Bill Maher is an astonishingly anti-science anti-vax crank

This week’s Realtime with Bill Maher was just about the most perfect example I’ve seen yet that maybe reality doesn’t have a liberal bias. Due to the measles outbreak becoming a hot-button issue, and the realization that his smoldering anti-vaccine denialism would not go over well, our weekly debate host decided to instead unleash all of his other incredibly stupid, unscientific beliefs about medicine.

This was astonishing. And because his panel, as usual, is composed largely of political writers and journalists, there was no one to provide a sound scientific counterpoint to the craziness. The sole non-crazy person (on this topic) was the conservative guy!

What a turn around for liberalism. It turns out, the problem hasn’t been that conservatives hold the key to anti-science crazy, we just haven’t had a good issue to expose the anti-science of the left wing for a while. Maher goes into a list of things he decides are examples of failures of “Western” medicine (because Eastern medicine has figured out cancer or something).

1. Bill Maher repeats the trope that the vaccine schedule is too much too fast – straight out of the anti-vax denial playbook! Human beings of course can handle thousands upon thousands of antigenic exposures daily. It’s called living on a planet where everything on it is trying to kill everything else all the time. It’s why we have an immune system.

2. Then in a feat of mental gymnastics only an unthinking crank can manage, he jumps into the hygiene hypothesis! He says he’s “not so sure that people who get a lot of them [vaccines] have as “robust” an immune system.” He then goes on to say we’re seeing more allergies and autoimmune disease, maybe vaccines or “environmental factors” are to blame. Now our children suddenly aren’t getting enough antigenic exposures! Our immune systems need to be challenged in order to grow and become strong. This is a fascinating feat of mental gymnastics. The antigen exposure of vaccines is “bad”, but somehow the antigen exposure from, say, measles is “good”. Granted those who have had actual infections develop stronger responses to those infections, there is no evidence that getting these childhood illnesses is protective from other illnesses, or against autoimmune disease. There is no reason to think that exposure to specific viral disease antigens would be protective for autoimmunity, not to mention since the vaccine is viral antigen exposure why wouldn’t it then serve the same purpose? The immune system just doesn’t work that way, and the hygiene hypothesis is about routine exposure to common antigens.

3. He complains none of his doctors have ever asked about his diet, because in his mind, what you eat is the most important thing ever. I can understand this for a couple of reasons. For one, Maher is thin. Generally if patients are thin, seemingly taking care of their bodies, a physician won’t typically interrogate them on their diet. If you then get a screening cholesterol panel that shows a high LDL and low HDL or triglycerides, the physician may start asking questions about diet, recommending exercise, more vegetables, less meat etc. Doctors aren’t here to micromanage your life, we are here to address problems, caution against the more harmful behaviors, and provide general recommendations for which there is good evidence. But in Maher’s mind, which seems to be the mind of the toxin fanatic, the only path to good health is through diet, so a doctor that doesn’t buy into this particular nonsense is a bad doctor. The reality is, there is not great data on which diet is best. There is no evidence that some foods are “super”, or carry some life-extending property. None of the claims made by the promoters of these foods has evidence of the caliber Maher is demanding from vaccines, and most of them have no evidence at all.

A good rule of thumb is, if a website uses the word “super” as a prefix, they’re full of it. Worse, the toxin hypothesis is nonsense. Toxins are not a significant source of human disease (at least not in Hollywood). Humans are extraordinarily good at detoxifying foods, and just because you’re eating plant material – the diet he promotes – doesn’t mean you’re not eating toxins. Plants are full of toxins they’ve developed over the years to prevent pests from consuming them and their fruit. It just happens that when a human eats a tomato, or chocolate, or one of the many plants we’ve genetically-modified through breeding and selection to suit our diets or learned to process since the birth of agriculture, we have an effective means of detoxifying them. Worse they make claims that non-toxic chemicals are actually toxic. Like glucose! The fuel your own body naturally makes to feed your brain is routinely castigated on the natural foody websites as a killer. This is the chemical your own body turns all these super-foods into! The inability to understand basic physiology is just wonderful.

You want non-toxic? Eat meat. It’s just protein, water and fat, just like us (although even a complete non-toxin like water can of course be toxic at high enough exposure). If you’re feeling sadistic and want to see the toxic effect of a superfood, feed these human foods to a non-omnivorous animal like a cat. They’ll get sick. Many of our “super foods” which the morons on these websites sell as “detoxifying” or laud their anti-oxidant properties (another bogus and unfounded diet hypothesis), are actually full of various plant toxins which we have no problem with because we have awesome livers. So thank your liver, and don’t buy into this toxin nonsense.

Finally other reasons he feels like he’s never heard a doctor ask about his diet (because we do) is he’s either not listening, or maybe he just sees a crappy doctor? So whoever is this magical “Western” doctor that Maher sees, please just ask this silly crank about his diet during the next visit so we don’t have to hear this tired nonsense anymore that doctors don’t care about diet. We do, we just don’t buy into the silly unfounded nonsense of the toxin hypothesis which is likely his real complaint.

4. He says “we overdid antibiotics” – This could be a fair point, however, the doom and gloom about antibiotics not working anymore and our whole medical system collapsing is a bit overblown. After all, most of the antibiotics we have developed over the years were discovered, not invented. We have been taking chemicals developed in the environment by various organisms and using them to suit our purposes. However, the targets of those chemicals have been engaged in this evolutionary war for millennia before we ever even got into it. Bacterial resistance is not “new”, or something created just by humans. We have to see this problem as an eternal struggle that’s been going on between micro-organisms for eons, and if we’re going to participate in it, we have to continue to innovate, just as life has, since the beginning. There is no “winning” here. There will never be a time when we can say we have solved bacterial resistance or have a perfect antibiotic, because we’re learning more and more we have to live with our bacteria in our biome, we can’t kill them all. We just have to keep working, keep innovating, and keep learning so we learn to develop antibiotics that are more specific, more targeted, and yes, more cautiously applied so we can continue to benefit from the ability to control these ubiquitous organisms that help us, are part of our normal physiology and function, but also occasionally overgrow and kill us.

5. He points out “not one country in the world does nearly as much surgery we do” – I recuse myself as I have conflict of interest.

6. He complains “I’ve heard on the news endlessly 2 drinks a day is good for you, I think no drinks a day is good for you.” And again Maher would be wrong. For one, no real medical authority has come out and said, “drink 2 drinks a day.” I’m sorry that the news misled you. I have no doubt there’s a bunch of crummy journalism out there that could be interpreted this way, but it’s not the medical establishment’s fault that science and medicine reporting is so full of bogus nonsense. This is still a controversial medical issue. The data from sources like NHANES show that there may be a protective effect for alcohol consumption with 1-2 drinks a day. This has been seen in multiple other studies, and in other countries. The effect is more profound in men. It might disappear if you eliminate co-morbidities (in other words some people may not be drinking because of health issues making the teetotaler data look worse). Ultimately doctors can’t really recommend you drink, but we typically won’t castigate you for drinking 1-2 drinks a day because the health effects are likely small, and for 1-2 drinks a day, their might be a slight cardiovascular protective effect. Prospective trials suggest 2 maybe even too many. So I would rate this as a major straw man argument. As a doctor I would say, 1-2 drinks a day is probably not harmful, but no one should be drinking saying “this is for my health”.

7. He wails we are Ok with aspartame, and GMOs! / and “One word, Monsanto” – and here we have it, Bill Maher’s clearest example of total crankery, his complete hysteria over GMO. There is a moment then when the conservative John McCormack butts in and points out there is no evidence that GMOs are harmful, and Maher and his panel of ignoramuses are shocked into silence, and one panelist gives this weighty sigh and covers her face in horror and Maher simply sighs. No, Bill Maher, it is we that should be asking you to justify your foolishness here, McCormack, the conservative who should supposedly be the one without the liberal bias of reality asked the right question. Where is your data? Where is the proof? There is no evidence, and worse, no even plausible mechanism by which he can describe the current GMO foods on the market to be harmful to humans. Despite consumption of billions by billions, you can’t point out one sickness or death. Instead they can only resort to the classic denialist correlation trope, which is exactly what the anti-vaxers have done for decades. And if someone wants to talk about the Seralini rat study, please don’t bother. Another retracted paper being the sole source of proof for a bunch of denialists, where have we heard this before?

Finally Maher complains, “we can’t ask any questions.” The classic cry of the persecuted crank! The same whiny response you see from the 9/11 truther, the climate science denialist, or any other individual who has found their ludicrous ideas has bought them some much needed societal shame. No on is telling them they can’t ask questions, but when you repeat the same question, that has been answered, and answered, again and again, and you don’t listen, eventually we are going to lose our patience and say enough! The debate is over! Vaccines do not cause autism. Enough with your crankery. Enough with the harm that has come from this bogus skepticism. We have an outbreak now. We are tired of hearing this question which has been answered and the accompanying obstinance has caused real-world harm.

Maher in this episode performs an astonishing Gish-gallop proving, once again, he deserves to be called out for denialism and being an infectious disease advocate. Can we drop the notion that liberalism is somehow protective against anti-science? Do we remember when he tried to blame cell phones for colony collapse disorder? (I couldn’t resist going to the old blog for that) Maher is resentful that his anti-vax nonsense is compared to global warming denialism. This is exactly like global warming denialism because all denialism ultimately comes down to the same tactics. I think we’ve a good example here of conspiracy (in one word! monsanto!), moving goalposts, cherry-picking, and a whole host of logical fallacies in his little Gish gallop (that’s four of five of the classic tactics). Let us dismiss him as a spokesman for science. He’s too easily impeachable as an anti-science crank.

Conspiracy belief prevalence, according to Public Policy Polling is as high as 51%

And it may even be more when one considers that there is likely non-overlap between many of these conspiracies. It really is unfortunate that their isn’t more social pushback against those that express conspiratorial views. Given both the historical and modern tendency of some conspiracy theories being used direct hate towards one group or another (scratch a 9/11 truther and guess what’s underneath), and that they’re basically an admission of one’s own defective reasoning, why is it socially acceptable to espouse conspiracy theories? They add nothing to discussion, and instead hijack legitimate debate because one contributor has abandoned all pretense of using actual evidence. Conspiracy theories are used to explain a belief in the absence of real evidence. Worse, they are so often just a vehicle to direct vitriol and hate. We need less hate and partisanship. We should be able to disagree with a president without saying that he’s part of an agenda21/commoncore/obamacare/nazi/fascist/communist/North Korean conspiracy to make American citizens 3rd world slaves (not an exaggeration). We should be able to disagree with a corporation’s policies without asserting their objective is mass-murder. What is the benefit of this rhetoric? It’s just designed to poison our discourse, and inspire greater partisanship, divisiveness and incivility. Conspiracy theories are often used as a more subtle way to mask vile invective towards whichever group you hate. As you look underneath these theories you see it’s really just irrational hatred for somebody- liberals, conservatives, homosexuals, different races or religions, governments, or even certain professions. This is because at the root of the need for conspiratorial thinking is some irrational, overvalued idea, and often the open expression of the belief would result in social scorn.

I’ve found in my experience, almost everyone carries one really cranky belief that they can’t seem to shake, no matter how evidence-based their other positions are (probably because we are all capable of carrying some overvalued ideas). But it’s worth peering through PPP’s full results to see the nature of some of these associations.

For one, some of these associations I think are spurious, poorly questioned, or just reflect misinformation, rather than conspiracy. For instance:

44% of voters believe the Bush administration intentionally misled the public about weapons of mass destruction to promote the Iraq War, while 45% disagree. 72% of Democrats believed the statement while 73% of Republicans did not. 22% of Democrats, 33% of Republicans and 28% of independents believe Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Many have questioned the inclusion of this question because, in reality, there were no weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq. So the question of whether we were “misled” or “intentionally-misled” puts us in the murky position at having to guess at the motivations of individuals like Bush and Cheney. Mind-reading is a dubious activity, and I tend to ascribe to the Napoleonic belief that you shouldn’t ascribe to malice, that which can be explained by incompetence (also known as Hanlon’s razor). Is it conspiratorial to think maybe they were more malicious than incompetent? While I think that administration really were “true believers”, of course I don’t really know for sure, and I don’t think it’s fair to describe such as conspiratorial reasoning. Instead it’s just the dubious but common practice of guessing at the intentions of others. The generally-similar numbers on the Saddam Hussein/9/11 connection, I believe, just suggests ignorance, rather than necessitating active belief in a conspiratorial framework (keeping in mind the margin of error is about 3% these aren’t huge partisan differences like over WMD).

One of the most disappointing numbers was on belief in a conspiracy behind JFK’s assassination:

51% of Americans believe there was a larger conspiracy at work in the JFK assassination, while 25% think Lee Harvey Oswald
acted alone.

That’s 51% conspiratorial belief, 24% probably showing ignorance of one of the most important events of the last century, and 25% actually informed. This is pretty sad. The movements of Oswald were so thoroughly-investigated and known, the hard evidence for his planning and involvement are so clear, the conspirators so unlikely (the mob/CIA/LBJ/KGB hiring crackpot loser communists for assassinations?), and the fabrications of the conspiracists so plain (asserting the shots couldn’t be made despite it being easily replicated by everyone from the Warren Commission to the Discovery Channel and even improved on, the disparaging of his marksmanship when LHO was a marine sharpshooter, altering the positions of the occupants of the car to make the bullet path from JFK to Connelly appear unlikely, etc.) it’s sad that so many have bought into this nonsense. The historically-bogus picture JFK, by Oliver Stone, may also play a large part in this, and is an example why Oliver Stone is really a terrible person. People that misrepresent history are the worst. If anyone wants to read a good book about the actual evidence that of what happened that day, as well as destroys the conspiracy position, Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugliosi is my favorite, as well as the most thorough.

But there is one redeeming feature of conspiracy about the JFK assassination. For the most part, conspiratorial ideas on the subject aren’t due to some dark part in people’s souls, as for many other conspiracies, but rather the very human need to ascribe more to such earth-shattering events as the assassination of a president than just the madness of a pitiable loser. The imbalance between the magnitude of the event, and the banal crank that accomplished it, is simply too much. There’s no way that a 24-year-old, violent, wife-beating, Marxist roustabout could be responsible for the death of a man like JFK right? Sadly no. The evidence shows even a man that pathetic can destroy the life of a much greater man with a cheap rifle and a simple plan.

The conspiracy theories embedded within this poll that really disturb me because I think they demonstrate the effect of irrational hate are ones such as for whether President Obama is the antichrist (although is that even really a conspiracy?). 13% of respondents believed this, 5% of those that voted for him still answered this question in the affirmative (really? you voted for the antichrist) as opposed to 22% of those that voted for Romney. Do we really need to elevate political disagreement to the level of labeling people the antichrist? Around 9% thought government adds fluoride for “sinister” reasons, and 11% believe in the LIHOP 9/11 conspiracy theory. They clearly think very little of their fellow Americans, and believe some really demonic things about our government. Our government is neither competent enough, or evil enough, to engage in then successfully cover up either of these things. Our top spy couldn’t even hide a tawdry affair.

Other conspiracy theories seem to indicate their is a baseline number of people, at about 15%, who will believe in just about anything from the moon landing being hoaxed to bigfoot. I would have actually pegged this number higher, given my pessimism about rational thought, but that seems to be what we can read from this. However, without being able to see whether or not it was the same people answering yes to each individual absurd conspiracy from reptilians to “government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals”, it’s possible this number is actually much larger. I would be curious to see the data on the overlap between these questions, as the phenomenon of crank magnetism is well known.

Ultimately, I read this data as saying that Americans have a big problem with conspiracy theories entering our political discourse. We should be embarrassed that as many as 37% of us believe that global warming is a “hoax”. That requires a belief is a grand conspiracy of scientists, policy-makers, journals, editors, etc., all acting together to somehow fabricate data for a single objective – often described as world-government control conspiracy to cede our sovereignty to the UN. Somehow, every single national scientific body, all those national academies, all those journals, and all those scientists, all those governments, all working in perfect secrecy according to some master plan (which I’m often accused of being a part of but I’m sure I’m missing the memo), and this is plausible how? The answer is, it’s not, unless you remain steadfastly ignorant of how science actually works and progresses.

Everyone, of any political persuasion, should be embarrassed by the conspiracy-theorists in their ranks. This isn’t healthy thinking, it isn’t rational discourse, and it only serves to divide us and make us hate. Enough of this already.

Are Liberals really more likely to accept science than conservatives Part II?

About a month ago I asked if denialism is truly more frequent on the right or is it that the issues of the day are ones that are more likely to be targets of right wing denialism? After all, one can think of slightly more left wing sources of denialism like GMO paranoia, 9/11 conspiracies, altie-meds, and toxin fear-mongering. The mental heuristics that cause people to believe, and then entrench themselves, in nonsense seem generalizable to humanity rather than just those attracted to conservative politics. Why should those who identify as liberal be any different? Wouldn’t they just believe in nonsense with a liberal bias?

Lately, Chris Mooney has been taking a different tact on explaining the apparent discrepancy between liberal vs conservative rejection of science with the suggestion the conservative brain is fundamentally different.

First of all, it’s not a matter of education. Whenever people complain that disbelief in evolution or climate change or whatever is a matter of education, they’re simply wrong. We can not educate our way out of this mess, and the problem isn’t that the Republicans arguing this nonsense are any less educated. Chris agrees and cites evidence:

Buried in the Pew report was a little chart showing the relationship between one’s political party affiliation, one’s acceptance that humans are causing global warming, and one’s level of education. And here’s the mind-blowing surprise: For Republicans, having a college degree didn’t appear to make one any more open to what scientists have to say. On the contrary, better-educated Republicans were more skeptical of modern climate science than their less educated brethren. Only 19 percent of college-educated Republicans agreed that the planet is warming due to human actions, versus 31 percent of non-college-educated Republicans.

For Democrats and Independents, the opposite was the case. More education correlated with being more accepting of climate science–among Democrats, dramatically so. The difference in acceptance between more and less educated Democrats was 23 percentage points.

And it’s not specifically education on or awareness of the specific topic, as self-reported knowledge of the topic resulted in opinions among conservatives more likely to be aligned against the scientific mainstream. Orac points out this is not an old phenomenon and maybe the Dunning-Kruger effect which we incorporated into our unified theory of the crank. This is the “incompetent but unaware of it” phenomenon, that the more incompetent people are, the more likely they are to be falsely confident of their own abilities and unable to recognize competence in others..

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But the most fascinating part of this article is when Mooney mentions a study to see if liberals were comparatively incompetent in judging the science in an area of high liberal bias – Nuclear power. This would seem to provide an answer to the question from my earlier post, that is, are we missing an equivalent liberal tendency towards denialism because we’re not asking the right questions?

It looks like my hypothesis of possible equivalence might have to be rejected …
Continue reading “Are Liberals really more likely to accept science than conservatives Part II?”

The Right Wing Appeal of Duesberg’s HIV/AIDS denialism

Via Ed

If you ever wondered what motivated this particular HIV/AIDS denialist this video makes it obvious. Duesberg comes out and blames homosexual promiscuity for AIDS rather than a virus. I think examples like this make it clearer that the ideology responsible for this denialism is plain just plain homophobia after all. This is, of course, appealing to right wing ideologues so where does Duesberg end up? On right wing radio with the American Family Association’s Brian Fischer proposing the absurd “AIDS was invented for gays to steal grant-money” conspiracy theory. I think the Southern Poverty Law Center was right to designate AFA a hate group, and here’s qhy

The AFA seeks to support “traditional moral values,” but in recent years it has seemed to specialize in “combating the homosexual agenda.” In 2009, it hired Bryan Fischer, the former executive director of the Idaho Values Alliance, as its director of analysis for government and policy. Taking a page from the anti-gay fabulist Scott Lively (see Abiding Truth Ministries, above), Fischer claimed in a blog post last May 27 that “[h]omosexuality gave us Adolph Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and 6 million dead Jews.” (Ironically, the elder Wildmon was widely denounced as an anti-Semite after suggesting that Jews control the media, which the AFA says “shows a genuine hostility towards Christians.”) Fischer has described Hitler as “an active homosexual” who sought out gays “because he could not get straight soldiers to be savage and brutal and vicious enough.” He proposed criminalizing homosexual behavior in another 2010 blog post and has advocated forcing gays into “reparative” therapy. In a 2010 “action alert,” the AFA warned that if homosexuals are allowed to openly serve in the military, “your son or daughter may be forced to share military showers and barracks with active and open homosexuals.”

I guess it was just a matter of time before he latched onto HIV/AIDS denialism and I think this constitutes and example of crank magnetism. Such is the nature of the rabid ideologue – no matter how obviously absurd a belief is, if it affirms your warped ideology you support it.

The psychology of crankery

ResearchBlogging.orgOur recent discussions of HIV/AIDS denial and in particular Seth Kalichman’s book “Denying AIDS” has got me thinking more about the psychology of those who are susceptible to pseudoscientific belief. It’s an interesting topic, and Kalichman studies it briefly in his book mentioning the “suspicious minds”:

At its very core, denialism is deeply embedded in a sense of mistrust. Most obviously, we see suspicion in denialist conspiracy theories. Most conspiracy theories grow out of suspicions about corruptions in government, industry, science, and medicine, all working together in some grand sinister plot. Psychologically, suspicion is the central feature of paranoid personality, and it is not overreaching to say that some denialists demonstrate this extreme. Suspicious thinking can be understood as a filter through which the world is interpreted, where attention is driven towards those ideas and isolated anecdotes that confirm one’s preconceived notions of wrong doing. Suspicious thinkers are predisposed to see themselves as special or to hold some special knowledge.
Psychotherapist David Shpairo in his classic book Neurotic Styles describes the suspicious thinker. Just as wee see in denialism, suspiciousness is not easily penetrated by facts or evidence that counter individuals’ preconceived worldview. Just as Shapiro describes in the suspicious personality, the denialist selectively attends to information that bolsters his or her own beliefs. Denialists exhibit suspicious thinking when they manipulate objective reality to fit within their beliefs. It is true that all people are prone to fit the world into their sense of reality, but the suspicious person distorts reality and does so with an uncommon rigidity. The parallel between the suspicious personality style and denialism is really quite compelling. As described by Shapiro:

A suspicious person is a person who has something on his mind. He looks at the world with fixed and preoccupying expectation, and he searches repetitively, and only, for confirmation of it. He will not be persuaded to abandon his suspicion of some plan of action based on it. On the contrary, he will pay no attention to rational arguments except to find in them some aspect or feature that actually confirms his original view. Anyone who tries to influence or persuade a suspicious person will not only fail, but also, unless he is sensible enough to abandon his efforts early will, himself, become an object of the original suspicious idea.

The rhetoric of denialism clearly reveals a deeply suspicious character. In denialism, the science of AIDS is deconstructed to examine evidence taken out of context by non-scientists. The evidence is assimilated into one’s beliefs that HIV does not cause AIDS, that HIV tests are invalid, that the science is corrupt, and aimed to profit Big Pharma.

The insights offered by Shapiro are that denialists are not “lying” in the way that most anti-denialists portray them. The cognitive style of the denialist represents a warped sense of reality for sure, explaining why arguing or debating with a denialist gets you nowhere. But the denialist is not the evil plotter they are often portrayed as. Rather denialists are trapped in their denialism.

Psychologically, certain people seem predisposed to suspicious thinking and it seems this may be true of denialism as well. I submit that dienialism stems from a conspiracy-theory-prone personality style. We see this in people who appear predisposed to suspiciousness, and these people are vulnerable to anti-establishment propaganda. We know that suspicious people view themselves as the target of wrongdoing and hold persecutory ideas.

I agree that this certainly represents a portion of denialists, but not all. I think others, for example creationists and global warming denialists, tend to have a different motivation and style, due to ideological extremism that warps their worldview. Ideological and paranoid denialism can co-exist within denialist camps, or even within an individual, but there are areas where the overlap is incomplete. Still, the issue of the suspicious personality style is important.

We all know this person. If you don’t, maybe you know Dale Gribble (AKA Rusty Shackleford).

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I just know Mike Judge has met the suspicious personality style and encapsulated the extreme of this personality in this character. Dale inevitably sees every event as tied to some bizarre government/alien conspiracy, and inevitably the other men in the alley ignore his interjections or Hank simply says, “that’s asinine”. Hank is a wise man. To argue with a Dale would only make you look like the fool.

Some anti-denialists sites have recently brought to my attention a growing body of work trying to understand how people become conspiracy theorists. Two papers in particular are of interest, the first Unanswered Questions: A Preliminary Investigation of
Personality and Individual Difference Predictors of 9/11 Conspiracist Beliefs
[1] is an interesting study because it provides some explanation for crank magnetism.

Continue reading “The psychology of crankery”

The Autism/Vaccines Fraud

I have to admit I’m somewhat surprised (even if Orac isn’t). We all knew that Andrew Wakefield’s research was bogus and the link between vaccines and autism was engineered by ideologues who fear vaccines irrationally. But fabrication of data? Sloppy research is one thing, but the need for cranks to be correct, no matter what reality reflects, has resulted in yet another example of egregious dishonesty.

This is in line, however, with what we know about cranks. Mark Crislip recently wrote an interesting piece on mathematics crankery which bears upon just this phenomenon. Mathematics is a wonderful area to study crankery because as Crislip points out, mathematics is a field in which it is possible to distinguish between the possible and the impossible.

In mathematics there are things that are impossible. Absolutely impossible. No ifs, ands, or buts. Impossible. Can’t be done no how no way. In the world of mathematics, things are not only impossible, they are proven truly impossible within the boundaries of the mathematical discipline.

An example of mathematical impossibility is the quadrature of the circle, also called squaring the circle.

It is impossible, using only a straight edge ruler and a compass, to construct a square with the same area as a given circle. It was proved to be impossible in 1882 by Lindeman. Not improbable or unlikely or very, very, very difficult. With in mathematical reality, it is impossible.

But in his review of Mathematical Cranks he hits upon many of the commonalities between cranks we discussed in the Crank HOWTO.

Here is Crislip’s description of the mathematical crank:

1) They are convinced that their opinion is superior to the accumulated opinion of 2000 years of mathematics and mathematicians. That hundreds of mathematicians have worked for hundreds of years on these problems and found no errors in the proof that it is impossible to square a circle is of no consequence. Despite the accumulated mathematical knowledge of uncounted mathematicians, they are convinced that their solution is the right solution. Everyone else for all of history has been wrong. There is a tinge of megalomania in all the correspondence, and some appear to me to be clinically insane.

2) To accommodate their solutions, they are willing to alter reality to fit their proofs. There are solutions to squaring the circle, but they require a value of pi that is different that 3.14159265… Pi, for those that have forgotten, is the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle and is a constant of the universe. For some circle squarers, Pi has a different value and all the mathematics that has confirmed the current value of pi is wrong. Others deny that pi exists or that the definition is meaningless, since they can construct a squared circle with pencil and paper, and send in the (flawed) construction.

3) When errors of math or logic are pointed out, they respond not with understanding, but a redoubling of efforts to prove that their erroneous solution to the problem is actually correct. They are incapable of recognizing flaws in logic, or mathematics, or flaws that are in opposition to mathematical consistency. A crank cannot recognize their error because they cannot recognize that their reality differs from mathematical reality.

4) Cranks are impervious to arguments based on mathematical reality. They do not recognize or understand that their solutions are in error because the solution contradicts known mathematical reality. They do not base their solutions on known mathematics, but on their own flawed understanding of mathematics.

5) Cranks evidently send their ‘solutions’ to multiple mathematical departments and rarely receive a reply. This silence from academia is interpreted not that their solution is worthless, but that there is a conspiracy of Professors of Mathematics to keep their solution secret, to the detriment of human kind. Big Math, out to suppress the truth THEY don’t not want you to know.

It is obvious to me that no matter what the field, the problem is crankery – the defective thought processes that allow people to believe in nonsense, no matter what obstacles reality throws in their path. Every description of every crank in every field ultimately boils down to these same factors. Cranks believe in something contrary to observable reality. They will do anything to prove it. When reality gets in their way, they ignore, subvert, lie, cheat, or obfuscate to create confusion. And when it’s proven beyond all doubt they’re wrong? That’s when the conspiracies come out. The comments on the Huffington Post coverage of the most recent Wakefield dishonesty are an excellent example of this. Wakefield is a victim of Big Pharma, being persecuted by Brian Deer, it’s all a conspiracy against children by doctors and pharmaceutical companies etc.

The more time passes the more I’m convinced that our original thesis on cranks and denialism in general has been confirmed again and again. No matter what the foolish belief the problem the reality-based community is fighting is a defective pattern of thought, an incompetence in evaluating the quality of evidence that afflicts millions of individuals and ultimately is why so many people believe in such stupid things. Wakefield, ultimately, is just another in a long line of cranks. And while biology is never as concrete as mathematics, it is clear that accepting reality was never a part of the the anti-vaccine movement’s ideology. And what do cranks do when reality opposes your world view? They do what Wakefield did. Reject reality, and substitute their own.

Even after all this time I was surprised they would find outright fabrication in Wakefield’s work, but I shouldn’t have been.
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