Sunday, September 30, 2018

#2077: Al Ouimet

Goodnighties is a sleepwear product that will ostensibly “maximize sleep benefits” by neutralizing “the stress our bodies produce.” It does so since it is “made with a smart-fabric” that is “stimulating blood flow with negative ions to tired strained muscles.” If you worry about “bullshit” based on that description, rest assured that your worries will not be allayed by trying to go further into the details (some of which are discussed here). In any case, the sleepwear is supposed to be impregnated with a substance that emits negative ions. How that is connected to “the stress our bodies produce” is anybody’s guess, and that’s without even raising the question of how it is supposed to cureit, even if the ions could be directed to specific “tired, strained muscled” when absorbed by our bodies, which they cannot, even if they existed in the product, which tests (this one is a good report of various tests done on the product) suggest they do not. None of that prevents the company from making some spectacularly grandiose claims about the product, such as that the negative ions “increase blood flow and oxygen to relieve pain and restore joint mobility, “restore pH balance”, and (at the same time) “promote an alkaline reaction in the cells,” and that athletes use the product, the primary function of which is to provide a more peaceful sleep, as “a stimulus to enhance physical performance”. The product has, however, been promoted by Dr. Oz. So has astrology and communication with the spirits of the dead.

Most of the, uh, science supposedly supporting the product has been systematized by one Dr. Albert Ouimet, their leading scientist (we’re not sure whether there are more) and part of the original IonX development team (ditto). Ouimet has more recently also expanded the product sortiment, all based on ridiculous nonsense. Energy Athletic Golf (“powered by IonX”), for instance, can ostensibly “improve all aspects [products like this usually come with pretty strong claims] of a golfer’s game, helping to energize, increase focus and add power during every round” by “ionization”. The claim is discussed here. According to Ouimet, “science has learned […] that ionization energizes the body’s electrical circuits,” which “stimulates blood flow, increases efficiency of power and speeds up recovery.” Ah, yes, the science. If Ouimet knows what it means, then surely his target audience does not. How does it work? “With coverage many times greater than a bracelet or necklace, the IonX Ionized Energy Fabric, exclusive to Energy Athletic Golf, delivers ionized energy to the entire upper body through a negatively charged electromagnetic field built into the molecular structure of the fabric.” And apart from some technobabble and the claim that the shirt in question works with the body’s own “force field, that’s pretty much all the details you will get. You will, however, also be told that “wearing Energy Athletic powered by IonX will have the advantage of increased average power of 2.7%” – “power” being that bar in the upper right of your screen that blinks red when it’s low. He’s also got a graph. And testimonials, of course.

Diagnosis: Some may find it hard to believe that Al Ouimet is a loon, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt (or not, depending how you see it), and suggest that he is a derangedly insane crackpot. His customers definitely are, at least.

Friday, September 28, 2018

#2076: George Otis jr.

Strategic level spiritual warfare is the central idea of the various “prayer warrior” networks existing across the US, whose main proponents include people like C. Peter Wagner, John Dawson (of Youth With A Mission), Cindy Jacobs, Jack Hayford and George Otis, Jr. Otis is the author of the 1999 book Informed Intercession, a textbook on spiritual mapping, one of the fundamental strategies in spiritual warfare: Geographical areas are culturally evaluated for nefarious influence from heretical or heathen religious views, liberal political ideas, drugs, crime or whatever the fundies in question don’t like, in order to identify “demonic hotspots” (“[c]enters of political influence and authority, or portals through which new or important influences enter a community,” according to Otis) that the spirit warriors then endeavor to take out by praying or (especially outside the US) threatening or violent action to make the population there change their behavior or leave. The targets, in particular, are “territorial spirits”, “[d]emonic powers that have been given controlling influence over specific sites, peoples, and areas.”Spiritual mapping, which according to Jacqie Tyre of the Georgia Apostolic Prayer Network gives us the “‘military intelligence’ that we need in order to bring the Gospel of the Kingdom into an area effectively,” is particularly common in what is known as “character cities”, where the administration has made attempts to bring its citizens into alignment with theocratic rules and get freethinkers and other undesirable elements to move out, such as Gilbert, Arizona or – more famously – Amarillo, Texas.

According to Otis, “strategic level spiritual warfare” is “[a] term that pertains to intercessory confrontations with demonic power concentrated over given cities, cultures, and peoples,” the goal being “[n]eutralizing the deceptive hold or enchantment that demonic powers have over human subjects.” Targets include in particular “high places”, “[s]pecific locations where a community or its leaders pay obeisance to tutleary deities and/or idolatrous philosophies,” but also other groups engaged in “corporate sin,” “[g]roup rebellion against God’s law and purpose that typically results in corollary injury to a particular person or group;” these being “a family, clan, tribe, neighborhood, city, nation or church.” Yes, he is truly living in a poorly written fantasy/horror movie, where his opponents – homosexuals, liberals, evolutionists and so on – are literally controlled by Exorcist-style demons that can be fought by prayers but fully controlled only through the implementation of full-scale theocracy. At least the main weapon (again: in the US; other countries see literal death squads) is prayer, and Otis and his followers will engage in prayer expeditions – “[l]ong-distance, trans-territorial prayer-walks along strategically developed routes.  Intercession is offered for entire countries and regions” – and prayerwalksto achieve the desired effects.

Otis is also the producer of the Transformation series of movies, which have been pushed across the world and resulted in the creation of numerous groups with close connections to governments and religious leaders in several countries such as Uganda. The movies – there is a thorough description of their contents here – demonstrate spiritual warfare with lots of happy-looking people claiming to have had their communities miraculously transformed through militant prayer efforts. The producers emphasize, though, that bliss is achieved only if the demons – portrayed in the movies as demonic witches and warlocks – are purged from a community, and insofar as they are demonic, it is of course entirely legitimate to pray for and celebrate their demise. I leave it to readers to imagine what effects these propaganda pieces may have in places where people are already being hunted down and killed on accusations of witchcraft, especially since the movies themselves show how people and places are miraculously healed of diseases like AIDS when the demons die.

Diagnosis: Ironically enough, Otis is rather hard to distinguish from the cartoon demons he thinks are controlling more or less everyone and anyone who disagrees with him. A thoroughly evil person.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

#2075: James L. Oschman

Ah, yes: energy medicine. James L. Oschman, who does possess a PhD in the biological sciences from back in the days, is currently one of the grand old men of woo, and author of the 2000 book Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis, apparently something of a go-to item among defenders of New Age woo. The scientific basis for energy medicine is, shall we say, pretty clear on the score: energy medicine is bullshit. Of course, if you are sufficiently selective with regard to what evidence you choose to use, it is possible to make a case for almost anything, and the case for energy medicine is unsurprisingly made by relying on placebo effects and things like “spontaneous improvement, fluctuation of symptoms, regression to the mean, additional treatment, conditional switching of placebo treatment, scaling bias, irrelevant response variables, answers of politeness, experimental subordination, conditioned answers, neurotic or psychotic misjudgment, psychosomatic phenomena, misquotation,” factors that good studies seek to control for and bad studies and books written by pseudoscientists instead claim give them proof positive of whatever bullshit they would have chosen to believe in regardless. 

Now, Oschman does believe that energy medicine can be studied and explained by science without invoking mysterious life forces, subtle energies or suchlike (an effort somewhat belied by the foreword to his book, written by one Candace Pert, whose body is apparently “a liquid crystal under tension capable of vibrating at a number of frequencies, some in the range of visible light”). Instead, Oschman invokes the idea of healer-sourced electromagnetic fields that ostensibly change in frequency, where “healing energy” derives from electromagnetic frequencies generated by a medical device, projected from the hands of the healer, or by electrons acting as antioxidants. Those who suspect misuse of scientific-sounding terminology to sway the uninformed are of course correct, and Oschman has set the bar strikingly low. He also defends homeopathy (including the Benveniste water memory nonsense). There is a thorough review of his book here. Despite its, shall we say, flaws it remains a relatively commonly cited source in altmed circles (example), which at least serves to show the rest of us that these people have not the faintest clue about how evidence or science works. 

Of course, given electromagnetic fields’ ostensible healing powers, they can also harm, and Oschman believes that electromagnetic “allergies are widespread and under-diagnosed: “Virtually every disease and disorder has been linked by one investigator or another to electromagnetic pollution,” says Oschman, which is probably literally true if you define “investigator” sufficiently loosely. There is also a defense of dowsing in there, and later in his career Oschman has been caught defending earthing.

Oh, and there is quantum. Of course there is quantum.

Diagnosis: Utter nonsense, but at least Oschman’s effort epitomizes the standard delusions, errors, selective thinking and misunderstandings of low-grade pseudoscience. He’s had some influence, though.

Hat-tip: Harriet Hall

Monday, September 24, 2018

#2074: Christopher Ortiz

Christopher Ortiz is (or at least was in 2006) the editor of the reconstructionist journal Faith for All of Life, communications director for the Chalcedon Foundation and a remorseless theocrat. His goal, and the goal of his group, is to establish “the universal rule of God” and “impose the full text of Biblical law” in the US, which, it should be noted, is quite a bit more stringent than what the Taliban tried to do in Afghanistan. (To his credit – or not – Ortiz seems dimly aware of the similarities.) The Chalcedon foundation also promotes not only young-earth creationism but geocentrism.

Ortiz and his group – which is not really a particularly small one – seem to see themselves as the heirs to Rushdooney and Rushdooney’s promotion of a “theocracy as the Bible sets it forth,” a government not “by the state but a government over every institution by God and His Law, and through the activities of the free man in Christ to bring every area of life and thought under Christ’s Kingship.” The phrase “free man in Christ” means one who voluntarily chooses theocracy. Freedom to choose what you want as long as what you want is exactly what I want you to want (otherwise you’ll be forced), is not freedom under any ordinary definition of “freedom”. It is worth noting that the Chalcedon foundation promotes itself as “libertarian”.

Ortiz does, however, think that critics of theocracy get it all wrong. The goal of his group is not to establish theocracy by undemocratic means. “Theonomists are often accused, wrongly, of wanting to impose Old Testament penal codes on contemporary offenders, against the will of the vast majority of the populace. In fact, what they argue is that by the preaching of the gospel and the adoption of this interpretation of the Bible, the nation should, and one day will, repent and reaffirm the covenant. Old Testament sanctions will then be the will of the people and the law of the land” [quote by Canadian fundie extremist D.A. Carson]. The means by which they gain control, we suspect, is not most people’s primary objection to theocracy, nor the primary reason theocratic rule is thought to be oppressive. There are historical parallels that would illustrate the distinction. And of course, when Ortiz goes on to say that “Biblical theocracy is not opposed to the American democratic process,” he sorts of misses some rather crucial features of how constitutional democracies like the US are actually supposed to work (e.g. that somewhat essential “constitutional” bit, for instance). 

Diagnosis: Yes, not only do they exist: There are plenty of them. And it should scare you.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

#2073: Judith Orloff

Though she is a board-certified psychiatrist and has enjoyed something resembling real career (she is, for instance, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA), you should probably refrain from taking advice from Judith Orloff. Orloff’s main focus is, at least at present, what she considers to be the relationships between medicine, intuition, and spirituality, and she is not afraid to use quasi-religious speculation, pseudoscience, anecdotes and nebulous metaphors to support her conclusions. She has also been involved in what people of her ilk considers “intuitive research”, including projects with parapsychologist Thelma Moss, the Mobius Group and Edgar Mitchell’s Institute of Noetic Sciences.

Orloff is the author of a number of books, including Second Sight, which Publishers Weekly tactfully said would “appeal to open-minded readers” (they didn’t really mean open-minded, of course). In the book, Orloff claims to have second sight and invokes the New Age religious notion of “energy psychiatry” to describe her psychotherapy model. Energy psychiatry stands to reality roughly as numerology stands to physics. The updated 2010 edition carried the subtitle “An intuitive psychiatrist tells her extraordinary story and shows you how to tap your inner wisdom,” presumably to ensure that potential readers who cares about cold, hard reality would stay far away. She is currently also a blogger at Huffington Post.

“Ha-ha, silly nonsense” may immediately seem like the reasonable response to such bullshit. But the thing is, Orloff even claims to be able to diagnose mental illnessintuitively (and it’s not like intuitive medicine in general is without a substantial body count). It shouldn’t require much imagination to realize that, in meetings with people in difficult situations, Orloff’s nonsense suddenly becomes less than wholly benign. And in 2000 Orloff was even given an opportunity to address the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting to market her bullshit. Which is really not particularly amusing.

Diagnosis: Repugnant and potentially dangerous crackpot. That the apparently ever-diplomatic academic bodies she is apparently still a member of do not put their feet down is a disgrace.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

#2072: Mensur Omerbashich

Mensur Omerbashich is a crackpot and conspiracy theorist who received some attention when the Comet Elenin silliness took off in conspiracy circles. He has subsequently spent a lot of pretty quixotic efforts trying to have criticism of his nonsense removed from the Internet. Thing is, Omerbashich actually has genuine credentials; he’s got a PhD in theoretical geophysics from the University of New Brunswick, and has published a couple of real papers. (His more plentiful ArXiv papers count for significantly less) Apparently getting his degree was an ordeal involving for instance the resignation of several committee members, something Omerbashich blames on a conspiracy, presumably by the same shadowy cabal that controls the US patent office, with which he is engaged in combat over efforts to patent his ideas. His website, much of it written in ALL CAPS, reads as if it is trying to set some sort of world record in paranoia (there’s a lot about Jesuits allegedly assassinating people and mind control).

Omerbashich claims that there exists tidal “resonance” between comet Elenin and Earth, as shown by increased levels of earthquakes at specific times that are purportedly caused by the comet. He even provides “predictions” on his website about earthquake severity to test his hypothesis – rarely in advanceof those earthquakes, of course – but the explanations of how the data are supposed to fit his hypothesis are a bit unclear. Nor do the data align with data from the US Geological Survey or similar groups (more on his predictions and data here). In other words, from the perspective of facts and science, his hypotheses, needless to say, fail rather miserably. There are substantial critiques of his ideas here and here.

Like so many cranks, Omerbashich is a huge fan of Tesla. On the other hand, he has no love for Einstein, and appears, at least, to be a relativity denier.

Omerbashich’s idiosyncratic beliefs, usually presented in long, dense screeds, concern a wide range of issues going far beyond astronomy, however (although it is apparently all linked in some way). Much of his writing is focused on New World Order conspiracies, in particular freemasonry, insofar as Omerbashich has gotten himself to think that more or less everyone who disagrees with him is a Freemason trying to suppress his ideas (criticism = attempts to suppress, of course); he even has helpful lists of traits that will enable you to identify a Freemason, such as being politeand using Oxford English. And his website prominently states that “[n]o member of ‘Freemasonry’ or another deceptions organization that plagued sciences (Illuminati, Trilaterals, Bilderbergs, Committees on this and that, etc.) may use in any way, as in by citing or/and referencing or/and profiteering from, any of the publications, discoveries, expressions, laws/relationships, inventions or any other intellectual property that came into existence by intellectual activity of Dr. Mensur Omerbashich.” I don’t think it works quite like that.

As for himself, Omerbashich claims to be a direct descendent of a range of royal families, and to be “pretender to the thrones of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia.” His ancestors were unfortunately removed from their rightful places as tyrants by the New World Order because they had deep knowledge of the evils of freemasonry encoded in their genes (or something). He currently seems to prefer to go by the title HM the King of Bosnia. So it goes.

Note: Omerbashich seems to be currently residing in Europe, but he is – at least according to himself – an American citizen, so we judge him eligible for an entry.

Diagnosis: Paranoid crank magnet, but for the most part responsible more for color than for harm on the Internet.

Hat-tip: Rationalwiki

Sunday, September 16, 2018

#2071: Kyle Olson

Indoctrination: How ‘Useful Idiots’ Are Using Our Schools to Subvert American Exceptionalismis the title of a book by Kyle Olson. It’s hard to see how further comment could be necessary, but at least the book was praised by Rick Green on Wallbuilders Live. As an example of the kind of subversion the book is about (mentioned on the show), Olson highlighted an episode in Texas where a teacher used the book Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Typeto – allegedly –promote a “pro-union” message. Then David Barton helpfully explained that the book was also an “anti-Creation book” because it makes kids think that cows are equal to humans. Barton’s hardwon insights into how kids get moved to think in certain ways is at least helpful to understand how Barton’s own thinking is working.

Beside the book, Olson is the founder of Education Action Group, a Michigan-based anti-union-propaganda-in-schools organization (apparently), which claims that public schools ought to promote traditional American ideals instead of the progressive ideals of collectivism and centralized government (apparently the latter is an insidious effort led by bogeymen Paolo Freire, Bill Ayers and Howard Zinn, whom wingnuts by entirely predictable and idiotic causes have come to think are powerful influencers on American K-12 pedagogy), that public schools “have a spending problem, not a funding problem”, and that administrators and teacher unions are responsible for poor performances in public schools. He’s also written for BigGovernment and TownHall.

Diagnosis: Same old paranoid shit. Over and over again.

Friday, September 14, 2018

#2070: Pam Olsen

A.k.a. Prayer Woman

Pam Olsen is a deranged religious fundamentalist of the Florida Prayer Network, creator of the group Bound4Life, founder of the Tallahassee branch of the International House of Prayer and an associate of people like IHoP founder Mike Bickle and Cindy Jacobs – indeed, according to herself she opened her branch of the International House of Prayer after she “received a prophetic word through Cindy Jacobs that God was going to use her as a mighty weapon against the enemy through the prayer movement and that He was going to raise up a physical location that would be a place of refuge for people, pastors and missionaries to come and pray.” Here you can find a video of Olsen talking about seven mountains dominionism and her desire to take over the government – as well as how she soon (during the End Times) is going to be given the power to raise the dead since she’s a prophet.

Indeed, Olsen seems occasionally to view herself as something of a superhero, with the superpower of intercessory prayer: “I have been a governmental intercessor for 25 years, standing in the gap for our country. I began to truly intercede for the nation when I had my fourth child; today, with four grandchildren, I am still standing in the gap for America and training young intercessors.” Though she admits that her efforts, often conducted in non-existent languages, aren’t always successful (some of her moves in the culture wars seem to have backfired rather spectacularly, for instance), she does claim that her stats are pretty good: “Many battles have been won and some lost,” says Olsen, though “[w]hen you watch the news and it seems like you’re losing, you have to learn to declare the Word of the Lord, realize you’re in a long-term battle and not grow weary.” Her superpowers seem to have less effect against natural disasters, where her efforts are counteracted by the Satanic power of homosexuals; yes, Olsen is one of those who think that gay rights are responsible for natural disasters like fires, tornadoes and floods (actually, such disasters are, more precisely, God’s just judgment on America and the church, which would presumably make it immoral for Olsen to try to prevent them with prayers; things quickly get tricky here): “You know what, God is not one that’s gonna wink at sin, He will come and shake at everything that can be shaken. God is a God of judgment, He is. If we think we’re not gonna be judged…He judged Israel? Are we better than that? And sometimes I think we think we are, but we’re not. And God is shaking. If anybody looks at the news and has just seen what’s been happening recently with the floods, the fires, the tornadoes.” The old I-don’t-like-gay-rights-and-my-Strong-Friend-Henchman-will-beat-you-up-if-you-don’t-do-as-I-want gambit, in other words. 

On the other hand, she seems to take partial credit for the election of George Bush, who opened the White House for such prayers: “We asked God to give our president great wisdom.” One may wonder if thatone is assigned to the success column of her scorecard. 

Now, in her dominionist efforts Olsen has, in fact, managed to become a rather influential player on the religious right, first (at least insofar as we noticed) as part of the leadership team for Rick Perry’s presidential campaign in Florida in 2011. (She later switched her allegiance to Rick Santorum).

Diagnosis: Not a particularly pleasant person – hatred and anger combined with paranoia, delusions and poor reasoning skills tend to make you a bit unsavory – but an up-and-coming figure of non-negligible influence on the religious right sideshow. Worrisome.

Monday, September 10, 2018

#2069: John Oller

John Oller is a hardcore young-earth creationist with a (real) PhD in general linguistics (he does, however, invoke the biblical Tower of Babel story to explain the diversity of human languages, so one should probably be wary of listening to his claims even in his area of expertise). Despite his education, Oller is currently Professor of Geophysics and Head of the Science Division at Bryan College. Bryan College is, accordingly, not a place to pursue an education. As a proudly self-proclaimed “creation scientist”, he is also a member of the Board of Trustees and the Technical Advisory Board of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR). The ICR lists him as a “physical scientist” on their List of Creation Scientists in the Physical Sciences (he also appears on the Creation Ministries International’s list of scientists alive today who accept the biblical account of creation and  Answers in Genesis’s List of Creation Scientists). Oller, of course, isn’t a physical scientist by a long shot, but presumably close enough for groups that care as much for science as the ICR. 

Creationist adventures
Oller has enjoyed a long career in the creationist movement and in campaigns to have creationism taught in public schools, e.g. in Louisiana. There is a critique of his Louisiana efforts, including his successful effort to convince the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to give control over the procedure for complaints about creationist supplementary materials in public schools to the fundamentalist, creationist Louisiana Family Forum, here; summaries here and here. His Louisiana adventures seem to be mostly a sad tale, however (though he seems to have returned to the fight for creationism in Louisiana schools in 2016), culminating in a lawsuit he brought against his colleagues at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, supported by the Alliance Defense Fund, claiming that said colleagues had urged him to leave, reduced his class size, forbidden him from participating in policy committees, banned his textbook, denied him opportunities to lecture or instruct students, and marginalized his status at the university because of “viewpoint discrimination.” The lawsuit was, of course, duly supported by the WND, which called Oller a “globally recognized” professor and denounced his critics as politically correct and engaging in censorship, having apparently no real idea what either expression really means. The courts, however, were not impressed, and Oller also lost the appeal (twice) before petitioning the Supreme Court to hear his case. That one failed, too.

Anti-vaccine promotion
It is natural to suspect that Oller’s colleagues were as much put off by his anti-vaccine views as by his young-earth creationism. Of course, having not the faintest grasp of science, evidence or intellectual integrity, it really shouldn’t be that surprising, but Oller is apparently a big fan of Andrew Wakefield and the latter’s completely debunked attempts to connect vaccines to autism – Oller still seems to believe that vaccines cause autism). And just like delusional fundamentalist anti-scientist conspiracy theorists like Ken Ham admire Oller’s work on creationist pseudoscience, so his views on vaccines automatically earns him the respect of central anti-vaccine advocates because it appears to provide support for what they already believe. Indeed, Oller was even first author on a paper coauthored with anti-vaccine stars Christopher Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic trying to argue that the neonatal tetanus vaccine administered was in reality an anti-fertility ploy. The paper was so bad that Shaw and Tomljenovic, who must be close to setting some sort of record in number of retracted papers, themselves ultimately retracted the paper from the predatory journal in which it was published. (The article was subsequently republished by the journal – initially with an addendum outlining the authors’ conflicts of interest, but that addendum later disappeared, which is unsurprising given how predatory journals tend to work.)

Diagnosis: So, Oller is not merey your run-of-the-mill insane fundie and staunch anti-science advocate: the neonatal tetanus vaccine saves a lot of babies, and fueling conspiracy theories around it will literally kill children. That’s right: Oller promotes conspiracy mongering that kills babies. A better illustration of Clark’s Law is hard to find.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

#2068: Rosie O'Donnell

Ok, we’ll bite and give her a brief note. Rosie O’Donnell is most famous for being a, shall we say, outspoken actress, comedian and television personality, and one that President Donald Trump has had a weird obsession with. And, as with so many others in similar situations, with great celebrity comes great confidence in one’s own opinions, and when those opinions are unfettered by external constraints such as evidence, truth or reason, the road to idiotic crankery is a short one.

O’Donnell is, for instance, a 9/11 truther, sarcastically saying that 9/11, 2001, must have been the “first time” that “steel was melted by fire.” Swings and misses, in other words. In fairness, O’Donnell has subsequently exhibited a certain degree of unwillingness to discuss the details, but the fact remains that she did endorse the “documentary” Loose Change, and has not at any point since actually denied any of its claims. She is, of course, not alone in a television context (here is Roberto Orci going truther, and we’ve already covered Martin Sheen, Woody Harrelson and Ed Asner, but the fact that many stupid people believe a stupid thing does not make the stupid thing less stupid.

Apparently O’Donnell is a fan of homeopathy, too.

Diagnosis: Yes, a celebrity loon. Just don’t listen to the nonsense that drops out of her mouth (and why on Earth would you?), and you’ll be fine.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

#2067: Tetyana Obukhanych

Tetyana Obukhanych is one of the only people in the anti-vaccine movement with genuine, relevant credentials, and they sure let you know. Obukhanych has a PhD in Immunology, and has apparently had a stint as postdoctoral fellow at Harvard and Stanford, although she does not seem to have a research or academic position at present. She has even (co-authored) genuine research papers. Of course, her academic publications, like her dissertation, actually show that vaccines are safe and effective. 

But what matters to the antivaccine crowd is not what her research, what little there is, shows, but what she says, for instance in her self-published book Vaccine Illusion: How Vaccination Compromises Our Natural Immunity and What We Can Do To Regain Our Health(note both the appeal to nature and appeal to empowerment in the title) and in her “lectures”, public talks and interviews (e.g. for – antivaccine activists often refer to these as “studies” (an example discussed here, snf further discussed here) – in which she pushes classic antivaccine information. What she says matters, since she’s got credentials, and therefore authority. Never mind that the 8000 members of the American Association of Immunologists disagree with her; Obukhanych’s credentials are, for antivaxxers, the proof that makes the whole edifice crumble. Apparently Obukhanych changed her mind about vaccines (and science) when she discovered that, although she allegedly contracted measles and whooping cough during her teens, her Ukrainian medical records showed that she had indeed received the vaccines; the discovery led her to outright reject the field of immunology rather than her trust in the quality of early Soviet-era Ukraininan records (or vaccine doses), despite it being well known that those fully vaccinated may still be susceptible to diseases, especially during outbreaks, which indeed did plague the Ukraine during Obukhanych’s teenage years. 

Evidence: how does it work (hat-tip ... unknown: tell me if it's yours)

Indeed, among her standard canards is that since vaccinated people sometimes get the disease, vaccines are worthless, completely neglecting, as dumb and mathematically illiterate people are inclined to do, the rather obvious point that that vaccines reduce the risk often by way over 90% (in which case herd immunity would have protected the rest were it not for the fact that some people refuse the vaccines, which is a good thing even if protection isn’t 100%. Indeed, Obukhanych has some basic problems with grasping basic mathematical relations (or she is lying). For instance, she objects to the Hib vaccine by claiming that “the introduction of the Hib vaccine has inadvertently shifted strain dominance towards other types of H. influenzae (types a through f);” yes, by lowering the occurrence of Hib, the leading cause of bacterial meningitis among children <5, other H. strains have increased in percentage of all H-incidences! Concluding that this is an objectionto the Hib vaccine is probably one of the most inept pieces of reasoning we’ve had the opportunity to cover in our Encyclopedia thus far.

Despite her training, the antivaccine tropes Obukhanych is running are surprisingly trite and misinformed (more details here; and, to repeat ourselves, despite relying on her credentials she has done no actual research that backs up any of them, which is what should actually matter). According to Obukhanych, you should for instance be wary of the elite experts when discussing vaccines; after all, experts didn’t even know that the smallpox vaccine didn’t provide life-long immunity – at least not until the end of the 19thcentury. Also, she has claimed that there is no theoretical or evidence-based explanation for immunity, which reveals a surprising lack of knowledge of what should be her own field of expertise (alternative, she is lying, of course) – indeed, Obukhanych’s lack of expertise in her own purported field of expertise is stunning, to the extent that she doesn’t even seem to know what the field actually is; according to her immunology is “a science that studies an artificial process of immunization – i.e., the immune system’s response to injected foreign matter [… it] does not attempt to study and therefore cannot provide understanding of natural diseases and immunity that follows them;” this is false and blatantly contradicts for instance the description of immunology given by her own employer. Neither does she know really how vaccines work, or how they are monitored to ensure safety. (More here.) You can find a comprehensive discussion of Obukhanych’s misinformation here.

Now, Obukhanych seems occasionally to admit that “vaccines reduce the overall incidence of childhood diseases,” but maintains that the is a bad thing (the “vaccine paradox”, she calls it) since it makes them “infinitely more dangerous for the next generation of babies,” which does not sound likeit reflects the history of polio or smallpox or anything that is based on any remotely plausible mechanism. Obukhanych has, however, voiced her support for homeopathy, too, which may explain some of the cognitive patterns guiding her “reasoning”.

She is also a herd immunity denialist (“for most communicable viral diseases there is no herd immunity in the post-elimination era”), which is a confusion about math more than anything else. To bring the point home, she points out that “the apparent absence of major viral epidemics in the U.S. is now due to the absence of endemic viral exposure, not herd immunity.” Apparently some antivaxxers will read that and think “that sounds like reasonable point”. Those people are not only misinformed but genuinely stupid. ("What stopped polio outbreaks was not the vaccines but the absence of polio".)

Given her credentials, however, Obukhanych has, as mentioned, become a major player in the antivaccine circus, being a central participant for instance in the Vaxxed tour and one of the “experts” involved in the The Truth About Vaccines “documentary” series. Recently, she has been involved in the website Building Bridges in Children’s Health, an antivaccine page that will purportedly “help parents learn about vaccines and develop communication resources” (i.e. learn antivaccine talking points to throw at doctors) and “educate” about perceived “vaccine dangers, the benefits of childhood diseases (she is pro-disease), and how to manage if you are being bullied by a pediatrician or reported to CPS for your healthcare choices. Apparently she is also helping to “educate doctors” to overcome science their “indoctrination” at Physicians for Informed Consent.

Diagnosis: Crank and pseudoscientist, and certainly not a scientific researcher, regardless of the antivaxx crowd’s desperate attempts to portray her as such. But on paper she might look strong – if you are a bit selective with respect to what you put on that paper – and that illusion of credibility is used for all it’s worth and more to push the vaccine manufactroversy. Dangerous. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

#2066: Clint Ober

The ecology of woo is a rich one, and whatever niche of silly you can think of is probably filled, unimpeded by science, evidence or fact. The idea of earthing, for instance, is a relatively obvious one once you let your creativity be unconstrained by reality, plausibility or reason. According to the Earthing Institute, earthing is “connecting to the Earth’s natural, negative surface charge by being barefoot,” and has, according to its advocates, a wide range of positive health effects. Apparently, going barefoot allows your feet to pick up free electrons that then allegedly course through the human body to detoxify, cleanse, balance and harmonize: “Connection with the Earth restores a lost electrical signal to the body that seems to stabilize the complicated circuitry of our essentially-electrical body. Our built-in self-regulating and self-healing mechanisms become more effective. There are head-to-toe improvements. Better blood flow. Less pain and inflammation. More energy. Deeper sleep.” None of that is, of course, even remotely meaningful. But they’ve got evidence, don’t they? “The research [ah, that]indicates that Earthing transfers negatively charged free electrons into the body that are present in a virtually limitless and continuously renewed supply on the surface of the Earth. […] Maintaining contact with the ground allows your body to naturally receive and become charged with these electrons. When thus ‘grounded,’ any electron deficiencies and free radical excesses in the body are corrected. A natural electrical state is restored.” You’ll look in vain the research establishing those claims in real scientific journals, though. It’s probably a conspiracy. More here and here.

But research is of course secondary to tapping into the commercial potential of the idea. Retired cable TV executive Clint Ober, for instance, who seems to be the originator of what he calls “the science of earthing” (complete with his “Earthing Axiom: The earth’s infinite supply of free electrons will neutralize free radicals in your body and will thus help to stave off disease and aging. YOUR BODY WAS DESIGNED TO BE IN CONTACT WITH THE EARTH FOR MANY HOURS PER DAY” – allcaps in the original; Ober is fond of allcaps), is also the inventor of earthing beds, which do what “no other mattress on the planet can … (reconnect) you to the Earth’s gentle, natural healing energy while you sleep.” The prototype, at least, used metallic duct tape connected by wire to a ground rod planted in the soil outside, which Ober “discovered” improved his sleep and reduced chronic pain. The current version of the “barefoot pad”, put in your bed and connected to the ground outside, will (as of 2007!) set you back the measly sum of $ 289.

Like any other crackpot, Ober is fond of using loose associations of sciency-sounding terms to produce technobabble that people with no background in physics, biochemistry, biology or medicine may confuse for something actually informative (e.g. claiming that a “continuous flow of elections” from the earth does anything to eliminate free radicals in your body). He is also fond of referring to the good old times when everybody went barefoot and no-one got sick. And like all pseudoscience advocates, earthing advocates also have their own “studies”, strikingly typical of the kind of (in-house company) “studies” specifically designed to generate false positives: all small pilot studies or preliminary studies with strikingly hopeless methodology (“strikingly”, because in most cases it would have been so bloody easy to do it better). Some of them have graphs, though, so it must be science, mustn’t it? There are good discussions of the “scientific support” of earthing here and here. In comment sections on the Internet, the favorite study cited by earthing advocates still seems to be the one discussed here, published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, no less.

The idea, though, has actually become pretty popular, and is vigorously pushed by crackpot luminaries like Joe Mercola (who has promoted Ober’s claims specifically; discussed here), Dr. Oz and – not least – Gwyneth Paltrow.

Diagnosis: So dumb it beggars belief. But like all incredulously stupid health claims, earthing has a lot of fans providing personal anecdotes while criticizing those who tend to find evidence more convincing than anecdotes, and claiming that the treatment is free while blowing hundred of dollars on books and equipment. It does, admittedly, shake one’s belief in the future of humanity.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

#2065: David John Oates

Since professional paranoid persecution complex promoter Alan Nunnelee passed away, we’ll give this entry to one of the legendary stalwarts of all things fringe crazy, the Australian-born but US-residing David John Oates. Oates is the main promoter of the reverse speech hypothesis, the idea that a recording of ordinary human speech, played backwards, can be interpreted as having completely different words that reveal emotions or beliefs that the speaker intended to keep hidden (an idea related to but not to be confused with backward masking). If you think it sounds silly, rest assures that it is even sillier than it sounds. What is amazing, though, is that some people actually buy into Oates’s ramblings, even giving him access to mass media (also beyond Art Bell’s Coast to Coast AM, which of course popularized the idea) and paying real money for the equipment and instructions he sells, including:

  • Reverse-play tape recorders, only $225 (apparently no longer available)
  • iReverseSpeech, an iPhone app, $4.99
  • Reverse speech software, $179.95
  • The Reverse speech Metawalk series: “14 individual generic Metawalks taking you through the major metaphors of the unconscious mind, enhancing your natural abilities and clearing away sabotages to mental, emotional, and financial health”, $495.00
  • Signed copies of Oates’s book, $29.95
  • A complete training course, $1,495 (yes, Oates is training people to become “reverse speech analysts”).

According to Oates, since the technique shows what people truly believe, it has value to psychological evaluations, criminology and business negotiations (indeed, according to Oates, his idea is used, which is doubtful but a horrifying thought nonetheless). In some more detail, Oates’s claim is that people on average produces two related sentence every 15–20 seconds, one “forward-spoken” message and one “backwards” message unconsciously embedded in the person’s speech, which are apparently dependent upon each other and form an integral part of human communication (whyhuman communication would work like that is best left unexplained) and conveys the the total psyche of the person (how that would be beneficial to the speaker is also left unexplained). Apparently backward speech is always honest, revealing the truth about the speaker’s intentions and motivations. Oates’s examples from actual speech sound suspiciously and entirely unsurprisingly like auditory pareidolia, subjectively validated by the motivated investigator consciously searching for interpretations that fit the hypothesis – Oates, for example, almost always tells his witnesses in advance what they should expect to hear (that part has actually been tested: when the listeners are given the clips without being told in advance what to expect the results are, shall we say, variable, even when it is clips that Oates himself have actually selected; funny that.) There are good critiques of Oates’s claims here and here.

Needless to say, Oates’s ideas barely count even as pseudoscience, given the lack of detailed theoretical constraints that would yield even semi-testable hypotheses about what one should expectto hear, its utter lack of grounding in linguistics or psychology, coherence and reason, and – to some extent –Oates’s apparent focus on hawking merchandise over scientific testing. Apparently paying attention to the reverse speech messages can also help you gain longevity.

Diagnosis: Utter nonsense, of course, and though he might sound like a colorful village idiot, Oates has actually managed to convince some people in positions to cause real harm to real people. Though his claims are laughable, Oates is not altogether funny, in other words.