Monday, July 21, 2014

#1127: Wesley Scroggins & Melissa DuVall

Wesley Scroggins is apparently an associate professor of management at Missouri State University. In 2010 Scroggins wrote an article called “Filthy books demeaning to Republic education”, in which he claimed that L.H. Anderson’s Speak, Slaughterhouse Five and S. Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer should be banned because Scroggins is a deranged hater they “expose children to immorality,” and at least be removed from the high school English curriculum. And because of Scroggins’s complaint the school board in Republic, Missouri, did indeed vote to ban the latter two books from the school library. Said Board Member Melissa DuVall: “We are not going to make everybody happy – and rarely do we […] What we have to be proud of is we took a complaint, we took is seriously and we gave it due diligence.” In other words, DuVall is possibly as intellectually unqualified for her position as it is possible to be. At least the actions of Scroggins and the school board generated some noise. Still.

Diagnosis: Haters gonna hate, and Scroggins is a hater. DuVall, on the other hand, seems primarily to be merely helplessly incompetent.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

#1126: Shirley Scott

Shirley Scott is a clairvoyant, a medium and an “animal communicator” offering spiritual readings and counselings to the Walla Walla area. You can see her on youtube talking about animals and the afterlife here. She has even written books. Religion vs. Spirituality, One Psychic’s point of view was apparently, by one reader, described as taking “the ‘woo-woo’ out of what being psychic really means,” which really makes one wonder what the comparison class might have been. How old are We “talks about how old our souls are and where we might have come from. It talks about the Universe and the laws that run it and us.” It is all made up, of course – or “intuited”, as they say, a popular way of getting the answers you want to stuff you don’t know anything about – but is probably comfy and appropriately fluffy for her audiences. Her CD Telepathy and Animal Communication will give you the basics for starting “to communicate with your pets and other animals by giving you tools to practice so you will begin having better conversations with your pets and understanding what they want from you.” The tools have not been tested on animals. Or anything else.

Diagnosis: Nothing distinguishes Scott from other online clairvoyance services, and I think she was noticed for inclusion through an Amazon recommendation. But she definitely fills the bill quite nicely.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

#1125: Peter Dale Scott

Peter Dale Scott is a batshit insane conspiracy theorist; that is, he rejects the label “conspiracy theory”, of course, going instead for “deep politics”, a branch of pseudoscience for which he may claim to be the proud founder. Scott is also a former English professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former diplomat (he is Canadian, though his career in the US arguably qualifies him for inclusion in our Encyclopedia). That doesn’t confer much authority on the subject matter of deep politics, and it is telling that his “research” is published in book-length monologues from non-academic publishers rather than in peer-reviewed journals.

Though he avoids the standard references to organized shadow groups such as the Illuminati, Scott maintains that a large number of terrorist acts and assassinations (including JFK and Anders Breivik) are inside jobs; perhaps not fully, consciously and carefully planned and organized from the top – there is no unified group at said top – but inside jobs nonetheless (he has, though, thus far, as far as I can tell, refrained from proclaiming 9/11 an inside job, though it was, it seems, a result of deep politics – there are some comments on his book on the issue here). Despite the absence of a powerful, single, unified conspiracy, Scott’s theories nevertheless relies on “secret” decisions made by “small cabals” of persons within our (public) governmental institutions, for the deliberate purpose of replacing the “public” dimension. Evidence that these are inside jobs or that such evil, secret plots exist? Well, governments have been involved in lots of shit over the years, so it is not impossible that they could have organized these things as well. “But,” you might object, “could hypothetically have does not imply did.” Ah, yes, but you see, officially Scott is really Just Asking Questions (he just tends to forget sometimes). Besides, he can point to nefarious government schemes at some times in some places in the past (mostly Italian fascists, in fact) – so he has the resources to mingle his narratives with actually documented claims. And when you selectively look at the evidence gathered at various conspiracy sites and fail to distinguish an untested hypothesis from a fact, it all fits. It is worth pointing out that Scott has no background in critical thinking or scientific reasoning, nor does he display any interest in how psychological biases work.

I really don’t wish to link to much of Scott’s drivel, though as a typical example I can give you his “9/11, the JFK Assassination, and the Oklahoma City Bombing as a Strategy of Tension” (here). As usual, he mixes the reasonably well-documented claims about governments being involved in organized crime (and as usual, the examples are from Italy), to claim that at least the following were false flag operations by shady government cabals: JFK, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the 1993 first World Trade Center bombing, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and 9/11 or at least “the subsequent false flag anthrax attacks of 2001”. Because these are structurally similar to the other examples and because governments used these events to implement new laws; no, the distinction between using an event for political gain – and it is in most cases pretty unclear what these gains might have been – and deliberately planning and carrying out that event, is not one Scott is overly concerned with. Nor is he very concerned with accuracy or avoiding question-begging (“all of these events were blamed on marginal left-wing elements, but in fact involved elements inside America’s covert intelligence agencies, along with their shadowy underworld connections”).

Diagnosis: Scott is, in fact, among the most influential conspiracy theorists out there, and by mixing his batshit, evidence-free musings with long, more or less accurate explanations of actual, historical events he manages sometimes to create an illusion of carefulness and sensitivity to evidence. But really, there is little to distinguish his claims from those made by your standard mainstay (and Scott is, in fact, one of those himself). 

#1124: Melissa Scott

Melissa Scott is the widow and heir of the now deceased Gene Scott, subject of the 80s documentary God’s Angry Man, and has mostly inherited Gene’s depravity, lack of moral character, and zeal, though she has removed much of the pseudo-history, demonology, musings about Atlantis, Herbert Armstrong stuff, aliens and so forth from Scott’s website. She is nevertheless also the current boss of the University Cathedral, best known for its radio broadcast sermons and hamfisted fundraising, though she has not managed to maintain her husband’s audiences, and his empire is currently a fundie moneymaker in serious decline – the choice of Melissa as his successor was apparently not popular with all of Gene’s fans, as shown by this not entirely sanity-anchored rant by one Steve McHenry.

There is, even in the absence of much of Gene’s incoherent New Age drivel, enough lunacy left to qualify Melissa Scott for inclusion in our Encyclopedia many times over. Indeed, the inecessant money-raising schemes should really be sufficient on their own, but Melissa Scott is also a staunch opponent of the theory of evolution – apparently “evolution is something that is easy to swallow because it’s a simple solution to a complex universe and complex people. But the fact of the matter is, if you take the time to read your Bible and study your Bible you have to come to the conclusion that it can’t be,” whereupon she offers this piece of amazing gibberish (see if you can make sense of it).

Diagnosis: Though compared to the batshit, lunatic ravings of her husband, Melissa Scott’s brand of evangelicism seems rather middle of the road, she is still a batshit crazy fundie. Fortunately Gene’s empire seems to be rapidly crumbling, but there is still some punches against civilization and sanity left in it. Continue to maintain a safe distance.

Friday, July 18, 2014

#1123: Gary Schwartz

We’ll keep an eye on Eugene Schwartz for now – Eugene is a theosophy enthusiast and one of the big promoters of the Waldorf Education curriculum, but I have thus far been unable to ascertain the extent to which Schwartz himself buys into the esoteric bullshit that tends to permeat this branch of pedagogy. Besides, it is time for a big fish.

Gary Schwartz is definitely a big fish. Schwartz is a medium and parapsychologist, but he is also a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona and the Director of its Laboratory for Advances in Consciousness and Health, and thus one of the most significant and influential promoters of New Age woo in the world. He is also the Corporate Director of Development of Energy Healing for the Canyon Ranch Resorts and one of the pioneers of frontier medicine, which shouldn’t really boost his credibility. In fact, Schwartz was one of the first scientists to take the offer of grant money from the NCCAM, to set up the Center for Frontier Medicine in Biofield Science with the University of Arizona.

Schwartz is perhaps best known to the public for his book The Afterlife Experiments: Breakthrough Scientific Evidence of Life After Death (2003) (review here) cowritten with William L. Simon and with a foreword by none other than Deepak Chopra, synthesizing Schwartz’s studies, widely cited in the media, and purporting to provide evidence for an afterlife. The experiments described in the book have recieved criticism from the scientific community for being – to put it mildly – inadequately designed and using poor controls, and though Schwartz claims to know that anecdotes aren’t evidence, the book is riddled with – precisely – anecdotal evidence, the totality of which Schwartz and his coauthors seem to think make a rather compelling case for the paranormal. Ineed, the whole thing is a model of how not to apply reason and critical thinking – it even starts with anecdotes about how he helped psychic Susy Smith to contact Houdini, Smith’s mother and William James, from beyond the grave, justified by the fact that Schwartz managed to get a paper on the experiment”, coauthored with Linda Russek, published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration in 1997, and one in The Noetic Journal in 1999 – neither journal is notable for a commitment to rigorous scientific methodology). But seriously, for a thorough analysis of the experiments” reported in the book, this is the go-to resource (and this one is pretty good too – Schwartz has written a rather illuminating response to it). Here is an excellent discussion of how Schwartz’s subjectively validates the mediums he declares to have real powers (including Allison Dubois(!), though they have apparently later parted ways). And no; Schwartz, despite his efforts (in The Afterlife Experiments, for instance, he described the troubles he went through to understand the phenomenon of cold readings) to understand how cognitive biases tend to ruin everything, and in particular why research without proper controls usually yields randomly worthless results, is demonstrably unable to grasp how subjective validation or such phenomena as the Forer effect actually work.

The final chapter of The Afterlife Experiments are devoted to describing the practical consequences of his research. A more accurate assessment of what the upshots would be if he were, in fact, right, can be found here, though since the upshots can easily be used to falsify his claims Schwartz tends not to see them.

Of course, Schwartz has written quite a bit on matters paranormal. A more recent example is the paper Anomalous Information Reception by Research Mediums Demonstrated Using a Novel Triple-Blind Protocol” (with Julie Beischel), published in Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing (2007), which is apparently quite cargo cult science journal, this one too. And yes, he flamboyantly botched the blinding process (inasmuch as it is described at all in the journal), and the methodology is so flawed that one suspects that Schwartz himself suspects that he wouldn’t achieve the results he wants if he did things properly.

But Gary Schwartz does not only believe in psychics, mediums, and life after death (and that there is scientific evidence to support these beliefs). He has also invested some efforts into New Age healing woo, in particular the field of energy medicine. In his book The Energy Healing Experiments: Science Reveals Our Natural Power to Heal (with William Simon and Richard Carmona) he attempts to explain that we all emit human energy fields, that we can sense each other’s fields, and that healers can influence these fields to heal illnesses and injury (and yes, it is based on the New Age understanding of energy as a type form of buzzing, invisible spirit stuff). And once again he believes that he has facts to back up these claims. You can see a concise assessment of his evidence here (anecdotes? Plenty. Controlled studies published in decent, peer-reviewed journals? Your guess). Schwartz has apparently also investigated the effects of Johrei (an alleged divine energy”) and yoga on brain and heart mechanisms. You can probably guess what the results were.

Indeed, Schwartz has apparently even jumped on the Intelligent Design bandwagon with his book called The G.O.D. Experiments: How Science Is Discovering God In Everything, Including Us (2006, once again with William Simon), where he tells anyone gullible enough to read the book with an open mind that 21st-century science provides clues to G.O.D.-the “Guiding, Organizing, Designing” process animating the universe. Publisher’s Weekly writes rather diplomatically that many “will have trouble accepting Schwartz’s sophomoric ... experiments,” though I can unfortunately think of many people who won’t. And once again, Schwartz proves little else but that the phenomenon of subjective validation continues to elude him.

His other books are The Sacred Promise: How Science Is Discovering Spirit’s Collaboration with Us in Our Daily Lives (2011) – with a foreword by John Edward (!) – The Truth About Medium: Extraordinary Experiments with the real Allison DuBois of NBC’s Medium and other Remarkable Psychics (2005, also with Simon), Living Energy Universe: A Fundamental Discovery that Transforms Science and Medicine (1999, with Russek).

As mentioned in the introduction, Schwartz in fact claims to be a medium himself, having claimed for instance to contact the spirit of a 25 year old man in the bathroom of his parents’ house and attempted to charge the family 3.5 million dollars for his mediumship services. His claims were so ridiculous that evenFox New managed to expose him.

One useful thing about Gary Schwartz is worth mentioning: He is so frequently usedas an authority on matters paranormal by the media that looking for his name in an article has become a useful tool for quickly dismissing of reports of new, purportedly revolutionary findings as pure garbage.

Diagnosis: The life and work of Gary Schwartz would, come to think of it, serve as an excellent Introduction to Critical Thinking course – his commitment to biases, wishful thinking and motivated reasoning has really managed to cover virtually every systematic obstacle to figuring out the truth known to man. But that’s also probably the best thing anyone can, remotely accurately, say about Gary Schwartz, and his efforts to mainstream pseudoscience and New Age woo is overall pretty disheartening.