Sunday, 29 August 2010

Spurious Retraction Syndrome (or: do you really want to say it's straight out of a textbook?): Dr Hunt on Dr Kelly

There have been a few remarks about recent statements in the press by one of the pathologists in the Kelly case, Nicholas Hunt. Unfortunately Hunt chose the Sunday Times to speak to, so the first edit of his interview is behind the Murdoch paywall. angrysoba provided this excerpt from the Mail:

Dr Hunt says he found up to a dozen cuts on Dr Kelly's wrist, each around 2in to 3in long, one of which opened the ulnar artery. 'Some cuts were very shallow, some were deeper and deeper, which is typical of someone feeling their way. You have a knife, apply light pressure and realise that it actually takes a bit more effort and you get more bold as your resolve increases. It's one of the classic features of self-inflicted injury.' He adds that there was clear evidence Dr Kelly repeatedly dislodged clots or scabs to ensure he continued bleeding. 'His wrist was red so he must have been doing this for some time.'

which is notable for the fact that Hunt says some cuts were shallow, others 'deeper and deeper', thus implying what appears pretty implausible: that he was able to observe the order in which the cuts were made. Of course, the multiple cuts tend to indicate a suicide and progressively deeper cuts - but it's just a small example of the importation of conclusions into descriptions of data (see 'read-ahead', below).

A few other points:

1. 'Textbook' is fairly meaningless and adds nothing to Hutton's statements. Hunt does take something away from his Hutton testimony though - the remarks about 'ignoring the other aspects of the case' and the very strong hint of relevant remarks he could make if he were permitted to go beyond his strictly circumscribed role as pathologist.

2. I'm sure this has been pointed out, but while it's not easy to come up with examples of a less reliable way of assessing testimony than the Hutton process, pre-arranged, edited and officially-sanctioned newspaper reports provide one such example.

3. To expand on the last point, I'd make the observation - also rather obvious - that Hunt hasn't come out with this stuff now by coincidence, but almost certainly under considerable pressure (he is employed by the Home Office, after all). His statements must certainly have been subject to agreement from some branch of the government. And these latest remarks have some of the features of, Spurious Retraction Syndrome (excuse heavy irony) .

The syndrome tends to crop up pretty often in this kind of case. A person who has given early (uncontaminated) evidence is under pressure to reduce the impact of the evidence once it becomes clear that it conflicts with an official account.

This is an example of the 'read-ahead' tendency, which in this kind of case takes the form: 'evidence X could be/has been used to support conspiracy theory Y, therefore evidence X must be wrong, or even if not, must be neutralised'. More generally, it's used to cast excessive doubt on evidence, inferences or individuals, by equating 'supports or may be thought to imply a conspiracy' with 'is an instance of crazed conspiranoia'.

It is of great importance to note that while 'read-ahead' can be seen to give rise to cover-up behaviour, this does not mean that those covering up actually believe conspiracy theory Y, nor of course that it is true. The mechanisms of innocent cover-up - which includes deterring investigation through ridicule and other rhetorical, polemical techniques - are the same, and are still worthy of condemnation. A corresponding caveat applies to those who criticise cover-ups, too - they needn't believe that there is actually a conspiracy being covered up, still less have any firm idea of what such a conspiracy consists of.

A parallel can be drawn with 'noble cause corruption' in police investigations: here, police conceal, tamper with or fabricate physical evidence or testimony because they (are convinced that they) have their man, but can't prove it. Indeed both innocent cover-up and , for example in the Lockerbie case in which it appears to judicious and non-doctrinaire observers that Megrahi was framed.

A couple of examples of spurious retraction from among the 9-11 and 7-7 evidence (again, I have to reiterate that I'm not endorsing any 9-11 or 7-7 theory, only looking dispassionately at the facts, though of course this won't wash with Aaronovitch et al, who refuse to recognise any such distinction):

1. Van Romero

Van Romero gave an early opinion, reported in a local paper, the Albuquerque Journal, that explosives must have been used in the twin towers. He was unaware at the time of any 9-11 conspiracy theories or that his opinion would be contradicted by the official account, assumed that any bombs would have been placed by terrorists (i.e. foreign ones).

He subsequently (and almost certainly under some pressure - perhaps of a quite friendly kind) issued a spurious retraction. On a superficial reading, he seemed to be recanting his initial fairly expert opinion. In fact he was providing a different opinion, consistent with his earlier remarks: given that the official account shifts the burden of proof onto his assertion, and that the standard of proof required is raised to an impractically high level, then his original opinion obviously need not stand - since it is possible to construct some scenario in which explosives may not have been necessary to explain the phenomena. Romero made it quite clear that there was a substantial amount of 'read ahead' involved, and that his motivation was that he wanted to avoid any trouble that might be caused by his initial unguardedly honest assessment:

Romero said he has been bombarded with electronic mail from the conspiracy theorists. "I'm very upset about that," he said. "I'm not trying to say anything did or didn't happen.". Which at this point is no longer true, since the 'retraction' story starts with him being reported as saying Certainly the fire is what caused the building to fail . A careful reader (and since such retractions are always written carefully, they had better be read carefully) will note that this does not however contradict his opinion that there were explosives.

The story was subsequently updated to show the 'retraction' as headline, with the original story reprinted below.

2. Mark Honigsbaum

Mark Honigsbaum reported similarly 'anomalous' findings: that the floor of one of the 7-7 tube carriages flew upward (read-ahead: thus the bomb was under the floor, thus not in a rucksack on a passenger's back, etc).

I asked passengers what they had seen and experienced and was told by two survivors from the bombed train that, at the moment of the blast, the covers on the floor of their carriage had flown up - the phrase they used was "raised up". There was no time to check their statements as moments later the police widened the cordon and I was directed to the opposite pavement, outside the Metropole hotel.

Moments later, Davinia Turrell, the famous "woman in the mask", emerged from M&S together with other injured passengers and I followed them into the hotel. It was from there that at around 11am I phoned a hurried, and what I now know to be flawed, audio report to the Guardian. In the report, broadcast on our website, I said that it "was believed" there had been an explosion "under the carriage of the train". I also said that "some passengers described how the tiles, the covers on the floors of the train, flew up, raised up".

It later became clear from interviewing other passengers who had been closer to the seat of the explosion that the bomb had actually detonated inside the train, not under it, but my comments, disseminated over the internet where they could be replayed ad nauseam, were already taking on a life of their own.

But for having reported these accounts without 'checking them' - against what, exactly? - Honigsbaum must atone by doing the full DeLillo with a lengthy anti-CT article of the by-now-familiar kind - long on straw men and generalisations, short on detail. Note that the article is mostly dedicated to framing the issue, and he seems unable to provide anything very convincing by way of putting to bed the out-of-control mania that his own report has sparked. He presents the reader with some vague stuff about what is 'made clear' (so he says, this time of course with the guiding hand of the official narrative available authoritatively to resolve any possible doubt) by the testimony of other unspecified witnesses who were closer to the blast (though presumably only by a few yards at most, and we may note that 'very close to an explosion' is not necessarily the best vantage point).

Again, my aim here is not to suggest that the evidence as a whole indicates any Peter Powers-style scenario, but pointing out how vain the hope is of a proper understanding of such events when this kind of distortion - however well-intentioned, arguably even justifiable - is the norm when it comes to any information that shows the slightest sign of providing countervailing evidence against the official account. I am, in the heavily-laden phrase, 'just saying' let the evidence fall where it may, then draw conclusions; don't disallow evidence just because it might support a conclusion thought to be 'absurd'.


Peter Simplex refers me to the Jack of Kent blog, in re Kelly.

I've come across the JoK blog before and had it mentally earmarked as pretty good (I can't remember the details now).

However, it seems to have come over all SDS (self-described sceptic) since I last looked at it, and of course anything marked 'conspiracy theory' tends to bring out the worst in quite a wide range of otherwise quite reasonable and perceptive commentators. The June post is remarkable for its agonising:

A source-based and skeptical approach seems appropriate, especially in view of the range of conspiracy stories this death has attracted...On the other hand, do I really want to engage with those passionately committed to their conspiracy theories? Are there serious questions outstanding about the death of Dr Kelly? Questions which require a calm, skeptical, reasoned, source-based, and legally-informed approach? Or am I just one blogpost away from Nuttersville?

JoK seems at this point to be trying to decide whether to address the issue with his 'source-based', etc. approach, or whether some other set of norms - avoiding Nuttersville and refusing to 'engage' with (ahem) conspiracy theorists - should override such considerations...

At least by the time he gets to his second post, JoK has mustered the courage to draw the blindingly obvious conclusion: I would suggest the correct response is to call for a proper inquest.

But The conclusions of distinguished writers such as Aaronovitch and Cohen are important is verging on the surreal.

Aaro's own remarks (I assume they are indeed his - if so, though not pseudonymous they are still not verifiable) include the claim that 'Most suicides don't leave notes.' - a claim he also makes in his dreadful book Voodoo Histories: If you'd read the chapter in my book on Kelly you'd know all this. David Aaronovitch

I love Aaro's charming combination of relentless plugging, narcissism and pretence that the chapter is about David Kelly rather than Norman Baker. (As well as a first draft of a review of the whole book, coming in the next couple of days, I'll be taking a detailed look at that chapter in particular, hopefully within the next week or so...)

But the point about Aaronovitch's suicide-note statistic is twofold: first, he gives no source for it in his book or AFAICT elsewhere .

Second, it is a very blunt instrument to be using in this context. If Aaronovitch really wants to get into the intangible, statistical, evidence involved in this kind of probability 'calculation', then he will need to look at some more detailed data - for example, one might want to exclude those who have no close relatives or other interested parties to whom such a note might be addressed, those whose suicide is apparently impulsive, the illiterate and those otherwise not given to writing much, etc etc.

Of course there is always the danger of bias in selecting a particular way of slicing the data in such cases, which makes statistical evidence of this kind extremely dubious, especially when it has not been subjected to searching scrutiny. Since Aaro gives no source, such scrutiny is made much more difficult.


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