Friday, March 24, 2017

#1812: Robert Kaita

Since he’s already been sufficiently neutralized and thoroughly covered elsewhere, we’ll skip Theodore Kaczynski – even though he is certainly more colorful than Robert Kaita. The latter is Principal Research Physicist in the Plasma Physics Laboratory at Princeton University, and a respectable scientist in his own field with a more than respectable publication record. But being an expert in one field is no guarantee of any deep understanding of science in general but apparently, for some, a source of arrogance. Kaita is also a Fellow of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, and a proponent (or at least defender) of Intelligent design creationism; he is for instance a signatory to the Discovery Institute’s petition A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism and contributed to the anthology Mere Creation: Science, Faith & Intelligent Design, edited by Bill Dembski. He was also involved in (unsuccessful) efforts to convince a textbook board in Alabama to adopt the creationist textbook Of Pandas and People – for which he was a reviewer – in 1993.

Diagnosis: Yes, he has genuine – and rather impressive – credentials, and when people with genuine credentials allow ideology to trump intellectual honesty, accuracy and meticulousness, the results are ugly. Kaita is a pseudoscientist more than he is a scientist.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

#1811: Kay (Kandeel) Judge and Maxine Barish-Wreden

Homeopathy is nonsense based on medieval metaphysics and pre-scientific mistakes about medicine. And just to make sure it is as nonsensical as it seems to, research has also repeatedly demonstrated that it has no health benefits. But people have been swearing by things that have been demonstrated not to exist for centuries, and there is no reason to think they’ll stop now. Kay Judge and Maxine Barish-Wreden, for instance, continue to push it. They are even medical doctors, illustrating one more time that being an MD is not the same as being a scientist, and that you can get through medical school without understanding the most basic thing about how research and evidence work. So, in the Sacramento Bee weekly “Integrative medicine” column (oh, yes), Judge and Barish-Wreden write, without shame, things like “the homeopathic medicine arnica has been shown to assist in acute pain such as bruises or strained muscles,” which is false and hard not to characterize as an outright lie – though note how they don’t cash out “shown”, or “assist in”, which is nothing but weasel words. But arnica (though the herbal version, not the homeopathic one that Judge and Barish-Wreden push) has been promoted by Dr. Oz!

Both of them apparently practice internal medicine in the Sacramento area. Barish-Wreden is apparently Medical Director of the Sutter Center for Integrative Holistic Health, which is not a place to seek out if anything serious ails you, and is apparently a practicing internist. But her qualifications also include “studies in medicine that encompass the mind-body-spirit connection,” which must count as an anti-qualification at least to the extent that it suggests offensively poor critical reasoning skills. According to her website “[i]n working with her patients, Dr. Barish-Wreden views illness as a teacher and looks at symptoms as signposts that can direct our attention to areas that may be out of balance in our lives.” Yes. It’s humorism, no less. She is also into nutrition woo. According to Barish-Wreden “[f]ruits and vegetables that are raised organically are felt to have more phytonutrients than those raised commercially, since organic plants tend to be hardier as they learn to survive without the benefit of pesticides and insecticides” [my emphasis]. This is New Age religious nonsense, of course, but it is telling that even Barish-Wreden is reluctant to make any substantial claims on behalf of organic food as medicine, which makes one briefly suspect that she at some level knows that she is peddling bullshit. On the other hand, Judge and Barish-Wreden have no qualms about claiming that “sulforaphane [a phytochemical] helps to fight cancer” (note the vagueness) and that kale is a “cancer-fighting” vegetable. It probably isn’t, and methinks Judge and Barish-Wreden know that.

Diagnosis: The world would be a significantly better place if people like Kay Judge and Maxine Barish-Wreden used their skills and resources to actually help people instead of misleading them with New Age religious, demonstrable nonsense. And apparently their influence might, as it is, be substantial enough for them to cause real harm. It’s a tragedy, really.

Monday, March 20, 2017

#1810: Keith Judd

A.k.a. Dark Priest
A.k.a. Mtr. President

Keith Russell Judd is one of several perennial candidates for political office (including Mayor of Albuquerque and Governor of New Mexico), and claims to have run for president in every election since 1996 (he has tried to run at least three times in Democratic primaries, at least). In addition to “Judd”, Judd has run under the nicknames “Dark Priest” and “Mtr. President”. A professed Rasta-Christian, Judd also claims to be a former member of the Federation of Super Heroes. Yeah, it sounds like a joke, but we’re not entirely convinced – hence the entry.

Among his qualifications is being convicted of two counts of “mailing a threatening communication with intent to extort money or something of value” after sending postcards stating “Send the money back now, Keith Judd, Last Chance or Dead” in a package also containing an assortment of strange items (the conviction is unconnected to a civil rights complaint he filed against the University of New Mexico, though Judd apparently claims otherwise). The letter was apparently targeted at a Texas woman whom Judd apparently believed to be a clone of singer Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac: Apparently Nicks had paid to have that woman made so she could come down between concert dates and run her home improvement company. He also sent letters to jurors after his trial, which is not generally considered to be proper etiquette.

His most successful campaign was in West Virginia in 2012, where Judd – while in prison – won 41% of the primary vote against incumbent Barack Obama, which does not reflect particularly well on certain groups of people from West Virginia (Judd is not black). Judd later claimed that the election was rigged, which is a hallmark of crank candidates. Indeed, Judd even teamed up with Orly Taitz, no less, and filed a lawsuit seeking an order to prevent the electoral college from certifying President Obama as the winner of the election, have him declared a Kenyan and thrown out of the White House.

Diagnosis: We’re usually a little wary of covering people like Judd, but he’s sort of managed to make a public profile for himself. We want to say that he is probably harmless, though the behavior of certain substantial groups of people in West Virginia might suggest otherwise.

Friday, March 17, 2017

#1809: Rhawn Joseph

Joseph and the Mars rock
Rhawn Joseph is a (real) neuropsychologist and (genuine) pseudoscientist most famous for his, uh, controversial views on the origin of life on Earth and the origin of the universe. He is associated with the fringe “journal” Journal of Cosmology (which is more of a vanity website for Joseph’s crackpottery; among their more, uh, celebrated publications is this one), and the author of Astrobiology: The Origins of Life and the Death of Darwinism, which asserts that “[c]ontrary to Darwinism ... the evidence now clearly indicates, that the evolution of life had been genetically predetermined and precoded ...” based on roughly the same kind of evidence your run-of-the-mill young-earth creationist would use. Joseph does not appear to have any qualifications in any areas relevant to evolution.

Joseph isn’t your standard creationist, however. Instead he is an advocate of an intelligent-design version of the panspermia idea: life did not originate on Earth but was planted here by “cosmic seeds” encased in space debris some billion years ago. The seeds contained the genetic instructions for the metamorphosis of all life, including human beings, which then arose through what he calls a “pre-determined evolutionary metamorphosis”. Like the crank he is, Joseph argues that mainstream  scientific ideas, such as abiogenesis and the Big Bang, are religious doctrines masquerading as science; Big Bang is just a modern version of the Biblical Genesis and is, also according to him, unsupported by evidence. Several of his papers (published in his own questionable journal) are coauthored with Rudolph Schild.

In 2012 Joseph gained some notoriety for filing a lawsuit against NASA since they, as he saw it, failed to investigate whether a rock seen on Mars is in fact an alien lifeform. The background was a martian rock that suddenly appeared on a picture from Mars but had not been there the day before – because it had been dislodged and moved by the Opportunity rover. Joseph immediately published an article in his journal (yeah, its peer review process seems to be rather flimsy) in which he concluded that the rock was a living organism resembling Apothecia, a large fungus (it really doesn’t). 10 days later he filed a writ of mandamus in San Francisco Federal Court, demanding that NASA examine the rock more closely. NASA, of course, had already examined the rock and confirmed it was a rock with a high sulphur, manganese, and magnesium content (they also had pictures of the rock from before it was dislodged).

Here’s a discussion of another of his articles, also published in his own journal. Here is an example of the journal’s professional response to critics.

Diagnosis: Serious crackpot with a vanity journal. Sometimes he manages to get uninformed journalists to pick up one of his ideas, and he has, as far as we can tell, some followers. Still, he’s probably mostly harmless.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

#1808: Peter Joseph

Peter Joseph is the guy behind Zeitgeist, an amateurish (complete with cheap CGI and a terrible soundtrack) but inexplicably popular conspiracy film made for the Internet. It is, basically, a disjointed string of various paranoid delusions, ranging from Jesus mythicism (Joseph’s take is discussed here; apparently the Bible is mostly just a guide to astrology) to income tax denial and claiming that the Federal Reserve is an elaborate plot by international bankers to take over the world, and – of course – 9/11 conspiracy theories (controlled demolition variety; the various myths and unsourced claims made in the move are discussed here). It will all ultimately (soon) lead to a one-world government and everyone getting barcodes tattooed onto them and RFID tags implantations. The whole thing comes across as a filmatization of randomly selected articles from; it is reviewed here and here, and some of its claims are debunked here. The connecting thread, if there is one, is the idea of shadow bankers, a nebulous, nefarious group that runs pretty much everything from behind the scenes, apparently for the purpose of enslaving humanity and reaping huge profits through instigating wars and financial crises through not-entirely-coherently explained mechanisms. Pretty standard fare for conspiracy theorists, admittedly, but with somewhat better production values.

And, of course, since the movie has such an important agenda to promote, it is entirely appropriate to engage in rank dishonesty, as when the movie shows TV screen shots of network or cable news with voice-overs to suggest that what was said on the news was what the (unidentified) voice-overs tell us (not remotely). There is also e.g. a quote attributed to David Rockefeller, though conveniently without providing a source or date. Now, the zeitgeist website does include a Sources page, but its just a list of books with no page numbers or further information given. Perhaps they just “forgot”? Edward Winston did a thorough job of locating sources here, but unfortunately his research tended to undermine the claims made in the movie itself – most of the quotes attributed to various historical people are either badly quote-mined or simply made up (often by other conspiracy theorist on other conspiracy websites). Apparently Joseph responded to Winston’s criticisms by suggesting that Winston must be mentally ill for disagreeing with him, so there’s that.

Zeitgest: Addendum, the follow-up movie, is somewhat less concerned with conspiracy theories and more with economic woo. Based on the message of the movies, Joseph also later started the Zeitgeist movement, a grass-roots international internet network formed to further his ideas with pseudo-economic ideas derived from The Venus Project and Buckminster Fuller. His Gentle Machine Productions LLC has later produced the web series Culture in Decline and InterReflections, which don’t seem to have made the same splash.

Diagnosis: Standard conspiracy theorist with a Messiah complex – Joseph is pretty influential among the weak of critical thinking skills, however.

Hat-tip: Rationalwiki