Saturday, August 29, 2015

#1447: George Louis Carlo


According to antivaxxers, vaccines cause autism. But some of them have expanded their search for causes of autism to other, equally silly targets as well, in particular wireless technology. Yes, the idea is that electromagnetic fields (EMFs) and wifi cause autism. And among the proponents of this link there is at least one epidemiologist gone rough to become a “brave maverick doctor” named George Louis Carlo, whose work has been picked up by familiar antivaxxers such as homeopath Heidi Stevenson. To be sure, there’s no biologically plausible mechanism behind the hypothesis, and there’s no evidence of a link, but that has never stopped a good pseudoscientist.

Carlo thinks that cell phone and wireless signals can somehow affect children’s brains so the neurons can’t get rid of toxic heavy metals, including mercury (how did the mercury get there? The obvious target is of course vaccines that never contained mercury in the first place). Of course, the hypothesis that autism is caused by mercury poisoning is a completely dead hypothesis, but never mind – according to Carlo, the important thing is that the alleged effects of EMFs explain why chelation therapy (a popular, useless and horrific thing to expose children to) “doesn’t work” for some children. Now, once again, chelation doesn’t work because autism isn’t mercury poisoning, but the heavy-metal connection is religious creed among antivaxxers, and Carlo gives them the means to explain why their favored treatments don’t work.

Carlo’s evidence for his bullshit consists primarily of fallacious appeal to nature: Radio waves that carry information do not occur naturally; therefore they are toxic (in any dose). He has actually done some “studies” as well (with one Tamara Mariea) – non-blinded, non-randomized observations of children in (relatively) EMF-free environments; needless to say, they’re crap and accordingly not published in even minimally reputable venues.

He has apparently written a book about it (with one Martin Schram) as well, Cell Phones: Invisible Hazards in the Wireless Age: An Insider’s Alarming Discoveries about Cancer (Carlo once worked for the industry), which seems to be treated with caution even by committed EMF cranks (but they still refer to it since, you know, they favor the conclusions). Carlo is currently fighting for the electrosensitivity lobby through an organization called the Safe Wireless Initiative project. They have done studies (e.g. “a number of scientific papers in various stages of the peer-review process expected to be published by year’s end [2007] addressing this emerging medical problem”) and are very keen on sharing the results (but talk little about the, you know, methods by which they obtained the results, which is kind of important). Here is Carlo criticizing Ben Goldacre for being mean-spirited (he doesn’t just accept their conclusions without evidence) and committing factual errors while neglecting to actually mention any.

Diagnosis: Pseudoscience through and through, but the conclusions – for which there is no evidence – have become sufficiently popular among certain kinds of people for his work to potentially have some influence. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

#1446: Theresa Caputo


A.k.a. The Long Island Medium

We have a hard time deciding what counts as the most disgusting job description there is, but “celebrity medium” is certainly in the running. Theresa Caputo, the Long Island Medium, is precisely that, and portrays herself as a medium on the television show Long Island Medium, featured on the Orwellianly named The Learning Channel. Caputo claims to have seen spirits since she was four and claims that in her family this is a normal thing. If correct, "hereditary ability to see spirits" would probably not quite be the right medical term for it.

Her sessions are glittering examples of cold reading and the Forer effect at work and, needless to say, no evidence of special abilities beyond those she share with any charismatic pyramid scheme pusher. Caputo’s chats with those who have passed away and are on “the other side” are usually wrapped in loving and moving messages that say precisely what her victims want them to say (as all mediums and predators in the wild Caputo preys on and targets people in difficult situations – and the sheer evil of it should break your heart; and no, it’s not harmless). Indeed, in 2014 Ron Tebo publicly accused Caputo of going far beyond mere cold reading; she also sends staff members to interview audience members in advance in order to be able to pretend that she acquires knowledge from communicating with the deceased.

Dr. Oz is apparently a fan. At least Oz brought Caputo on his show to use a brain scan to “prove” that her “psychic” powers are real and true while she performs bad cold readings (no, really – he did). The scan was performed by Daniel Amen. Amen admitted that there could be multiple explanations for the results, so he concluded that Caputo likely has psychic abilities (yeah, that’s how it works). The test, accordingly, tells you nothing about Caputo, but quite a bit about the quality of Dr. Oz’s critical thinking skills (or honesty) and thus about the trustworthiness of his medical advice in general.

At least Caputo is the proud recipient of a Pigasus Award.

Diagnosis: Another “unsinkable rubber duck,” as those who understand how psychic scams work call them. It doesn’t matter that these mediums are wrong, and caught in the act; they tell the audience – who has no clue how subjective validation works – what they want to hear, and any criticism is accordingly interpreted as persecution.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

#1445: Paul Caprio


Sometimes bigots make inane arguments against gay marriage, and Paul Caprio – leader of the Coalition to Protect Children and Marriage (currently FamilyPAC) a “family values” coalition in Illinois – is no exception. In essence, Caprio’s argument is that there are very high murder rates in Chicago, and we should therefore (yes, the connection is … nebulous) ensure that kids are raised by married couples. The obvious conclusion to draw from that is of course that gays should be allowed to marry, but Caprio has some trouble recognizing entailments and logical structures and arrives at the opposite proposition. Here is another one of his campaigns.

He is also the signatory to letters to the president (then Bush jr.) opposing any restrictions on CO2 emissions or measures to prevent global warming, just to make sure that no reasonable person ever takes him seriously.

Diagnosis: Apparently he has a certain amount of influence in wingnut circles, which doesn’t reflect well on those circles. There’s otherwise nothing novel about Caprio; he’s quite simply your typical, predictable, bigoted loon. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

#1444: Theresa Cao


An embarrassment to Tea Partiers, rightwing politicians and Thanksgiving family dinner parties everywhere, birtherism remains popular despite mainstream politicians’ attempts to avoid (without alienating) its proponents – it’s almost as if there were a conspiracy against them. Still, some – usually particularly aggressively lunatic – birthers sometimes manage to draw public attention to themselves. Theresa Cao, a big fan of the WND, is a case in point. Cao, a self-proclaimed birther and nutcase (the latter is not her description, admittedly), drew attention to herself by interrupting the second day of the 112th Congress by screaming, “except Obama, help us Jesus Christ,” during a reading of Article II, Section I of the Constitution (which deals with the requirement for Presidential eligibility). Cao was subsequently removed from the gallery by Capitol police and persecuted for being a good Christian. According to herself Cao felt compelled to let representatives know of the absence of proof for Barack Obama’s eligibility, pointing out that the only hope for the United States is a return to the faith of the Founding Fathers and that doing so is the opposite of Obama’s “socialism” as exemplified by the Affordable Care Act and government takeover of private companies including banks, insurance companies and car companies. Which, of course, is more or less equivalent to saying that Obama is technically ineligible for the presidency because he is not a citizen only using different words.

Diagnosis: Obama’s political views are objectionable; America is a Christian nation; Marxism is bad; therefore, if Chewbacca lives on Endor, you must acquit. Why is that so hard to see? Perhaps “the Chewbacca implosion” is an apt epithet?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

#1443: Ergun Mehmet Caner


Apparently one of the easy roads to recognition among paranoid, fundamentalist wingnuts is being an “ex-terrorist”, and there is a number of converts from Islam to Christianity on the far right (after all, the distance between the religious right and Taliban-style Muslim fundamentalism is often short) who claim to be former terrorists but have seen the errors of their ways, and who are currently busy confirming wingnut misperceptions of Islam as well as vigorously fighting against religious freedom, secularism, gay rights and the science of evolution and climate change – just for good measure. Their “ex-terrorist” status never stand up to scrutiny, but dishonesty is only a sin if you are not doing the work of Jesus.

Ergun Michael Caner is a fine example. A Swedish-American Baptist minister, Caner rose to fame (and wealth) with his 2002 book Unveiling Islam, quickly co-authored with his brother Emir in the wake of 9/11, about Islam and his claims that he was a devout Muslim trained as a terrorist. He is currently the President of Brewton-Parker College in Mt. Vernon, GA – not a place you should take seriously as an educational institution – and has previously served as the Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Arlington Baptist College as well as (and most famously) dean of the Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and Graduate School of Liberty University (the perhaps most influential fake university in the US, if you were unaware) – he was invited by Jerry Falwell himself, apparently a fan of his book. He lost this position after, as Wikipedia laconically puts it, “it became clear to Liberty University faculty and the Liberty University Board that he contradicted himself while making factual statements.”

The background for his fall from grace were pretty well corroborated accusations, in the beginning by bloggers, that Caner had made up much of his life story, for instance his claims to have grown up in Turkey when he actually grew up in Ohio; being raised in a devout Muslim home, rather than a nominal one, having been trained as an Islamic jihadist, and having debated dozens of Muslims – sort of the whole story that initially made him famous post 9/11. Caner was quick to play the persecution card, lamenting that “I never thought I would see the day when alleged ‘Christians’ join with Muslims to attack converts,” whereas his fans were quick to call employers and associates of his critics to put pressure on them to take down their critical posts. Liberty University’s Elmer Towns, dean of the school of religion, initially responded that the university’s board was satisfied that Caner has done nothing “theologically inappropriate. It’s not an ethical issue, it’s not a moral issue,” i.e. they refused to address the charges. By May 10, 2010, however, heat was sufficiently turned up for Liberty University to announce a formal inquiry into allegations of discrepancies in his background stroy. Caner claimed to be thrilled that Liberty University is forming this committee, and I look forward to this entire process coming to a close,” and was promptly removed from his position as Dean of the seminary in June after the committee found discrepancies related to the matters such as dates, names and places of residence.” He kept his job as a full-time faculty member of the seminary for the 2010–2011 school year, though.

His fans didn’t seem to care all that much, and Caner remains a popular speaker among wingnut groups who are aware of the controversy” but nevertheless appear to take his claims at face value (case in point: the Twin City’s 12th Annual Community Prayer Breakfast in Bristol, Virginia, where organizer Sid Oakley more or less dismissed the charges as irrelevant). Caner himself claims that his critics are simply frustrated people in their basements,” which is not really addressing the charges.

In 2011 Caner left Liberty to become Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs for the Arlington Baptist College, best known for the anti-evolution crusades of its founder J. Frank Norris (whom Caner describes as “one of Christianity’s most courageous voices”) – the President, Dan Moody, stated that Caner’s controversy was in the past and the new Vice President had his full confidence. Caner is currently the President of Brewton-Parker College in Mt. Vernon. That “college” stated that they needed a warrior”, and that Caner endured relentless and pagan attacks like a warrior” (i.e. because he lied about his background and was caught). Real universities, meanwhile, tend to at least pretend to care for truth, evidence, wisdom and moral integrity. Most of Caner’s critics, by the way, were evangelical Christians.

In 2013 Caner filed a lawsuit in the U.S. district court in North Texas claiming copyright infringement for reproducing, uploading and maintaining his videos without permission on youtube in order to silence (and punish) his critics. The lawsuits were ruled to be frivolous, partially because Caner never had the copyrights to the videos in question and partially because fair use is a sort of important legal concept (also here), but Caner’s behavior seems to have exhibited precisely the kind of character” that Brewton-Parker Colleges was looking for.

Diagnosis: Perhaps more of a spineless opportunist than a loon, one wonders whether anyone – including Caner – would be able to live his life without at least believing that his actions are somehow justified by some higher goal. So, he’s probably a loon as well.

Note that we won’t give a separate entry to celebrity-of-questionable-character Jose Canseco for this, regardless of its weapons-grade lunacy.