Tuesday, May 26, 2020

#2340: Gary Thompson

Gary Thompson is a climate change denier (of some stripe) who has at least on two occasions published climate change denialist articles for the wingnut website American Thinker. The website unfortunately provides no more information about him, and we have thus been unable to locate any reliable background (his name is hardly unique). But the articles themselves are instructive. “The AGW Smoking Gun”, for instance, does cites peer-reviewed papers, but what he calls “analyzing” e.g. graphs is not analyzing but rather quickly eyeballing graphs while dismissing peer-reviewed data analysis to lead himself to the opposite conclusion compared to the authors of the papers in question (“Our results provide direct experimental evidence for a significant increase in the Earth’s greenhouse effect that is consistent with concerns over radiative forcing of climate”). So instead of disproving the enhanced greenhouse effect, Thompson’s article merely provides, instead, further evidence for the Dunning-Kruger effect, and/or for the pernicious influence of bias . For more detailed criticisms of the article, this one is helpful.

Diagnosis: Thompson really is a good example of denialism at work – he is certainly a smart guy, and certainly a far cry e.g. from some of the wild-eyed creationists we have covered when it comes to being thoughtful and measured. But bias and a little knowledge can fell the smartest, and Thompson is not the smartest.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

#2339: Damon Thompson

Damon Thompson is a South Carolina-based fundie preacher formerly associated with The Ramp – a revival cult thing somewhere in Alabama run by preachers affiliated with the New Apostolic Reformation and apparently aimed at young people (this story might provide an illustration) – and more recently something called “Carolina Revival”. Thompson claims that being “saved” actually changes your DNA. Indeed, it changes your DNA so much that if you committed a crime and left behind DNA, then if you afterward became “born again” it will ensure that your DNA doesn’t match that left behind at the scene. Let us just say that anyone gambling on this idea will be in for an ugly surprise. Thompson has, as fundie preachers are wont to, of course made up an anecdote to make the claim vivid for his listeners.

He is, of course, also virulently anti-gay, offering kids “deliverance from homosexualityat his prayer rallies. “You may think you were born gay, but you cannot be born again gay!”, says Damon Thompson.

Diagnosis: Dangerous madman. He does have the power to ruin lives, and seems unafraid to use it.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

#2338: Theresa Thombs

William Thomas, popularizer of paranoid chemtrail conspiracy theories, is apparently Canadian. Theresa Thombs, on the other hand, is not only American, but a representative for a very familiar, very American type of denialism. Thombs was a 2014 candidate for the Texas state board of education, whose campaign was largely based on warning people that the then-current board was “using your tax dollars to brainwash our children into socialist issues and ideas.” Among those socialist ideas were, unsurprisingly, the theory of evolution, and Thombs firmly denounced “people from socialist higher education” who support the teaching of evolution. “We know we didn’t come from monkeys!” exclaimed Thombs. She later said that people who criticized her attack on evolution at a school board candidate forum are actually trying to take away the right of Christians to speak freely and run for public office, because there is no difference between criticism and persecution when the criticism is directed at her. 

Thombs considers herself an “international evangelist” who was in the running to fight “adgendas and ideoligies” (yes, that’s her spelling – she also asserted that parents are “criticle,” and that she’s an “advicate” and “expereinced”) and to defeat “Devil worshipers”. Her “Mission and Issues” statement also described her goal to “stem the tide of our best and brightest teachers leaving the classroom to pursue other carriers, because they can no longer live with the policies and mandates they no are harmful to their students.” We are not convinced her idiosyncratic spelling would actually count against her in a Texas schoolboard election.

On other issues, Thombs emphasized the importance of asserting “straight pride” to stop “political correctness.” To clarify her position she did say that she is “not bigoted or hateful” and that she in particular didn’t hate gay people, and then she compared gay people to murderers.

Diagnosis: Colorful village idiot, mostly. Thombs didn’t win a seat this time around, but it is worth pointing out that she probably didn’t lose because of her views as much as her tone.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

#2337: Paul Thomas

There are lot of MDs in the US, so you’re bound to find a number of loons or grifters willing to throw their lot in with the anti-science crowds among them. Paul Thomas is a pediatrician with offices (“Integrative Pediatricians”) in the Portland, Oregon area, and he has thrown his lot in with the antivaxxers. Thomas is, for instance, a founding member of the antivaccine and general quackery-promoting group Physicians for Informed Consent, and was also one of the “experts” interviewed for the antivaccine series The Truth About Vaccines – it’s of course the same small number of people with genuine credentials they use every time since there is only a very small number of people with genuine credentials willing to lend their authority to the antivaccine movement – there’s a list of them here, and it is, safe to say, a motley crew. (And of course: being an MD is not the same as being trained in medical science even if it requires some knowledge of science, a distinction easily lost on a target audience who thinks reading facebook comments and conspiracy websites counts as research anyways.) But in short: Thomas is something of a rising star in the antivaccine movement (with inept journalists like Genevieve Reaume helping him along).

The ridiculous (but dangerous) group Physicians for Informed Consent is best known for trying to spread obvious fake news about vaccines and pushing manufactroversies about vaccine safety, a typical ploy being the familiar trick of misrepresenting studies to falsely make it sound like it supports the conclusion you want it to support while relying on the audience not actually checking or being able to check whether the source actually says what you claim it says. Of course, Physicians for Informed Consent is very much opposed to informed consent (hence the Orwellian trick of putting “informed consent” in the very name); instead, they are vigorously pushing misinformation and fear-mongering and (for instance) vigorously deleting any hint of criticism by those who actually know something about the issues from their comment sections. The goal of the group is to fight any proposal to restrict the use of vaccine exemptions for kids in public schools, and Thomas has established himself as one of the leaders of the loon side of those debates.

Of course, like most antivaccine advocates, Thomas claims to be “not anti-vaccine, but pro-safe vaccine”. For one who is not antivaccine, Thomas spends a lot of time claiming that vaccines are dangerous without evidence to back up his claims. Thomas claims that he, clearly unlike most doctors, don’t “really remember really learning anything” about vaccines in medical school, and it sort of shows, for instance in his book The Vaccine-Friendly Plan, which pushes a (really antivaccine) “alternative vaccine schedule” with no basis in evidence and that ultimately, of course, really involves dropping various vaccines. Thomas, on his side, seems to suggest that the schedule is associated with lower prevalence of autism among his patients, even though he usually seems smart enough not to outright claim that vaccination leads to autism, which it demonstrably doesn’t – we don’t doubt that many of his clients believe that it does, however, and Thomas is certainly not going to disabuse them of that idea. Apparently his office has some 15,000 patients and he oversees eight doctors and nurses who share his beliefs. And ok, in his book he explicitly states that he once “realized we had poisoned a generation of children with a mercury-derived preservative called thimerosal”, which doesn’t count as a “realization”, before going on to talk about how kids are overvaccinated, and though he does, in fairness, not explicitly connect the dots to autism, he also talks about the alleged though non-existent autism epidemic, downplays the risks of vaccine-preventable diseases and claims that the polio vaccine didn’t eradicate polio in the US, which it demonstrably did and it would be utterly idiotic to try to claim otherwise. 

Unsurprisingly, Thomas likes to be portrayed as a brave, principled maverick doctor being persecuted by the establishment. In August 2019, for instance, Thomas was kicked out of the Vaccines for Children Program because he failed to stock two of the required vaccines (rotavirus and HPV) and was, according to the Oregon Health Authority, “not exercising medical judgment in accordance with accepted medical practice.” His response involved, predictably, to suggest – falsely as always – that doctors administer vaccines in part because there is a lot of money in it (there really, really isn’t – there is, however, quite a bit of money involved in writing non-medical exemptions, which, in places without restrictions, don’t cost antivaccine doctors anything, and in selling books and webinars that stoke parents’ concerns about vaccines).

The lies Thomas told in the Truth About Vaccines interview are covered here, including his attempt to scare audiences by telling them that the AAP does not investigate vaccine safety (ok, that’s technically true since the AAP is a professional organization: its members study vaccine safety, however) and his claim that doctors cause grave injury to children by vaccination, but are not interested in learning why or how. He also invokes the “science was wrong before” gambit by bringing up to the how doctors were promoting cigarettes in the 1950s, implying that vaccines are similarly waiting for studies to be done on them – a notoriously silly gambit in part because i) there are ample studies on vaccines and vaccine safety, ii) science and doctors knew quite a bit about the dangers of smoking in the 1950s, and iii) would therefore not promote cigarettes: the “doctors” in those old ads are actors, not doctors, except perhaps – ironically – for a few “brave maverick doctors” not willing to base their recommendations on accepted science but going their own ways. Of course, Thomas doesn’t really have a clear idea what the state of the science on vaccines actually is, something he amply demonstrates on the show by rambling about how doctors don’t know how to identify vaccine reactions and saying that no one has looked at whether unvaccinated kids have febrile seizures or die of SIDS (in reality, studies show that vaccines significantly reduce the risk of SIDS – Thomas would of course not be aware of that – and SIDS rates in the US are at an all-time low partially as a result.)

As his book makes clear, Thomas isn’t just worried about vaccines, however. He is also worried about Tylenol, that the chemicals in plastics are endocrine disruptors, GMOs, flame retardants, pesticides, fluoride, artificial sweeteners, chemical dyes, and all of the other “toxins” that other doctors and the CDC supposedly ignore. But does he have the science to back up his fear-mongering? Well, he does a bit of cherry-picking, and concludes that there is “a growing body of evidence,” which it certainly looks like as long as people continue to publish outliers and you refuse to look at the trends established by large, well-designed studies and the metastudies that support the opposite conclusions. It is also worth noting that many of Thomas’s patients show sensitivity to gluten. This is, of course, because Thomas uses an IgG food sensitivity test that experts say is basically worthless.

Hat-tip: RtAVM
His book is fairly and accurately reviewed here. There is another, comprehensive review here (short version: “Dr. Thomas has no relevant expertise in immunology or infectious disease to be making such recommendations, and it shows.”) Note in particular Thomas’s advice to pregnant women and new mothers, advice that are likely to cause deaths and serious harm if followed. And yes, it’s all couched in terms of one big toxins gambit with numerous appeals to chemophobia (“The Injectable Polio Vaccine (Ipol) contains formaldehyde, along with a host of other ingredients you probably wouldn’t want to inject into an infant with an immature immune system, including: human albumin, calf serum, 2-phenoxyethanol and antibiotics”).

Now, Thomas does seem to fancy himself a bit of a researcher, even if he really has no clue how scientific research works. The last few years he has been claiming to be running a study based on his own practice and “trying to get his data published,” which basically is him just registering what he wants to register about his own patients and is not a study by a long shot (here is a more detailed discussion of his “data”). His “research” partner appears to be antivaccine crank James Lyon-Weiler, with whom Thomas has also written a pretty inept “study” (no original research) demonizing aluminum adjuvants, published in the antivaccine-friendly junk journal Journal of Trace Elements in Biology and Medicine; that study is discussed here. (We will also take note of the coauthors, Grant McFarland and Elaine La Joie, neither of whom have any expertise in epidemiology, immunology, infectious disease, and epidemiology, though La Joie is at least “a certified life coach, and has a shamanic work practice”.)

Insert confirmation bias meme
Diagnosis: “Rising star in the antivaccine movement” should be diagnosis enough, shouldn’t it? 

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

#2336: Jennifer Thieme

A.k.a. Jennifer Thieme Johnson

The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) is the belligerently bigoted antigay organization led by Brian Brown. The Ruth Institute was established as one of their projects for conducting youth outreach, and aims to halt the “sexual revolution” (a catch-all concept on the Christian Right to describe an alleged conspiracy to undermine the “traditional” heterosexual family in the name of sexual freedom), though it serves largely as a vehicle for spreading the Catholic right-wing Gospel of its founder, Jennifer Roback Morse. Jennifer Thieme is – or at least was at some point – its Director of Finance & Advancement.

Thieme has voiced her worry (in 2013) that marriage equality laws will mean that no one can be a bride or a groom ever again, claiming that in states that recognize same-sex marriages “no woman gets to be a bride and no man gets to be a groom,” which may come as a surprising piece of information to those married in those states. But Thieme also perceived a larger socialist conspiracy: “The state will not likely give up the increased power it gets over individuals, children, and the church as this change gains traction,” wrote Thieme, urging libertarians not to back gay rights because “socialists support it.” Apparently “redefining marriage” also “redefines parenthood”, meaning that, if gay people are allowed to be parents, the institution of parenthood is in jeopardy. There are, in other words, some fundamental distinctions Thieme struggles to get completely clear. She has also argued that the pride flag is a corruption of the American flag because the pride flag contains stripes (do check that link for some good examples of fantastically tortured reasoning).

Diagnosis: We don’t really know what Thieme is up to these days, and she seems to be a pretty minor character, but NOM and the Ruth Institute are still around, and Thieme’s idiocy remains fairly representative, so we think she merits an entry.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

#2335: Bob Thiel

Bob Thiel is a fundamentalist conspiracy theorist. He is probably most famous for writing books accusing various politicians of ushering in the End Times, and apparently tries to stay a bit ahead of the curve – for instance, his book Hillary Clinton, Prophecy, and the Destruction of the United States appeared in February 2016, and discussed topics like “Is Hillary Clinton the Antichrist?” and “20 Reasons Why Hillary Clinton Is Apocalyptic.” In particular, the book endeavored to investigate (his own deranged mind to establish) Clinton’s “possible connections to freemasonry and shamanism” and why she is “specifically causing the people of the United States to err further away from biblical morality, which will lead to destruction.” The book was in many ways a sequel to Barack Obama, Prophecy, and the Destruction of the United States (you will be excused for suspecting extensive use of the find-replace function in Word). In 2017 he followed up with Donald Trump and America’s Apocalypse: Is Donald Trump Fulfilling Biblical, Islamic, Catholic, Buddhist, and other America-Related Prophecies? Note the “America-Related” part.

His earlier books include 2012 and the rise of the secret sect, which describes for instance how a “multi-national committee of the United Nations is calling for the elimination of the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency – a position held for over 60 yearsThis would be disastrous for the U.S as it produces a global currency and opens the door for the Antichrist;” yes, dollars are blessed protective tokens keeping the Antichrist at bay, so of course the UN is working hard to undermine the currency – you really shouldn’t have asked. At the time Thiel styled himself as “one of the world’s preeminent authorities on the events likely to occur in 2012 and beyond,” and the book ostensibly examines prophecies of the Mayans, and I Ching, Catholic, Hopi, New Age, Talmud, Islam, Buddhist, and Hindu religions before formulating its own. Apparently Thiel thought the Roland Emmerich 2012 movie was some kind of documentary: “When I heard that a 2012 prophecy movie was being developed at Sony, I was immediately interested in what would be included. When I knew that the focus of the film would be on the Mayan prophecy, I was inspired to write a book on the things that a two-hour movie couldn’t possibly include.” The confusion sort of explains a great many things.

Other books include The Last Pope: Do Biblical and Catholic Prophecies Point to Pope Francis I? and Fatima Shock!: The Real Truth About Fatima and Future Apparitions, as well as Proof Jesus Is The Messiah: Biblical, Prophetic, and Historical Facts, which promises to explain for instance to explain “why don’t most Jews accept Jesus.”

Diagnosis: Thoroughly confused, and responding to confusion the best way he can: with anger. Probably harmless.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

#2334: Nancy du Tertre

Nancy du Tertre is an attorney and “psychic detective” who calls herself “The Skeptical Psychic™” (yes, she got it trademarked). In addition to private readings, workshops and personal appearances, du Tertre also offers free remote viewing to law enforcement agencies, and she has written a book that explains her “new approach to psychic ability that combines intuitive imaging with rational feedback” – she calls it “TSP”, a form of “tested ESP and clairvoyance” (what “TSP” is supposed to be an acronym for thus becomes a bit unclear). And yes, “tested” means whatever du Tertre wants it to mean, and certainly not tested, just like “skeptical” in “skeptical psychic.” “You don’t need to believe. You just need to trust,” says du Tertre. That is not how skeptical works.

Otherwise, her bio reveals a rather impressive level of gullibility. TSP is apparently a “new type of Remote Viewing” that “combines our sensory experiences with certain flexible protocols” (“flexible” seems to be a key term here). According to du Tertre, “tuning in to the supernatural” requires that “we ‘unlearn’ our logical processes and learn to trust the profoundly irrational processes of our mind.” According to herself, she “loves ‘evidence’ of the supernatural or paranormal, but doesn’t get stuck on the concept.” We never suspected otherwise. But she does emphasize the importance of trying to verify the information you gain from intuition: “you must exist in the very uncomfortable mental place of being both a believer and a skeptic at the same time! This process will lead you to the Truth.” There is, of course, no process described here, and no: this is not even remotely how you determine truth or accuracy.

She has also written the book How to Talk to an Alien, which asks such pertinent questions as “[d]o aliens speak in alien language?” and “[d]o they only communicate via telepathy and mental ESP?” An attempt to contribute to the New Age field of exolinguistics, du Tertre “is in a unique position as both a linguist and a psychic to engage in this brand new field of study” – she has no training in linguistics, of course, but “is fluent in French”. Besides, she “has also had her own UFO/ET contact experiences and has worked with abductees and contactees.”

She is apparently also a medium and energy healer, and her blog provides information and ample “evidence” of ghosts, orbs, rods and conehead skulls.

Diagnosis: Probably harmless, but good grief how silly (and sad) it is.

Monday, May 4, 2020

#2333: Dennis Terry

Dennis Terry is pastor of Greenwell Springs Baptist Church and a dominionist. He is most famous for introducing then-presidential candidate Rick Santorum (and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins) at an event in Baton Rouge in 2012 with a rousing speech in which he laid out his political views and sympathies. It is the stuff you’d expect – he opens by saying how he’s tired of being told he’s not allowed to state his beliefs and pray in public and then goes on to state his beliefs and pray in public without being stopped, before he starts railing against liberals, non-Christians, abortion rights, “sexual perversion,” same-sex marriage and secular government – all those who ostensibly prevented him from doing what he just did. According to Terry, America “was founded as a Christian nation” (it was not) and those that disagree with him should “get out! We don’t worship Buddha, we don’t worship Mohammad, we don’t worship Allah!” (non-Christians should, in other words, certainly not be allowed to state their beliefs and pray in public). Terry otherwise has a long history of attacking the gay community, and in his 2012 speech he claimed for instance that the economy could only recover when we “put God back” in government and got rid of things like marriage equality – no, these are hardly surprising views given this kind of source, but that doesn’t make them any less loony. At the end of the speech, Terry also asked God to “have favor upon Rick Santorumand to “do a mighty work” in President Obama’s life, a claim that probably merits some attention.

At least the speech generated some media coverage, forcing Santorum to distance himself from Terry. Terry himself responded to criticisms by trying to play the victim, claiming that “people are misquoting” what he said (they were not) and “twisted and edited” his words, which they didn’t – in fact, most outlets covering the story showed the video of Terry’s speech in its entirety, which might be why Terry and his crew subsequently made an effort to scrub the Internet of the video. He also said that all he meant was that “I love America”. If that was all he meant to do, his inability to fulfill his intention is so striking as to merit professional help. But it was of course not all he meant to say. 

Diagnosis: Unrepentant liar for Jesus and deranged fundie extremist. And as the audience in the video shows, his wanton hate and lies are rather widely cheered and accepted. We all know this, of course, but again: that a crazy and hateful view is common doesn’t make it any less crazy and hateful. 

Friday, May 1, 2020

#2332: Robert Temple

Billionaire and former Exxon executive Paul N. Temple, associated both with the fundamentalist Christian organization The Family and The Institute of Noetic Sciences, seems to have passed away. Author Robert K. G. Temple may not be quite as scary, but he is at least as crazy. Robert Temple is best known for his book The Sirius Mystery, which is a central work in the pseudoarchaeology canon, in which he argues that the Dogon people were contacted by fish-like aliens around 5000 years ago, who imparted much astronomical knowledge to them. Now, the data for Temple’s idea is admittedly (tenuously) rooted in some aspects of Dogon mythology, though largely filtered through the mistaken claims about the general lore of the Dogon people made by some French anthropologists, but Temple doesn’t seem to be deeply concerned with accuracy when presenting the data on Dogon lore to be explained, and might have qualified as a loon even if he hadn’t come up with the silliest conceivable explanation for those data.

Yes, it is ancient aliens nonsense, and though ancient aliens loons like Erich von Däniken and Barbara Weber Ray seem to take Temple as an authority, Temple actually has no expertise in any field relevant to his claims – his website lists him as “Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society” and the “British School of Archaeology at Rome”, both of which might sound impressive to people who can’t be bother to check but are in reality societies open to anyone willing to pay the entry fee. 

Moreover, his book’s advertising blurb quotes Isaac Asimov as saying “I couldn’t find any mistakes in this book. That in itself is extraordinary,” which might immediateliy sound like it might lend it some degree of authority. Of course, as Asimov himself has pointed out, Robert Temple had repeatedly asked him to comment on his work and eventually “sent me the manuscript which I found unreadable. Finally, he asked me point-blank if I could point out any errors in it and partly out of politeness, partly to get rid of him, and partly because I had been able to read very little of the book so that the answer was true, I said I could not point out any errors. He certainly did not have permission to use that statement as part of the promotion, I’ll just have to be even more careful hereafter.”

The core of Temple’s claims is that the Dogon people were aware of Sirius-B, which is not visible to the naked eye, as well as Jupiter’s moons and Saturn’s rings, and the only explanation he thinks is consistent is that they got this information from aliens. In reality, even if these ideas were part of Dogon lore (which is not clear), the Dogon people were hardly an isolated group, and anthropologists have long been aware of how easily tribes and groups pick up and incorporate stories they hear into their mythology when the stories concern phenomena or objects that are significant to that mythology. Temple, on his side, responds by claiming that he can trace the Sirius-B information to the Sumerians, which would contradict the modern influence explanation. An apparent obstacle to that claim is of course that the ancient records, so painstakingly detailed on other issues, make no mention of Sirius-B, but Temple can explain that, too: ancient people (conveniently) hid the information – “their purpose in disguising their secrets was to see that the secrets could survive” (yes: he evidence is ultimately that no evidence can be found but the Sumerians were known to keep secrets) – but Temple is still able to locate the information he needs through creative interpretations of ancient puns, hidden meanings, and “garbled versions” that must be creatively amended to fit his narrative – the same techniques used by other pseudoarchaeologists to “discover” numerous “ancient secrets” about Atlantis or Jesus or hollow Earth record or what have you. For more details on Temple’s claims, this one is helpful.

Of course, no pseudoscience is complete without a conspiracy theory, and Temple has claimed that various government agencies from around the world are trying to suppress his works for somewhat unclear reasons. His books, for instance, are readily available from his website, Amazon and general bookstores. No serious scientist or agency is taking him seriously, of course, and among the options for explaining why that is the case, Temple predictably opts for “conspiracy”.

Diagnosis: Something of a grand old man of pseudoarchaeology, Temple’s contributions certainly appears to be superficially more detailed, coherent and legitimate than most, but you don’t have to scratch the surface much to recognize the fallacies, bullshit, selection bias, pseudoscientific nonsense and utter lack of understanding of how to actually carry out an investigation with a modicum of scientific integrity. His work has enjoyed a bit of success among audiences generally receptive to pseudodocumentaries on History Channel, however.

Hat-tip: James Oberg