Thursday, September 19, 2019

#2243: Robert Sheaffer

This is an important entry. Robert Sheaffer is a writer and skeptic who has written sharp and illuminating articles, e.g. for Skeptical Inquirer, about such topics as UFOs and creationism. But Sheaffer is also an example of the remarkable powers of compartmentalization – though good at identifying the fallacies, sloppy thinking and denialist gambits employed by creationists and various conspiracy theorists, he effortlessly, and ostensibly without noticing, falls into employing the same tricks himself when talking e.g. about global warming.

Sheaffer is a global warming denialist, and has tried on an impressive number of global warming denialist PRATTs. Sheaffer has for instance suggested that global warming is due to the sun (it demonstrably isn’t), that there has been no warming since 1998 (false, and it really doesn’t take much background knowledge to recognize the stupidity of that claim), that we’re really heading into a new Little Ice Age (a stupid claim on many levels), that the “hockey stick” is broken (false and irrelevant), that the Medieval Warm Period was warmer than today (most likely false, and also irrelevant), that the IPCC was wrong about Himalayan glaciers (well, yes: there was, in fact, one minor error in a very long, technical document), that Michael Mann performed a trick in Nature to “hide the decline” (false, but a really good example of Sheaffer’s lack of understanding and his willingness to parrot nonsensical denialist talking points without bothering to try to understand them), and that the IPCC was wrong about Amazon rainforests (they were not; they did fail to properly refer to the studies that say precisely what the IPCC said about Amazon rainforests – this should be pretty illuminating).

So how, according to Sheaffer, did climate science go so wrong? Well, climate scientists must be lying about global warming to obtain research funding. Which makes sense: if you, as a student, don’t have scruples and want to get rich, go into weather and atmosphere research and make sure you stick to consensus (rather than the kinds of claims the oil companies, say, would have liked to hear): that’s where the money is! (hat-tip: R. Allen Gilliam. Sheaffer is also a consensus denialist; after all, he is able to name two or three people with credentials that disagree with the mainstream view, so “it is disingenuous to speak of a ‘consensus’”, which is exactly analogous to the claim the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture makes about the theory of evolution in biology. Also, “given that unknown factors have caused previous climate changes, how can we be certain that these same unknown factors are not active today?” Similarly, we suppose, for science in general: after all, scientific results are never certain and there is always the possibility that some hypothesis we haven’t thought about would explain the observed data better. 

Sheaffer has also made numerous strange claims about feminism, an area he evidently knows nothing about.

Diagnosis: A striking example of how people who are apparently intelligent in one area can go on to violate even basic rules of critical thinking in another, especially one he knows little yet has nonetheless formed strong opinions about. Unfortunately, the utter lapse in reasoning on global warming suggests that one needs to show some care when encountering Sheaffer’s work in other areas as well.

Hat-tip: Jim Lippard

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

#2242: Matt Shea

Matthew Thomas Shea has served in the Washington House of Representatives, representing the 4th Legislative District, since 2009. In 2019, he was removed as State House Republican Caucus Chair for advocating violence against religious minorities and offering state surveillance of political enemies to members of hate groups. The year before, Shea admitted to having distributed a four-page manifesto linked to the Christian Identity movement, which called for the killing of non-Christian males if they do not follow fundamentalist biblical law. (He was referred to FBI investigation as a result.) Shea also hosts the twice-weekly show Patriot Radio, which is broadcast on the American Christian Network, and has sponsored Christian Reconstructionist events in DC.

The manifesto in question, written (according to the document’s metadata) by Shea and titled Biblical Basis for War– it’s available in full here – listed a number of strategies a “Holy Army” is supposed to employ. One section, on “rules of war”, suggested that one should “make an offer of peace before declaring war”, but emphasized that the peace terms must involve that the enemy “surrender on terms” of no abortions, no same-sex marriage, no communism, and that they “must obey Biblical law”, before continuing: “If they do not yield – kill all males.” The manifesto also condemns “communism”, understood here apparently as anything Shea disagrees with, and urges the use of “assassination and sabotage” against (presumably whomever Shea perceives to be) “tyrants”. Shea claimed that the document was a summary of “biblical sermons on war”, which really doesn’t explain what the purported explanation ought to have explained in order to count as an explanation. He also dismissed criticism as nothing more than “smears and slander and innuendo and implication” (it would be interesting to hear him try to define “innuendo”), claimed that his critics are part of a so-called “counter state” made up of “Marxists” and “Islamists”, and asserted that the United States is “a Christian nation

Distancing himself from the contents of the manifesto turned out to be a bit tricky, however, especially after The Guardian published chat records from a four-person right-wing chat group Shea had participated in under the alias “Verum Bellator”. The group discussed surveillance, psyops, intimidation and violent attacks on political enemies, including Antifa” activists and “communists” (under the usual, broad wingnut interpretation of those labels, of course). Shea volunteered to conduct background checks on residents of Spokane, naming in particular three individuals. In addition to Shea, the chat group included Jack Robertson, who broadcasts a far-right Radio Free Redoubt under the alias “John Jacob Schmidt” and Anthony Bosworth, a violent maniac who participated in the 2016 occupation of the Malheur national wildlife refuge, reportedly as a “security specialist” appointed by Shea; Shea subsequently awarded Bosworth a Patriot of the Year award in 2016. Indeed, Shea had himself travelled to the prior Cliven Bundy standoff in Nevada, as a cheerleader, commenting that when it comes to the Bundy situation, Americans are divided between “patriots and loyalists”: “Are you a loyalist or are you a patriot? Are you a god-fearing, self-reliant, freedom-loving American, or are you a government-dependent, Constitution-ignoring socialist?” Of course, given that Cliven Bundy thinks taxpayers should give him tens of thousands of dollars a year in free grazing rights on public land, one suspects Shea has an idiosyncratic definition of “government-dependent”. Anyways, in response to the Guardian’s revelations, Shea attacked the author of the piece by tying him to “violent Marxist revolutionaries”, using a an anti-semitic website as source.

In August 2019 The Guardian published a second set of emails that tied Shea to Team Rugged, an organization aiming to train kids for “biblical warfare”, including weapons training to prepare the warriors for the “fight against one of the most barbaric enemies that are invading our country, Muslims terrorists [sic]”. Shea made videos in support of the group, appeared alongside them at a gathering at a religious community in remote eastern Washington, and paid the founder of the group, Patrick Caughran, money from his campaign fund in 2018. The group’s views and strategies are in part based on the teachings of white supremacist, slavery-defender, miscegenation-opponent and pastor John Weaver.

Shea is also co-founder and director of the Washington Family Foundation – Shea’s brand of “family values” are definitely of the TM kind – as well as a board member of the anti-marriage-equality group Protect Marriage Washington. During his first time in office he introduced legislation seeking to block the recognition of same-sex marriage in Washington. He also organized the Spokane chapter of ACT! for America, an anti-Muslim organization correctly designated as a hate group by the SPLC; Shea responded to the designation by stating that “the Southern Poverty Law Center – and the sheriff (Knezovich) that backs them – is the most dangerous organization in this country” (Shea has an ongoing conflict with Knezovich, a Republican). Of course, insofar as Shea’s goals for the US are aligned with the Christian Identity movement, then yeah: the SPLC is a threat and sort of ought to be. 

He is no fan of the media either, referring to reporters as “dirty, godless, hateful people” at an August 2018 gun-rights rally, and referring to the local newspapers Spokesman-Review and Inlander as the “Socialist-Review” and “Inslander”, respectively. (He willingly talks to InfoWars, however, e.g. about their common concern for FEMA concentration camps.) The attitude is somewhat noteworthy given that Shea at least used to be among the eight state legislators on a Washington Legislature task force dealing with state public records laws and exemptions to them.

A diehard conspiracy theorist, Shea has long ranted about the alleged cooperation of leftists and Muslims for the purpose of creating “counter-states” in the US, and he has been invited e.g. by the John Birch society to discuss his views. 

Shea has also for a while been pushing a plan for eastern Washington to secede and reconstitute as Liberty State; apparently, he is under the delusion that the result would be a prosperous, rich state with political clout. Shea is also one of the main architects behind the American Redoubt idea, the delusional idea of turning Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and parts of Oregon and Washington into a sort of fortress for Christians to ride out the collapse of society.

Diagnosis: Violent, evil, demonstrably dangerous and fueled by paranoid conspiracy theories, it does not speak well of the good people of Washington’s 4thlegislative district that they elected this maniac.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

#2241: Randy Sharp

We have dealt with the American Family Association (AFA) numerous times before. It is a reactionary, wingnut fundamentalist group, appropriately classified as a hate group by the SPLC. The AFA is ostensibly promoting family values but is currently best known for attempting to make homosexuality illegal.

Randy Sharp has for a long time been AFA’s Director of Special projects, and has thus managed many of the AFA’s numerous boycotts, such as the boycott of Home Depot (the campaign was ridiculous and unsuccessful, so the AFA declared victory and went home), and the attempt to urge parents to boycott the Boy Scouts – allowing gay boy scouts is “a very dangerous and unhealthy thing”, and lifting the ban on gay troop leaders would present a “clear and present danger” to boys, said Sharp. Other targets have included Walt Disney CO, McDonalds, Ford (the AFA claimed “success” in every case) and Planet Fitness. Back in 2006, Sharp and the AFA encouraged fans to register their dissatisfaction with Wal-Mart after Sharp had done some research on the Wal-Mart website only to discover that Wal-Mart actually sells books and videos that gay people might read (in particular, Wal-Mart was “pushing an agenda” by selling DVDs of “Brokeback Mountain”, which according to Sharp “wasn’t even a blockbuster movie”). To make things even worse, Wal-Mart was considering same-sex “partner” benefits, thus demonstrating that they had “moved from neutrality to actively promoting the homosexual lifestyle” – gays and lesbians don’t deserve health care! And in 2008 the AFA issued an “Action Alert” calling for members to protest the Campbell Soup Company after they had purchased ads in an LGBT magazine; according to the AFA, Campbell’s “sent a message that homosexual parents constitute a family and are worthy of support”; “when you specifically target a homosexual magazine, then your company is basically endorsing these activities; you’re endorsing the lifestyle,” explained Sharp, suggesting a poor grasp of the word “endorse”. 

There are other distinctions Sharp and the AFA struggle with as well. The AFA is deeply critical of the “Day of Silence,” an event sponsored by GLSEN, saying that public school children should not be subjected to such “pro-homosexual rhetoric”. (Of course, since the Day of Silence is protesting prejudice, bigotry and, in particular bullying and abuse, aimed at homosexuals, saying that it constitutes “pro-homosexual” rhetoric only makes sense if you think that such bullying is okay.) Sharp encouraged parents and concerned citizens to take action: they should “write their school administrator and tell them they oppose the administration giving free rein to homosexual activist groups,” and that “if your school is participating in the ‘Day of Silence,’ that you simply keep your child home from school that day.” Of course, schools do not participate in the event; it is students at schools that organize it; the administration isn’t part of it. Truth, accuracy and basic distinctions don’t matter much to people like Sharp, however. 

In 2005, Sharp managed to discern Walgreens’srealagenda behind sponsoring the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago: “homosexual encounters will take place in the thousands”, resulting in large numbers of new HIV patients; “Walgreens must be salivating at the prospect of new customers this will create,” said Sharp.

It isn’t just gay people that tick off Sharp and the AFA, however. In 2006, they launched a campaign against Sam’s Club over their use of the word “holidays” in some places where they could have used “Christmas” in their catalogue. The AFA has launched similar campaigs against e.g. Gap and RadioShack, and apparently maintains a “Naughty or Nice” list of retailers.

And according to Sharp, when political opponents give money to candidates, just like they do themselves, the AFA considers it a breach of ethics.

Diagnosis: Dull, obtuse and bigoted. Though they are slowly losing the culture wars on more or less every front, one shouldn’t forget that the AFA – and thus also Sharp – remains an influential force of evil, and they are still able to do plenty of harm.

Friday, September 13, 2019

#2240: Sharum Sharif

Sharum Sharif is not a doctor but a “board-certified, licensed naturopathic physician” and graduate of Bastyr University. Of course, naturopathy is (dangerous) quackery based on pseudoscience, and “board-certified” and “licensed” just mean that other naturopaths have given Sharif their stamp of approval as part of an effort to protect their turf from other nonsense-based practitioners. Sharif is not someone you should consult if you suffer from an actual health-related issue. Sharif is also a homeopath, and “a graduate of the New England School of Homeopathy”, which justifies pride approximately as much as any diploma you can purchase by following a link in your spambox. Currently Sharif works as a “full-time as a naturopathic physician at his two clinics in Kent and Bellevue, Washington,” but is also affiliate clinical faculty at Bastyr. He is the author of a book on homeopathy called Visual Homeopathy.

At his practice, you will be subjected to the standard naturopathic battery of tests – some of them standard but completely unnecessary in the absence of specific diagnostic markers, but also “various alternative tests performed mainly by the naturopathic community,” including adrenal hormone testing to assess adrenal fatigue, a fake disease. Rest ye assured: Sharif will find something wrong with you. Then you may receive prescription for specific nutritional and herbal supplements – which probably won’t hurt but certainly won’t help (luckily you probably don’t have and couldn’t have the condition they’re supposed to remedy anyways) – prescriptions for homeopathic remedies “uniquely tailored for each concern”, and “natural hormones” (natural is apparently key). According to Sharif even “the most perplexing conditions, including auto-immune diseases and cancer, can be treated and ultimately potentially cured by following this truly holistic approach to healthcare.“ This is inaccurate.

Otherwise, Sharif’s website is notable for the density of standard false and misleading altmed tropes, such as their claim to treat “the whole person, not just the symptoms” (insinuating that real doctors don’t) and to “identify the root cause of his patients problem,” which is somewhat curious since homeopathy, in addition to all its other ludicrous bullshit, is premised on the idea that there is nothing to disease beyond the totality of your symptoms. Coherence doesn’t matter much when all you do is nonsense anyways, we suppose. Sharif does claim that homeopathy is science-based. He doesn’t cite any science, and basically just appeals to irrelevant authority (Luc Montagnier, Dana Ullmann (!) and some economist and social theorist), points out that homeopathy is 200 years old, which makes it younger than trepanation, and personal anecdotes (“I have seen results with homeopathic remedies that most people would consider miraculous”). He doesn’t have the faintest idea what “scientific” means, which comes as no surprise.

His presentation “Visual Homeopathy – Identifying a Person’s Constitutional Homeopathic Remedy in Minutes” at the 2010 American Association of Naturopathic Physicians Convention is briefly discussed here. At least it really is a nice illustration of the scary insanity that is naturopathy.

Diagnosis: He seems to be a true believer, which really doesn’t make his advice any better or his treatment of patients any less disconcerting. Perhaps not among the movers and shakers in the antiscience movement, but Sharif is in a position to cause real harm to real people.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

#2239: Lia Shapiro

A.k.a. Lia Light

Yes, more Pleiadians. As you may know, Pleiadians are fictional humanoids hailing from the stellar systems surrounding the Pleiades stars who contact “very special” New Age healers and psychics with information about whatever the New Age healers and psychics want to convey information about: common themes include vibrations, Atlantis, orgone or ascending to higher dimensions of consciousness. Pleiadians are apparently very concerned with the well-being of Earth, though unfortunately seem unable to make their concerns known through anything but handwavy word salads. It often turns out that the contactees are, in fact, Pleiadians themselves. 

Lia Shapiro, or Lia Light, is one of those who claim that Pleiadians are using her as a channel. Her book, written by aliens about how they have come to Earth to help us evolve, is called Comes the Awakening –Realizing the Divine Nature of Who You Are (yes, even hardened self-help enthusiasts may have second thoughts on that title, but who knows?). We admit that we haven’t read it, but her website is here. Its marketing slogan seems to be “We are her to help raise your frequency”, which would probably not be a good think if she meant frequency, but she probably doesn’t. Another prominent insight on the website,  AWARENESS brings REALIZATION. Realization causes an Awakening. Awakening will bring you to an in-lightened state. In the Light, you will find your TRUTH…and finally you will know that the POWER IS WITHIN YOU” (random capitalization in the original), suggests that she hasn’t quite mastered the powers of fluffy-slick choprawoo with the slickness required to go mainstream. 

The main alien messages seem to be:

-      What the world needs now is love.”
-      The Pleiadians say you control the power of all you are” (“It is important that you understand this” and “vitally important” that you understand that you can share your wisdom with others. Moreover: “[d]uring conversation with others, if you believe in your own truth and tap into your heart and soul for inspiration, you will always find that the Spirit within will help you. No matter where you originally have found answers, your inner resources become your own as you access information, taking what you need and discarding what you do not need.” Or, said more simply: when you talk to people you may evaluate the information they give you. We are lucky to have aliens traveling 400 light-years to teach us this).
-      The Pleiadians call on you to awaken.” Apparently it will cause “a quickening to your vibration that others will perceive and respond to”.
-      Navigat[e] with soul eyes.” Apparently your physical eyes are shit, but you are conditioned to use them because your “Earth home vibrates to a lower frequency, it manifests in a more physical density, thus all the problems associated with such a realm with all its physical characteristics.”
-      Finally, “The Pleiadians say you are the Light of God”, that “you are more than you think you are”, and they “ask you to visualize your soul”. And so on.

She also seems to make music under the artist name “ALiEn Tribe”. The music is “inspired by my book”. We have not sampled it. (In fairness, people with whackier beliefs than Shapiro – Prokofiev and his Christian science nonsense, for instance, comes to mind – have made great music, but we don’t really feel the urge)

Diagnosis: She seems to be aiming for some kind of world record in hollow fluffery, with occasional lapses into serious lunatic ramblings about frequencies and vibrations. Completely harmless, though.

Hat-tip: Rationalwiki

Monday, September 9, 2019

#2238: Susan Shannon

Susan Shannon may be a pretty obscure Twitter character, but she deserves a mention. Shannon is, according to herself, a Christian conservative with a gift that allows her to see clearly through confusing and nebulous media reports to discern what’s really going on: “Friends, there is a gift that God has given me: I can smell something fishy a mile away. Like Benghazi. Almost on day one, I told my husband: ‘The facts don’t make sense. Something is wrong here.’” What a great gift! She then used her gift to look through the reports on the Newtown shootings, and predictably discovered a false flag operation: You see, according to the official story, it looked like “had Adam Lanza NOT had access to those legal guns, he could never have killed those kids. He was too mentally ill to have gotten those weapons himself,” and Shannon at the time “just couldn’t believe the TIMING and circumstances of this event- a GIFT to the Progressives to disarm us.” Then, of course, she saw the light: “Friends. I believe there is evidence of more than one shooter. I believe this was a PLANNED event- specifically to get the UN Small Arms Treaty signed.” Apparently it is all part of a conspiracy, ostensibly somehow related to the LIBOR scandal, that goes all the way to a “massive, worldwide network of banks, the Federal Reserve and highly position individuals such as Tim Geihtner and Ben Bernanke,” and ultimately to the government: “I believe our GOVERNMENT shot those kids and teachers and used Adam Lanza and his family to pull it off,” said Shannon. In fairness, Shannon has other evidence, too: rumors– that is, things that are rumored to happen; she doesn’t specify from whereshe has heard said rumors, but we suspect it has something to do with her gift.

Diagnosis: Ok, so we don’t really know much more about her. She is, however, a representative of views that are probably shared by millions of Americans. Laughing at her is certainly justified, but it really isn’t particularly funny.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

#2237: Doyel Shamley

Doyel Shamley is the president of a Nevada-based firm called Veritas Research Consulting, and part of his day job is to advise Republican politicians, including congresspeople, on land management and environmental policy – as such, he has participated in numerous fora and on several panels sponsored by conservative groups, and testified before various House committees and state assemblies.

But when his dayshift is over Doyel Shamley the consultant becomes Doyel Shamley the conspiracy theorist, who for years hosted the online radio show The Hour of the Time, where he would speculate on a range of issues, suggesting for instance that UFO sightings are a false-flag operation by the Illuminati to gain more power, and claiming that federal agents killed his friend, Christian Identity theorist William Cooper, because he was asking questions about the attacks on the World Trade Center – yes, Shamley is a 9/11 truther, and has claimed that “terrorism is really just part of a grand Hegelian dialectic scheme to bring about their desired change and the end result that the illuminati want, a New World Order.” 

On the 2009 DVD “New World Order: The Battle for Your Mind and the Truth to UFOs”, he claimied that his conspiracy activism was viewed as a nuisance during his military career: “I did classes in the military on the New World Order, etc., to my troops and my platoons,” said Shamley: “Everything from the sham of fiat money and the federal reserve centralized banking system to the Illuminati to Council of [sic] Foreign Relations, Tri-Lats, all the typical subjects and me and my squad leaders, we would hand out literature and have classes in the barracks at night.” Clearly the fact that people in the military was annoyed must have been because Shamley was onto something.

Shamley does apparently distance himself from people like Alex Jones, however, whose antics he characterizes as “fearmongering” – not because there is something wrong with Jones’s integrity or critical thinking skills, but because Jones is too pessimistic. Shamley, on the other hand, thinks change is possible. 

It is far from clear that his clients in politics are entirely unaware of his double life either. For instance, when Jennifer Fielder, the Montana GOP vice chair, identified Shamley as an expert in natural resources after inviting him to testify before the state’s Environmental Quality Council in 2014, she may not have mentionedhis conspiracy theory career, but Fielder herself has dabbled in sovereign citizen ideas and attended seminars with speakers (e.g. Kirk MacKenzie) who think that environmentalists are “domestic terrorists” and that cabals of international banking families are responsible for pushing environmental regulations. It is hard not to wonder.

In 2008, Shamley was elected natural resources coordinator for Apache County, a position he used to get the county to pass a pair of resolutions asserting its authority over federal lands. In 2018 he sought election to the Arizona House of Representatives to represent District 7; he was apparently unopposed in the primaries but lost the general election. Shamley has also provided training and workshops for Defend Rural America’s secessionist county organizing drive in California.

Diagnosis: It’s hard to shake the feeling that the lunatic paranoia of people like Doyel Shamley has become rather mainstreamed the last few years (though of course: that itself might sound like paranoia). And its impact is surely not benign effect. Deranged maniac.

Hat-tip: Tim Murphy @MotherJones

Monday, September 2, 2019

#2236: Gene Shafer

Gene Shafer is a Buddhist and a massage therapist with “an extensive background in and understanding of holistic healing”. His specialty is something called Spiritually Guided Surgery, which is supposed to be an alternative kind of surgery without all the blood and sharp scalpels. How does it work? Well, Shafer’s answer to that question isn’t really an answer, but here we go: “Spiritually Guided Surgery is a holistic form of healing that works on bringing the body into balance,” whatever that might mean (Shafer doesn’t say much about what it means or what you should be looking for to determine whether a body is “in balance”), and is “best be summed up as: Healing from Spirit, through Spirit, to Spirit.” That claim requires an idiosyncratic interpretation of “best”, but OK: “Unlike other modalities of healing, where energy is generally transferred through the practitioner to the client, Spiritually Guided Surgery involves surgery in the 5th auric level, which is commonly called the Etheric Template. The Etheric Template then becomes the Etheric Aura, which in turn becomes the physical body.” Saying that X involvesY isn’t explaining what X is, but the purported explanation has greater problems than merely failing to really explain anything. Perhaps we are just struggling to tell the auric levels apart?

Apparently Shafer began his healing work after reading the book “Jin Shin Do The Acupressure Way to Health” and quickly ascended to becoming a Reiki practitioner at level two and ultimately a Reiki Master. In 1989 he also apparently became a Certified Massage Therapist in the USA. Who wouldn’t want a massage therapist who has read a self-help book on woo perform surgery on you (even if it’s on your aura)? Well, if you have concerns, Shafer can reassure you he doesn’t work alone, but that the spirits will help him out: The “Spirit entities” are “beings that are very interested in helping the human race at this time. Many are seeking to be able to help their Host humans as well as other humans through the Spiritually Guided Surgery Practitioner.” You can learn more about “who the Spirit Surgeons are” by paying for a “Spiritually Guided Surgery Workshop,” but he reveals some details to the rest of us for free: “The Spirit Surgeons appear to me as people.” (That, if true, should not exactly be trust-inducing.) “They work at the 5th level of the aura which is about 450 millimeters from your body. It is called the Etheric Template. A template is used to ‘help shape something accurately’ (Collins Concise Dictionary). The Surgeons create the template of what your body can become in order for you to be in balance. The Template then becomes the Etheric Aura. The Etheric Aura is that which is closest to your body. Which then becomes you. With the Spiritual Surgeons/Healers they work on your entire body.” He admits that he doesn’t completely understand what they are doing, however, but knows that “[t]he Spiritually Guided Surgeons themselves are continually learning how to improve their techniques.” And they can do almost anything: “The Spirit Surgeons can perform actual operations as would normally be performed in a hospital. With Spirit Surgeons doing the surgery there is: No Pain, No blood loss, No recovery time, most often instant results,” and they do so by “helping to bring organs, bones, joints to equilibrium. For instance a person with any of the following ailments, Thyroid problems, Cancers, Arthritis Aching joints, Migraines, low back pain, Knee pain can all get some to total relief.”

Also, if it doesn’t work, it is really because you didn’t try hard enough in the right way (as defined by Shafer based on whether the treatment worked or not).

Diagnosis: If you fall for this, there was probably little that exposure to critical thinking could have done for you in the first place. Probably harmless.

Friday, August 30, 2019

#2235: Kristine Severyn

Medical Voices is an antivaccine website that seems to pretend to offer scholarly articles written by various quacks, pseudoscientists and denialists on various medical issues loosely related to vaccines (or: it used to be; at present it seems to have reverted to its origin as the International Medical Council on Vaccination). The publication criteria seem mostly to be that the author uses (or misuses) medical terms in their articles, and their academic standards are otherwise non-existent. The goal, however, seems clearly to be to have a repository of articles that quacks can cite in a manner that superficially looks scholarly practice, which they certainly need given that they otherwise struggle to have their rants published in outlets that care about details like evidence, fact and accuracy. The list of people who have published on the site accordingly makes for a fairly comprehensive list of the most egregious woo-promoters and antivaccine advocates in the US, including Joe Mercola, Suzanne Humphries, Bob Sears, Russell Blaylock and Sherri Tenpenny.

Kristine Severyn has also “published” with Medical Voices. Severyn is an “RPh, PhD” and antivaccine activist. For Medical Voices, Severyn published the article “Profits, Not Science, Motivate Vaccine Mandates,” where she argued that “[v]accines represent an economic boon for pediatricians. Profitable well-baby visits are timed to coincide with vaccination schedules established by the AAP and the CDC,” and therefore that vaccine mandates are not motivated by science – the shill gambit is a recurring strategy in Medical Voices articles. Of course, in real life (yes: there are studies on this), “the vaccination portion of the business model for primary care pediatric practices that serve private-pay patients results in little or no profit from vaccine delivery. When losses from vaccinating publicly insured children are included, most practices lose money.” It is worth emphasizing, however, that Severyn’s conclusion wouldn’t follow even if one assumed the opposite of what is actually the case with regard to profits.

Severyn is otherwise the founder of Ohio Parents for Vaccine Safety, which has long been fighting for religious as well as “moral and philosophical” exemptions to vaccinations in Ohio as well as pushing various myths and conspiracy theories about vaccines (including aborted fetal tissue scaremongering and falsely claiming that vaccines aren’t tested). Severyn, a registered Republican, has apparently also been involved in various anti-abortion campaigns.

Diagnosis: A tireless veteran campaigner for unreason, denialism and conspiracy theories, Severyn is perhaps not among the most notable celebrities in the antivaccine movement, but her persistent efforts to promote myths and falsehoods are surely not making a positive contribution to humanity.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

#2234: Stephanie Seneff

Stephanie Seneff is a real senior research scientist at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT, specializing in human–computer interaction and algorithms for language understanding and speech recognition. She is also a crackpot, pseudoscientist and conspiracy theorist trying to write about issues in biology and medicine, fields she demonstrably doesn’t understand. She has also managed to become something of an authority in the antivaccine and anti-GMO movements since people in these movements don’t notice or care that she has no competence in those fields as long as her credentials in completely unrelated fields give her crackpot rantings a sheen of authority. Not that Seneff herself would recognize the limits of her competence: “So basically what I do is I read papers and I process them with the computer to help me understand them and interpret them and generalize and build a story […]. Mostly what I do now is study, and then write. Trying to understand biology. I have an undergraduate degree from MIT in biology, and I also spent one year in graduate school in biology before switching over to computer science. And my PhD was on an auditory model for the human processing of speech. So that also involved biology, neurology. I’m not a complete ignoramus in the field of biology.” Actually, she is worse than an ignoramus; her description brilliantly illustrates a serious case of Dunning-Kruger and someone who is confidently scaling mount stupid.

So in 2011, Seneff began publishing articles on topics in biology and medicine, areas where she has no relevant qualifications or expertise, in low-impact or predatory open access journals, such as Interdisciplinary Toxicology, including eight papers in the journal Entropy between 2011 and 2015. It is rather important to emphasize, as Seneff herself admits in the above quote about how she does “research”, that Seneff “has published only speculations and gives many presentations, but has not created any new data” – there is no actual research going on; just manipulations of data from fields she doesn’t have any competence in; basically, her studies are review articles that just cherry-pick the results she wants to use and disregard the rest (some glaring examples are discussed here). Of course, her reviews have also been criticized for misrepresenting the results and conclusions of other researchers’ work, and for extensively relying on pseudoscientific studies and studies that have later been refuted – just to reach home base when even cherry-picking won’t suffice to get her where she wanted. And of course the “peer review process” isn’t going to notice given her choice of journals; the journals in question are pay-to-publish journals of the kind most serious researchers would classify as “predatory”, and the publisher of Entropy, MDPI, has a known history of publishing articles without merit.

Hat-tip: ?

Glyphosate and anti-GMO insanity
Seneff and her regular coauthor Anthony Samsel – a “long time contributor to the Vital Votes Forum” (yes, that description was apparently intended to convey an air of authority) – have coauthored a series of, well, comments that associate glyphosate with a wide variety of diseases, including “gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer's disease”. The comments have received quite a bit of media attention given her and her coauthors’ marketing of the results (one Carey Gilliam seems in particular to be a repeat offender when it comes to pushing Seneff’s conspiracy theories masked as “research” for various newspapers). The paper(s), of course, have no scientific merit – indeed, they have been characterized as “not even wrong” for instance due to “word salads about toxicology and biology that might as well be magic” – which is of course also why they were published in pseudojournals. Seneff and Samsel’s “results” are discussed in some detail here; a good primer on glyphosate is here. Seneff herself claimed that glyphosate is a major cause of autism and largely responsible for the current autism epidemic: “At today’s rates, by 2025, half the kids born will be diagnosed with autism,” Seneff said (the claim was picked up by Snopes after making its ways in the usual conspiracy-and-pseudoscience circles); indeed, she has gained some infamy for using a graph in her Powerpoint presentations that shows that 100% of all children born in 2050 will be born with autism. In other words, according to Seneff GMOs are going to make everyoneautistic. Yes, that’s the level of density we are talking about (for the record: there is no autism epidemic; increasing rates are probably exclusively due to changes in diagnostic practices). Real studies have also found no evidence that glyphosate is associated with adverse development outcomes, nor any of the other adverse outcomes Seneff asserts it is the cause of; indeed, glyphosate is probably among the least toxic herbicides there is. A 2017 Review Article in Frontiers in Public Health characterized Seneff’s glyphosate health-risk research claims asat best unsubstantiated theories, speculations or simply incorrect.”

It is worth pointing out that infamous anti-GMO activist Michael Hansen of Consumers Union, who is himself no stranger to spouting insane conspiracy theories about science, thinks Anthony Samsel is so crazy that he should be avoided lest his side lose their credibility among the public (his side has precariously little credibility among scientists as it is).

Much of Seneff and Samsel’s work in these papers are simple applications of post-hoc fallacies, for instance when they suggest that “[t]he incidence of inflammatory bowel diseases such as juvenile onset Crohn’s disease has increased substantially in the last decade in Western Europe and the United States. It is reasonable to suspect that glyphosate’s impact on gut bacteria may be contributing to these diseases and conditions.” It really isn’t reasonable, any more than blaming increased consumption of organic products. (And the connection to gut conditions matters, because they also adhere to the at best extremely controversial idea that gastrointestinal issues are a causal factor in autism – another correlation/causation failure, really). They make similarly ridiculous correlation/causation mistakes when trying to tie glyphosate to obesity; in fact, had they been careful, they would have seen that they don’t even actually have a correlation to mistake for causation in this case (further discussion here). They are not careful. Seneff also notes a correlation between deaths from senile dementia due to an aging population and … well, she doesn’t notice that association.

The proposed association between glyphosate and autism is further discussed here. According to Seneff, there is of course a correlation between the use of glyphosate and, well, really the expansion of diagnostic criteria and practices for autism (not the number of incidences); therefore, there must be a causal connection. “Is there a toxic substance that is currently in our environment on the rise in step with increasing rates of Autism that could explain this?… The answer is yes, I’m quite sure that I’m right, and the answer is glyphosate.” The evidence-free convictions of an electrical engineer with a history of pseudoscience really isn’t going to cut it in any context where truth, accuracy and evidence matter. And she really, really doesn’t get the correlation/causation thing; nor is she very careful about identifying actual correlation from which one could actually fallaciously derive causal claims.

And as mentioned above, it isn’t just autism, obesity, Crohn’s disease and Alzheimers. According to Seneff glyphosate exposure causes arthritis, concussions, Celiac disease, food allergies, and Parkinsons as well. Indeed, in an interview with anti-GMO activist, yogic flying instructor and conspiracy theorist Jeffrey Smith, Seneff upped her game even further: “I believe that glyphosate may be a contributor to all the – this epidemic that we have in school shootings and the thing that just happened in Boston (the Boston Bombing).”

Wait, was concussions on that list? Oh, yes. According to Seneff, glyphosate causes concussions (her coauthor on that rant was Wendy Morely, who is a “Registered Holistic Nutritionist” specializing in the nutrition of concussion; Morely has no neurology background either, of course). And yes, it’s just as insanely dumb as you would imagine. Their tortured reasoning process is discussed here, and the basic idea is a proposed “diminished brain resilience syndrome”: according to Seneff and Morely, concussions are on the increase because the general population has poor nutrition, disordered gut microbiota, and increased exposure to toxins like glyphosate and GMOs, which render the brain less resilient to injury and less able to repair itself after injury. There is a long road of fallacies and confusions to travel to make that connection look like it works even to those who know nothing about any of the relevant fields (notice how although Seneff and Morely add references behind some of the central figures in their arguments, the sources cited don’t actually contain those figures, and the suggested figures do, entirely unsurprisingly, contradict the figures actually found in the scientific literature.) Of course, the proposal collapses on the starting block, since there is no evidence at all for the claim that concussions are on the rise. In short: Seneff and Morely propose, without evidence, a nonsensical hypothesis to explain – something it couldn’t have done even if it were coherent – a phenomenon that don’t actually exist. The whole attempt is roughly as intelligent or credible as one that tried to use chi vibrations to explain how unicorns fly. 

Though Seneff has her own, wrong idea about the causes of autism, she has nevertheless thrown her lot in with the antivaccine movement. Indeed, according to Seneff, Alzheimer’s, which she has claimed is also caused by glyphosate – and sunscreen – is also caused by vaccines: “The elderly are greatly encouraged to renew their flu shots every single year, and I think this is another major factor that is steadily increasing their risk to Alzheimer’s disease. This is mainly due to the aluminum contained in the flu shot.” She doesn’t have any evidence of course; she just thinksthere is a connection. Some might even consider her claim to think vaccines are a factor in Alzheimer’s is false, due to a legitimate hesitancy to characterize what she is doing as thinking

In 2012 Seneff was a coauthor with Jingjing Liu (from Seneff’s lab) and one Robert M. Davidson on “Empirical Data Confirm Autism Symptoms Related to Aluminum and Acetaminophen Exposure”, published in their standard pay-to-publish journal Entropy (in fact, they also blame autism on mercury in the article, but probably didn’t dare put it in the title in case even the editors of Entropy, whom we suspect do not read beyond the title, would have noticed). There is a good review of the article here (“Rarely have I seen so much antivaccine pseudoscience packed into a single paper”). You get a feel for the contents of the paper from the way they frame their study: “The ASD community has maintained a long-standing conviction that vaccination plays a causative role in ASD, an idea that has been vehemently denied by the vaccine industry, but nonetheless is still hotly debated,” which must count as one of the most egregious manufactroversy gambits in the history of the Internet (it really isn’t hotly debated, the ASD community is not in general antivaccine, and refutations of the proposed link have not come from the vaccine industry). And yes, they cite celebrity fraud Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent and retracted 1998 paper as evidence. They also cite Gayle DeLong, Mark Geier, Boyd Haley, Helen Ratajczak and really a whole cornucopia of antivaccine conspiracy theories published in bottom-feeding or predatory journals, while systematically of course neglecting the overwhelming amount of large, real, serious and extensive studies that consistently yield results that don’t fit their narrative. It is actually not entirely clear what their thesis is; the antivaccine movement has blamed everything from thimerosal to aluminum adjuvants, and Seneff et al. seem to cite it all equally approvingly despite the fact that the claims contradict each other. Of course, the MMR vaccine has never contained either aluminum or thimerosal, but Seneff et al. don’t seem to have gotten the memo and blithely go from blaming “heavy metals” like mercury and aluminum for the “autism epidemic” to blaming the MMR vaccine. They also blame vaccines for SIDS, despite vaccines being negatively correlated with SIDS. Then they dumpster-dive in the VAERS database. (And no, they apparently don’t really have the faintest idea what the VAERS database actually is, but nevertheless went on to “torture the data until it confessed”) And that’s just the start. At least their paper provides an illuminating illustration of how anti-vaccine “researchers” work.

Despite Because of her lack of expertise or knowledge in the fields she is writing about Seneff has become a central character in the antivaccine movement, and she participated in the antivaccine film Vaxxed, for instance, as well as in the antivaccine series The Truth about Vaccines.

Cholesterol denialism and more
Seneff has also put her degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science to work in dreaming up theories that ADHD is caused by eating too many low fat foods, that autism is caused by a cholesterol/vitamin D deficiency syndrome because mothers eat too many low fat foods and use too much sunscreen (her 2008 essay “Sunscreen and Low-fat Diet: A Recipe for Disaster”), that sulfur deficiency causes obesity (sulfur deficiency is of course not actually a thing, but Seneff knows nothing about chemistry, biology or medicine), and that a low fat diet and statin drugs (for high cholesterol) can cause Alzheimer’s.

Yes, Seneff (and colleagues) have also aligned themselves with the conspiracy theorists in the cholesterol denialist group THINC (yes, cholesterol denialism is of course a thing) and garbage-published on the health impacts of fat and cholesterol consumption in America. According to Seneff Americans are suffering from a cholesterol deficiency; this is, to put it diplomatically, incorrect. In 2014–2016 Seneff was accordingly proposed as an expert witness for litigators seeking damages from Pfizer associated with their cholesterol drug Lipitor, but the court dismissed the suggestion, of course, since Seneff has no expertise in the field and failed to provide credible evidence linking Lipitor to any specific harm.

Oh, and she has also blamed low fat diets and statins on autism. So, just to tally up: thus far Seneff has blamed autism on low fat diets and statins, GMOs and glyphosate, sulfate deficiency, vaccines, aluminium and painkillers. That’s what happens when you don’t understand the difference between correlation and causation and is also really bad at actually identifying correlations, we suppose. Her regular coauthor Anthony Samsel, meanwhile, has even proposed that water dynamics are responsible for autism. 

As a result of her stalwart efforts on behalf of dangerous nonsense, Stephanie Seneff is currently on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Children’s Medical Safety Research Institute (CMSRI). She has no relevant qualifications to assess the medical safety of anything whatsoever, of course, but that probably makes her a fine match for the CMSRI, which is a conspiracy-mongering pseudoscience organization.

Diagnosis: It is worth emphasizing again: Stephanie Seneff has no expertise, background or competence in anything related to medicine, biology or how to use population studies. And she has done no research whatsoever on the topics she writes about. Her output isn’t studies, but conspiracy rants superficially structured like research papers and published in pay-to-publish journals. Seneff is a pseudoscientist and a tragic case of Dunning-Kruger. But she has also found a receptive audience, and even mainstream media isn’t always able to distinguish her writings from science. Dangerous. 

Hat-tip: Vaxopedia