Friday, 23 October 2015

What's sauce for the goose...

... is sauce for the gander, so they say. This could be adapted as a motto for bloggers and and anybody else who cites stuff written by other people in support of a point of view - we can uncritically quote things that support our own viewpoint, yet remain silent when the same source undermines a cherished idea. What's a source for the goose is a source for the gander.

In my last post I questioned whether we should trust Alex Deane, from the pressure group People Against Sugar Tax, as a source. I still don't trust the guy, given his background in the dark arts of PR, his association with those dodgy hired spinners at Bell Pottinger, his past form as a tobacco lobbyist and his previous attempts to bully critics with lawfare.

None of that's changed, but I should declare that I've uncritically (and unwittingly) cited material sourced via Alex Deane before. I was immediately suspicious that People Against Sugar Tax was some sort of PR astroturf set-up and Deane's CV and track record did nothing to contradict my notion that the "people" who were against a sugar tax were probably people of the corporate variety,* as opposed to concerned citizens spontaneously organising a popular protest movement. 

My background check also revealed that Deane was one of the people behind Big Brother Watch. As somebody who's naturally suspicious of the corporate lobbying industry, I was quick to check and question Deane's bona fides when he came out with what looked like thinly-disguised black propaganda for the the food and drink industry. I'm also suspicious of state and corporate actors trying access to all the private data they can hoover up because it's for your own good / because it's for your own convenience / because they can / because you've nothing to fear if you've nothing to hide / etc, so I've happily cited Big Brother Watch in the past. Because I agreed with the organisation's stated aims, I didn't think to question the bona fides of the organisation or the people behind it.

I haven't come across anything to suggest that Big Brother Watch is biased or involved in disinformation, but if Deane's fingerprints make me mistrust People Against Sugar Tax, maybe I should be more sceptical about BBW, too. 

It's not the only time my preconceptions have trumped my scepticism - being no great fan of the crimes, follies and misdeeds of the finance industry, I've been only too happy to selectively cite criticism from another critic on a site by the name of Zero Hedge. But the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend if it turns out that the enemy of my enemy is full of bullshit:
Zero Hedge is a batshit insane Austrian economics-based finance blog run by a pseudonymous founder who posts articles under the name "Tyler Durden," after the character from Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. It has accurately predicted 200 of the last 2 recessions.

Tyler claims to be a "believer in a sweeping conspiracy that casts the alumni of Goldman Sachs as a powerful cabal at the helm of U.S. policy, with the Treasury and the Federal Reserve colluding to preserve the status quo." While this is not an entirely unreasonable statement of the problem, his solution actually mirrors the anatagonist in Fight Club: Tyler wants, per Austrian school ideas, to lead a catastrophic market crash in order to destroy banking institutions and bring back "real" free market capitalism.

And the moral of the story is trust no one watch those cognitive biases.

*The People Against Sugar Tax website is careful to point out that the organisation is only funded by private donations, but I'm not naive enough to suppose that the mere absence of direct, identifiable food and drink industry funding guarantees that this is an independent grass-roots organisation. I'm sure there are plenty of wealthy individuals with skin in the game who might chose to self-identify as disinterested private donors.