Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Goldacre, Barnett, and the Death of Authority

Ben Goldacre's spat with Jeni Barnett and LBC cuts directly to the heart of one of the major things that is wrong with the world - for me if not for everyone - the death of authority through its abuse by those in power.

To summarise the spat, if you are one of the three remaining people with an internet connection and a grasp of English who has not yet heard about it, Goldacre called Jeni Barnett out for talking a lot of dangerous nonsense about the MMR vaccine on her LBC radio show, and included a long audio excerpt from the show to prove his point. Rather than responding in the sensible way, accepting that Barnett and LBC were guilty of spreading life-threateningly stupid misinformation, and apologising or something, LBC instead threatened Goldacre with legal action and forced him to take the excerpt - the evidence which proved his claim - down. Thoughtful and intelligent people all over the internet went slightly bezerk over this, with numerous repostings of the audio, including on Wikileaks, and a collective effort to transcribe what was actually said, all of which is neatly summarised in Goldacre's follow-up post.

Goldacre is absolutely in the right. There is no evidence that there is anything wrong with the MMR vaccine. There is however plenty of evidence to show that people's increasing unwillingness to have their children vaccinated has led to a resurgence of measles, which can kill. So by casting doubt on the safety of the vaccine, Barnett and other media scaremongerers have quite possibly contributed to the future death of some child from measles. This is to say the least grossly irresponsible. Further, LBC's response - to try and silence him with legal action - was catastrophically counterproductive and would have been even more irresponsible had it actually had a cat's chance in hell of working. But this very response is itself part of the overall problem with authority.

LBC are a radio station. This puts them in a position of power and effective authority - including the power to broadcast or not broadcast what they choose. Barnett's defence - to the extent that she has one - is that no-one really knows either way whether or not MMR vaccines are dangerous, and presumably this too is the line that LBC are taking. By taking this line on the radio, Barnett was invoking her own authority - as a big shot broadcaster on radio - in such a way as to potentially cause some listeners to agree with her and not have their children vaccinated. Clearly, Barnett took this line as a result of her inability to understand authority of a different kind - the authority that comes with the scientific method. As a man who has made a career from championing the authority of science over the authority of media, this was an obvious barn-door type target for Goldacre, and the spat wrote itself from there.

The problem is that different kinds of authority get conflated. It is hard for many people to distinguish between the kind of authority that should be questioned (media, politics, the law) and the kind (science) that should - after careful reflection - largely just be accepted. There were no WMDs in Iraq. But the earth is not flat.

Goldacre's aside on the law is pretty revealing:

It’s been interesting to learn about the law from a dozen or so passing lawyers who have popped up to comment. Basically, there is no clear answer on whether posting 44 minutes of foolishness for discussion is legal or not, and the only way to find out is to go to court. Now, given that lawyers are expensive, and the loser is probably liable for the winner’s legal fees, it strikes to me that a company like Global Radio worth over half a billion pounds has a bit of an advantage in this situation, since losing, for me, would mean losing, well, I don’t actually have anything to lose.

My point is, without being too Billy Bragg about it all: this is a law that apparently works a bit better for wealthy people.

I think it is reasonable to find this frustrating. In medicine we have protocols: we try to lay out very clearly and simply how something works, what the likely outcomes are, the best moves, and so on. I don’t see why this would be difficult in law. Doctors and academics have been bending over backwards to make their work readily accessible and understandable to people outside the profession for many years, with considerable success. Lawyers, meanwhile, with the assistance of judges and those who make laws, seem sometimes to make their money out of obfuscation, out of the uncertainties and continent-sized grey areas. To me that’s not just unhealthy, it also feels eerily unfamiliar, to come across an industry where so many key players seem to have a paradoxical interest in making things not work.

It is hardly a new idea that the entire legal profession seems to be built on obfuscation and on structuring things for those in positions of power such that the desired outcome is forced through regardless of irrelevancies such as facts or justice. So why indeed should anyone trust the law when it behaves this way as standard? Yet the authority of the law is very real in physical terms and adds up to actual fines or prison sentences for those on the wrong end of it. Goldacre knew he was in the right morally but was also right to take the excerpt down after the legal threat, as it could well have cost him a huge sum of money had he lost a court case over it.

There was another example very recently, when Home Secretary Jacqui Smith criticised Professor David Nutt for trivialising the dangers of ecstasy. The truth of the matter is clearly stated in the BBC report: Nutt, writing in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, had said, "Drug harm can be equal to harms in other parts of life. There is not much difference between horse-riding and ecstasy." The report goes on to give figures which clearly demonstrate Nutt's point: horse-riding accounts for 100 deaths every year, while ecstasy causes only 30. Why then is there not a huge government campaign to stamp out this dangerous trend of horse-riding? Of course, Ecstasy is a drug and drugs are wrong mmkay as we all know, so long as they are not special drugs that are not really drugs, like alcohol or caffeine. The fact that hundred of thousands of people take E - and other drugs - on a regular basis and are fine does not deter the politicians' determination to wage their unwinnable and destructive War on Drugs; facts and science can all be damned if they get in the way of this predetermined policy. No wonder then that hardly anyone has the remotest trust left in politicians.

Or anyone, really. We are lied to by those in authority on a regular and daily basis. Ludicrously incorrect claims are routinely made in order to fuel political positions, especially in the Middle East, where the entire Iraq war was waged on the basis of false claims about WMDs, where both Palestinians and Zionists tell themselves heavily edited versions of history in order to justify their own present political views, and where certain Iranians continue to maintain that Iran, uniquely among world populations, does not contain any gay people. More generally, advertising bombards us daily with highly questionable suggestions about what products we do or do not need, and the whole current economic crisis resulted from the entire global finance industry telling itself and the rest of us a bunch of lies about what did and did not constitute an acceptable risk. Add into the mix a few mendacious scientists like Hwang Woo-Suk who are actually guilty of telling lies in the same of science, and it is easy to see why people are increasingly wary of trusting anyone in any position of authority ever says on any subject.

For people like Jeni Barnett, who are obviously not all that bright, it is clearly too much to ask for her to be capable of distinguishing between trustworthy and untrustworthy authority; yet her position of power as a broadcaster means she can spread life-threateningly stupid ideas across London safe in the knowledge that her employers will defend her to the hilt. For mendacious politicians like Jacqui Smith, it is to her clear advantage that there is no authority anywhere, for this leaves her free to cherry-pick the conclusions she wishes to come to and construct the arguments behind them later; with no real authority anwhere she can always defend against any attack without having to worry about facts or details. The entirety of the legal profession finds all of this obfuscation and lack of clarity or authority highly lucrative; advertising would of course be dead if it were not allowed to mislead people.

As for the rest of us, we must as usual work it out for ourselves as best we can. And there is a ray of hope, culturally. It's something to do with the screen you are looking at and the fact that people like Ben Goldacre - whose authority is built on trust that has been built up over time and is thoroughly deserved - are only a click away. It's a very new ray of hope in the grand scheme of things. Let's hope it lasts.

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