Saturday, March 31, 2018

#1989: Jim Meehan

Jim Meehan is a dangerous crank and conspiracy theorist – he has been caught promulgating the craziest fake news – heavily involved in the anti-vaccine movement. Now, Meehan is an MD. That, of course, doesn’t mean that he knows anything about research or rational or scientific assessment of evidence (Meehan demonstrably does not), but the distinction between MD and medical researcher is one not generally recognized by conspiracy theorists, who’ll take anything whatsoever that looks like it can be promoted as an “expert” or authority supporting their side of things. Meehan has no background or expertise in vaccination or immunology – he is actually an ophthalmologist by training – but he is into functional medicine, which is as ridiculous as quackery comes. Currently Meehan operates a “wellness” center in Oklahoma.

He also doesn’t have the faintest idea how the VAERS database works. Meehan has tried to argue that the HPV vaccine is confirmed to have caused 144 deaths (by 2013), because there are 144 reports of death associated with the HPV vaccine in the VAERS database. This is not how the database works (indeed). “It absolutely is evidence,” says Meehan. It isn’t evidence.

But he does know how to parrot standard anti-vaccine claims, and his rants have been relatively widely distributed on social media by people who do not know anything about vaccines or actually bother with the evidence either; most of them is a combination of the claim that infectious diseases aren’t dangeroustoxins gambits – admittedly effective on the chemically illiterate – and conspiracy mongering: the science behind vaccines is untrustworthy because scientists are uniformly corrupt and bought by Big Pharma, who would actually benefit vastly more from hospitalizations due to vaccine-preventable diseases than from vaccines, but like all good conspiracy theories this one requires that you don’t look too closely. There is a thorough takedown of his claims here. Meehan has also been caught supporting the debunked idea that physical trauma and child abuse are “vaccine injury”.

Diagnosis: Aggressive lunatic and unhinged conspiracy theorist. Stay far away.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

#1988: William John Meegan

William John Meegan is a fundie, conspiracy theorist, astrologist and author, for instance of the book The Sistine Chapel: A Study in Celestial Cartography. “From the brilliant mind of researcher-author William John Meegan, The Sistine Chapel … is a highly mystical and contemplative inquiry into The Mysteries and Esoteric Teachings of the Catholic Church,” says the description on Meegan’s website, apparently written by himself. (We do wonder how calling your inquiry “mystical” would be a selling point; not that the intended audience is likely to notice.) Apparently it’s the third of a series, following The Secrets & the Mysteries of Genesis: Antiquity’s Hall of Records and The Conquest of Genesis: A Study in Universal Creation Mathematics, which we haven’t seen but sounds suspiciously like it might deploy some serious numerology – Meegan is heavily into what he calls “esoteric science”, which is as far removed from science as numerology and astrology, which, by the way, is what his esoteric science apparently is (gematria, to be precise), with a heavy sprinkle of sacred geometry

You can read Meegan’s own description here. Senseless babble comes no less sensible than that. Illuminating sample: “Each letter of the world’s sacred literature is symbolized and alphanumerically structured, which makes the interpretation of each word far more important than the sum of its letters;” one would think that the interpretations of words go beyond the sum of their letters in ordinary conversation (insofar as there is a difference between seeing a string of letters you understand and seeing one you don’t understand), but we nevertheless have our doubts that they do in the rants and ravings of William John Meegan.

Despite their contents, Meegan’s books seem to be marketed as non-fiction.

Diagnosis: Small fish, but fantastically weird, colorful and insane. Probably harmless.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

#1987: Michael Medved

Michael Medved is a right-wing radio host (the fundie Christian Salem Radio Network), movie critic (some of his earlier writings on film are actually pretty decent: Medved also helped launch the popularity of Plan Nine from Outer Space) and senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, a creationist think tank that occasionally tries to pretend to be thinking about science but usually forgets that they’re supposed to, such as when they hired Medved, who doesn’t have any background remotely related to science. Medved claims to be a “moderate” and is, indeed, moderate on a number of issues, having even critized the extremists on the far right; but he is also a supporter of the Tea Party, as well as various fringe conspiracy theories and a broad range of denialist positions, including global warming denialism (“a complete scam”) and creationism. His recent work includes such claptrap as Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values.

Medved is a firm supporter of Intelligent Design Creationism (it is worth noting that Medved’s father, David Medved, who was a physicist and emphatically not a biologist, was a signatory to the Discovery Institute’s laughable petition A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism). It has therefore been natural for Medved to invite non-scientist ID-creationists like Stephen Meyer on his show to discuss their pseudoscience without having to engage with the damning criticisms of that pseudoscience. After being appointed Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute Medved promptly spilled the beans and admitted, somewhat inadvertently, that Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory but a fundie PR campaign against the scientific theory of evolution. Medved is otherwise apparently familiar with some of the more ridiculous PRATTs creationists use to fuel their Gish gallops, but doesn’t even begin to grasp the basics of biology and science.

In 2018 we should apparently be looking forward to his Great Minds, an audio and video podcast that will feature interviews with various “key scholars” at the Discovery Institute, bringing their ideas to a wider audience – in line with the institute’s mandate, which was never about doing science anyways, but about promotion of silly ideas.

According to Medved, God has intervened in human history on several occasions. In his book The American Miracle: Divine Providence in the Rise of the Republic, Medved argues precisely that “there is intelligent design in America’s history”, stating for instance that God hid all the gold in California until “the very moment” that the territory became the property of the United States – as Medved tells the story, the gold was discovered on the very same day the treaty was signed, so the best explanation is that God actually put it there on that very day. In the real world gold was discovered before the treaty was signed, but when the facts don’t fit the premises and Medved needs to infer divine intervention, the facts must go.

Racialism and Civil Rights Issues
Medved has also adopted some notably cranky views on civil rights issues, and has even promoted racialism. In his own words (a 2008 Townhall article, one of the most idiotic in the history of idiotic articles): “The idea of a distinctive, unifying, risk-taking American DNA might also help to explain our most persistent and painful racial divide – between the progeny of every immigrant nationality that chose to come here, and the one significant group that exercised no choice in making their journey to the U.S. Nothing in the horrific ordeal of African slaves, seized from their homes against their will, reflected a genetic predisposition to risk-taking, or any sort of self-selection based on personality traits.” At least Medved doesn’t have the faintest clue how genes work. In any case, Medved goes from these observations to conclude that Obama’s policies were doomed to fail, since they go against the risk-taker genes (Republican ideas are apparently now hardcoded in our DNA). Also, talking about the trans-Atlantic slave trade: “Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of these voyages involves the fact that no slave traders wanted to see this level of deadly suffering: they benefited only from delivering (and selling) live slaves, not from tossing corpses into the ocean.” This is not the most horrifying aspect of these voyages. He has also argued that an American Indian Holocaust was just political correctness gone mad, since the US government never deliberately killed Native Americans. This is incorrect as well.

Zeh gays
As you’d expect, Medved is no fan of the LGBT movement, and used to argue against the repeal of DADT applied to gays but not to lesbians, since gay sex is an act of “aggression” and lesbian sex, by contrast, an act of “affection”. The most interesting detail here is that Medved has apparently thought long and hard about this (but, given that he’s stupid, failed to come up with anything intelligent). Gay marriage, meanwhile, is an existential threat, and “one man and one woman” is “essential for the survival of our civilization”. According to Medved states have never banned gay marriage, though – “that’s a liberal lie”; he’s apparently trying out his own, particularly dishonest, version of a favorite argument among opponents of interracial marriage.

And taking a page from the belligerent lunatic ravings of Scott Lively, Medved has also stated, against all facts, that most Nazi leaders, including Hitler, were gay. This is false.

Donning his movie critic (tinfoil) hat (he once praised the inane conspiracy pseudodocumentary Expelled, too), Medved criticized the movie “Happy Feet” for apparently featuring a subtle pro-gay message, at the same time implying that some gays can make themselves straight when they have “turned their lives around”.

Miscellaneous politics
Medved was not pleased when mainstream media labeled the Wisconsin Sikh temple shooter a “right-wing extremist”, calling such labeling an attack on conservatives, which, if Medved were correct, would not really portray conservatives in a particularly favorable light. There is little chance Medved is right about stuff like this, though.

In 2012 he published The Odds Against Obama: Why History and Logic Make the President a Likely Loser, arguing that Obama was bound to lose according to the “iron rules of history and logic”, which he pushed rather loudly even after it was painfully obvious that Obama would win. (The book is garbage in most other ways, too.) Here is Medved trying to argue why Americans shouldn’t ever vote for an atheist president. Here is Medved claiming that God votes conservative (because Medved does and God always agrees with Medved on politics). And here is Medved complaining about how liberals are given a free pass to talk about their faith, and that conservatives never do.

In 2003, Medved launched his campaign (later picked up by others) against the fictional character Captain America, whom Medved said was being depicted as sympathetic to terrorism because Captain America questioned official U.S. policy with regards to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Diagnosis: Denialist and emphatically as far from scientifically literate as you get, even though the Discovery Institute seems to think otherwise (of course, they wouldn’t have the faintest clue about what the difference between a scientist and a pseudoscientist might be). He is a bit of a C-level celebrity, though, and there are apparently some people who listen to him.

Hat-tip: Rationalwiki

Sunday, March 25, 2018

#1986: Susannah Meadows

Oh, the nonsense! Susannah Meadows is a journalist and author of The Other Side of Impossible, a book describing various people facing difficult illnesses but who ostensibly have found ways of beating the odds and get better on their own without the use of evidence-based techniques. The stories – which are compelling stories taken at face value by Meadows; no pesky, confounding, careful assessment of evidence here – include one about a boy with severe food allergies who undergoes an unconventional therapy and is afterwards eating everything; one about a physician with MS who, using a combination of treatments she has figured out herself, is able to leave the wheelchair and ride a bike again (that physician would be woo legend Terry Wahls, no less; some of the holes in and problems with her story are described here); and one about child diagnosed with ADHD who refuses to take medication and instead improves both his own life and the lives of his family by changing in diet. Other families take on rheumatoid arthritis, intractable epilepsy, and autistic behaviors. Of course, few of the suggested means will actually help with the conditions they are described as helping (though some of them are, unbeknownst to Meadows, actually standard mainstream pharmaceutical remedies given different names!), and the book is aimed at suffering people in difficult situations (or people in positions of power over them) to make them forego treatments that actually work, adopt the woo, and subsequently take the blame themselves when the religiously motivated “natural” means for improvement fail to work. There are good discussions of Meadows and her rhetorical tricks, including her striking but effective appeals to chemophobia, here and here.

The book endorses a variety of quack treatments, including autism biomed quackery. And based on her – I hesitate to even call them – anecdotes, Meadows concludes that there is “at least three important influences on well-being that have yet to receive their just due in understanding what might cause or aggravate certain intractable medical disorders.” Nevermind that evidence contradicts her conclusions: science bases its conclusions on facts, but Meadows has instincts and beautifully crafted stories. As for the three influences, “[o]ne is a characteristic called “leaky gut,” essentially tiny holes in the intestinal walls that allow proteins to reach the bloodstream where they can trigger a vicious immune attack on healthy tissues,” a mythical condition much touted on and familiar from various conspiracy websites going all the way back to anti-vaccine high priest Andrew Wakefield himself, no less; “[a]nother is an imbalance of microbes in the gut and how communication between the brain and the gut can adversely affect behavior and emotional stability,” where “balance”, importantly, is used in the Medieval-medical “balance-of-humors/life-energi/chi” sense (the claim, of course, is flamboyantly idiotic, and “microbiome” has recently become the new “quantum” in quackery); “[a] third is the still underappreciated interaction of mind and body, especially the effect that anxiety and fear can have on the body’s response to otherwise harmless substances,” which of course is neither underappreciated nor particularly significant for most of the conditions in question but which is – importantly – the key to be able to blame the victims when they fail to experience improvements, which will certainly be necessary given the stupidity of the measures Meadows recommends.

The book grew out of Meadows’ own personal experience with her young son, who unexpectedly (according to her!; it really isn’t that uncommon) recovered from juvenile idiopathic arthritis. Apparently, by using “a combination of traditional and complementary medicine they beat the disease,” and therefore the quackery – in this Meadows relied on self-styled healer Amy Thieringer – must be at least partially responsible for the positive results. Some of Meadows’s other stories are apparently also Thieringer “success stories” – with no independent verification, of course: you trust your self-styled, homeopathy-pushing healer, otherwise it won’t work! Besides, Meadows paid her money, and she wouldn’t have invested in the treatment if it didn’t work, would she?

The book was well received by others who have little understanding or time for assessing evidence and facts, such as New York Times’s Jane Brody, who wrote a credulous article on Meadows and her claims. Both that article and the book are discussed here, and here. Brody, by the way, is also the author of The New York Times Guide to Alternative Health.

Diagnosis: Apparently Meadows is a journalist. Her inability to distinguish a compelling narrative from a fact-based one should therefore scare you. A disgrace to her profession, but since narratives like hers are so much more compelling to those with little knowledge of how to actually assess stories for accuracy and evidence (or interest in doing so), she is also genuinely dangerous.