Writing from Ignorance

The false authority fallacy is one which rears it’s ugly head on a regular basis. I used to labour under the suspicion that this was more a problem for the right wing extremists, religious zealots on the like. Sadly, I have had my eyes opened somewhat.

In the most basic form, the false authority fallacy is most often invoked when a person, an expert in one field, is used to provide expert testimony in an unrelated field. We get it on a regular basis in the UK news (and I assume this is a global phenomenon), when (for example) Surgeons from the GMC pass opinion on anti-crime legislation. They may be wonderful surgeons, but what do they know about criminology or social control? Note: They may also be excellent criminologist or sociologists — but this is not something which can be assumed by their status as a surgeon. This fallacy happens all over — although they understand the grief, what special insight do the parents of murdered children have into law? — and it often manifests itself in a variety of mutated forms (Creationists are specialists at this). Recently, I have seen a new variation.

In this new variation, people (journalists mainly) appear to pass themselves off as an authority on a topic about which they no nothing. Normally, I would steer clear of commenting on international politics and the like — this blog tends to prefer to attack idiocy or talk about tech, rather than comment on the murky waters of international relations. However, sometimes we make exceptions.

Last week, on the Guardian Unlimited Politics website, Terry Jones commented on the (then) hostages held by the Iranians. Terry Jones is famous as a result of Monty Python. He has used this fame to push some excellent insights into history onto the public. Medieval Lives and Barbarians were excellent. I have even seen him give a 45 minute presentation on Barbarians and it was insightful. Like most upper middle class, educated, Britons, he has a somewhat left-leaning viewpoint and appears pretty much anti- the war in Iraq. All of this is reasonable enough.

What is off the rails are his comments last week. As if he was compelled to live up to every right wing nutjob’s stereotype about liberals, he posted an article titled “Call that humiliation?” which carried the tagline:

No hoods. No electric shocks. No beatings. These Iranians clearly are a very uncivilised bunch

My irony meter is not broken. I recognise sarcasm in type (most of the time). Sadly, Terry Jones continues in a similar vein, wrapping up some quite offensive commentary with his normally excellent brand of wit and humour. The article is full of sarcastic comments like these:

And as for compelling poor servicewoman Faye Turney to wear a black headscarf, and then allowing the picture to be posted around the world – have the Iranians no concept of civilised behaviour? For God’s sake, what’s wrong with putting a bag over her head? That’s what we do with the Muslims we capture: we put bags over their heads, so it’s hard to breathe.

What’s more, it is clear that the Iranians are not giving their British prisoners any decent physical exercise. The US military make sure that their Iraqi captives enjoy PT. This takes the form of exciting “stress positions”, which the captives are expected to hold for hours on end so as to improve their stomach and calf muscles.

What is so appalling is the underhand way in which the Iranians have got her “unhappy and stressed”. She shows no signs of electrocution or burn marks and there are no signs of beating on her face.

Now, I am somewhat confused over what makes Terry Jones think it would have been better if all the above had taken place, but I suspect this is his attempt to take a very cheap shot at US Government policy, and use the suffering of British service personnel as his ammunition. Extra irony is provided by the testimony from some of the released sailors and marines, for example:

We were blindfolded, our hands were bound, we were forced up against the wall. Throughout our ordeal we faced constant psychological pressure.

Later, we were stripped and dressed in pyjamas. The next few nights were spent in stone cells approximately 8ft by 6ft, sleeping on piles of blankets. (read original source)

Sadly, it seems that the footage shown on TV by the Iranians did not tell the whole story. Is anyone actually surprised by that? Did Terry Jones honestly think that the footage showed a full and accurate account of the hostages treatment? I hope not.

Even if the sailors and marines had been reasonably treated the fact they were held hostage at all is despicable. This is not the twelfth century. The Iranians (in a similar manner to Terry Jones) seem to have played up to every one of the right wing hawk’s fantasies.

In today’s paper, there is another example of the wonders which take place when people feel they should comment on things they really don’t know anything about. Marina Hyde is normally a readable, entertaining columnist in the Guardian. Today she seems to have gone “off-script” somewhat and strayed into territory where she really has no idea what she is talking about.

In an piece titled “Whatever happened to name, rank and number?” she comments on “how easily” the hostages allowed themselves to be used as propaganda tools. Blimey. I am sure Marina Hyde has first hand experience of how hard it is to be subjugated to even the most basic forms of prisoner handling treatment and this expertise has allowed her to assess that these service personnel “cracked” too quickly. She writes:

Before we proceed, two things should be stated for the record. First, it is obviously wonderful that the crew are back in Blighty and reunited with their families. Second, I have never been held hostage or even boarded a ship to check that its cargo papers were in order. Nor have I played international football against Andorra. But we can none the less expect certain standards from those who volunteer to perform these various duties on our grateful behalf. Now that is out of the way, it seems reasonable to at least wonder whatever happened to only divulging one’s name, rank and number.

At least she admits she is talking from a position of ignorance! Historically the “name, rank and number” thing stems from Article 17 of the “Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War.” I am not sure if journalistic privilege has given Marina Hyde special insight, but I am fairly sure the UK is not at war with Iran. Even if it were, doctrine since the 1950’s has realised that the lives of the service personnel is much more important than any fleeting, trivial, propaganda victory. Does she really advocate that these sailors and marines should have refused to do things, even if it lead to beatings and torture? Remember, we are not at war with Iran. Some of her other comments read:

Many might disagree with Admiral Band that they did not put others in danger: what was there for all to see was the apparent ease with which British service men and women can be coopted as propaganda tools.

A contrast with the two RAF Tornado crewmen captured during the first Gulf war, and paraded silent and bloodied on Iraqi television, may be unfair.

Appearance is crucial. So pliant did the 15 appear in their nightly media outings that it was not long before tactfully bemused commentators were raising the possibility of Stockholm syndrome, presumably casting Leading Seaman Faye Turney in the Patty Hearst role, with the iconic black beret replaced by a hijab in this version.

It strikes me that she did, actually, want to see the hostages tortured and beaten. The RAF guys captured during the first gulf were captured by an enemy power, so the contrast is unfair — yet she makes it… As I keep saying, we are not (yet) at war with Iran.

A lot of journalistic commentators complain that the sailors allowed themselves to be used as propaganda. As I said, I am able to spot irony… (yet I wonder if they are?)

I am aware these are opinion pieces and not the “corporate opinion” of the Guardian. I am somewhat intrigued though, that otherwise intelligent and educated journalists, who appear to have a left-leaning tilt, seem to be baying for blood and torture. Is it simply because the detainees were white, British, “squaddies?” Sadly, this line of commentary plays heavily into the hands of the insane, rightwingers, who denounce the left as being so anti-West that they don’t care what they have to agree with.

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