done by Damain Thompson in his book Cunterblast or whatever it was. The cultic milieu, the unity of all 'cranks' etc, with no argument nor useful analysis. Wheen takes this kind of approach in general, too. Aaronovitch not so much - he has other smears up his sleeve, so to speak.

ID is a position in (attemptedly naturalised) theology. You can cite extraneous beliefs about the anti-Christ but those are no part of ID and not necessarily to be understood literally, as though Satan slots in where the Elders might have stood.

You could say ID has one of the (ahem) hallmarks of Conspiracism - the (unwarranted) imputation of deliberate agency to explain apparently non-deliberate events.

But first, that imputation takes place at a metaphysically basic level, and not in the area of ordinary medium sized dry goods in a world we have a pretty good understanding of. As with Occam's razor (or the philosophical analogy between a. scepticism about official sources and b. global Cartesian scepticism) this means that the example has no bearing on the humdrum world of witness statements, evidence etc.

Second, and more importantly, CTS typically don't introduce agency into the account of events - they generally start from something done by someone, and disgaree with an official account about who that was, how they did it, aims, etc.

On the specifics: as with Climate Change scepticism, it's easy to 'read ahead' and impute a massive coverup thesis to IDers (but all these scientists say x...) but that's really changing the subject - scientists can get things wrong, so the question is 'did they?' not 'could they?' and that doesn't need to involve any conspiratorial explanation.

I urge resistance to the project of assimilating conspiracy research to a breed of superstition.

4/13/2010 01:37:00 PM  
Anonymous andrew adams said...

But with climate change people really do think there is an actual conspiracy. They believe that politicians are conspiring together because they want to levy more taxes, pass more legislation to control our lives and even impose a world government. They (the politicians) are therefore using state funding of scientific research to ensure that scientists toe the line and scare us all into accepting that apocalyptic CC is happening, and scientists are in turn conspiring to rig the data, suppress opposing views and undermine the peer review process.
And these people call themselves "sceptics" whilst being prepared to absolutely any claim without regard for its source or any attempt to verify its accuracy as long as it supports their argument.

4/14/2010 12:01:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Well, yes, certainly the headliners and various benighted teabaggers, but I doubt all CC doubters/deniers believe all of that as stated. I think there are two things to say about it.

First, I think these are ancillary CTs - that is the primary belief involved is that CC is untrue or unproven, and the CT element is an excresecence from that. It's hard to avoid coming up with a CT (and generally overreaching in the process when the main response to one's thesis is the meta-argument from authority type of challenge: 'Oh yeah? How come the authorities (in either sense) say otherwise then.

Especially since the likes of Aaro don;t even bother to ask even the most leading of questions in order to elicit an incriminating CT-based response. Instead Aaro likes to go down the 'of course if you believe that, you must believe...thousands of psychopaths...underground base...fluffy cat..etc.' route.

Second, and relatedly, I'm not sure that most CC doubters/deniers, even those who do go for the whole package and don't stcik to the relatively tractable first-order issues a package subscribe to a choate conspiracy theory anyway.

Like the examples from Asteri - 1. Muslim Commie Obama, 2. pinko media trying to destroy our Way of Life etc - the conspiracy theories are a bit thin on actual conspiring and instead amount to name-calling (e.g. 1) or mood music (e.g. 2).

Oddly, I suppose my own climate change doubts (running at about 30%) do actually have one (minimally) conspiratorial source - the emails and all that which have not been explained to my satisfaction - certainly not by the Butlerishly bland and uninformative findings of the internal 'investigation'.

But I'm not one of the 'them' you're talking about at all (or am I?...) and tend to go for mixed systems/agency explanations rather than vulgar CTs (unless you count descriptions of rather ordinary covert ops in that category.)

As for 'sceptics', I agree there but not only that: it's pretty meaningless the way it's used, unless indexed to a particular proposition that is in doubt.

A sensible scepticism might be something like: 'doubt what is dubitable, according to its dubitability', but that doesn't merit the name.

Anything more distinctively 'sceptical' is either cant or we're back in the Attic agora, in which case I'd like to see a bit more of the living in a barrel and other such entertainment (yes, that was a Cynic, I know).

It's a bit like calling yourself an optimist (again, where not indexed to a particular proposition that you're optimistisc about). It's either an admission of a fault (doubting even the - practically - indubitable; hoping even for the hopeless), or it doesn't mean what it sounds like at all.

(I seem to remember there was some experiment in which those labelled 'pessimist' in psychological tests did much better in estimating probabilities than the optimists - or was that depressives? Either way I'm smug, but if it's pessimists, then the zero point on the scale is clearly ill-calibrated, a bit like 'left wing these days...)

BTW Here's an entertaining admission, more Septic than sceptic, from the founder of Sceptic magazine in the UK. (I offer the clip without further remark. If the Tropefinder General is still trolling around the place, he may wish to rend his garments or something.)

4/17/2010 03:40:00 PM  

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