Who can we trust? The BBC? Mostly yes.

Well – I had embarked on this before I knew an election had been announced in the UK. The UK has very strict laws on election reporting – you literally have to count up the number of people in each party represented in a programme, a phone-in show, a magazine show etc etc during the official three weeks of the campaign. It’s a reminder that by law, (and by statutory obligation under the BBC’s licence fee arrangement) broadcasters are required to be politically impartial and balanced in their overall output. Which means that, (outside of election campaigns) while individual items or programmes do not have to be always meticulously balanced, the overall output of any broadcaster in the UK has to be. The same rules do not apply to newspapers. If broadcasters are clearly proven to be in breach of these laws they can be subject to censure, or being taken off the air.

I am writing this for various reasons – one of which is the following. I am disturbed at frequently coming across a kind of global scepticism: meaning a generalized distrust of the media, a distrust of official statistics, a distrust of experts, of scientific findings, coupled with a generalized distrust of government – encapsulated by the phrase “you can’t trust anyone.”

This is manifested, for example, in determined movements not to accept the following, despite overwhelming scientific evidence for all three

  • that vaccines are safe
  • that climate change is caused by and connected to human activity
  • that GMOs are safe for human consumption

This at a time when we have the most extensive array of human knowledge ever assembled, literally at our fingers tips, via the internet.

But anyway, this is more particularly a focus on what I perceive to be increased and more vitriolic attacks on the “lamestream media,” which I see as linked to this pattern.

I do not dispute that scepticism and questioning are healthy. I do argue however that certain kinds of global scepticism are not warranted and don’t make sense.

I’m also arguing that it is reasonable and rational to mostly trust that there are quite a few journalistic organizations out there who are committed to reporting accurately and impartially, even though they may fail in some instances.

I’m going to therefore disappoint the expectations that the title might have aroused: I am going to argue that the BBC is one those journalistic organizations that it is reasonable to put trust in. Its record, by and large, I contend, is of commitment to impartial coverage of events.

tvFull disclosure: I worked for the BBC from 1987 to 1998 as a reporter and producer.

I am writing this since I’ve become aware that the BBC, more typically under attack from the political right, which considers it pro-left biased, has recently come under more frequent attack from the left. It’s not entirely new – the Glasgow Media Group’s studies in the 1970s and 80s accused mainstream television – the BBC and ITV – of anti-left biased reporting on political issues, and I’ve read other reports from that period alleging the same.

More recently there’s been an attack from Cardiff University Lecturer Mike Berry and also the Media Reform Coalition – which criticized the BBC’s coverage of Jeremy Corbyn (current leader of the Labour Party).

I’m going to take a look at all of these reports in some detail. For reasons of time and space I’m not going to examine the right-wing attacks on the BBC – partly because I perceive that the latest left-wing attacks are somewhat newer and warrant more current attention.

But first let’s just remind ourselves that there’s a strong history of criticism from the right – saying exactly the opposite of the left-wing critiques: that the BBC is biased and pro-left. A recent example is the “Bias at the BBC” report published in the Telegraph.

There is also a thriving industry of right-wing websites devoted to proving that the BBC is left-wing – for example these two: biasedbbc and news-watch.  Then there’s this recent right-leaning report alleging the BBC’s bias in its pro EU coverage.  And again, there’s this fairly recent allegation by a Tory minister that the BBC has an anti-business slant.

wilsonThis pattern of attacks from both left and right is nothing new. In the 1960s Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson complained loud and often about the BBC’s alleged anti- government bias, as did Tony Blair’s government. On the other side, Mrs Thatcher repeatedly attacked the BBC – famously alleging strong bias in the BBC’s coverage of a bombing raid in Libya in 1985 – producing a detailed document of the alleged bias, which was then rebutted by a detailed reply from the BBC.

Sniping has continued to the present day. In short, it’s fair to say that pretty much every government over the past fifty years at least has complained about the BBC, whether they are Conservative, Labour or Coalition, all alleging that the organization is biased against their political positions.

(It’s hard not to note one of many ironies here. Internationally, according to surveys I’ve seen, the BBC is regarded as one of the most trusted and prestigious media organizations in the world. It’s arguably one of the most prominent contributions of the UK to the globe as a whole. This is not to say it’s never controversial – authoritarian governments from Russia to Sri Lanka tend to hate it and dismiss its reports. In Sri Lanka I heard the phrase “Bloody Biased Corporation.” The BBC’s crime? It reported extensively on the widespread persecution of Tamils by the government and army in the north east of the country.)

This is all to give some context and background. The standard BBC argument – that if both sides are criticizing the organization then it’s probably doing the right thing – doesn’t of course prove that the organization is not biased. However, it’s not an insignificant point. If criticism only came from one political side, I think one could reasonably argue that the BBC should be more worried and self-critical than it currently is. And the fact that it is criticized by both sides does open at least the possibility that the BBC is not kowtowing to either political grouping, left or right, and therefore equally annoys people with opposite political views. So I think it is reasonable to use this phenomenon as an indicator that’s worth noting, while not presenting it as something that is conclusive.

bbc 3Now I’m going to consider three instances of reports from left-leaning organizations, all alleging pro-right bias.

This report by the Media Reform Group argues that the BBC early evening news (and also later evening news) did not report fairly or impartially on Jeremy Corbyn during a ten-day period in 2016 following the mass resignations of the Labour shadow cabinet.  It should be noted that even this critical report acknowledges that the BBC’s online coverage was balanced, and that other parts of the BBC – and it names Newsnight and the Andrew Marr show – compensated by giving prominent air time to Corbyn supporters. So the report itself is not an indictment of the BBC as a whole, just of the evening news on television in that ten-day period.

The argument is that more hostile language was used toward Corbyn and his supporters, that more critics were interviewed, that greater air time was given to critics and the general slant of stories were negative. (The report also criticizes coverage by other press, newspapers etc but as mentioned these are not covered by the same requirements for balance.)

Drilling down a bit the actual statistics on the BBC early evening news, according to the report are these: the news featured 13 Corbyn critics against 9 Corbyn supporters, and gave nearly twice as much airtime to critics during the ten day period on the news at 6, while ITV news had a more or less balanced amount of airtime for critics and supporters.

The report also recorded a much greater proportion of negatively framed issue reports in this period, by the BBC. There follows a qualitative report on use of language, citing instances of negative language being used by reporters re Corbyn. So that’s the argument.

I am not asserting that there is nothing to the criticism. For me the most troubling is the amount of airtime given to critics (not so much the numbers of critics). It’s possible that the evening news did make too much of the critical side. I will return to this later.

However, I don’t find the rest of the report convincing. Firstly, most of the report is commentary by the lead guy, Dr Justin Schlosberg, not statistics and figures. And there are some problems with that. Schlosberg argued in a separate, outside commentary that everyone has political views and that’s fine so long as those political views don’t colour the objectivity of the report. I agree. But in fact the writing in the report (ironically enough) isn’t scientific or objective. Take this extract:

“Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the party less than 10 months ago with an overwhelming and unprecedented mandate from hundreds of thousands of members and supporters. He was elected on a platform of principled opposition to austerity, privatisation and the Iraq War” etc etc.

Beside the tone, the key word here is “principled”. That is not an objective word – it is completely evaluative and should have no place in a scientifically objective report. Again ironically, no BBC reporter could get away with describing a political candidate in a direct description as “principled” since it’s obviously a political endorsement. (For the record, I actually think Corbyn is almost certainly principled – but that isn’t the point – as a BBC reporter I could not, and would not, have used such an evaluative word.)

It’s fairly clear that Schlosberg is sympathetic to Corbyn – not a problem in itself – but, to repeat, as he himself argues, it should not leak into a credible report. And more unfortunately, Schlosberg made a statement during public discussion of his report that the BBC was a “mouthpiece for the right wing press.” That statement is significant since it isn’t supported by his own report, which, as I mention, DIDN’T accuse the whole of the BBC as biased, only the evening TV news (ie not radio, not the rest of BBC television and not BBC online). So this is a strong generalization not supported by his own research, which clearly reveals his bias, which did leak into the report.

That’s why I’m not inclined to give the report the benefit of the doubt on its qualitative selection of language used by the BBC. I’d like to see a proper quantitative account of the language used, from an unbiased source.

tv2There’s another major flaw with the report. It accuses the BBC of framing its reports negatively. But let’s remember what it was reporting on – an unprecedented crisis in the Labour Party in which large numbers of shadow cabinet members resigned, leading to an overwhelming vote of no confidence by Labour MPs in the leader. To my knowledge no such thing has ever happened in the party before, and was clearly a very significant crisis. OF COURSE the story was framed in a negative way – it was a major crisis! Arguing, as this report does, that the BBC was negatively slanted, is the equivalent of complaining that coverage of an earthquake or natural disaster was overly negative. It ignores how journalism operates in the real world: a crisis is legitimately reported as a crisis. If the BBC hadn’t reported it as a crisis it would quite reasonably be accused of being pro-Corbyn.

There’s also a logical fallacy to the argument: it points out that the BBC’s framing (ie how the stories were headlined and presented) was more negative than ITV’s. Does that, objectively speaking, mean that the BBC was biased? No it doesn’t. It might, perfectly logically, mean that the ITV coverage was biased and pro-Corbyn, and that the BBC’s wasn’t. The issue is that we are talking about two relative measures not absolute measures. How do we know, without further context, whether either organization was right to be either more or less negative. Is that nit-picking? No – a scientifically objective report would need to address that question. It doesn’t.

So overall, the report’s bias undermines its credibility. Most of the report is commentary, which reveals a lack of impartiality, though I do make an exception for one set of its statistics. It is of course ironic that a report that claims objectivity in its criticism of the BBC for lack of impartiality, actually lacks impartiality itself.

tvOK on to the Glasgow Media Group’s report “More Bad News” from the mid-70s. I read this thoroughly. The contention is that the BBC (and this time ITV too) gave more airtime to proponents of a particular view that the Glasgow Media Group disagreed with; secondly: that the media controlled the debate, rather than reflecting the debate, which was about the causes of inflation. The implication is that a media organization should reflect various opinions not set an agenda or try to lead them. Without getting into details, the report’s own figures clearly refute the report’s own contention. The representatives shown on the BBC of various views closely reflected the actual spread of views across the political spectrum on this issue.

Extract from my commentary:

They (Glasgow Media Group) state quite clearly in the intro, that the Glasgow Media Group believes that the principle underlying cause of inflation is the lack of investment in industry in the UK, leading to too much capital chasing too few goods.

Here’s where I think they go wrong in their argument: their principle point is that television news controls the debate – rather, presumably, than reflecting it. But let’s look at this in context: the Glasgow Media Group’s position can easily be identified with the left of the Labour Party at the time – very familiar to me, since I held precisely these views. The centre and right of the Labour Party, including the cabinet, and the major ministers at the time didn’t hold this view – and frequently stressed the need to rein in wage demands – to maintain the deal of the Social Contract. The Conservative Party had some slightly different angles, but also focused on excessive wage demands – especially by public sector unions. Thus the majority of the members of by far the largest parties focused on wage demands.

What do their own figures show about coverage (they cite both ITN and the BBC): – ie on the specific issue – what caused inflation at the time?

Main figures – 96 references to wage demand argument, with 12 rebuttals

33 references to lack of investment. 29 references to rise in oil prices; 22 government borrowing, 22 government expenditure (others much fewer)

Remember that the majority of the main political parties supported the wage inflation argument. These figures therefore show a pretty close and accurate reflection of the main political arguments. (Remember that the view that GMG is supporting is a clearly a MINORITY view). They don’t support the idea that the media controlled the debate at all – rather that they pretty accurately reflected the spectrum of opinion on this issue (crudely speaking).”

My conclusion from this was that the Glasgow Media Group had confused too things. They clearly disagreed with the main arguments being put forth on this subject, as conveyed by the media. That’s fine, anyone can disagree. (For the record, my views at that time were pretty much wholly in alignment with the views of Jeremy Corbyn, with the exception of the EU. I’ve moved to a more centre-left, social-democratic, Obama-like position in recent decades. As Schlosberg argues, that doesn’t vitiate my position, so long as my arguments are logical and objective.)

The problem is that the BBC’s role is not (obviously) to put out reports that people agree with, and, in the realm of politics at any rate, they are not obliged to put our reports that are objectively correct (since there is pretty much no agreement in politics on what is objectively correct on highly political and contentious issues such as – what is the correct level of taxes? Or how much should a government invest or borrow? Yes, philosophically-speaking there is, I think, a fact of the matter – but these issues are so closely related to values that in a practical sense it’s all but impossible to reduce these arguments to sheer, objective facts.) The Glasgow Media Group in my opinion clearly conflated and confused these two things. In effect, the report shows that the BBC faithfully reflected the balance of political opinion in the country at the time, as represented by the positions of the political parties, and the various wings of those parties – and it just happened that the majority opinion was one that the Glasgow Media Group disagreed with.

tv4As a general remark, I think this is a somewhat more subtle and nuanced example of a more widespread phenomenon that I see today: if a media outlet carries views you disagree with, you instantly dismiss it and loudly proclaim on the internet that it’s a biased and untrustworthy media organization.

Turning to the last and final left-leaning report. This is a report by Mike Berry of Cardiff University. I’m not going to go into this in as much detail, to avoid exhaustion, which may have already set in. Berry alleges, by comparing coverage of political events in 2007 and 2012, similar biased coverage against the left – namely that Tories get more airtime than Labour politicians, (and also secondarily that the BBC gives higher profile to people anti the EU). Extract:

“In strand one (reporting of immigration, the EU and religion), Gordon Brown outnumbered David Cameron in appearances by a ratio of less than two to one (47 vs 26) in 2007.

In 2012 David Cameron outnumbered Ed Milliband by a factor of nearly four to one (53 vs 15).

Labour cabinet members and ministers outnumbered Conservative shadow cabinet and ministers by approximately two to one (90 vs 46) in 2007; in 2012, Conservative cabinet members and ministers outnumbered their Labour counterparts by more than four to one (67 to 15).

In strand two (reporting of all topics) Conservative politicians were featured more than 50% more often than Labour ones (24 vs 15) across the two time periods on the BBC News at Six. So the evidence is clear that BBC does not lean to the left it actually provides more space for Conservative voices.”

Which is on the face of it damning. But then if you drill down into the original report that this is based on, it turns out that the report did not state the conclusions that Mike Berry did. In fact Mike Berry was just one of 21 researchers. So it seems that his article is like a minority report voicing his personal dissent. The fact is though, the original report does not slant the same way and is much more cautious and nuanced, as follows:

1“There is no clear statistical evidence of a change of approach between 2007 and 2012           to reporting the three topics – although there is a slight increase in the breadth of                   opinions represented across the years of our samples in BBC coverage of religion,                  immigration and the UK’s relationship to Europe.

  1. There is a striking dominance of party political voices in the output and topics analysed. This has increased between 2007 and 2012 in stories about the UK’s relationship with Europe, where the debate is dominated by British mainstream political positions.
  2. Although political voices dominate, and the ruling party has a larger share of voice, the Conservative dominance in 2012 is by a notably larger margin than Labour dominance in 2007 (although the two governments were at different points in the electoral cycle), and there is only a relatively limited presence of Liberal Democrats across both years.”
  • And then later:

This points to a cautious conclusion that Cameron was a more newsworthy opposition leader than Miliband in the context of the three topics, and that his coalition government has likewise been more successful in attracting coverage than the Labour leadership that preceded him. It might also reflect the tail end of a long period of Labour rule, with the opposition making ground, against the early years of a Conservative-led coalition government with the opposition regrouping.”

If you read the above, you realize that Berry has left out this very important caveat and qualification – that the reporting of the two governments (2007) and (2012) came at times when the governments were in different parts of their cycles – so that you are comparing apples with oranges if you draw direct conclusions from the numbers without this context.

tv3The last comment from the main report above raises an interesting question: perhaps some politicians are simply more successful, through their own personal and organizational qualities, at drawing attention to their policies than others. Abstract question: suppose, for the sake of argument, that one politician is objectively more effective, dynamic and a better communicator than an opponent. Is it the task of the broadcaster to obscure that? Or should the broadcaster reflect it in some way?

A second theoretical question is raised by all this. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that one group is supported by 20% of the population, and opposed by 80% of the population. How should a broadcaster report on this situation objectively? The answer is not straightforward. If the broadcaster gives equal weight to the opposing views, (in terms of framing, numbers of interviewees and airtime) couldn’t it therefore be reasonably accused of introducing bias – since the weight of opinion is not 50/50 – but 80/20?

The rough rule of thumb in political reporting is to give equal time – but is that always the right approach? I think there’s a rational argument that sometimes broadcasters should reflect differences of political popularity. A comparison that comes to mind, which admittedly is in a different field and not pure politics, is reporting on climate change: eventually broadcasters came under legitimate criticism for over-representing climate sceptics, when 98% of climate scientists had concluded that human activity was affecting the climate. Broadcasters were accused – rightly – of giving too much airtime to sceptics, giving the impression that the scientific debate was actually balanced between the two points of view.

This raises a separate issue. Are organizations like the BBC in some senses “too balanced” – or to put it differently, do they report with false equivalence between two points of view, when one of those points of view is clearly refuted by the evidence. This is Economist Paul Krugman’s complaint in the US: that the media give equal weight to views put forward by the Republicans and Democrats, whereas, in his view, the reality is that the Republicans are much more extreme than the Democrats in making false statements that are in direct contradiction with the evidence. So in his view media organizations are not reporting correctly if they give both points of view equal air-time.

This was further developed recently by economist Simon Wren-Lewis in the UK. He accused the BBC of the same kind of false equivalence in its reporting, by giving equal airtime to proponents of these two views: that Brexit would be bad for the economy – on one side, and on the other – that Brexit wouldn’t be bad for the economy. Wren-Lewis’s point is that a large majority of economists had concluded that it would definitely be bad for the economy, but the BBC persisted in giving equal airtime to the opposite view. Thus, in effect, giving too much voice to a non-factual perspective.

This is not, of course, the same problem as the earlier criticism of political bias – it’s more a criticism of a method, a clinging to balance, even when balance isn’t required or appropriate. But even though this isn’t the main subject of this article, I do have to take issue a bit with Wren-Lewis. Let’s think of the context – a hugely contentious debate, with extremely polarised views on both sides. What is a BBC reporter or producer to do in these circumstances, faced with an enormously complex issue? Most aren’t trained economists, so can’t truly evaluate whether Wren-Lewis is correct. The best they can do, if they see that a majority of economists agree with Wren-Lewis, is to report that fact (and I think the BBC did just this frequently) while still giving airtime to the opposing view. Maybe the opposing view should therefore have been given slightly less airtime than it was.

But also let’s consider the substance: economics is an intensely political subject area, with lots of disagreement on most issues; this was also an economic forecast which have frequently been shown historically to be unreliable – so therefore the BBC was arguably right not to treat it as settled science, like climate change. So even on the substance, the BBC has a right to defend itself on giving a fair amount of balance to the opposing views.

Again, if it hadn’t, it would have been deluged with intensified criticism that it was “anti-Brexit” or “Pro EU.” Remember I quote examples above of this criticism (but also examples, once again, of groups arguing the exact opposite – that the BBC was a mouthpiece for anti-EU views.)

OK so that’s a lot of discussion of reports and statistics. I’m now going to speak more anecdotally.

bbcAs previously mentioned, I worked for the BBC from 1987 to 1998. My views through this period were to the left – mostly very similar to Jeremy Corbyn’s. I think it’s true to say that in every single report I broadcast that had the slightest political content (and that was frequent) I included viewpoints that I personally disagreed with. This was especially true in reports which involved interviews with politicians.

The expectation at the BBC, very clearly understood, was that as a reporter I had to be really tough on any politician and to press them hard on any controversial point. I remember grilling Eric Heffer, the left-wing Labour MP on the party’s policies and outlook, and also pressing Edwina Currie on a local health service issue.

The point being, that in my experience over those eleven years, you simply had to be tough with politicians from any part of the political spectrum. I would have been called out and strongly criticized by my editors if I hadn’t. This is the culture of the BBC as I know it – that, in practice, you can’t let politicians get away with making their political pitches without strong challenge, and this absolutely applied if you were interviewing a left-leaning politician or a right-leaning one. This culture permeated local reporting and national reporting – and I would argue that pretty much anyone who has worked for the BBC as a reporter would recognize what I say.

I’m going to now turn to another report – commissioned by the BBC governors (at the time the body that oversees the BBC’s editorial independence) and carried out by an independent panel on the organization’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I turn to this because this is a good example of a highly contentious issue with strongly opposing viewpoints. I remember receiving faxes and comments on this story, more so than on anything else, when I was working as a reporter and producer, alleging that the BBC was biased toward one side or the other.

israel pThis was the Report of the Independent panel for the BBC Governors on impartiality of BBC coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, April 2006.

Their conclusions were as follows: (very briefly summarized)

  1. “Apart from individual lapses, sometimes of tone, language or attitude, there was little to suggest systematic or deliberate bias; on the contrary there was evidence, in the programming and in other ways, of a commitment to be fair, accurate and impartial;
  2. there are identifiable shortcomings. There are, in particular, gaps in coverage, analysis, context and perspective. … These included an absence of historical background and deficiencies in the provision of other contexts (such as the role of the wider Middle East in the conflict), and insufficient analysis and interpretation of some important events and issues etc etc”

I quote this report because, from my perspective, it rather accurately reflects my own experience of working for the BBC. Yes, there was an overall commitment to impartiality. But at the same time, reporters and producers have to produce pieces often under severe time pressure. Balance is crudely managed – grabbing a quick interview with the two sides. Above all, and this is a criticism that can be made of almost all news broadcasters, it was difficult to place things in an adequate historical and societal context, given the time constraints. So the praise and criticism of the above rings true.

Needless to say the above report didn’t assuage groups on both sides of the conflict or stop them from continuing to accuse the BBC of bias.

Because of the above considerations, a reporter is more likely to resort to the familiar and well-known representative of a point of view. There is a tendency therefore for an organization like the BBC to reflect a more mainstream and establishment range of voices. So if you are in a political group that is not in the mainstream, but is more to the left or the right, you are less likely to receive as much coverage.

So I think the BBC and others are “guilty” in practice of covering the more mainstream views in any society. Certainly if you are in one of those groups you are likely to see that as a defect.

But is the BBC wrong to more often reflect mainstream views? Remember the Glasgow Media Group’s argument that a broadcaster shouldn’t control the debate but should reflect it? I think that’s right – so a tendency to reflect the views held by larger parts of society is not, in my opinion, a defect.

So what could be done about that? In an ideal world, even more airtime would be given to political discussions, which would then allow more context and more room for smaller groups in society. Television, in particular, probably doesn’t do that enough – and a lot of the problem is simply lack of air-time and lack of time to prepare. If more air-time was given, more voices could be included. So it is a fair criticism to say that television could and should include a broader range of voices across the political spectrum.


So overall I think that the BBC does have an overall commitment to impartial reporting on political questions. However, it’s limited by the hasty pragmatic choices reporters have to make in day-to-day reporting which results in a lack of sufficient context and analysis, and means that political groups representing minority opinions don’t get as much airtime as an ideally informed public should get.

Reporters and producers are human and fallible. Even though the culture at the BBC is to press for impartiality, individual editors and reporters can and sometimes do nudge the framing back and forth in ways that are not wholly fair. The BBC does fail sometimes. Sometimes also it’s hard to be entirely objective when an overwhelming narrative has been developed in all media across the nation – including newspapers and online. It’s hard for a BBC editor or producer not to be influenced by mainstream thinking.

Mainstream thinking – as reflected by polls and the overall media environment – has generally not been sympathetic to Jeremy Corbyn. That’s undoubtedly true. As mentioned above, bloggers and newspapers are under no constraint whatsoever to be fair or objective, and they patently aren’t. It’s only broadcasters who are under that constraint, which in turn means they have an even greater responsibility to report fairly.

As mentioned before, the single statistic that bothers me in the reports above is the much greater proportion of airtime given to Jeremy Corbyn critics on the BBC’s 6 pm news in a ten-day period in 2016. (For reasons given I don’t find other accusations persuasive.) This might well be a prima facie case that this particular TV bulletin (and its editor) did give unfair coverage of Corbyn.

Let’s look at the context. Corbyn and the Labour party are in a major crisis. In my opinion that means that negative coverage is warranted of this event. However, a reasonable balance between supporters and critics should obviously be maintained. The context is – re support for Corbyn – that there are three basic constituencies:

party membership: strong majority in favour of Corbyn;

MPs in parliament: strong majority against Corbyn;

public at large (as far as polling indicates) strong majority against Corbyn.

So following my previous arguments, it might be reasonable for there to be somewhat more weight given to criticism and opposition, given this context and the story (a crisis). Let’s say a ration of 12 – 9 – very rough rule of thumb – might be arguably fair. The actual distribution of critics to supporters was 13 – 9 – which is just about defensible, but maybe a bit too slanted.

But, and here’s the rub, the airtime given, was a ratio of around 17 – 9, andI don’t think that is defensible. So in this instance, the report makes a fair point.

If so, the BBC did fail in this instance and the BBC should rightly be held to account for this. But let’s remember, even this report didn’t allege overall bias by the BBC – it said that BBC online was fair and balanced, and that other parts of the BBC – Newsnight and the Andrew Marr show – gave prominent airtime to Corbyn supporters.

So scrutiny of the BBC is welcome – in fact it’s vital in a democracy. Well-founded and evidence-based criticisms should be responded to by the BBC.

At the same time, I haven’t come across any convincing study or evidence that the BBC as a whole is biased politically. It doesn’t accord with either the historical record, the weight of the evidence such as we have it, or my personal experience.

And to conclude: impartial media organizations are, quite literally I believe, one of the most important elements of any democratic society. They are extremely precious, and are outnumbered by vast numbers of partial media outlets, (and by outlets that are deliberately focused on spreading propaganda and false information).

There is a place for partial, opinion-led outlets, but we do need also to be able to turn to media organizations that we can trust at least to be trying hard to report fairly. It personally drives me crazy to listen to a media outlet in which the only voices I hear are ones that I agree with and are not challenged. On the BBC political viewpoints are pretty always challenged – and that’s a good and valuable thing.

We should, in summary, hold media organizations like the BBC to account when they do fail. But we should also value them and support the tradition they represent – it’s an extremely precious and vital tradition.


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GMOs, Vaccines and Climate Change – yes, yes and yes. (Unpopular post)

Should we be worried about GMOs?

Yes, to some extent – well, we should be prudent: we need to keep monitoring and we need to keep vigilant – BUT – the overwhelming scientific evidence to date is that they are safe – and there have literally been thousands of studies on GMOs. To quote from one science-blog article these are the critical conclusions most scientists have drawn:

1) All the currently approved commercially available crops that have been brought about via modern molecular genetic engineering techniques are at least as safe to consume (and are at least as safe for the environment) as their corresponding non-GE counterparts.

2) There is nothing about the process of modern genetic engineering that makes unpredicted dangers any more intrinsically likely than would be the case with other methods of altering an organism’s genome (I.e. Selective breeding radiation mutagenesis, polyploidy or wide cross hybridization). 

Have there been studies that have found negative effects? Yes, there are a few – but most scientists see those studies as flawed or inconclusive, and they are massively outweighed by studies that concluded the opposite, as above. As an example, here’s a description of one particularly controversial study  that found negative effects – that has now been retracted by the publisher – the Seralini rats study on GMOs.

Of course it’s very difficult to prove an absence of risk – hence the need for continued vigilance.

What I’ve just written is hotly disputed by many – and I’m fully aware that when it comes to GMOs there is a large contingent – especially on the liberal left – who are vigorously opposed to this assertion. There’s probably more opposition to GMOs in Europe (although Europe’s main scientific academies say they are safe) and a number of countries have banned imports of GMO foods.

What is true is that GMO foods have totally penetrated the market in the US and we are, and have been, eating vast quantities of them for a long time.

But here’s where I’m going to annoy that large contingent. Let me quote this Pew Study in the US:

In fact, it’s not just an 88% majority of American Association for the Advancement of Science scientists who say that GMO foods are safe to eat, it’s most major national and international scientific bodies around the world – from the US, to Europe, to Australia, to the World Health Organization – that have concluded the same thing. See a partial list of such organizations here further down the article.

So the consensus among scientists re GMOs is similar to the worldwide consensus of scientists on climate change (98% according to some surveys) and on the effectiveness and overall of safety of vaccines (backed by by the overwhelming majority of scientists based on very large studies).

Needless to say, there are strong, very persistent groups who are totally opposed to all of the above: to vaccines, and also to the assertion that climate change is happening and is caused by human activity. (The political spread is different – I’d hazard a guess that anti-vaccine sentiment is evenly spread across the political arena from left to right, while anti-climate change is more on the political right).

Of course, this is very much the case with GMOs – just google GMO and you’ll find dozens of crusading groups who are furious that major scientific bodies are supporting the conclusion that GMOs are safe – or more strictly, that GMOs, which have been in very widespread use for the past several decades, have yet to be shown to have any discernible negative health impact on humans or animals.

And whether it’s GMOs, vaccines or climate change, it’s the same argument essentially in each case: the vast majority of scientists can’t be trusted because they have commercial pressures, or interests, not to tell the truth. So the claim is that there is a global conspiracy by the majority of scientists to mislead the public, fueled by big money from big pharma, agribusiness, and the medical establishment.

In turn, the critics turn to the minority studies and the minority of scientists – but also a large number of non-specialists – who argue that the vast majority of scientists are wrong.

gmo4Whose perspective is it more rational to give greater weight to? Who is more likely to be giving out information that is scientifically accurate?

I can see more reasons why GMOs are unpopular on the liberal left: they are produced by large agribusiness companies; there are issues around financial monopoly and patenting of genes; they are perceived as non-natural.  There’s also concern that they will damage the environment (but here again the scientific consensus is as follows: they don’t – or at least not more than other products).

I agree that commercial monopolies can easily be problematic, but that is a completely different issue to my question: are they safe or not?  It’s surely a mistake to conflate these two issues – or to allow sentiments about one to lead to conclusions about the other.

So let’s take an individual case in point – the recent wide-ranging study (essentially a study of studies – a systematic review) published by the National Academy of Sciences.

Their main conclusion:

The design and analysis of many animal-feeding studies were not optimal, but the large number of experimental studies provided reasonable evidence that animals were not harmed by eating food derived from GE crops. Additionally, long-term data on livestock health before and after the introduction of GE crops showed no adverse effects associated with GE crops. The committee also examined epidemiological data on incidence of cancers and other human-health problems over time and found no substantiated evidence that foods from GE crops were less safe than foods from non-GE crops.

It’s a vast study of decades of research. But can we trust it? I don’t disagree at all that it is legitimate to subject studies like this to scrutiny. Is the National Academy of Sciences trustworthy? Are the scientists biased, and do they have conflicts of interest because of close ties with the industry? If you read the web, you’ll find people asserting exactly this.

But to be as fair as I can on this – I’ve looked up the study – I’ve looked up who was on the panel; I’ve looked up who funded the research and I’ve looked up the procedure for appointing the panel and how they approach conflicts of interest. You can examine all this through the links below.

So please if you’re interested – follow up each link – read who is on the panel, google them, look for references; find out about the institutions sponsoring the panel and do your due diligence on those two – and let me know if you find something dubious.

Maybe no one can answer every sceptical question – but there’s an enormous amount of publicly available information there that anyone can assess.

I can’t myself claim to have done an absolutely exhaustive study of every single lead here, but from what I’ve read online I don’t see any significant signs of conflicts of interest – either with the scientists themselves, or with bodies funding it – but of course I could have missed something.

A note on the page about procedures: while saying they screen out conflicts of interests, they do in fact deliberately look for a range of different opinions and viewpoints on the panel.

Here you go:

And here’s an overview of the study, from a supportive point of view, from a blog I read frequently – Science Based Medicine – and here’s an NPR article on the research which quotes the chair of the panel.

I am not in any way arguing that ALL the issues have been settled – that would truly be unscientific – ongoing research and vigilance needs to be maintained – and here’s another article from Scientific American which gives a sympathetic hearing to one or two sceptics, while also referring to the consensus – but in addition arguing that dismissals of scepticism have been too harsh.

2009-026-global-warming-sceptics-final-wordI have a bigger point to make, and I’ve referred to it on other posts: I’m worried by a kind of global scepticism I come across fairly frequently: namely that you can’t trust ANYONE, not scientists, not researchers, not governments, not the media. But if that is the case we are truly paralysed. If we don’t trust that we can access accurate scientific results we really are in a bind.

Of course it’s true – in non-democratic countries, or in instances where scientists ARE hired guns for commercial interests (and yes it happens quite a lot of the time) that scientists aren’t always to be trusted. Yes – we need to be very wary of studies coming from unfree societies, or studies sponsored by commercial interests on crucial issues that affect our lives.

But are we really saying, in situations like climate change, vaccines and GMOs that very large majorities of scientists are deliberately and knowingly deceiving us? That they are ALL in thrall to commercial interests or political interference? If so, it doesn’t seem to be a world that I recognize. Perhaps I’m uncommonly naive, but from my own encounters with scientists, and from what I read, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that a very substantial proportion of scientists do research because they are interested in finding out whether various hypotheses are correct or not, and to get an insight into what is actually happening in the universe.

And another thought: if science has been completely hijacked by lackeys for commercial interests, how come it’s been so successful over the last five centuries? Surely if scientists were only working to a commercial (or political) diktat, rather than factual reality, science would have failed abysmally by now and been dismissed. (And since there’s never been a higher degree of scrutiny or public information sharing than in the present day, there’s reason to think that in the past science was quite possibly more vulnerable to commercial and political pressure – think of Galileo under house arrest, or the astronomer Bruno Giordano being executed after displeasing the Inquisition with theories that suggested that stars were distant suns with their own planets, among other things.)

Anyway, I’ve tried to give out as much information as I can – especially on that one influential study above.

And finally, I AM arguing there is an existing general scientific consensus on GMOs – whether you agree with it or not – since I have the impression that this state of affairs is not well publicised.



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Brexit is Brexit is exit?

euTheresa May the likely next Prime Minister said “Brexit is Brexit’ but it’s not going to be as simple as that, and in her own words, when she said that “government and parliament” should make sure it happens, she was in the same breath leaving the door open for parliamentary involvement. She also talked of continued access to and negotiations on the single market. Already some European leaders (Sarkozy for example) are talking about an accommodation, keeping the UK in the EU.

The situation as I see it is as follows. May says the UK won’t invoke Article 50, which sets off a 2-year timetable for withdrawal, until the new year. This is because once the Article is invoked it puts the UK in an extremely weak bargaining position, since the EU could simply sit us out and not agree to anything.

On their side, at the moment, for precisely these reasons, EU officials are saying “no informal negotiations” before Article 50. Why would they – throwing away their bargaining advantage?

Of course the UK does have some leverage -since the EU does want to maintain good relations and trade with the UK.

However, it’s inconceivable that May can negotiate continued full access to the single market without huge concessions on freedom of movement – which animated much of the vote against the EU. You can’t have your cake and eat it.

Additionally, in order to have access to the single market – or even somewhat free access to the single market – the UK will also have to abide by many of the laws and regulations that people fulminated against during the referendum.

The EU is not going to give the UK a free ride – of course not. Not only because it’s logical and reasonable to have to make reciprocal concessions to have the advantages of the single market, but also because the EU wants to make sure it’s known that there’s a price for leaving, in order to warn other countries not to.

So whatever she does, however skillfully negotiated, even supposing that EU officials will relent and consent to informal negotiations -which because of political pressures might indeed happen – she can’t present a fantastic deal: the more access she gains, the more it will be like still being a member of the EU, but without any say at all on EU policy; or she will have a bad deal which gives us much more limited access, but with fewer obligations to the EU.

Nevertheless, the government will spin this as a “good deal for Britain.” But there will be major factors making this a tough stance to defend. One: the very likely break-up of the UK which will follow -with Scotland leaving and a hornet’s nest opened in Northern Ireland. Two – very likely a major weakening, if not terminal destruction of the City – which will inevitably lose its power since it will be outside the EU, and major financial operators will naturally want their operations to be inside the EU. So there will be enormous pressure from many groups and interests – not least business – and enormous consequences for any proposed deal.

Obviously Remainers will be extremely critical of the deal – asking why it is superior to simply staying in the EU in the first place. And they will have a good point.

My best guess? There’s a 65% to 35% chance that the government will simply push it through, without a parliamentary vote – propelled by the continuing animus against the EU and the referendum outcome.

But that means there’s a 35% chance of three other outcomes:

  • A vote in parliament to approve or not approve the deal
  • A general election to approve the deal
  • A second referendum on the deal

It will largely depend on: how much dissatisfaction and pressure there will be around the deal. Whether a lot of people are calling for a parliamentary vote. Where the Labour Party is positioned. Whether, given a protracted and difficult negotiation process, people will begin to tire of the whole process and come round to thinking the status quo wasn’t as bad as all that. Whether European and EU politicians dangle some incentives before the UK to entice it to stay in – such as some kind of opt-out on completely free movement – a second tier of countries with different rules on this – as already mooted by some.

So a lot of things could happen – and as US officials are suggesting – which they wouldn’t if there was no possibility of it – there are still several scenarios in which the UK would remain in the EU.

PS – footnote: I suspect a key to this is the “free movement’ element – which I think is the core fear/animus/question in the electorate. If some kind of deal could be offered on this – from the EU itself (ie the two tier option, as Sarkozy is suggesting, allowing some to opt out of completely free movement,which of course would have to be a Europe wide deal, not just specifically for the UK) – I think the government would then have cover to say the referendum’s goals have been met – yay! – and could then say we we can proceed as a full member – thus obviating the other downsides – damage to the City; UK break up; recession and job losses caused by limited access to the single market.


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Both And


Is it possible to recognize and express different opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while maintaining reasoned debate?

This is going to be a long post – and I enter it feeling nervous. Is this going to simply further and entrench existing arguments, or does it open, just a little bit, a door to constructive debate? Can I hold honestly to my own conclusions while doing this? It’s all been prompted by a conversation with my colleague and very well informed friend, Mike Arkus.

If you do read part of this, or even all of this, of course I’d be interested in hearing your views – in the spirit of reasoned debate in which we can look at our differing opinions through a fair lens.

Firstly, where do I come from and why am I interested in this conflict?

As a British student I volunteered to teach English to Palestinians, and ended up teaching Palestinian trainee-teachers in Bethlehem on the West Bank one summer in the early 80s. Yes, I’m that old.

I knew little about the conflict before going (some might argue I haven’t learned much in the meantime) but I enjoyed my stay there, was intrigued by the conversations I had, and felt a connection to the Palestinians I met. Since then I’ve returned a couple of times with the UN filming stories on the West Bank and Gaza, and I’ve made multiple visits to Middle Eastern countries, and have followed the debate closely wherever I’ve been.

So do I feel a closer connection with the Palestinians? Yes, I plead guilty. I have spoken and listened to Israelis fairly frequently too, but I have more of an emotional connection to Palestinians, since I’ve simply spent more time with them.

Broadly and crudely speaking, I think my views on the conflict are probably similar to a Haaretz-reading Israeli liberal, probably a supporter of Peace Now or similar (even though these strands have been under attack in Israel and are certainly less popular and widespread recently, as far as I understand.)

Israeli 2Does that disqualify me from stating a public opinion on the conflict? I don’t think so. Firstly, I try to read carefully and to inform myself on the subject, while clearly recognizing that many are better informed, and that to be either Israeli or Palestinian will give a different dimension and perspective.

But that raises a question: are you disqualified from having a public opinion on this subject if you feel more affinity for one of the peoples involved? If so, then, presumably, the overwhelming majority of both the Israeli and Palestinian populations would be disqualified, and anyone who has family or ethnic ties to either of the groups. Yes, sure, there probably are some people who have a perfect equilibrium of emotional empathy and sympathy, but my guess is that they are in the minority.

Palestinian 1(By the way, please don’t misread this: in reality I think it’s quite right that we should give more weight to the opinions of Israelis and Palestinians, than to mine for example – since it’s their lives that are on the line.)

So I would submit that we can have a reasoned debate while being upfront about where we are coming from and what ties and affinities we feel for the people involved in the conflict.


I see the conflict as a “both and” conflict. In many debates – not just the Israeli-Palestinian one, which I’ll name IP for convenience – I observe that it’s hard for many of us to hold two simultaneous but contrasting thoughts at the same time – or to admit to doing so.

Just to pluck one example: I believe that Obamacare has created a great improvement in American lives. At the same time I believe that a single-payer health system would be better. One thought does not, in fact, contradict the other.

Of all the conflicts I know of around the world, to me IP is the exemplar of a “both and” conflict. For every pro-Palestinian point, there is a pro-Israeli point. For every Israeli perspective (and of course there are many more than one Israeli perspective – my second theme) there is a Palestinian perspective (Palestinian perspectives).

If significant perspectives are left out or rejected, I believe the hope for forward progress is minimised.

It’s probable – inevitable, that I miss some Israeli perspectives – and very likely Palestinian ones two. But what drives me frankly nuts, and what finds me involved in vociferous debates about IP, is that I often see only one view being expressed. That’s a big, big problem in this debate. (And yes, I’m sometimes guilty of this myself: one example: it was pointed out to me that an early draft of a piece on the West Bank I did for the UN had excluded lines referring to Israeli perspectives. I duly inserted them).

Secondly – to the BOTH AND point: for every bald, simple statement on IP, there’s a more complex and far more accurate (in my view) statement.

Two examples:

  • Hamas is a terrorist organization.
  • Israelis support right-wing politicians like Benjamin Netanyahu.

While there’s some truth to both statements, I argue that both statements are misleading and incomplete and don’t lead (in isolation) to constructive debate.

I’ll refer more to this later.

OK – some “BOTH ANDS” – starting with some basic, and for me, essential ones.

Without grounding an approach on these, we are not going to have reasoned debate:

Israeli 1


Israelis have the right to live securely, autonomously, independently with full political freedoms, without being subject to threat and attack. They are human beings. They have all the rights bestowed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

palestinian 3


Palestinians have the right to live securely, autonomously, independently with full political freedoms, without being subject to threat and attack. They are human beings. They have all the rights bestowed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I often see instances in public debate that contradict this: enormous discussion of Israelis’ legitimate security needs, with virtually no mention of the Palestinians’ own need for security, for example. OR enormous discussion of military aggression against the Palestinians without mentioning that Israelis are also under attack and feel afraid and have a legitimate right of self-defense.

The problem is that personally I find myself arguing vociferously for the Palestinian case, when I’m confronted by a version of events that excludes the Palestinian side entirely.


Hamas and other militant groups commit war crimes by indiscriminately firing thousands of missiles at civilian targets. This of course must be condemned, and I do. The evidence for this is overwhelming and I don’t think I need document it.


Israel stands accused of committing war crimes by legitimate human rights groups such as the Israeli organization B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch (I will refer to accusations against HRW later) for breaching international law with unlawful and disproportionate attacks:

See for example HRW’s report on Israeli attacks on three schools during the 2014 Gaza conflict: https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/09/11/israel-depth-look-gaza-school-attacks

B’Tselem on the 2014 conflict generally: they conclude that international humanitarian law was violated by both sides: http://www.btselem.org/publications/summaries/201501_black_flag

By saying “both and” I’m not saying there is direct equivalence on both sides. Clearly there are differences.

On one side, for example, Hamas and other groups openly target civilians in a very obvious way.

On the Israeli side, I quote David Shulman, (David Shulman is the Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an activist in Ta’ayush, Arab-Jewish Partnership): “anyone who knows the Israeli army knows that, for all its faults and failings, it does not have a policy of deliberately targeting innocent civilians.”

However, Shulman is extremely critical of Israel’s military actions in Gaza, and describes the adoption in recent years of a “zero risk” strategy – “My claim, on the basis of direct testimonies from soldiers who took part in the Cast Lead campaign, is that previously accepted rules of engagement were changed and that a “zero-risk” policy was adopted—for the first time in Israel’s history. In effect, this can only mean greater civilian casualties.” He later writes: “Moreover, the absence of a policy to kill civilians deliberately is not enough; actions that inevitably result in high civilian casualties, and that follow from premeditated decisions on the part of the army command, remain crimes of war.” (Source: NY Review of Books).

So of course, we are in the weeds of the dispute here.


It’s a war crime for Hamas to use civilians as human shields, and to fire from densely civilian areas – and it poses a very difficult dilemma for the Israeli military.


It’s a war crime to kill civilians disproportionately to the military advantage gained. And there are choices, as Shulman posits above, about a military’s actions and policies. Also, it’s been pointed out that some weapons are more notoriously inaccurate than others: for example artillery shells tend to be less accurate than air-dropped smart bombs. So, say, for example, a small group of militants fires a mortar from near a school and quickly departs. Is it legitimate for the military to fire an artillery shell at that location, knowing there’s a high possibility of killing dozens of people in the school (and there’s no doubt whatsoever about the location of the school or that there are children and families sheltering there, since the school has repeatedly informed the IDF of both these things)?


The Israeli military has probably done more than most and perhaps all other militaries in sending warnings via leaflets, or warning missiles to people in Gaza.


Frequently the warnings came too late, or were not seen. And in Gaza there is, almost literally, no single safe space a Gazan can go to when under attack. Quite a few were unable to move anyway – elderly, infirm, small children.


The IDF is arguably morally superior to the majority of other armies, and certainly to Hamas in issuing warnings in advance.


The fact that a warning has been given doesn’t absolve the military in question from observing international law. If you give a warning, and then kill a disproportionate number of civilians compared to the military advantage gained, it’s still a war crime. The civilians don’t become fair game. It’s also a war crime to deliberately destroy civilian infrastructure like electricity plants.

Back to equivalence issues. Yes, Hamas more brazenly and more clearly violates human rights law. On the other hand the Israeli military kill far more Palestinians. Over recent years scores of Palestinians have been killed to every one Israeli killed. So the practical impact of the two sides’ military actions and decisions are vastly unequal. Of the more than 2000 Palestinians killed in Gaza in the 2014 conflict, around 500 were minors. According to UNICEF 70% of the minors who died were under the age of twelve. 66 Israeli soldiers and 5 Israeli civilians were killed.


Israelis have every right to live without fear of being rocketed, or blown up by suicide bombers.


Palestinians have every right to live without fear of being shelled, bombed or shot, in large numbers.


Israelis are surrounded by large hostile countries that have either attacked the country or supported terror attacks over the years. Given history and the holocaust it is completely understandable if many suffer from existential terror.


If you are a Palestinian you face a regional military superpower, which has overwhelming military superiority over any entity in the region and a proven willingness to use it on a large scale. Israel is also backed to the hilt by the largest military power in the world – the US. It is also the only nuclear-armed state in the region, possessing up to 200 weapons. If you are a Palestinian, or a citizen from Lebanon or Iran for example, you have reason to feel terror as well.


Hamas is a terrorist organization. Its charter calls for the destruction of Israel. It has supported rocket attacks fired indiscriminately against Israeli citizens.


Hamas provides a broad array of municipal services to the population of Gaza, and it was initially elected in a democratic election. By participating in the elections, and in its more recent rapprochement with the Palestinian Authority, it implicitly endorsed the PA’s agreement with Israel, which involves recognition of Israel.

Hamas has frequently restrained militant groups from firing rockets at Israel, and has upheld ceasefires, arguably at times more reliably than the IDF.

Should the Israelis and others talk to Hamas? Some prominent Israelis have argued that they should. For example, former Labour Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami who argued that Hamas took a decision to “enter politics” and that you therefore need to talk with them. Others, such as Amos Oz, one of the founders of Peace Now, have long been in favour of negotiations. He has frequently argued something to the effect that you don’t have to love your enemies, in fact you might hate their guts, but it’s better to come to practical agreements with them.

Oz_BlackBox(Just as an aside I’m a huge admirer of Amos Oz, partly because he’s an absolutely excellent novelist, but also for his insight and knowledge. I interviewed him once when I was at the BBC.)

Ehud Olmert, the ex-PM, also argued something similar.

So do Israelis uniformly support the policies of PM Benjamin Netanyahu?

Of course not. Many disagree with him strongly on the Palestinian issue – or, for that matter, on Iran (including senior former intelligence officials). It’s probably under-reported that many of the human rights activists that protest evictions and settler activity in the occupied territories are Israeli.

Have Palestinians often been let down by their leaders? Yes, quite a few have been corrupt, undemocratic and removed from the needs of ordinary Palestinians. But I also think personally that Israelis are not served by leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu who seems to put all of his considerable cunning into blocking any real chance of peaceful negotiation.


Should Hamas officially and publicly drop its call for the destruction of Israel? Of course it should.


The Palestinians (the PA, not Hamas) have officially recognized Israel’s right to exist as a state. The Israelis have never officially recognized the Palestinians’ right to exist as a state.


I’ve been told by people who live in Israel that the threat of missiles and the fear of missiles (and of suicide attacks) makes an enormous impact – especially since it’s not a large country and doesn’t have a massive population. I’m sure that’s absolutely true.


Palestinians don’t live in a large area and they aren’t a vast population either. Many more Palestinians have died in the conflict than Israelis. The impact is enormous on both sides.

HRWNote on Human Rights Watch.

I’m aware that there are those who argue that it’s biased against Israel and I’ve seen what looks like a campaign against HRW on line. I don’t agree. Human Rights Watch (and Amnesty along with it) are generally respected as being thorough and impartial organizations reporting on human rights violations the world over. There was a kerfuffle after the last Israel-Lebanon war, after HRW criticized the IDF’s wide use of cluster bombs among other things. A study based on the previous two years of HRW’s work showed that it had issued 60 reports on the Middle East. Three of them were on Israel – the rest on other countries. That doesn’t suggest bias to me.

I have anecdotal experience. I read that HRW is cosy with Saudi Arabia and doesn’t criticize it. False. I interviewed HRW Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson about Saudi Arabia’s rehab programme for terrorists. She was highly critical of the Saudi justice system. I included her interview in my piece for the UN.

B’Tselem is excoriated by the Israeli right, but I’m afraid I don’t think that disqualifies it. In fact, more widely, it has a reputation for stringent accuracy. Their figures and those issued by the UN on the conflict are probably some of the most rigorously vetted statistics on any conflict on the planet. Both organizations carry out their own investigations and take into account the figures issued by the IDF and Hamas, by organizations on the ground, and by the media. All of these sources are checked against each other.


One argument or at least question I’ve seen often is: why does IP get so much attention, when there are so many other conflicts around the world?


Some people have suggested that this is because of anti-semitism. There is undoubtedly a massive amount of anti-semitism in the world and it’s a very serious problem. It’s quite probably got worse in recent years – and there’s certainly anti-semitism in the US and Europe, and in the Middle East – it’s common in Arab-speaking countries – and Asia, and undoubtedly elsewhere.

There has been some stringent questioning of some figures on the left in the UK. One MP from Bradford definitely did pass along anti-semitic remarks and was suspended. Another high profile Labour person (Ken Livingstone) defended her and was also suspended. So there is an issue at least with some on the left. (I don’t however, think it’s fair to say that anti-semitism has become institutionalized on the British left. It’s something that’s hard to bring out figures or statistics on, but I’m quite sure that there are millions upon millions of people on the left in the UK who are not anti-semitic – from my brother and sister who voted for Labour’s current left-leaning leader to, for example, the previous (also) left-leaning Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, elected democratically by the party and who led the party in last year’s election campaign, who happens to be Jewish, and his brother David the former Foreign Secretary.)

But anyway, back to the attention given to IP. Yes, there are anti-semites who love to bring up the dispute


There are other reasons why IP is so prominent, among them: a large Jewish population in the US and especially in the major media centre, New York; strong historic UK ties to IP (the UK was given the mandate to govern Palestine from World War 1 to 1948); IP is an issue that can divide people – either on the left or right – who would agree about 99% of other subjects: so because there are differences on this issue, unlike others, it leads to greater debate and contention.

In an ideal world would other conflicts receive the same amount of attention and produce the same amount of debate? Ideally yes. But human beings are not like that – they give attention to things they feel connected to – either kith and kin, historical connections, or physical proximity. It’s the same law that leads to a small incident in the West being covered very extensively, while a much bigger, similar incident in Asia gets much less coverage – in the Western media. Terrorist attacks in Paris get massively more coverage than a terrorist attack in Lebanon that shortly preceded it.

IP is part of that phenomenon – but to repeat – yes, some of the attention comes because there’s anti-semitism, but not all of it. And I don’t think it’s illegitimate in any way to debate IP.


Something I feel is left out, often, in this discussion. There’s also a massive amount of anti-Arab feeling – certainly in the US, certainly in Europe and in countries like Israel. This also contributes to the debate – and also possibly exacerbates the violence – just as anti-semitism might well fan violence – but the fanning of violence comes from both directions. (And this is not even to mention the massive amount of anti-Muslim feeling).

Anti-Arab sentiment is strong, dangerous and virulent as well. There are plentiful attacks on Arabs and much discrimination. On a more superficial level in the US I’ve heard people make anti-Arab comments in my presence, which indicates to me that making an anti-Arab comment isn’t always considered beyond the pale in ‘polite’ society. Not only that, I’m pretty sure they were expecting me to agree with it.

BOTH anti-semitism AND anti-Arab racism are serious problems – why can’t we mention them both – rather than – as so often happens – only mention one of them? Can’t we be conscious of – and committed to eliminating – both?


I’m only scratching the surface here. The danger – which I might well be contributing to – is that we now get enmeshed in arguments over each point for either side. (I haven’t even mentioned for example the 50-year occupation of Palestinian territories, the Lebanon wars, and the 70 years of threats against Israelis and terror attacks.)

The arguments are probably important in themselves, but maybe what’s even more important is to try to step back to the big picture.

The most essential thing of all from my perspective is the statement of rights that I stated early on. If people focused only on that, perhaps there would be more chance of a breakthrough. So I’ll repeat them:


Israelis have the right to live securely, autonomously, independently with full political freedoms, without being subject to threat and attack. They are human beings. They have all the rights bestowed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Palestinians have the right to live securely, autonomously, independently with full political freedoms, without being subject to threat and attack. They are human beings. They have all the rights bestowed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

What would be the fairest solution to the conflict? Presumably a solution that would respect and fulfil the full range of human rights of both sides. There’s an enormous amount of scepticism at the moment about the two-state solution.

But is there a better solution than that? I ask genuinely.

I’d be particularly interested in people’s different views on ways forward.

What is the best or most promising way to achieve a just peace?

More deaths, conflict and destruction lie ahead if there isn’t reasonable debate and a sensible discussion of practical solutions.

Is there a better way forward other than continuing with the same depressing and destructive cycle of uneasy stasis, interrupted again and again by upsurges of violence?












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“Learned helplessness” and torture – is a leading US psychologist complicit?

Passing on an exchange, from NY Review of Books, between Marty Seligman, prominent psychologist at University of Pennsylvania, and an author, Tamsin Shaw, who suggested in an article that he was possibly complicit when the CIA developed torture techniques under former President Bush. Seligman first, then the author second.


‘Learned Helplessness’ & Torture: An Exchange Martin Seligman, reply by Tamsin Shaw APRIL 21, 2016 ISSUE In response to: The Psychologists Take Power from the February 25, 2016 issue Saddam Saleh, a former prisoner at Abu Ghraib, showing a photograph of himself and other prisoners being abused there in November 2003 by US soldiers, Baghdad, May 2004 To the Editors: In her defamatory article [“The Psychologists Take Power,” NYR, February 25], Tamsin Shaw seeks to portray me as aiding and abetting torture. I strongly disapprove of torture and I have never and would never aid, abet, or provide any assistance in its process. I have spent my life trying to cure and prevent learned helplessness, so I am horrified that good science, which has helped so many people overcome depression, may have been used for such a bad purpose as torture. If you accuse a fellow academic of supporting torture, you’d better have some pretty good evidence. Shaw does not. Here is her evidence and my responses: Seligman was one of only three witnesses out of 148 who refused to speak directly with Hoffman’s investigators, demanding instead that they send him questions in writing… Shaw seems to imply that I was trying to hide something by being interviewed in writing. On the contrary, I wanted the record to be public if necessary and Hoffman has refused to provide transcripts of others’ spoken interviews. Hoffman and I went back and forth for several weeks and I answered all his queries at great length. In December 2001, Seligman convened a meeting at his home to discuss the participation of academics in national security efforts following September 11. Among those present were CIA psychologist James Mitchell and the chief of research and analysis in the CIA’s Operational Division, Kirk Hubbard. This meeting occurred as described. The meeting was about how academics could counter jihadi violence. There was no mention of torture, interrogations, detainees, or any remotely related topic. Mitchell and Hubbard were entirely silent throughout the proceedings. Seligman claimed to remember meeting with Hubbard on one subsequent occasion at his home, in April 2002, to discuss his theory of “learned helplessness” with Hubbard and a female lawyer, and that on this occasion he was invited to speak on the theory of learned helplessness at the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) school, sponsored by the US government. Hubbard, however, recalled meeting Seligman at his home several times after the initial meeting, including a meeting in April 2002 at which, according the Hoffman report, “he, Mitchell, and Jessen met with Seligman in his home to invite him to speak about learned helplessness at the SERE school.” My discussions with Hubbard and Mitchell were entirely about how captured Americans could resist and evade torture. All of their questions were about captured American soldiers and what our soldiers could do. The Hoffman report verified this and Hubbard and Mitchell testified that they never discussed interrogations with Seligman and did not provide him information about the interrogation program. The extent of Seligman’s further involvement has not been established, but in an e-mail sent by Hubbard in 2004, he expressed gratitude for Seligman’s help “over the past four years.” The reason that my “further involvement has not been established” is because there was none. I assume Hubbard was thanking me for the meetings above and for my pro bono lecture in May 2002 to the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency on how what is known about learned helplessness could be used to help captured American soldiers resist and escape torture. Shaw might have gone to the trouble of asking Hubbard what he was thanking me for, as did David Hoffman, uncovering no further involvement. The Hoffman report twice states that Seligman’s denial of any suspicion that the CIA’s interest in his theories was for use in interrogations is not credible. The first I heard that the CIA might be using torture in interrogation was only years later when I read Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article. It never occurred to me before that. If I had known about the methods employed, I would not have discussed learned helplessness with them. Shaw ends her reply by denouncing “groundless psychological assumption.” But her charge against me is essentially that I might have guessed how my work was being misused, and therefore I support torture. To throw around such serious charges based on such a flimsy psychological assumption is, as Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker noted [“Moral Psychology: An Exchange,” NYR, April 7], conduct unbecoming a philosopher. Martin Seligman Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Tamsin Shaw replies: Martin Seligman has repeatedly insisted that he is an opponent of torture. He tells us in his letter that he “strongly disapproves” of it. If he found himself at the very center of the terrible episode in our recent history in which the United States inflicted brutal torture on detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison, the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, and at CIA black sites, this was, he maintains, entirely unwittingly. And yet, since he was at the center of this episode, being in direct contact with the architects of the CIA’s torture program at the moment of its devising, there are some clear questions that a declared opponent of torture might have asked in his position. In April 2002, Seligman was invited to give a lecture on his theory of learned helplessness (a theory perhaps better called “induced helplessness,” since it involves being placed under such psychologically devastating stress that the subject becomes helpless) at the SERE school in May of that year. He says he believed that this was solely for the purposes of helping captured American soldiers resist and evade torture. But he was not invited by the military. He was invited by members of the CIA. His principal contacts were James Mitchell and Kirk Hubbard, who attended a meeting at Seligman’s home in December 2001 and whose affiliations are listed, in the document produced by Seligman on that occasion, as CIA (Mitchell had moved to the CIA in 2001 after retiring from his position as a US Air Force instructor in the SERE school). We now know from the 2008 report by the Senate Committee on Armed Services that Mitchell was working with Bruce Jessen, his former fellow SERE instructor, to write a report on the resistance techniques used by al-Qaeda and also to study ways in which the theory of learned helplessness, employed by them both previously in SERE training, could be used in interrogations. Seligman may have been ignorant of the fact that in April and May of 2002 he was participating in a new initiative in which the CIA and the US military would collaborate via the SERE program to devise “enhanced interrogation techniques.” But it might have occurred to him ask why the CIA should suddenly have made the resistance and survival of US military personnel a priority for agency psychologists, even if no clear explanation presented itself at the time. One explanation for the CIA’s interest in SERE techniques was certainly available in 2002, in the form of press reports of CIA interrogations during this period. A story by Philip Shenon, published in The New York Times on April 26, 2002, stated that “non-violent forms of coercion” were being employed, with the assistance of psychologists, in the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, though the Bush administration claimed that the techniques used, such as sleep deprivation, fell short of torture. In December 2002 The Washington Post published a lengthy article by Dana Priest and Barton Gellman on CIA interrogations, describing the use of techniques that many people would consider torture, such as blindfolding, being bound in painful positions, being subjected to loud noises, and sleep deprivation. And yet Seligman claims in his letter that he had no suspicions that the CIA might be using torture in interrogations until he read Jane Mayer’s article “The Experiment” inThe New Yorker in July 2005. This is an extraordinary claim. Since CBS first broadcast, on April 28, 2004, photographs of prisoners being abused at Abu Ghraib, there had been tremendous public debate about the issue in America. Seymour Hersh, writing inThe New Yorker in May 2004, had explicitly linked the abuses to CIA-led interrogations. The use of psychological techniques against prisoners featured heavily in many of the media reports. And social psychology was discussed very frequently in attempts to explain the abuse, with former American Psychological Association President Philip Zimbardo writing Op-Eds and giving interviews on the psychological conditions under which the prison guards had acted. He raised significant issues concerning the resilience of prisoners under stressful conditions (resilience being one of Seligman’s core research interests). In June 2004, a memo issued by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in 2002 was leaked (as reported, for example, in a Washington Post story of June 8, by Dana Priest and R. Jeffrey Smith), in which it was made clear that the line between legal interrogation techniques and torture was being blurred. The 2002 memo, moreover, referred directly to an issue central to Seligman’s area of psychological expertise. In the Washington Post article of June 8, 2004, Priest and Smith wrote: “For purely mental pain or suffering to amount to torture,” the memo said, “it must result in significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or even years.” Examples include the development of mental disorders, drug-induced dementia, “post traumatic stress disorder which can last months or even years, or even chronic depression.” And yet Seligman, one of the most prominent behavioral scientists in the country, with direct links to the CIA and the military, on his own account somehow, according to his letter, remained unaware of the reports I have cited in The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as The New Yorker report by Seymour Hersh, and the grave moral and psychological questions they raised. On January 1, 2005, The New York Times published an article by Neil Lewis that, according to the Hoffman report, alarmed many senior members of the APA. It described in some detail the way in which psychologists were assisting in “break[ing] down” detainees at Guántanamo Bay. In early 2005, well before Jane Mayer’s article inThe New Yorker, further details emerged in articles by Gregg Bloche (in The New England Journal of Medicine) and Jonathan Marks (in the Los Angeles Times). But Martin Seligman insists that he remained oblivious to this crisis in his profession. As I reported in my review, David Hoffman, the author of the Independent Review Relating to APA Ethics Guidelines, National Security Interrogations, and Torture, concludes: “We think it would have been difficult not to suspect that one reason for the CIA’s interest in learned helplessness was to consider how it could be used in the interrogation of others.” But he also tells us, “We do not have enough information to know what Seligman knew or thought at the time.” The question of what Seligman was thinking remains a mystery. He has not offered us an account to replace our “groundless psychological assumption.” That question has significance as a small part of a much broader set of concerns for the psychological profession. Hoffman notes that psychologists possess “a special skill regarding how our mind and emotions work,” one that permits them to heal damaged psyches but also confers on them a special ability to cause harm. At the same time, they are especially vulnerable to conflicts of interest, owing to the enormous sums of money that the Department of Defense pours into their field. They are therefore in a position in which very serious moral failings may possibly be enacted on a very large scale. When this happens they have a special moral responsibility to analyze what went wrong. In discussing the actions of the leadership of the APA between 2004 and 2008, Hoffman tells us that “by June 2005, it would have been clear to all well-informed observers that abusive interrogation techniques had almost certainly occurred and that there was a substantial risk they were still occurring.” Senior APA officials, the report claims, failed to investigate unsubstantiated assurances from the Department of Defense that the abuse had been halted. Hoffman tells us: In this situation in a criminal case, one would ask whether this intentional decision not to seek more information constituted “willful blindness” or “deliberate avoidance….” One common legal definition of “deliberate avoidance” in this context is “cutting off one’s curiosity through an effort of the will.” But Hoffman and his team were not prosecuting a criminal case. Instead, they have provided us with an important public document and information on the basis of which any concerned person might reasonably ask questions of the leading psychologists involved. Such public questioning will inevitably make deliberate avoidance harder and we can hope that it might even elicit valuable insights and explanations. It should in any case be welcomed by all those concerned with the moral standing of an exceptionally powerful profession.

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We won the war. No we did.






It’s inevitable and natural that we think about our own kith and kin before foreigners, and I think it’s all but inevitable that we overestimate our participation in any large-scale international enterprise – and overestimate how much others esteem, admire and even know about what we’ve done (or not done). This is all the more the case in an enterprise that is seen as a) good and b) successful.

World War 11 fits these criteria. What follows is not an exhaustive examination of the facts, but some anecdotal impressions with a sprinkling of fact.

Certainly when I was growing up in the UK the phrase “we won the war” was not controversial. And I don’t think it would be controversial today. I remember yelling “we won the war in 1964” at my nursery school (such a satisfying rhyme) – only to be informed that it was 1962. It’s not the first time I’ve been slightly off about the war. I’m also obviously old enough to remember endlessly playing battle games with “Airfix” men – plastic soldiers – always Germans against English – and, via my older brother, ceaselessly reading black and white war comics in which German pilots were always crying out “Teufel – Englander!!” as they were shot down. Such was my moral universe.

The thing is, the phrase “we won the war” – as far as I can guess – is also not controversial today in either the US or Russia. And while of course this doesn’t strictly mean that no one else participated, it does have a tendency to play up the role of one’s own country at the expense of others.

The more I read about the war, the more fascinated I am. And then there are chance meetings. Last year I talked with a well-educated Russian guy about the war. Having read some accounts by Max Hastings, the British historian, I’d become aware – according to Hastings – that the Russian perspective on the Great Patriotic War, as they call it, is that the Western front was a side-show to the main event of the war – the enormous battles between the Germans and Russians. Hastings writes the Russians have some reason to support this view- their losses were colossal – around 26 million or even more – and some of the battles, involving millions of soldiers, were the largest in history. Sure enough, my Russian interlocutor assured me that Russians, generally speaking, think they were responsible for about 80% of the fighting and the winning of the war. He told me that he was surprised and interested on visiting the UK to hear about something called the “Battle of Britain.”

So to the UK. We of course couldn’t possibly have won the war on our own (supposing that that claim has been made seriously…): the German military were far more powerful than the British – at least at the beginning of hostilities. Hastings writes also that generally speaking the British army performed abysmally during the war – suffered defeat after defeat and only came up to a barely satisfactory level by the end of the conflict. He does say though the RAF and the navy performed with distinction. The other thing that is not always remembered is how close the British came to parlaying with Hitler – ie negotiating a truce after the fall of France. It was one of Churchill’s signal achievements that he persuaded the cabinet not to do this – but it was a close run thing, and could have gone the other way. Churchill himself was a mixture of inspiring brilliance and an overly gung-ho loose cannon who also made some serious military blunders.

Did the Americans win the war? Undoubtedly they were the major force in the Pacific war against the Japanese – but the British and others also fought campaigns against the Japanese. The US industrial might was a major factor in winning the war in the West too, but their losses compared to the Russians, for example, were puny and their involvement much more short-lived. The US didn’t join in the war for the first two years – since most of the American public were (understandably) opposed to joining in the European war.

And then there was a remark by a well-educated UNICEF colleague years ago, after I must have irritated her.

“You should be grateful that we saved your neck in the war,” she growled at me. A fair response would be: yes, the US did sell destroyers and some ships to the UK in the first years of the war, in return for large amounts of money and control of some naval bases – and this was undoubtedly useful. However, it’s perfectly clear that if Nazi Germany had succeeded in invading the UK in 1940 the US would not have intervened. (The US didn’t join until after Pearl Harbor, Dec. 1941). We were saved by a number of things: the English Channel, our navy and air force  – and the fact that Hitler eventually turned his attention to the USSR. So we preserved ourselves through our own efforts (yep that “Battle of Britain” thing, which was the air war over the Channel – in which we managed to hold off the Germans sufficiently so that an invasion wasn’t practical – and we also had the largest navy in the world which also made it more difficult) and a fair bit of luck. And after the disastrous series of defeats and withdrawals at the beginning of the war, the UK’s military was in a complete shambles – so there really was a fair bit of luck.

But then again – you come to D-Day – and popular representations of it – as in the US movie Saving Private Ryan. From that film you wouldn’t have the slightest inkling that 50% of the troops that landed that day in France were not American – the other 50% being mostly British with Canadians and others.

But another sobering thing for me – I read recently that 2.5 million Indian soldiers served overseas in the war – 2.5 million!! – and was I really aware of that? No. I wasn’t really even aware that Canadians had helped out our air force until some time ago. Oh convenient ignorance!  More than one million Indians served in the First World War as well (more than the US, one Indian writer wrote recently).

But back to my Russian friend – he told me that the annual celebration of victory in the Great Patriotic War is overwhelming and somewhat overblown – and he ruefully acknowledged my prod that – as I expected – the fact that Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler for the first two years of the war is quietly glossed over. Plus the fact that the Soviets began the war by invading Poland from the East, in coordination with Germany, which invaded Poland from the West.

So who did win the war?  Well I guess a bunch of different countries – many of which I haven’t even mentioned – some of them were called the United Nations – the forerunner group to the current organization – the group of allies that formed during hostilities.

But I’ve learned I need to be a bit careful about my own country’s myths.

Extract from Max Hastings:

But the principal reality of subsequent military operations would be that Russians did most of the dying necessary to undo Nazism, while the Western powers advanced at their own measured pace towards a long-delayed confrontation with the Wehrmacht. For many years after 1945, the democracies found it gratifying to perceive the Second World War in Europe as a struggle for survival between themselves and Nazi tyranny. Yet the military outcome of the contest was overwhelmingly decided by the forces of Soviet tyranny, rather than by Anglo-American armies. Perversely, this reality was better understood by contemporary Americans and British than it has been by many of their descendants.

Hastings, Max (2010-04-17). Winston’s War (p. 146). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

A relevant passage from Tolstoy’s War and Peace:

“He asked him to tell them how and where he got his wound. This pleased Rostov and he began talking about it, and as he went on became more and more animated. He told them of his Schon Grabern affair, just as those who have taken part in a battle generally do describe it, that is, as they would like it to have been, as they have heard it described by others, and as sounds well, but not at all as it really was. Rostov was a truthful young man and would on no account have told a deliberate lie. He began his story meaning to tell everything just as it happened, but imperceptibly, involuntarily, and inevitably he lapsed into falsehood. If he had told the truth to his hearers—who like himself had often heard stories of attacks and had formed a definite idea of what an attack was and were expecting to hear just such a story—they would either not have believed him or, still worse, would have thought that Rostov was himself to blame since what generally happens to the narrators of cavalry attacks had not happened to him. He could not tell them simply that everyone went at a trot and that he fell off his horse and sprained his arm and then ran as hard as he could from a Frenchman into the wood. Besides, to tell everything as it really happened, it would have been necessary to make an effort of will to tell only what happened. It is very difficult to tell the truth, and young people are rarely capable of it. His hearers expected a story of how beside himself and all aflame with excitement, he had flown like a storm at the square, cut his way in, slashed right and left, how his saber had tasted flesh and he had fallen exhausted, and so on. And so he told them all that.
Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace (Complete Version, Best Navigation, Active TOC) (p. 268). Flip. Kindle Edition.


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I defer to expertise

Philosopher Crispin Wright

Philosopher Crispin Wright

Well, often and mostly (but not always.)

Why am I talking about this? Because I frequently hear, from other people, an expression of global scepticism, along the lines of:

  • you can’t believe anything the media says
  • you can’t believe what scientists say
  • you can’t believe any official statistics, ESPECIALLY government statistics

Well I believe quite a lot of what the media says, a lot of what scientists say, and a lot of official and government statistics. Do I believe uncritically and without exercising judgement? No.

With the media, I tend to believe sources that have a well established tradition of balanced reporting – I would cite the BBC in this. There are no entirely objective media outlets of course – they all report from a perspective – the BBC from a British/European perspective, and it can’t, for practical reasons, always report on the complete spectrum of opinions – it tends to focus on those opinions which are supported by significant proportions of the population. And yes, it’s imperfect, it sometimes makes mistakes. I read the New York Times and listen to NPR – and I don’t claim these are entirely objective either, though overall my judgement is that there is a commitment to accurate reporting. Sometimes they fail and I’m also aware that both organizations are slightly left of centre – so to be fair I try to listen, read from more right-wing outlets too – pretty easy with the internet. What’s critical for me is an evident commitment to accurate and balanced reporting – organizations may fail, but if the overall commitment is there, then I am much more trusting.

With scientists I need to check who is funding the research, I need to check if it’s a minority position, and I need to check whether what is being said is towards a consensus position. (Yes, as astro-physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson points out, science DOES in practice proceed by consensus – viz the systematic review in health science which assesses a large range of well conducted trials and averages them out.) And if a scientist is making a claim that contradicts the large body of accumulated evidence, the scientist had better have extraordinary evidence to make extraordinary claims. Are scientists infallible? Of course not. But is science the best means we have of establishing the mostly likely explanation for phenomena? Yes. If science hadn’t been successful, it wouldn’t a) have transformed the world over the past few centuries and b) would not be in widespread use today, if its predictive powers had proven to be non-existent.

One example: after my recent concussion I had consultations with two experts in the field – both with decades of experience in handling concussion cases. Both had an international reputation and lectured around the world. I was urged by an acquaintance, with no medical training, that I should check alternative websites and try out, among other things, vitamin supplements. I told her to get lost. Why?  Should I put more weight on the opinions of two people with medical expertise and decades of experience (who hadn’t suggested vitamins), or someone with no medical training and no expertise in the area? By the way, it’s not that the two experts in question were closed to “alternative” methods – in fact I tried out one approach, using running, which was being explored by a lab in Baltimore. The difference though was that there was some scientific plausibility to this “alternative” approach and it was being carried out by credible scientists. There is no evidence, incidentally, that vitamins can help with a concussion.

Government and official statistics: it depends on the government. I will tend to give more weight to statistics issued by democratically accountable governments, and much less when there isn’t real democracy. I will tend to be accepting if there is no sufficient and specific reason to disbelieve them (and the fact that they come from government is not of itself a reason). I tend to think that figures, say, from the Centers for Disease Control, are issued with the genuine intention of spreading knowledge and improving medicine. Or, for that matter, economic analyses from the Congressional Budget Office, which was set up specifically to do non-partisan research. I might, though, be more sceptical of statements from the Environmental Protection Agency on fracking, since I’ve read specific media reports from a reliable source (Propublica) that they have come under commercial pressure to soften their conclusions about fracking. (The same might apply to the FDA, but again I’d use judgement and it would depend on what subject they were reporting.)

All of this is influenced by a paper from the philosopher Crispin Wright – who I had the good fortune to attend lectures with at NYU – he’s actually a Brit, but was visiting. The paper is “Warrant for Nothing” and it’s basically an attempt at a serious and considered answer to the global sceptic who says we don’t know anything – we might be a brain being manipulated in a vat, or everything might be a dream. In others words, according to the radical, global sceptic, we can take absolutely nothing for granted and don’t know anything. You can maybe see why I think there’s a broad analogy with the global scepticism mentioned above.

Anyhow, Wright sets out to argue that there is a way we can rationally justify saying we know stuff. He argues that we are “entitled” to accept and trust things as they are – even without absolutely conclusive evidence – provided a number of conditions are met. I won’t mention all of them – but one is that we have no sufficient or specific reason to doubt, for example, that my cognitive faculties are working OK at this time, or that what I’m asserting is true. Secondly, I should behave in a way that indicates I accept whatever it is I’m asserting – ie whatever from “I’m hungry”, to “there’s a table in front of me.” My actions should confirm that I really do hold those beliefs. We are entitled to assume that the laws of nature are uniform, Wright argues, so long as there is no better way to understand nature (other than observing and assuming regularities), and since making this assumption allows us to live happy and stable lives and since also we have no specific or sufficient reason to doubt that the laws of nature are uniform. Sure, we need to examine and investigate our assumptions in a responsible way, and we shouldn’t use methods and assumptions that we have reason to doubt before coming to conclusions.

On these bases, Wright concludes, we are rationally entitled to say we know stuff DESPITE the attack of the sceptic, and even though we can’t base everything on absolutely rock solid evidence – we trust instead in certain assumptions, that Wright argues, are reasonable to make. If you’re interested it’s a really interesting and dense article – it certainly took me several reads to get a grasp of it, but I think he has some really, really important insights. (I admit I haven’t done full justice to it – it’s very elegantly and subtly argued – I’ve reduced it to a few, crude extracts – which are hopefully not wholly misleading.)

In short, I think scepticism is often a valuable approach, but when it’s applied globally, it’s not warranted or useful, and ultimately leads to paralysis. If we believe nothing that we see or hear, we can’t function as a society, and hardly even as an individual. The old saying “Question Everything” has some value in its spirit but taken literally it’s an absurd and destructive idea. Quite a lot of the time, there are good reasons for accepting information, and for deferring to expertise.

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