Bill Maher, the moronic Food Babe, and the NYT discusses what to call climate change denialists

Bill Maher did it again last night, doubling down on his anti-vax nonsense claiming the real problem is we haven’t done a controlled population-based trial on vaccination vs non-vaccination. Sadly, I don’t have a clip, but I have to say this time at least I was gratified that his panel wasn’t composed of complete morons and they actually challenged him on some of his nonsense. This is actually a classic impossible expectations denialist argument, he essentially proposes an experiment that would be wildly expensive, impossible to perform, and highly unethical. Worse, it still is internally inconsistent. He claims, as he did last week that vaccines are somehow preventing us to experience the benefit of fighting our own individual battles with infectious disease, and that in some Nietzschean fashion, this makes us weaker. But this makes no sense, as vaccines, after all, are antigen exposure. Second, there is no evidence that shows that exposure to infectious disease of one kind somehow makes you stronger, or more able to fight off other infections. It is a point unworthy of debate, not-surprisingly, as Bill Maher tends to make lots of such points. Vaccines have made our populations healthier, live longer, and all but eradicated several devastating diseases in plagues in modern times.

The second interesting article is Justin Gillis at NYT’s What to call a doubter of climate change? You all probably have an idea where we stand, and we have previously discussed the problematic nature of the use of denier as it gives them easy ammo to dismiss critique of denialist tactics as ad hominem. Unfortunately Gillis fails to actually define the problem adequately, in that he fails to describe the behavior and tactics of denialism. As a result his comment section, already at about 400 at the time of writing, mostly consists of Galileo gambits and comparisons of modern denialists to Einstein or Marshall and Warren. This is a newer modification of the Galileo Gambit which hijacks the work of Thomas Kuhn to suggest the denialists aren’t hacks, but revolutionaries!

Of course, the problem is the scientific revolutions that Kuhn described weren’t accomplished using the tactics of denialism. It’s also very important to understand such revolutions don’t invalidate previous data, which are still true. Einstein didn’t invalidate Newtonian physics, he expanded upon them in areas where they don’t work, such as at high speeds or small scales. Climate change denialists aren’t advancing a radical new theory, or compiling an alternative data set, they’re nitpicking existing science and promoting conspiracy theories about fraud that routinely get pants on fire level ratings. It’s a clever tactic, but totally bogus. When Jim Inhofe says that climate change can’t be dangerous because God is in control, that’s not a scientific revolutionary speaking. That’s a crank.

So Gillis makes a critical error, I believe, in the presentation of this problem because he fails to adequately describe the tactics of denialism being criticized, because the tactics are indefensible, and documented from one side of the internet to the other. It’s psuedoskepticism, and psuedoscience, and the key from distinguishing it from actual science that has the capacity to generate a revolution is to point out that no actual science is being done by these jokers, just cherry-picking, conspiratorial fear-mongering and rhetorical tricks. I think he describes the problem well but has opened himself to undue criticism by not making the issue the tactics rather than the specific belief. (of note Gillis spoke to me in prep for this article about some of the history of the debate)

Finally, the Food Babe. She truly presents an abundance of stupidity to debunk, and Orac does it well. Her newest, shockingly-stupid statement is just mind-blowing. She has apparently said, “There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever.”

Her history of doing this is pretty significant and she follows a pattern – she says things that show that she is so mind-bogglingly ignorant that she proves she has no business representing herself as a source of valid information or expertise on any topic. Then she realizes she’s crossed the line of unbelievable ignorance, and tries to hide it from the internet. Notable examples include her now difficult-to-find claim that pilots flood airplanes with toxic nitrogen gas rather than healthy oxygen during flights. Or her claim that brewers use toxic chemicals to fine beer, ignoring, of course, the toxicity of ethanol or that her sub-high school level of chemistry has not prepared her to understand even very basic concepts in organic chemistry.

Let us be very clear. This isn’t even denialism (although she does make those arguments too). This is just abject stupidity. This is such a low level of knowledge and understanding of the physical world it actually falls more into the Not even wrong category of argument. I don’t even need to debunk such a stupid statement, I trust my audience to be smart enough to see the glaring flaws, and there are a few contained in that special little nugget.

But this ties back into Bill Maher in an important way. As we discussed last week, Bill Maher essentially buys into this same ignorant medical belief that toxins are somehow to blame for a significant portion of human illness. On its surface its an appealing piece of woo, because it accomplishes one of the most important tasks of a really attractive piece of nonsense, that is, it offers adherents a false sense of control over their health. If I just avoid “toxins” I can avoid heart disease! And Cancer! and liver forever! Clearly, there are some toxins that humans frequently ingest that can cause disease, like alcohol (she doesn’t pick up on the toxicity of alcohol amazingly), tobacco, and various chemical exposures that at high levels can cause liver disease, heart failure, cancer. It’s entirely possible for toxins to cause disease, this is true. But it’s not in the way that the toxin fanatics think, in which anything natural is falsely seen as “non-toxic” and anything man-made or processed is “toxic”, and it also fails to understand the most important principle in understanding (most) toxic exposures, that is the general association between dosage and toxicity. For the moment we’ll put aside idiopathic toxic reactions, but generally, dosage is important. A chemical like water, the essential molecule of life, can be toxic to humans at high levels, but essential in the range that our body needs to keep all of its complex chemical reactions in equilibrium.

Further, natural foods, plants, etc., contain toxins as a part of their basic make-up. Consider the tomato. A member of the nightshade family Solanaceae, it contains toxins including solanine (as do many other fruits and veggies). Luckily, humans have an organ called a liver, and for most levels of this toxin contained in your all-natural, GMO-free potatoes, tomatoes, blueberries and apples, you’re going to be just fine (unless you eat like 100 potatoes in a sitting).

Toxins are everywhere, they’re in our food, our natural, wholesome, tasty healthy food. We’re just able to process most of them, at the levels that our bodies have adapted to over the millions of years we’ve been evolving on this planet. When morons like the Food Babe, and Maher vaguely refer to “toxins” and then in the next breath talk about eating veggie, avoiding meat (very low in toxins compared to say a nice plant like belladona – or cherries), they just show they have no clue what contributes to health and human disease.

Disease can be avoided, but the only things we really have good evidence for is that we should eat less, exercise more, and avoid true toxins like tobacco and ethanol (although moderation on booze is probably ok – thank your liver). Most of the rest is out of our control and is a combination of genes and luck. There are no superfoods. There are no panaceas, no magic vitamin supplement which has been shown to substantially effect our mortality (read the link, most supplementation is at best useless, at worse, harmful). It would be wonderful if there were, but there simply isn’t good evidence for this nonsense. When someone shows me some real data that we can fool our body into not aging with some specific diet, supplement or food, I’ll happily eat it, but they just don’t have it (and I’ve read the Mediterranean diet data which is pathetic.)

The best advice I can give after studying this stuff for years is that no one knows the ideal diet. It’s important to avoid obesity. Malnutrition is rare with most typical, varied diets so supplementation is likely unneeded outside of specific illnesses or life changes like pregnancy. Eat more high fiber foods like fruits and vegetables, and avoid junk food, avoid calorie-dense foods like sugary sodas, highly-processed food and fast food. Exercise. Sleep. Until we know better, we can’t say much more. And the certainty with which natural-food pronouncements claim foods are “miracles” or “super” is a sure sign of fraud.

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.

An apology, from America, for Alex Jones

Dear British friends,

I am deeply ashamed, and mortified, on behalf of my entire country for the embarrassing phenomenon that is Alex Jones. I see you have learned now for yourselves, this disturbed, bizarre person, is quite possibly the worst guest you could have ever invited to be on a television show. I have enclosed the relevant clip below.

I feel the need to apologize, as Jones appears to represent the worst stereotypes of Americans; that we are loud, bullying, and rude, that we prefer to shout to win debates, that we have no manners compared to our cousins across the pond. Please understand, we find him just as awful as you do. He is just as uncivilized, rude, loud and obnoxious within our borders as he is without. If we could have avoided having him inflict his company on you, we would have, but sadly that is beyond our power.

I know you will say that you too have nutters that you have inflicted upon the world (David Icke comes to mind), but I would remind you that your nutters have always been unfailingly polite when they have visited us. I appreciate the enormous restraint Andrew Neil showed in only calling Jones an idiot while making the universal “crazy person” sign. I promise the next time I am in England I will try to offset some of this harm by buying rounds, speaking softly, and by no means mentioning the existence of Simon Cowell. I can see how you already have that problem in hand.

(start at minute 1:45)

MarkH (on behalf of America)

What is at the root of denial? A Must Read from Chris Mooney in Mother Jones

Chris Mooney has been exploring the basic underpinnings of denialism lately, with this latest article a good summary of the basic problems:

In a recent study of climate blog readers, Lewandowksy and his colleagues found that the strongest predictor of being a climate change denier is having a libertarian, free market world view. Or as Lewandowsky put it in our interview, “the overwhelming factor that determined whether or not people rejected climate science is their worldview or their ideology.” This naturally lends support to the “motivated reasoning” theory—a conservative view about the efficiency of markets impels rejection of climate science because if climate science were true, markets would very clearly have failed in an very important instance.

But separately, the same study also found a second factor that was a weaker, but still real, predictor of climate change denial—and also of the denial of other scientific findings such as the proven link between HIV and AIDS. And that factor was conspiracy theorizing. Thus, people who think, say, that the Moon landings were staged by Hollywood, or that Lee Harvey Oswald had help, are also more likely to be climate deniers and HIV-AIDS deniers.

This is similar to what we’ve been saying for years. Ideology is at the heart of antiscience, (yes even liberal ideology) and when in conflict with science will render the ideologue incapable of rational evaluation of facts. The more extreme the ideology, the more likely and more severe the divergence from science. Then there is the separate issue of cranks who have a generalized defect in their reasoning abilities, are generally incompetent at recognizing bad ideas, often believing conflicting theories simultaneously, and are given to support any other crank who they feel is showing science is somehow fundamentally wrong. This is the “paranoid style”, it’s well-described, and likely, irreversible. However, more run-of-the-mill denialism should be preventable.

We’ve discussed this extensively in regards to research by Dan Kahan, although I have disagreed with this jargon of motivated reasoning. Chris, however, knows what they’re referring to with their fancified science-speak, ideology is at the root of denial.

Recognizing that the problem of anti-science is not one of a lack of information, or of education, or of framing is of paramount concern. This is a problem with humans. This is the way we think by default. People tend to arrive at their beliefs based on things like their upbringing, their religion, their politics, and other unreliable sources. When opinions are formed based on these deeply-held beliefs or heuristics, all information subsequently encountered is either used to reinforce this belief, or is ignored. This is why studies showing education doesn’t work, the more educated the partisan is on a topic, the more entrenched they become. You can’t inform or argue your way out of this problem, you have to fundamentally change the way people reason before they form these fixed beliefs.

Scientific reasoning and pragmatism is fundamentally unnatural and extremely difficult. Even scientists, when engaged in a particular nasty internal ideological conflict, have been known to deny the science. This is because when one’s ideology is challenged by the facts you are in essence creating an existential crisis. The facts become an assault on the person themselves, their deepest beliefs, and how they perceive and understand the world. What is done in this situation? Does the typical individual suck it up, and change, fundamentally, who they are as a person? Of course not! They invent a conspiracy theory as to why the facts have to be wrong. They cherry pick the evidence that supports them, believe any fake expert that espouses the same nonsense and will always demand more and more evidence, never being satisfied that their core beliefs might be wrong. This is where “motivated reasoning” comes from. It’s a defense of self from the onslaught of uncomfortable facts. Think of the creationist confronted with a fossil record, molecular biology, geology, physics, and half a dozen other scientific fields, are they ever convinced? No, because it’s all an atheist conspiracy to make them lose their religion.

How do we solve this problem?

First we have to recognize it for what it is, as Mooney and others have done here. The problem is one of human nature. Engaging in denialism doesn’t have to mean you’re a bad person, or even being purposefully deceptive (although there are those that have that trait), the comparison to holocaust denial, always a favorite straw man of the denialist, is not apt. Denialism in most people is a defense mechanism that protects their core values from being undermined by reality. And no matter what your ideology, at some point, you will have a conflict with the facts because no ideology perfectly describes or models all of reality. You are going to come into conflict with the facts at some point in your life no matter where you are on the ideological spectrum. The question is, what will you do when that conflict arises? Will you entrench behind a barrier of rhetoric, or will you accept that all of us are flawed, and our beliefs at best can only provide an approximation of reality – a handy guide but never an infallible one?

Second, we have to develop strategies towards preventing ideological reaction to science and recognize when people are reacting in an irrational fashion to an ideological conflict with science. One of my commenters pointed me to this paper, which describes an effective method to inoculate people against conspiratorial thinking. Basically, if you warn people ahead of time about conspiratorial craziness, they will be more likely to evaluate the claims of conspiracists with higher skepticism. We should encourage skeptical thinking from an early age, and specifically educate against conspiratorial thinking, which is a defective mode of thinking designed to convince others to act irrationally (and often hatefully). When we do see conspiracy, we shouldn’t dismiss it as harmless, the claims need to be debunked, and the purveyors of conspiracy theories opposed and mocked. Before anyone ever reads a line of Alex Jones, or Mike Adams, a training in skepticism could provide protection, and with time, the paranoid style will hold less and less sway. People primed to expect conspiratorial arguments will be resistant, and more skeptical in general. The Joneses, Moranos, and the Adamses of the world don’t have the answers, they know nothing, and their mode of thought isn’t just wrong, but actively poisonous against rational thought. As skeptical writers we should educate people in a way that protects them from their inevitable encounter with such crankery. This is why writers like Carl Sagan are so important with his (albeit incomplete) Baloney Detection Kit. He knew that you have to prepare people for their encounters with those with an ideological agenda, that others will bend the truth and deny the science for selfish reasons.

This is what is at the heart of true skepticism. First, understanding that you can be wrong, in fact you will often be wrong, and all you can do is follow the best evidence that you have. It’s not about rejecting all evidence, or inaction from the constantly-moved goalposts of the fake skeptics. It’s about pragmatism, thoughtfulness, and above all humility towards the fact that none of us has all the answers. Second, it’s understanding not all evidence is created equal. Judging evidence and arguments requires training and preparation as recognizing high-quality evidence and rational argument is not easy. In fact, most people are woefully under-prepared by their education to do things like read and evaluate scientific papers or even to just judge scientific claims from media sources.

Thus I propose a new tactic. Let’s get Carl Sagan’s Baloney detection kit in every child’s hands by the time they’re ten. Hell, it should be part of the elementary school curriculum. Lets hand out books on skepticism like the Gideons hand out Bibles. Let’s inoculate people against the bullshit they’ll invariably contract by the time they’re adults. We can even do tests to see what type of skeptical inoculation works best at protecting people from anti-science. It’s a way forward to make some progress against the paranoid style, and the nonsense beliefs purveyed by all ideological extremes. There is no simple cure, but we can inoculate the young, and maybe control the spread of the existing disease.

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.

What happens when you study conspiracy theories? The conspiracy theorists make up conspiracy theories about you!

I’ve known about this effect for a while as I’ve been variously accused of being in the pocket of big pharma, big ag, big science, democrats and republicans etc. Now Stephan Lewandowsky, in follow up to his “NASA Faked the Moon Landings – Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax.” paper, has used these conspiratorial responses to study how conspiracy theorists respond to being studied! It’s called “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation“.

Here’s the abstract:

Conspiracist ideation has been repeatedly implicated in the rejection of scientific propositions, although empirical evidence to date has been sparse. A recent study involving visitors to climate blogs found that conspiracist ideation was associated with the rejection of climate science and the rejection of other scienti c propositions such as the link between lung cancer and smoking, and between HIV and AIDS (Lewandowsky, Oberauer, & Gignac, in press; LOG12 from here on). This article analyzes the response of the climate blogosphere to the publication of LOG12. We identify and trace the hypotheses that emerged in response to LOG12 and that questioned the validity of the paper’s conclusions. Using established criteria to identify conspiracist ideation, we show that many of the hypotheses exhibited conspiratorial content and counterfactual thinking. For example, whereas hypotheses were initially narrowly focused on LOG12, some ultimately grew in scope to include actors beyond the authors of LOG12, such as university executives, a media organization, and the Australian government. The overall pattern of the blogosphere’s response to LOG12 illustrates the possible role of conspiracist ideation in the rejection of science, although alternative scholarly interpretations may be advanced in the future.

Awesome. It’s actually a great paper, from the introduction discussing Diethelm and Mckee’s work on conspiratorial ideation (who cited us in their original paper), to the comparisons between censorship accusations by diverse anti-science movements from the tobacco/cancer denial to HIV/AIDS denial, Lewandowsky et al., lay the groundwork for understanding this problem as a fundamental characteristic of all anti-science. They even cite a book chapter in which the authors make the link that conspiracies are specifically used to rhetorically challenge science when one lacks adequate data (Lahsen, M. (1999). The detection and attribution of conspiracies: the controversy over Chapter 8. In G. Marcus (Ed.), Paranoia within reason: a casebook on conspiracy as explanation (pp. 111{136). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.) I’ll have to look that one up, as that was our primary conclusion about denialism when we started writing about it in 2007.

The authors then go on to the conspiracist reaction to their original paper:

When the article by Lewandowsky et al. became available for download in July-August 2012, the climate denialist blogosphere responded with considerable intensity along several prongs: Complaints were made to the rst author’s university alleging academic misconduct; several freedom-of-information requests were submitted to the author’s university for emails and documents relating to LOG12; multiple re-analyses of the LOG12 data were posted on blogs which purported to show that the e ects reported Recursive fury 8 by LOG12 did not exist; and a number of hypotheses were disseminated on the internet with arguably conspiracist content. This response is not altogether surprising in light of research which has shown that threats – in particular to people’s sense of control – can trigger targeted small-scale conspiracy theories (Whitson & Galinsky, 2008), especially those involving a speci c opponent (Sullivan, Landau, & Rothschild, 2010).

So what does any good scientist who is interested in the empirical study of conspiracy theories do in such a situation? Mine it for data!

The remainder of this article reports a content analysis of the hypotheses generated by the blogosphere to counter LOG12. The extent and vehemence of contrarian activity provided a particularly informative testbed for an analysis of how conspiracist ideation contributes to the rejection of science among web denizens. Unlike previous analyses of web content, the present project was conducted in real time” as the response to LOG12 unfolded, thus permitting a fi ne-grained temporal analysis of the emerging global conversation.

Using google alerts and other strategies they tracked the response to their paper throughout the denialsphere, then evaluated them using 6 criteria to judge whether the author used conspiracist tendencies independent of actual content. These criteria were great, and as I read them I couldn’t help thinking it is really a beautiful summary of the aberrant thought processes of the conspiracist. They were (1) assuming nefarious intent (NI) on the part of their opponent, (2) delusions of persecution including Galileo comparisons (persecution/victimization or PV) -awesome-, (3) a “nihilistic degree of skepticism”/paranoid ideation (NS), (4) an inability to believe in coincidence or “not an accident” (NoA) thinking, (5) toleration of inconsistencies and contradictions in their own counter-hypotheses as long as they challenge the “official” version (or Must-Be-Wrong MbW), and (6) the incorporation of contrary evidence as further evidence of a conspiracy thus “self-sealing” their hypothesis (SS). This is a really brilliant break down of the behavior if you ask me in particular number 6 which they even provide the perfect example of:

Concerning climate denial, a case in point is the response to events surrounding the illegal hacking of personal emails by climate scientists, mainly at the University of East Anglia, in 2009. Selected content of those emails was used to support the theory that climate scientists conspired to conceal evidence against climate change or manipulated the data (see, e.g., Montford, 2010; Sussman, 2010). After the scientists in question were exonerated by 9 investigations in 2 countries, including various parliamentary and government committees in the U.S. and U. K., those exonerations were re-branded as a whitewash” (see, e.g., U.S. Representative Rohrabacher’s speech in Congress on 8 December 2011), thereby broadening the presumed involvement of people and institutions in the alleged conspiracy. We refer to this “self-sealing” criterion by the short label SS.

At denialism blog we’ve been describing these tactics for years, in particular I feel like the Crank Howto seems to incorporate most of these denialist tactics. In particular, that the authors recognized the persecution complex of the conspiracist is heart warming.

For the meat of the study, the authors then go through the evolution of reactions to their paper, and it’s fascinating. Starting with lots of allegations of “scamming” (must be wrong) and a smear to make them look like nutters (persecution victimization) the conspiracy theories then evolved about everything to whether or not the authors didn’t actually contact skeptic blogs (amazingly the blogs they did contact came out and appear to have lied about not being contacted), persecutorial delusions about the authors blocking individual skeptics IP addresses from accessing the paper (and further conspiracies that when they are being unblocked it’s just to make them look paranoid), conspiracies about it being a ploy by the Australian government (nefarious intent), and it gets crazier and crazier from there. One of the most fascinating aspects of the evolution of the response was how, predictably, as more information was made available, rather than quashing conspiracies, the conspiracy theorists would just broaden the nefarious actors to larger and larger circles of foes:

Second, self-sealing reasoning also became apparent in the broadening of the scope of presumed malfeasance on several occasions. When ethics approvals became public in response to an FOI request, the presumption of malfeasance was broadened from the authors of LOG12 to include university executives and the university’s ethics committee. Similarly, the response of the blogosphere evolved from an initial tight focus on LOG12 into an increasingly broader scope. Ultimately, the LOG12 authors were associated with global activism, a $6 million media initiative, and government censorship of dissent, thereby arguably connecting the response to LOG12 to the grand over-arching theory that “climate change is a hoax.” Notably, even that grand “hoax” theory is occasionally thought to be subordinate to an even grander theory: one of the bloggers involved in the response to LOG12 (cf. Table 1) considers climate change to be only the second biggest scam in history. The top-ranking scam is seen to be modern currency, dismissed as “government money” because it is not linked to the gold standard

And doesn’t that bring this back beautifully, full-circle, to the author’s original hypothesis in the first paper that free-market extremism is behind global warming denialism?

Finally the authors discuss implications for science communication, and, unlike most people, I think they actually understand the problem. That is, you can’t fix this problem with more communication, and more data. The nature of the conspiracy theorist is that all additional data and all contradictory data will only be used to demonstrate further evidence of conspiracy, that the conspiracy is even larger, or that the data are fraudulent. The “self-sealing” nature of the conspiracy theory, as the authors describe it, makes it fundamentally immune to penetration by logic, reason, or additional information.

Implications for science communication. A de fining attribute of conspiracist ideation is its resistance to contrary evidence (e.g., Bale, 2007; Keeley, 1999; Sunstein & Vermeule, 2009). This attribute is particularly troubling for science communicators, because providing additional scientifi c information may only serve to reinforce the rejection of the evidence, rather than foster its acceptance. A number of such “back fire” e ffects have been identi fied, and they are beginning to be reasonably well understood (Lewandowsky, Ecker, Recursive fury 37 et al., 2012). Although suggestions exist about how to rebut conspiracist ideations|e.g., by indirect means, such as affirmation of the competence and character of proponents of conspiracy theories, or affirmation of their other beliefs (e.g., Sunstein & Vermeule, 2009) we argue against direct engagement for two principal reasons.
First, much of science denial takes place in an epistemically closed system that is immune to falsifying evidence and counterarguments (Boudry & Braeckman, 2012; Kalichman, 2009). We therefore consider it highly unlikely that outreach e fforts to those groups could be met with success. Second, and more important, despite the amount of attention and scrutiny directed towards LOG12 over several months, the publication of recursive hypotheses was limited to posts on only 24 websites, with only 13 blogs featuring more than one post (see Table 1). This indicates that the recursive theories, while intensely promoted by certain bloggers and commenters, were largely contained to the “echo chamber” of climate denial. Although LOG12 received considerable media coverage when it first appeared, the response by the blogosphere was ignored by the mainstream media. This confinement of recursive hypotheses to a small “echo chamber” reflects the wider phenomenon of radical climate denial, whose ability to generate the appearance of a widely held opinion on the internet is disproportionate to the smaller number of people who actually hold those views (e.g., Leviston, Walker, & Morwinski, 2012). This discrepancy is greatest for the small group of people who deny that the climate is changing (around 6% of respondents; Leviston et al., 2012). Members of this small group believe that their denial is shared by roughly half the population. Thus, although an understanding of science denial is essential given the importance of climate change and the demonstrable role of the blogosphere in delaying mitigative action, it is arguably best met by underscoring the breadth of consensus among scientists (Ding, Maibach, Zhao, Roser-Renouf, & Leiserowitz, 2011; Lewandowsky, Gignac, & Vaughan, 2012) rather than by direct engagement.

Don’t argue with cranks. I can’t agree more. And historically this is what has worked with denialist groups. You don’t debate them as if they’re honest brokers, you treat them as the defective brains that they are, and eventually, their influence dwindles, and they’ll be reduced to a small community of losers sharing their delusions of grandeur and righteous indignation in some tiny corner of the internet.

The key to preventing denialism isn’t in arguing with those that have already formed fixed, irrational ideas. It can only happen with prevention – early education that emphasizes logic, scientific methods, rational thought and non-ideological, pragmatic approaches to problem solving.

Did I call this or What? Mike Adams blames medicine for school shooting.

Crazy Luddite Libertarian Mike Adams is following his usual script, ghoulishly using the school shooting in Newton to pillory his usual bogeymen he blames for anything. True to form he is blaming psychiatry and medications for the school shooting. What was it I said yesterday?

At some point it is likely he’ll find a way to blame his other favorite bogeymen, GMOs, pharmaceuticals, doctors (especially psychiatrists), and scientists.

Did I call this or what?

What is really stunning is how the cranks have continuously, and incorrectly flogged the IOM’s “to err is human” study for the last decade. Depending on the crank, they claim the study shows that either doctors or drugs are responsible for 100k deaths a year, but I’m pretty sure no one has actually ever read it. The study actually suggests that medical mistakes may have contributed to between 44-98k deaths a year (they always cite the high end), but, you have to actually look at what the mistakes are. Drug related mistakes or “adverse drug events” were estimated by the IOM to be responsible for 10% of these preventable errors. A large portion of the errors are the failure to intervene or failure in timely diagnosis. Which means, the IOM on review of a hospitalization felt that a death may have been caused by a failure to intervene. In other words, it’s very strange that the cranks use a study to call doctors a killer, when the study actually shows one of the most common medical errors was the failure to medically intervene. For example, such a mistake may be not recognizing a stroke and providing the appropriate medication in time.

The IOM study was meant to show how doctors could do better, that we could implement systems to prevent mistakes that were too common in medical practice. But the cranks wave it around to say, “medicine doesn’t work!” when the study frequently blames the failure to provide an appropriate medical intervention for the deaths. Anyone else see the problem with their logic?

Doctors just can’t win with these people, but that’s ok. We’ll be fine. We have the medications and technology that actually work, and as studies like the IOM’s show, we’re also willing to admit we can do better.

Mike Adams couldn't go 6 hours without promoting an insane conspiracy theory about this school shooting

As anyone who reads my blog or Orac’s knows, Mike Adams, the “health ranger”, is a deranged individual who denies HIV causes AIDS, promotes some of the most absurd quackery in the world, and also is such an all around crank you can rely on him to wax conspiratorial about almost any dramatic news story. He’s done it again, already alleging a conspiracy and coverup in this most recent school shooting, and citing his bizarre conspiracy theories about Aurora as further evidence of these shootings being “staged” by the US government. I wouldn’t suggest clicking the link unless you want to lose several IQ points, and I am not interested in a full repetition of Adams claims here.

Aside from the ghoulish nature of using events such as these to promote one’s bizarre anti-government conspiracy theories, I think this is a case-study on the formation of new conspiracy theories. It is true, in the early attempts at understanding what was happening many different accounts were offered. Watching these horrible events unfold I noticed how at first the media was confused but gradually began to report a more consistent, and terrible picture.

To a sane person, one sees this as the general confusion that results from a “fog of war”. We know that the press is desperately seeking any information that adds to this story, because people are desperate to know what happened? How many were hurt? Is the suspect loose or apprehended? Is this going to keep happening? Will this be the event that finally convinces people to do something about this problem? They also are relying on eye witness reports of individuals who probably only experience a narrow portion of the same events. Eventually the pieces are stitched together, an investigation takes information from all the witnesses and tries to make all the differing accounts mesh. And we know when people are frightened, anything out of the ordinary can and should be reported to make sure every possible lead is followed to its conclusion.

A conspiracist, however, sees this confusion, and rather than seeing a general pattern of natural disorder surrounding such events, sees the hand of whatever bogeyman they truly fear. In this case, Adams pins this on the government, because hey, we all know the government is in control of everything, is completely competent at keeping all secrets, and is apparently is full of people that secretly train madmen to shoot schoolchildren. At some point it is likely he’ll find a way to blame his other favorite bogeymen, GMOs, pharmaceuticals, doctors (especially psychiatrists), and scientists.

I hate writing about events like these before we know all the details, but I also can’t stand just how repugnant a person Mike Adams is, and how objectionable his conspiracy theories are. His hatred of government is so extreme that within hours of any tragedy he’s there, pinning the blame on those who likely are trying to work the hardest to provide aid, help the victims, and identify the culprit. Our government isn’t perfect, but the idea that there’s some agency (Adams suggests it’s the FBI) that routinely, and with no leaks or evidence of its activities, is planning mass murders of American citizens is simply a revolting accusation to pin without overwhelming evidence. And what’s his evidence? The pretty ordinary and expected confusion surrounding a mass shooting. With that, he accuses the government of staging this mass murder. Maybe a second gunman will be found, maybe the witnesses were right, but what evidence would that be that the FBI kills schoolchildren? Plenty of these school shootings in the pasts have been committed with accomplices, and plenty have been done by solo nutjobs.

It’s amazing that anyone reads his site, but then, there will never be a shortage of defective brains that will happily consume Adams’ writing, and give no thought to the total absurdity of the accusations, or the frankly despicable nature of someone who would level them without evidence. Government is not perfect, we shouldn’t really love it, or hate it. Government in the end is just people, just other Americans like us. I have many family members and friends that work in government, many that are part of agencies conspiracy theorists have accused of this and that, and it amazes me that they think that their fellow citizens so frequently, even routinely, kill, poison, or otherwise harm other Americans. That events like these could be staged, and the secrets behind all of our government’s machinations against us kept so perfectly secret is absurd. Our top spy couldn’t even keep where he put his penis a secret, and people think that government can just go around shooting schoolchildren without someone objecting, someone telling the press, someone coming out against it?

I think if anything these interpretations events say a lot more about the people making them than they do about the events themselves. Conspiracy is often, if not exclusively, an expression of hatred, and throughout history we’ve seen them used to direct hate towards one group or another (a lot of them have been directed at one group of people in particular). I suspect it’s actually the conspiracists that are capable of anything, any crime, any despicable act, and their routinely unethical behavior in pushing their nonsense is just the beginning of it. For one, the conspiracist is clearly consumed with hate, so much so, that every event is viewed through the blinders of their rage. No party can be at fault except whoever is the object of their hatred. And maybe, just maybe, if they were in charge this is how they would use their power. This is how they think the world works. This is how they think others think and act. And this is why they are so scary.

Vox Day is a White Nationalist, who'd have thought?

We’ve mocked Vox Day in the past for his creationism, his sexism, and his general stupidity which is of course matched with the usual crank traits of egotism, and unshakeable certainty. Today though, I he’s apparently gotten even worse, endorsing white nationalism and defending the anti-Obama secessionists. His essay, in essence, says the only thing keeping him from migrating to a new country is there just isn’t anywhere left that’s all white. Via rightwingwatch:

Is the secession of several American states truly unthinkable? Is the breakup of the United States of America really outside the boundaries of historically reasonable possibility?

They mock the secessionist petitioners in Texas and other states, celebrate the infestation of even the smallest American heartland towns by African, Asian and Aztec cultures, and engage in ruthless doublethink as they worship at the altar of a false and entirely nonexistent equality.

This is especially true given that the English people and the Scottish people have far more in common than Americans do with the tens of millions of post-1965 immigrants from various non-European nations around the world, or their urban enablers. The fact that the future citizens of Aztlán are presently content to continue collecting tribute in the form of state and federal largesse does not mean that they will refrain from exerting the political muscle that their growing demographic weight provides them once the contracting economy brings the gravy train to an end.

It also seems unlikely that the millions of Americans who have moved away from declining school systems, who have retreated from an increasingly vibrant communities, and who have fled from high-tax jurisdictions will continue to retreat as the people who destroyed their schools, their communities and their state budgets attempt to follow them.

They will not because they cannot. The frontiers are closed. There is nowhere else to go.

This is why it doesn’t matter if one considers the birth of an American Independence Party to be desirable or not; it is inevitable.

You see? Behind all this secessionist talk, the birtherism, the immigration lunacy, it’s just racism. Vox Day has now come out as a white nationalist. This is what they really believe. They believe equality is false. They believe all our problems are caused by nonwhites. He calls for the formation of a independence party to slow the “infestation” by non-whites, because there is no geographic escape from them anymore. There’s a name for this political philosophy. It’s called white nationalism. World Nut Daily, and Vox Day, have shown their true stripes.

Christopher Monckton files a questionable affidavit

Via Ed I see that Christopher Monckton, the fake expert in climate change who has been repeatedly told by Parliament to stop calling himself an Member of the House of Lords,, claims he’s the inventor of a magical disease cure of HIV, MS, flu and the common cold, and recently a birther, has now submitted an affidavit (read here) pushing his bogus birther stats argument. The only problem? I think one could argue he’s now opened his factually-questionable statements to legal scrutiny. From his affidavit:

I am over the age of 18 and am a resident of the United Kingdom. The information herein is based upon my ownpersonal knowledge. If called as a witness, I could testify competently thereto. I have a degree in Classical Architecture from Cambridge University. The course included instruction in mathematics. I am the Director of Monckton Enterprises Ltd., a consultancy corporation which, inter alia, specializes in investigating scientific frauds at government level, on which I advised Margaret Thatcher from 1982-1986 at 10 Downing Street during her time as Prime Minister. I have experience in the use of certain mathematical techniques which allow rigorous
assessment of probabilities including the probability that a document has been forged. I have published papers in the reviewed literature on climate science and economics and am an appointed expert reviewer for the forthcoming
Fifth Assessment Report (2013) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

First of all, just because you had a course or two in mathematics while getting a degree in classical architecture, doesn’t make you a mathematician. I took plenty of courses in math while getting my degree in physics, but it doesn’t make me a math expert. But that’s not the biggest problem with his claims. He has repeatedly asserted he has published papers in the peer reviewed literature and recently he’s inflated his resume with the claim he’s an appointed expert reviewer for the IPCC. His claims of scientific contributions have been challenged before, and he’s defended himself with this response at Watt’s up with that:

The editors of Physics and Society asked me to write a paper on climate sensitivity in 2008. The review editor reviewed it in the usual way and it was published in the July 2008 edition, which, like most previous editions, carried a headnote to the effect that Physics and Society published “reviewed articles”. Peer-review takes various forms. From the fact that the paper was invited, written, reviewed and then published, one supposes the journal had followed its own customary procedures. If it hadn’t, don’t blame me. Subsequent editions changed the wording of the headnote to say the journal published “non-peer-reviewed” articles, and the editors got the push. No mention of any of this by the caveman, of course.

What the editors actually wrote was:

The following article has not undergone any scientific peer review, since that is not normal procedure for American Physical Society newsletters. The American Physical Society reaffirms the following position on climate change, adopted by its governing body, the APS Council, on November 18, 2007: “Emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are changing the atmosphere in ways that affect the Earth’s climate.”

To claim that this one article, in a newsletter, which the editors have explicitly said was not peer reviewed, constitutes “published papers” (plural) in the “reviewed literature”, is simply not correct. Even if you had thought that this had been peer-reviewed before, surely now that the editors have said “no it was not” is no reason to continue to claim that it was. After searching multiple databases including Google Scholar, Thomson Reuters web of knowledge, and Scirus, I can find little more than a book chapter in a crank textbook suggesting Monckton has ever contributed anything to any “literature”, and has not contributed to a peer-reviewed journal article. This contradicts his assertion that he has contributed multiple times to the peer reviewed literature. The one time he has defended this assertion, he was contradicted by the editors of the newsletter he claimed had peer-reviewed his piece. It makes me wonder if he understands what peer review is, because it’s very clear what it is when you’ve actually done it. Since there is no evidence he has ever has had his writing subjected to true peer review, it’s likely he has no idea what it actually involves, and his statement that it takes “various” forms is clearly based on no personal experience as he has no peer-reviewed articles in the scientific literature.

Peer review is straightforward and doesn’t take “various forms”. You submit an article to a journal, it is distributed by the editor to other scientists who publish in the relevant field who then submit critiques. These critiques are addressed or rebutted by the author, resubmitted to the reviewers, and then rinse-repeat until everyone is satisfied that the critiques have been adequately addressed. If he was indeed peer-reviewed in this piece, I’m sure he kept the reviewers critiques? Or the editions before and after review? No? Then you weren’t peer reviewed. He seems to be confusing “edited” with peer-reviewed, in that some brain-dead editor read his article and still somehow thought it was a wise idea to publish it.

Second, his claim that he’s an appointed reviewer for the IPCC? This is contradicted by the IPCC! Here’s the IPCC response:

Anyone can register as an expert reviewer on the open online registration systems set up by the working groups. All registrants that provide the information requested and confirm their scientific expertise via a self-declaration of expertise are accepted for participation in the review. They are invited to list publications, but that is not a requirement and the section can be left blank when registering. There is no appointment.

An architecture degree does not make you a mathematician or a statistician, a non-peer reviewed commentary in a physics newsletter does not make you a peer-reviewed scientist, filling out an online form does not appoint you to the IPCC, and you’re not an member of the House of Lords if Parliament repeatedly sends you letters telling you to stop calling yourself one.

I’m not a lawyer, but I suspect it might be a legal error to compound these factual mistakes by swearing to them in an affidavit. Filing a false affidavit, after all, is considered perjury.

That any of the denialists in the crankosphere think it’s a good idea to associate themselves with this guy is just another example of the Dunning-Kruger effect – the tendency of the incompetent to be unable to recognize incompetence in themselves or others. This guy is the quintessential fake expert, unless you consider him an expert in resume padding.

He gets the chimp!