17 May, 2003: I bet they will play this song on the radio

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I hate to comment on Radio 4's Any Questions?, but my attention was drawn, like a moth's to a candle flame, to two statements of breathtaking idiocy uttered during the first five minutes of yesterday's programme.

The first was from Jack Cunningham, whose prior expertise in agriculture obviously leaves him specially equipped to pontificate on the difficulty of finding `weapons of mass destruction' in Iraq. He made a local analogy:

``... after thirty years in Northern Ireland we haven't found a single IRA arms cache.''

-- which will probably come as a surprise to police on both sides of the border. Anyway, the Government claimed to have evidence that the `weapons of mass destruction' existed prior to invading Iraq, which they plainly didn't. Desperately pleading that Iraq is a big place -- variously `the size of France' or `twice the size of France' depending on which innumerate and ill-briefed bozo is trotting out this `argument' -- and that `weapons of mass destruction' are difficult to find doesn't really cut it, if you care whether they find the things or not. Frankly they'd be better off appealing to the `facts on the ground', just like Bush. (For reference, Iraq has an area of 437,072 square km, and France of 547,030 square km. Note also that `weapons of mass destruction' is a bit of Pentagon Newspeak used to justify a change in policy whereby states which have used chemical or biological weapons against US interests might find themselves the targets of a nuclear attack. Previously US policy was never to strike first with nuclear weapons. Of course, nuclear, biological and chemical weapons have little in common -- as is obvious from the fact that the US is happy to renounce chemical and biological weapons, but shows no signs of getting rid of its nukes.)

(As a slight digression, the Iraq/Northern Ireland analogy has been trotted out by a number of New Labour figures over the past week, in particular by John Reid who made an unimpressive display on the Today programme yesterday morning. It's clear that it's been concocted by some spin doctor at Mission Control for deployment by any members of the party confronted by the press -- probably a wise move, given what these people come up with when left to their own devices. John Reid's own try at an analogy was to claim that the failure to find `weapons of mass destruction' in Iraq does not mean that military action was taken without justification any more than the failure to recover all the proceeds of the Great Train Robbery meant that Ronnie Biggs was not guilty of theft, which is a pretty poor attempt, especially since Reid mistakenly referred to the crime as the `Great Bank Robbery'.)

And the second statement which irritated me?

``Since the war on Iraq we know that global terrorism has gone down 44%.''

from Anglo-American academic Colleen Graffy. (She said this shortly before the recent bombings in Casablanca.)

What could this statement possibly mean? Beats me. `Terrorism' isn't a scalar. You can't measure how it changes in percent. Did she mean that the number of terrorist incidents had decreased 44%? If so, why didn't she say so? And over what period was this measured?

Really she could have meant almost anything, and the saddest part of it was that neither the panellists, the chairman Jonathan Dimbleby, nor the audience questioned this statement. I wonder what it would take to improve the condition of public discourse in this country to the point where data are treated as evidence, not just magical pixie dust to be sprinkled onto arguments in the hope of rendering them more convincing to their audiences? (``This week's 98% increase in ignorant wittering on radio panel discussions will give rise to a 57% fall in my tolerance for them.'')

Elsewhere... Anthony Wells (of What if Gordon Banks had played? fame) makes some interesting comments on the recent tuition-fees announcement by the Conservative Party, from the Tory perspective. Which is interesting. He doesn't really address the HE funding issue in any detail, though.

Copyright (c) 2003 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.