Honesty

I wanted to leave this topic well alone, but unfortunately Peter Hitchens is now claiming on his own blog that:

Intrepid Web voyagers may also be able to find an encounter with me and one of my more virulent critics, in which I have caught him red-handed distorting my words, and he and his supporters insist that this is perfectly all right.

My crime was to copy and paste something I had written in an earlier blog post, here is what I wrote in the comments:

I admitted – twice in the post – that I had pointlessly ranted, but how else can you engage with a writer who actually claimed in the column that I was writing about that: ‘most of our elected leaders are “unrepentant illegal drug-takers”‘

People interested in the complete post can read it here (because Peter seems to have an aversion to linking to sources).

Now, what I put into inverted commas was what I had written previously, only the words in speech marks belonged to Peter Hitchens – his original words:

So many of our leaders now are unrepentant illegal drug-takers themselves that they shouldn’t be trusted near the making of laws*.

I pointed out to Peter that I was quoting my own words and his – as shown by inverted commas and speech marks – but I apologised for the clumsy introduction which was misleading. Rather than accept this and move on he accused me of blatant distortion, dishonesty and concluded that the credibility of this blog was now in ruins – ending with his final comment:

Final, final, final word. It is clear from all above that in this little world, objecting to dishonesty and distortion is ‘pedantry’, and twisting the words of others is excusable. No absolutes here, then. Truth here is a relative concept. That’s the choice of the host of this site and of his friends. Very well. The rest of us can now with confidence refer to this place in future as ‘The site that makes up quotes’.

Hence my lovely new tagline. One little detail and everything I have ever written can be dismissed as far as Hitchens’ is concerned. Nicely done.

Anyway, throughout the ‘debate’ – most of the time it really doesn’t deserve the term – with Hitchens I was open and honest as usual – even in the comment that led him to accuse me of distorting his words I linked to my original post that would have set any reader straight about my clumsy quotation immediately (they would see I was copying and pasting what I had written earlier, not purposefully putting words into his mouth) – hardly the actions of someone being purposefully deceptive or dishonest. I moderated no comments, the thread stands in its mind-numbing entirety for any neutral observer to make their own mind up about the terrible nature of my crime, and the superb intellectual victory scored by Mr Hitchens.

Except, although he keeps referring to this blog and his victory over anyone who argues with him, he won’t link to it. He doesn’t trust his own readers to make their own mind up; instead he just fills them in with his version of events. He may argue that the level of ‘critics’ he encountered was too low to warrant a link, but it seems apparent to me that he simply could not defend his position on passive smoking so he therefore decided to derail the argument in order to ‘win’ on his own terms.

Peter Hitchens can accuse me of whatever he likes, I stand by my arguments about why he is wrong about passive smoking (more about this later) and I stand by the comments section of that post to demonstrate that I am a reasonable, open and honest person (not to mention naive for thinking I could get anywhere or achieve anything with the argument). If he really thought the comments section of that post suggested otherwise perhaps he should link to it and let his readers make up their own minds.


*Furthermore, Hitchens’ argued that the meaning of ‘most’ is massively different from ‘many’ and therefore I was massively and dishonestly distorting what he originally said. However, given that laws require a majority to get through the House of Commons it follows that Peter’s worry would only be real if a significant majority of politicians were ‘unrepentant illegal drug-takers’ to push such votes through. This suggests that ‘most’ is an appropriate word to use – and remember, he doesn’t just say ‘many’ but ‘so many’.

And let’s face it, here is a man who is happy to stand by his ludicrous (no evidence provided) statement that: ‘So many of our leaders now are unrepentant illegal drug-takers themselves that they shouldn’t be trusted near the making of laws.’ But change ‘many’ to ‘most’, and he feels the need to defend himself in case he is being made to look silly.

36 Comments

  • Patrick says:

    The Mail on Sunday, the newspaper Peter writes for and which he described as ‘very good’, would never dream of ‘twisting’ people’s words, would it?

    From the PCC:
    On May 16 an article “Mutiny in the Climate Camp” reported accusations of hypocrisy over a decision to fly delegates to a conference in Bolivia. We cited critical quotes from an internal email but, in fact, these did not relate to the conference decision. Additionally we misattributed Facebook comments to campaigner Ben Hart and incorrectly said he had attended the conference. We apologise for these mistakes.

    http://www.pcc.org.uk/news/index.html?article=NjgxNQ==

    The rest of us can now with confidence refer to the Mail on Sunday as ‘The newspaper that misattributes quotes’.

  • frolix22 says:

    It is quite unnerving when someone comes across as being significantly removed from basic rational discourse as Mr Hitchens does on this issue.

    It is plain that the quotation is not correct and an error was made. But the difference we are talking about would seem to be between his saying “So many of our leaders…” and “Most of our leaders…”

    It is obvious they do not mean the same thing but I fail to see what the massive issue is with a relatively minor error which has been acknowledged and corrected.

    To see someone who is paid to write a column in a national newspaper crowing in a comments thread and writing “GOTCHA!” (note those capitals!) over such an error as if it is some kind of smoking gun is… well… it’s rather pathetic to be honest.

    Mr Hitchens would appear to be showing on this issue the rather odd lack of proportionality he brings to so many others.

  • 5cc says:

    Watching the way Hitchens conducted himself in that thread and seeing how he’s now reacted on his own blog with has been a real eye opener.

    I don’t know what criticism avoidance strategy is worse – Littlejohn’s technique of staying away from it and blarting that everyone on the internet’s a loser or Hitchens’ approach of arriving, throwing about ad-hom arguments about Wikipedia, misunderstanding how science works, attempting to distract by playing the victim and pointing to other journalists, wriggling to try to make it look as though an abundance of evidence for the harm of SHS can be called thin because it says the risk is relatively low (seriously, I love that in his defence of saying evidence is ‘thin’ he also manages to complain, “And it’s no good hosing me down like a burst fire hydrant with hundreds of studies which purport to support their view.”) and then spectacularly calling out a mistake and declaring ‘GOTCHA!’ before buggering off and pretending to have won in front of readers without linking to the discussion so they can see for themselves.

    Does he really believe he’s somehow scored a victory here?

  • Vladimir says:

    Your site is easy to find, based on the information provided by Hitchens.

    Outgoing links from MoS articles are very rare. It appears that their lawyers believe that the newspaper could be liable for whatever is written on a linked site. So, when links do appear, they are always to the websites of established publications. The lack of a link is nothing personal.

  • @uponnothing: Your quote, ‘most of our elected leaders are “unrepentant illegal drug-takers”‘, is quite clear (and I probably would have written it in the same way). The words in the double speech marks are Hitchens’, with the whole sentence enclosed within singular speech marks to differentiate it from the comment you were making. There’s nothing difficult or dishonest about that, and Hitchens hasn’t done himself any favours by making such a fuss about it.

    As I was reading through the comments, I was beginning to gain a new respect for him because, whilst I disagree with his views as expressed in his Mail column pretty much all the time, at least he was here, engaging in (mostly) reasonable debate in order to defend his point of view.

    However, having seen him completely derail the entire thread on a small point of grammatical contention (one that was not even contained within the OP itself), and then claim he has, “caught [you] red-handed distorting [his] words”, any respect I was beginning to have for him has dissipated.

  • Andrew Williams says:

    Hitchens wins on points.

  • Peter Hitchens says:

    Still wriggling.

    Here in left-wing Wonderland, ‘Most’ means the same ‘as ‘many’, (well. almost) inverted commas don’t mean you’re quoting the person to whom you attribute the words enclosed in those commas, water flows uphill, pigs roar overhead in tight formation, and you’re always right.

    Sweet, really.

    • Uponnothing says:

      @ Peter Hitchens

      Another mature response. So, would you say my original blog post from 2009 was misleading?

      As for ‘wriggling’, I’m not the one avoiding the questions or evidence throughout this encounter.

  • Cpoffers says:

    Peter Hitchens accuses Uponnothing of wriggling and is accusing him of believing that he is “always right”.

    Thus proving he has absolutely no self awareness.

  • Peter Hitchens says:

    I am asked if the original post by Mr ‘Nothing’ from 2009 was misleading.

    Yes, but nothing like as seriously as his subsequent confection.

    Let’s take the central quotation:’Peter Hitchens is actually paid to write this ****. To actually write down that most of our elected leaders are ‘unrepentant illegal drug-takers’ and that somehow this has led to a person who (with two accomplices) chased down and beat the shit of out someone with various weapons being sent to jail.’

    The accusation made by Mr ‘Nothing’ is clear, and its assertion of total truth emphasised by the use (twice) ofthe word ‘actually’.

    My alleged crime is ‘to actually write down that *most* of our elected leaders are ‘unrepentant illegal drug-takers’ .

    I noted this distortion and misrepresentation at the time it was made, and thought it was not worthwhile to pursue it.The fabrication of the word ‘most’ was clearly the work of Mr ‘Nothing’. He had actually reproduced the relvant passage next to it, where he could have seen, if he had looked, that he was wrong. This was just sloppiness and incompetence, mixed with wishful thinking.

    But then, while asserting the accuracy of his work and denying my charges of misrepresentation, he constructed the curious quotation which has made him look so shifty and foolish, and for which I would still accept a full unconditional apology and retraction if offered(though nothing less).

    It is clear from the context in which it was used that he intended to convey the impression that I had said ‘most’. He (and his fan club) really must stop pretending that ‘most’ means the same as ‘many’. I wonder how many true statements about *him*, using the word *many* would be falsified (and possibly rendered defamatory) if the word ‘most’ were substituted, and how he would react if people did this.

    Now, it’s my guess that, like many dogmatic people, he was unaware of the fact that he had altered my words to suit his angry prejudices about me. Psychologists are well aware that people with strong prejudices see what they want to see, rather than what is there, and he wanted me to have said something stupid, so that he could continue to believe that I am insane (embryonic totalitarians are fond of classifying their critics and opponents in this way).

    I am very familiar with this.

    In favour o Mr ‘Nothing’, the bizarre mixture of double and single quotation marks is probably an encouraging sign that he felt slightly unhappy about what he was doing. But it does not get him out of his difficulty, because of the unambiguous subject and verb of the sentence preceding this punctuational salad.

    But the fact remains that the formulation used clearly left the reader to believe that I had said the actual words quoted.

    He did not say:’I said’…’ and then: Peter Hitchens said ‘…’. He said that I had said the lot.

    And no amount of quibbling about punctuation can undo that.

    • Uponnothing says:

      @ Peter Hitchens

      I apologise, unconditionally for copying and pasting what I did and introducing the whole quote as if you had said every word. That was careless and misleading.

      However, I would like you to understand that it was done in careless haste, it was not intentional or malicious.

    • Uponnothing says:

      @ Peter Hitchens

      Given that apology, would you now address the fact that you stated on your blog:

      I never believed the stories about second-hand smoke, and still don’t.

      Given that in the comments section you have been referred to an immense amount of evidence of the negative health impacts of passive smoking, will you now admit you were wrong to even suggest that such evidence was nothing more than ‘stories’?

      Furthermore, in your original blog post you also stated:

      I think the evidence that they give cancer to anyone apart from the people actually smoking them is very thin indeed.

      Now that you have been provided with the relevant evidence, will you admit that the evidence is actually well established? Not to mention that during the debate you backtrack by seeming to suggest that what you really mean by ‘thin’ (which you seem to forget you prefixed by ‘very’ in your original blog post) is that the risk is nowhere near as great as actively smoking:

      Another (3) says
      ‘the excess risk from exposure to passive smoking is small,’

      Now, what’s generally cited here is an increase of up to 37% in the (small) risk that non-smokers have of contracting lung cancer.

      That is to say, a small risk is slightly increased.

      Compare this with what we know about ‘active’ smoking:

      Smokers are 25 times more likely to get lung cancer than non-smokers

      I think that is a 2500% increase in risk, as compared with 37%

      Thin? I think so.

      This is misleading, you original statement suggested that the evidence that cancer can be caused by passive smoking was ‘very thin’, not that in comparison with actively smoking the chances of getting cancer were very small. The evidence for a small increase in relative risk is very strong, irrespective of whether the increase in risk is very large. You conflate the two in order to deflect criticism away from what you originally wrote (because your original position was untenable).

      Take this study: ‘Meta-analysis of studies of passive smoking and lung cancer: effects of study type and continent‘.

      Which concludes:

      The strength of association (even after consideration of bias and confounding), consistency of findings across domestic and workplace primary studies, dose-response relationship and dosimetric extrapolations and biological plausibility are important criteria which indicate a causal relationship between passive smoking and lung cancer. Furthermore, the evidence is coherent.

      Although the excess risk from exposure to passive smoking is small, the high prevalence of exposure to passive smoking in workplaces, restaurants and other public areas in some countries, as well as at home and in private automobiles, make it an important risk factor for lung cancer among non-smoking people.

      The tobacco industry tends to understate the effect of passive smoking on occurrence of lung cancer, and has tried to introduce ventilation as a solution for passive smoking in enclosed public areas. But this does not prevent exposure of workers in these areas to passive smoking. The preferable public health policy is still a total ban on smoking in public areas.

      Or this interesting study of how journalists cover second-hand smoke: ‘Print media coverage of research on passive smoking

      Which concludes:

      Even after strong scientific evidence existed supporting an association between passive smoking and disease, newspaper and magazine coverage continued to construct the conduct of research on passive smoking as controversial. This finding is similar to findings from analyses of media coverage of active smoking.

      The continuing emphasis on controversy might also be explained by journalists’ tradition of “balanced reporting”. To present both sides of the passive smoking issue journalists, particularly in newspapers, routinely quoted tobacco industry spokespersons discussing vague methodological faults with scientific studies. By quoting tobacco industry sources as well as scientists, journalists may be suggesting that the opposing voices carry equal scientific weight. Furthermore, although journalists have claimed that they do not routinely seek opposing views when covering research that has been published in peer reviewed journals, we found that coverage of passive smoking research emphasised controversy even when most of the journal articles cited were peer reviewed. A recent editorial on health communication has challenged journalists to consider whether common principles of journalistic reporting, such as use of multiple sources and inclusion of various viewpoints, make the best news stories. The focus on controversy surrounding research methods is not consistently found in the news coverage of other health issues. For example, the research on the genetics of alcoholism was not presented as controversial in the lay press even after evidence disproving a genetic cause for alcoholism accumulated…

      The quotation of tobacco industry representatives, rather than the citation of scientific studies, was used by journalists to promote the idea of controversy.

      In summary, although research on the harmful effects of passive smoking accumulated between 1981 and 1994, lay press coverage of the research maintained that the science was controversial. Few research studies were cited to support the industry’s claim that passive smoking is not harmful to health. However, tobacco industry representatives who were critical of the research methods used to study the health effects of passive smoking were frequently quoted.

      Whatever I wrote in 2009 and however poorly I copied and pasted it into the comments thread on the second-hand smoke debate has no bearing on the argument that had been ongoing. As others pointed out, your defence mechanism triggered in the face of not being able to defend your opinions was to change the terms of the argument in order to attack me and the credibility of this site. You are welcome to do this, it is – in spite of your protestations – a free country and my unmoderated comments (I only moderate to remove spam) demonstrate that I am prepared to be pulled-up for my mistakes and to take criticism when my readers want to offer it.

  • Andy McDandy says:

    Re. the most/many confusion. I commented on another board that it’s a common tabloid trick to switch between the words. I believe the case I referred to was a DM article in which Jan Moir or someone like her feigned outrage at some comedian or other, throwing in a line about a particular joke saying “While some laughed, many were appalled”.

    Most clearly means ‘more than 50% of’. Many has no clear meaning regarding quantity. But the inference from PH’s original comment was clear – drugs are bad, moral cesspit, they’re all at it, etc. For a tabloid outrage-hack (and yes, that is what you are, get over it) to cry foul over semantic fudges is pretty rich.

  • Kyle says:

    I love it when Mr Hitchings is losing an argument he always throws the word “left” in, as if being left automatically undermines any legitimate criticism made of him.

  • Intrinsio says:

    Of course, whether you’re “wriggling” (direct quote) or not, barely even matters.

    Mr Hitchen’s genius here has been to deflect the entire debate away from evidence for or against second-hand smoke and onto whether or not in 2009 you intentionally substituted the word ‘most’ for ‘so many’.

    It’s a genius move because in the initial debate he was up against the twin forces of common sense and science. But in the NEW debate (Quotegate? The Quotefumo affair? The Quotepocalypse? It needs a powerful name to reflect its gravitas) he is up against virtually nobody because apparently no-one cares about a minor error from two years ago that doesn’t even change the sense of the quoted sentence.

  • 5cc says:

    Hey, Peter.

    I can’t help noticing you’re not talking about the original point any more.

    Lucky you spotted that mistake that apparently proves left wingers are nuts isn’t it?

  • ThisIsNotAPseudonym says:

    “Psychologists are well aware that people with strong prejudices see what they want to see, rather than what is there, and he wanted me to have said something stupid, so that he could continue to believe that I am insane (embryonic totalitarians are fond of classifying their critics and opponents in this way).

    I am very familiar with this.”

    You are indeed. I don’t think you realise quite how intimately familiar with it you are though.

  • Sam says:

    Quite extraordinary. I’ve not read Peter Hitchens columns so cannot comment on his writing or opinions therein, but his style of debate (or non-debate) here and his apparent misquote ‘gotcha’ in a blog comment reads like the argument of a 12 year old. Moreover, his claims of a ‘punctuation salad’ indicate that he has not read a modern grammar or style guide (other than perhaps the Mail’s) for some time, because the use of double quotes inside single quotes is commonly recommended to denote a quote within a quote (which is indeed what this was). His claim that this could only be understood one way is simply ludicrous. Of course, all of this is entirely beside the main point of the original blog-post, which would seem to be the whole point of his peculiar little diatribe.

    And ‘embryonic totalitarians’? Really?

  • Mark says:

    Lets face it people, trying to argue with Peter Hitchens is like arguing with a kitchen table, its pointless.

    If something does not conform to Peter’s worldview or his prejudices or the DM’s agenda then he’s not interested, no matter how much evidence there is to the contary.

    Lets say for example that Peter (for whatever reason) was to deny the existence of sheep. Even if you took him outside and showed him a sheep he would still deny the existence of sheep! (Yes I will admit I just ripped off something Charlie Brooker once wrote about George Bush)

  • Steve says:

    Ooh, this is almost as exciting as Speak You’re Branes vs. Neil Craig

  • M Leam says:

    @ Uponnothing

    You’ve beaten him in the debate on passive smoking so he won’t return to that. He’ll continue with his diversionary tactics and bang on about your typo. He does it all the time at his blog and his starry eyed disciples (a mixture of hard line religionists and right wing fantasists) are too dim to notice it.

  • 5cc says:

    “Lets say for example that Peter (for whatever reason) was to deny the existence of sheep. Even if you took him outside and showed him a sheep he would still deny the existence of sheep!”

    Sort of. He’d just moan about your spelling of the word ‘sheep’ and go off to his blog to say all leftists are deviants and you’re a despicable liar or something.

    I’m still grinning at the thought of someone saying “And it’s no good hosing me down like a burst fire hydrant with hundreds of studies which purport to support their view,” in an argument about how thin that evidence is.

  • Bob says:

    What a pathetic little man PH is. He comes on here to nitpick on semantics, but runs away when there is any challenge to his views on the main subject SHS.

    Like most right wing journalists he seems to have a problem with evidence when it doesn’t fit with his narrow view of the world.

    C’mon Peter answer the points in @18 above.

  • the_voice _of_reason says:

    Coming relatively late to the fray, I observe that Peter Hitchens comment, given its generally accepted meaning, is that a significant number of current legislators are unrepentant illegal drug takers. It is far from clear why illegal consumption of drugs requires “repentance” (if a colleague at work offers me some of their precription medication for my headache, does that make me a sinner?), but the more important point is that his post expressly posits that any MP who has ever consumed any illegal drug at any stage in their life and who has not expressed “repentance” should be regarded as unfit to pass any laws, about anything, ever.

    However, he does not, to my eyes, express any revulsion of any laws reaching the statute book thanks to the votes of MPs befudled by alcohol when the Division Bell sounds.

    Further, his assumption that the “liberal elite” do not believe that burglary is wrong conflates criminality and sentencing. The so-called “liberal elite” does not appear ever to have presented a Bill to Parliament seeking to decriminalise burglary; the issue is simply whether locking up those who steal from dwelling houses and shops should be the default positioon, or whether that fails to address the reason the offence was committed, but that is a nuanced argument, of a type with which Mr Hitchens appears to struggle.

  • Matt says:

    I wouldn’t describe myself as left wing or right wing (on account of that being a stupid way to describe anyone with a variety of views on various subjects) and also don’t know much about the subject of passive smoking (having not read the linked documents).

    However, I know how an argument works. And I would say the way Mr Hitchens has conducted himself here undermines his argument far more than whichever way the evidence falls. If the evidence showed that there is no link between passive smoking and cancer, that would not have any effect on the fact that mr Hitchens writes and behaves like a not very bright spoilt child.

  • Peter Hitchens says:

    Mr ‘Nothing’ has apologised properly for misquoting me, and I therefore forgive him for what he did.

    This example of honourable honesty on the part of our host (such apologies are very costly and hard to make) might with advantage be followed by some of his supporters here.

    I believe the argument over second hand smoking has gone as far as it can. I have set forth the reasons for my doubts and evidence in support of my reasoning. My opponents, for the most part, have tipped buckets of slime over me, abused me in various tedious ways, and confused quantity with quality in research. The fact remains that the matter is in doubt, and that many reasonable persons do doubt it.

    I still maintain that the evidence of a serious health danger form second hand smoke is thin, (not non-existent, just thin)
    and indeed set about with serious doubt. Any fair-minded person can see this. I guess that if I said the opposite Mr ‘Nothing’s fan club would condemn me for that too.

    Indeed, I am waiting for them to descend on me for opposing the Libya war.

  • frolix22 says:

    Pretty feeble stuff from Mr Hitchens, I have to say.

  • Scottie says:

    There’s an depressing similarity about where the two arguments ended up.

    The wrangling over ‘most’ versus ‘many’ and the correct interpretation of the phrase “Thin evidence”.

    Of course while we’re debating the grammar and punctuation, Roy Castle’s trumpet’s still not getting any jazz action. God rest his smoke – free soul.

    • Uponnothing says:

      @ Scottie

      I don’t think any positive outcome could have been achieved, given the tactics and astonishing immaturity of Mr Hitchens. It just demonstrated how little self-awareness some people have – Mr Hitchens wrote in the comments for example:

      Psychologists are well aware that people with strong prejudices see what they want to see, rather than what is there…

      Which I think was amply demonstrated by this ‘debate’ and the majority of his columns.

  • Mr 'Nothing Fan says:

    I don’t think Hitchens deserved an apology. The basis of his argument over being misquoted were so petty that a simple “fuck off and die” would have been more deserving. There again, how else do you get rid of whinging little child hanging from your lower leg?

  • John Gibson says:

    I wouldn’t worry about Peter Hitchens. He simply appears to have a general chip on his shoulder that his work is less influential than he would like it to be.

  • lukeblogs says:

    It would seem that just because one possesses the ability to communicate with correct grammar and spelling, it does not make one ‘intelligent’.

    He should just go back to his room on the FAR right, and carry on preaching his beliefs at his gentleman’s club.

    Not that I’m saying that I haven’t heard his opinion, I have, it’s just wrong.

    Look up “ignorant” in the dictionary, and underneath, you will see the name, “Peter Hitchens”.

  • M Leam says:

    The ‘evidence’ linking MMR to autism was considerably less than very ‘thin’. That didn’t stop Peter Hitchens writing sympathetically about the discredited Andrew Wakefield (calling his work modest and cautious) and quoting very thin anecdotal evidence whilst completely ignoring all of the evidence which showed that no link exists.

    Fair-minded he is not.

  • ACG says:

    “Mr ‘Nothing’ has apologised properly for misquoting me, and I therefore forgive him for what he did.”

    wow, it’s amazing that someone can actually say this whilst still using a childishly pointed abbreviation of the hosts screen name.

  • BenSix says:

    I don’t agree with Mr Hitchens on, well, anything much (to the point of, in m’blog’s more adolescent days, using language to describe his work that would steam up Bill Hicks’ spectacles) but I do applaud the columnist who barges onto a weblog to fight their corner. If they do it honourably then progress might be made. If they don’t they have at least revealed their own weaknesses.