Sean David Morton: Please Call A Lawyer

This will be a relatively short post, updating my series about the ConspiraSea Cruise and the people I met there. For those who haven’t read it, the cruise was a week-long conference for conspiracy theorists. One of the speakers was Sean David Morton, who claimed he could teach people to stop paying taxes, win any court case, and make money by creating esoteric financial instruments. Eighteen months later, he’s been convicted of tax fraud and issuing false financial instruments. And on Monday, he skipped his sentencing hearing and became a fugitive.

Sean, if you’re reading this, call a lawyer. Please. You tried your legal theories in court and they failed, just like they’ve always failed every time anyone has ever tested them in court. They haven’t worked. They don’t work. They won’t ever work. I know you don’t want to hear this from a skeptic and a critic, but I think you also know it’s the best thing you can do for yourself and your family. Call a lawyer, and get some expert advice. They’re going to tell you to turn yourself in, and you should. It’s the best way to get ahead of this situation.

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What Napoleon’s army ate

I have a new blog on archaeology out over at The Guardian’s science page, where I’m contributing a piece about once a month on archaeology and biological anthropology. As I write things there, I’ll link to them here for interested readers. Here’s an excerpt:

Napoleon’s Russian campaign of 1812 was marked by terrible logistical disaster and resulted in profound loss of life within his own army. Although his forces reached Moscow, they found the city abandoned and burning—a deliberate tactic on the part of the Russian army to prevent the French soldiers from finding provisions.

The practice of requiring soldiers to “live off the land” to supplement their rations likely contributed a great deal to this loss of life. This rendered them extremely vulnerable to the Russians’ scorched earth tactics which left them little to forage or steal. But Napoleon’s Grande Armée was ethnically and socially heterogeneous. Were their origins, social status, and access to food during this time of deprivation reflected in their diet? This is one of the questions that Holder et al. set out to address in their new paper, Reconstructing diet in Napoleon’s Grand Army using stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis.

You can read the rest of my discussion of this paper at  The Past and the Curious.

Having a baby doesn’t change the facts on vaccines.

I normally avoid sharing personal details and information about my family publicly on social media. This post is going to be one of the rare exceptions.

When my Dear parents post went viral a few years ago, I heard from a lot of people who opposed vaccines demanding to know whether I had children, and insisting that if/when I did, I would come to understand how evil vaccination was. I found this line of argument irritating because the vast majority of parents understand how beneficial vaccination is for their children and their communities, and appreciate that they are able to save their children from diseases that were once significant threats to their health and safety.

What’s really interesting to me is how much this statement reveals about the way an anti-vaccine or vaccine hesitant (I make a distinction between the two) parent thinks. The overwhelming scientific evidence showing the safety and efficacy of vaccines will not suddenly change just because someone becomes pregnant. Instead, this argument shows that the person making it is not taking that evidence into account at all. He or she is relying on emotional reasoning, selectively listening to “facts”, arguments, and people that support a predetermined decision (to delay vaccination or not to vaccinate at all), and ignoring everything that contradicts that decision. This is a cognitive process known as motivated reasoning, and we are all prone to it. However, the consequences resulting from employing motivated reasoning to buy something we don’t need and to make decisions like whether or not to vaccinate should be obvious. Allowing the voices of anti-vaccine advocates to frighten you into delaying or forgoing vaccinations could potentially cause great harm to your child and your community.

So now I’m having a baby. My partner and I are very excited, happy, and nervous about what will change in our lives. But do you know what has not–or will not–change? My understanding of science, my trust in my doctors’ expert opinions, and my commitment to fully vaccinating my child on schedule.

We shared our news on Facebook, but I forgot to set the privacy of the announcement to “friends only”. (If you friend me on FB, please don’t be offended that I don’t accept your request; I post a mixture of public and private content and I try to keep the latter for family and close friends). Amid the happy congratulations, I began to get some other types of comments.

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This went on for a few days, until I gently pointed out to the person posting that it was a bit rude to spam someone’s pregnancy announcement. To their credit, they apologized and deleted the thread.  It was a jarring, to say the least, and another good reminder that my policy of keeping personal details private is there for a reason.

I’m about to break that policy again when I say (without going into things too much), that for several reasons my pregnancy is classified as “high risk”.  One of the things that I learned very early on as a result is the shocking amount of bad information that exists out there for expectant mothers. For me, this has led to a general policy of simply staying off of internet parenting groups entirely. (Obviously that’s not a solution for many mothers, as they find the support and community valuable). If I do have a question (as I did the other day about whether a city I’m traveling to soon is a Zika risk) I take it straight to my doctor’s office, either in person or on the phone. Tara Haelle and Emily Willingham’s book The Informed Parent: A Science-Based Resource  has also been incredibly helpful. I hope other parents will find it useful too.

To those parents who are trying to sort through the contradictory information thrown at them, you have my complete sympathy. But I encourage you to recognize the value of expertise over emotion in making important decisions (this book is next on my reading list). Understand that while most parents who are vaccine hesitant are simply frightened and misled, many of the loudest voices arguing against mainstream scientific consensus are making money by deceiving you.


If you are looking for resources to help you talk to your vaccine hesitant friends or family, here’s a guide that Colin (an expert in negotiation) wrote.

Is Donald Trump Really a Great Negotiator?

This isn’t Violent Metaphor’s usual content, but it’s not as far away as you might think. We all want to have stronger skills for detecting pseudoscience and holding legitimate science to the highest standards. One of the most important skills for doing that is discriminating between hype and fact.

When it comes to science, I can’t do that. I’m not a scientist. What I am is a negotiator. I have spent years helping clients with their negotiations through training and consulting, and I have a new company doing exactly that.

Once Donald Trump became a serious contender for president people began asking me whether he’s really as great a negotiator as he claims to be. The answer is that based on the information we have, it’s very doubtful. Just as in science, the evidence matters more than the claims.

This is relevant to science and scientists in another way, too. There are strong indications that the administration and its Congressional allies will try to limit funding for scientific research. Those cuts will probably be resolved through political negotiations. Of course Trump won’t be the only negotiator at the table, or even the only negotiator on his side of the table. Nevertheless his style of negotiation is going to heavily influence the results. He’s likely to push hard to negotiate from a position of strength, which can distort the negotiations in harmful ways. This is a short and simple analysis of how that works.

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You’re not entitled to your own facts (or to hang the people who prove you wrong).

“There is evidence for being able to hang these [public officials]. I am so tired of ‘em. I’m just sick of it. I’ve had it, the Second Amendment is there for a reason.” Corey Eib, Agenda 31.

white-male-1871394_1280You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts–that’s the simplest, most basic credo of skepticism. Want to hold the opinion that extraterrestrial life exists out there? Great, me too. Want to insist that it built the pyramids? Now we’re talking pseudoscience.

I’ve been following a budding pseudolegal guru who’s become very frustrated and angry that his nonsense theories about citizenship and jurisdiction have yet to make him immune to the laws of the United States, where he lives. His case highlights an interesting difference between pseudoscience and pseudolaw.

Both turn on theories that don’t really fit the available facts, whether those facts relate to the building of the pyramids, the origin of species, or the text of the Fourteenth Amendment. When the theory doesn’t fit the facts, pseudoscientists and pseudolawyers both build walled gardens to protect their theories–that’s one of the crucial differences between a “pseudo” scientist or lawyer and the real thing. Those walls might be a community that doesn’t ask critical questions or conspiracy theories that provide a mechanism for disqualifying and ignoring such questions. A creationist, for example, can pretend that carbon dating proves the Earth is just 6,000 years old. And they’ll never have to emerge from their walled garden to compare that theory to the facts available to actual scientists. They can just keep reading creationist blogs and books and avoid the awkward mismatch between their beliefs and the outside world.

A pseudolawyer is in a different boat. Legal theories usually get decided in court, sooner or later. It forces a comparison between the irrational belief and reality, and exposes its flaws. That can happen with scientific and medical theories, such as when a miracle cancer cure fails to cure any cancer, but it’s less common for any individual believer to experience that. In the legal world, if you decide you’re allowed to drive without a driver’s license because you’re a special kind of super-citizen, sooner or later the system is going to force you to test that belief. And the theory is going to fail, because it’s wrong.

When those cherished, irrational beliefs fail, it’s at the end of a long and difficult process. The tribulations of trials encourage pseudolegal gurus to double down on their beliefs–they have to be truly committed to spend months litigating their beliefs, much less risk jail for them. And when the process that’s welded them more tightly to their ideology then exposes that ideology as false, the result is often going to be immense frustration and anger.

This is an exploration of one pseudolawyer’s mistaken ideas about the US Constitution, how they failed that empirical test, and how he’s responded with frustration, anger, and paranoia rather than reconsidering his own beliefs. It’s also about why just losing in court again and again and again isn’t enough to dissuade a budding guru. I’m not trying to do that with this piece, either. I don’t think it’s possible to talk such a person out of their beliefs.

But because this guru’s recent rhetoric has become extremely frantic and even he’s even suggested violence, it’s important to engage with the theories he preaches in case that helps dissuade people from falling for them. I don’t think this particular pseudolawyer is actually going to become violent, but the communities that form around such ideas can become unpredictable. (Just ask the Malheur occupiers.) So in addition to discussing those theories as a case study, at the end of this piece I’m going to outline some of the simplest and most obvious flaws with them. Engaging irrational beliefs that hurt people is, after all, the Good Fight.

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Debunking pseudogenetics at Skepticon

A few weeks ago I gave a talk at Skepticon 9 about pseudoscience, specifically the use of genetics to promote ideas like genetic astrology, “Nephilim DNA” from the Paracas skulls, and genetic determinism (with a special emphasis on “Rutherford’s law”). The conference organizers filmed it and uploaded it to Youtube, and so I’ve embedded it below if you’d like to see it.

Sorry for the scarce posting over the last few months! I’ve been incredibly busy this semester: adjusting to teaching my full course load (last year I had a release from half my courses), trying to get the first batch of my students trained in the lab, and pulling together some publications and grant proposals. I have a lot of new things to write about as soon as my grades are entered on Monday, so stay tuned!

ETA: Since I didn’t give it in my talk, I want to be sure to link here to the fabulous “Debunking Genetic Astrology” site, which is written and hosted by Mark Thomas (who first coined the term “genetic astrology”,  Debbie Kennett, and Adrian Timpson.

Genetic mythologies: “Nephilim DNA” from the Paracas skulls

As longtime readers here know, I’m endlessly fascinated by the ways in which people attempt to misuse genetics to legitimize pseudoscientific ideas.

Today I’m going to write about one example which I’ve been meaning to address for some time: pseudoscientific claims about the genetic distinctiveness of the Paracas peoples. (Please note that I don’t usually show images of Native American remains on this blog, but there was no other way to illustrate the details of this issue. Under the cut is an embedded video of the unwrapping of a Paracas mummy, as well as a photo with the mummy under its wrappings.)

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Archaeological Fantasies and the genetic history of the Americas

The excellent podcast Archaeological Fantasies recently had me on as a guest for a wide ranging discussion on genetics. We covered everything from the genetic prehistory of the Americas to issues surrounding ancestry testing companies. Here’s a link to the episode (apologies for the fact that I kept cutting in and out–apparently our university wireless connection isn’t very good).

Since so much of our discussion focused on haplogroup X2a and models for ancient American prehistory, I decided to break from the normal tradition here at VM and actually re-publish a post to make it easier for people to get answers to any questions they might have. And if you have specific questions about content from the podcast, please feel free to leave them in the comments on this post.

This post was originally published last year to address some questions that Deborah Bolnick and I were getting about our paper “Does Mitochondrial Haplogroup X Indicate Ancient Trans-Atlantic Migration to the Americas? A Critical Re-Evaluation.”  I’ve edited it slightly to reflect the fact that the paper itself is now open access, and you should be able to download it here or at my academia.edu page. (I’m actually really shocked at the number of downloads it’s gotten…apparently this is a topic that a lot of people find interesting!).

As soon as my syllabi for the upcoming semester are finished, I will try to write up another post that summarizes recent findings in North American anthropological genetics, and what they mean for our understanding of the initial peopling of the Americas. In the meantime, if you’re interested in ancient DNA I highly recommend you get up to speed on some of the methods by reading this post.

 

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Guest post by Rosi Sexton: Why ‘why’ matters

A few days ago, I published this post about the pseudoscience I see frequently in MMA communities. For a different perspective, I invited former professional fighter, osteopath, and all around brilliant person Rosi Sexton to share her thoughts with us. While her position is a bit ‘softer’ than mine, I think it’s important to get a diversity of perspectives, particularly from people who are actually treating patients. Enjoy! –Jennifer

Cupping seems to be the new therapy buzzword around these Olympics. I’ve had a few discussions with people asking me what I think about all these athletes sporting cupping marks on their backs and shoulders. My answer? “Well, that depends”.

Let’s get a few things straight before I go any further. In common with most of the skeptics who have already commented on this latest trend, I think it’s very unlikely that cupping has much of a direct physiological effect. There’s no evidence to suggest that it affects the underlying tissues very much at all, never mind in a way that’s likely to be performance enhancing.

So case closed? Cupping is nonsense, as with so many other ‘trendy’ interventions.

Not so fast. In the absence of claims made for specific physical outcomes, cupping is just a physical activity. It makes no more sense to say that “cupping is nonsense”, any more than it makes sense to say that Morris dancing is nonsense: both activities seem a little odd to me, but if there are people who enjoy them for their own sake, then I’m not about to argue with their experience. Although I’ve never had a cupping treatment, several friends tell me they find it nice and relaxing.

“But where’s the evidence for that?” the skeptics ask; and here’s where I think the problem lies. Sometimes we fail to distinguish adequately between objective claims about fact (“this treatment will make your muscles stronger”) and subjective claims about personal experience (“I had this treatment, and it made me feel really good”). When we start to imply that people’s individual experience is invalid, or wrong, because they don’t have scientific evidence to support it – that’s when sportspeople start to complain that the scientists are arrogant, out of touch curmudgeonly killjoys.

Imagine that someone has conducted a large survey about leisure activities. Suppose the results come back, and it turns out that on average people find quiet country walks and loud, alcohol fuelled parties equally enjoyable. Does this mean that you that your introverted great aunt Agatha will be persuaded to forgo her gentle Sunday afternoon stroll in favour of accompanying you to a nightclub? Unlikely. Telling her there’s evidence that the two activities are equally enjoyable probably wouldn’t be persuasive – because enjoyment is subjective, and Aunt Agatha knows what she likes. The fact that things like pain, discomfort, pleasure and happiness are all subjective and difficult to measure isn’t a reason not to research them – but it does raise difficulties that should be taken into account. I have misgivings about measuring something as complicated as pain on a 1-10 scale, for example; but we have to start somewhere. It also means that we should be very clear about what the research does, and doesn’t, say when we apply it to individuals.

It’s not quite that simple, of course. Perhaps that athlete finds the treatment pleasant and relaxing because he’s been told it’ll have beneficial effects on his performance, when in fact this is highly questionable. The ethics of using placebo effects in top level sport – where winning and losing can be measured in milliseconds – is a subject that needs a whole separate post, but that’s not what I’m advocating here. I think it’s possible to be clear and honest about what’s known about a treatment, and to allow for a person’s individual subjective experience at the same time.

Talking openly with the athlete about why they are using a particular treatment, and being very clear about what they expect it to achieve is an important part of that process. If an athlete I’m treating tells me that she wants to use a treatment like cupping, then my first question is to ask why she’s doing it. I want her to think about what she’s likely to get out of it, and to ensure that it’s not being used instead of evidence based treatment to address any underlying problems. If it’s only giving some temporary relief, could the time and money might be better spent elsewhere? What are the risks of adverse effects, and are the benefits worth it?

As a clinician, I find that framing the conversation in this way to be a more effective way of communicating with my athletes. By taking a hard line against misleading claims but not against the practice itself (except where it’s likely to be actually harmful), it encourages the athlete to apply their own critical thinking. We talk about how athletes can monitor their own experience more methodically, to see whether particular changes to their plan have a consistent (subjective) effect or not.

Learning how to sensibly navigate the large gaps between our small islands of knowledge is something that those in high level sport constantly struggle with. No athlete can afford to use only methods that have been proven rigorously by science – despite the best efforts of sports science there is simply too little evidence out there. At the same time, it’s easy to get suckered in by the latest trendy therapy or product; when winning and losing come down to tiny margins, many athletes feel that they can’t afford to take the risk of not using something just in case it does make a difference. Applying a sceptical thought process while at the same time allowing for personal experience and individual circumstances gives a framework for evaluating these unknowns, whether it’s a “wacky” therapy like cupping, a new training method or a cortisone injection.

Two questions you should never be afraid to ask:

“What, exactly, is this supposed to achieve?”

“What reason do I have to think it can do that?”

I’ve never experienced cupping, but I did have a hot stone massage once. It was lovely. It didn’t cure my neck pain, of course (nor was I expecting it to) – but it was a very pleasant distraction from it for an hour or so. Your mileage may vary.

Pseudoscience is common among elite athletes outside of the Olympics too…and it makes me furious.

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The many stories yesterday featuring Olympians appearing with cupping marks on their skin have brought renewed attention to pseudoscience in sports. Cupping, which involves putting a hot jar onto the skin, forming a suction that “draws out” toxins or unblocks energy meridians or something like that, might seem like a relatively benign form of pseudoscience, but it can be quite harmful.  Orac has a great post (complete with a gruesome photo) describing the harms of this particular practice:

Cupping is nothing more than an ancient medical practice based on a prescientific understanding of the body and disease, much like bloodletting and treatments based on the four humors. As the case of Lin Lin shows, it’s all risk for no benefit. It has no place in modern medicine, or at least shouldn’t.

I’m completely unsurprised to find that pseudoscience is common among the elite athletes competing in the Olympics. I’ve seen similar things rampant in the combat sports world as well.

Over the course of my martial arts career, I’ve had the opportunity to train with many extraordinary MMA fighters. What I observed in these elite professional fighters–most of them either competing in the UFC, or well on their way to it–was a razor-sharp focus on doing whatever it took to improve. This meant grueling eight hour training days, and equally grueling recovery practices to allow them to sustain that level of activity. The recovery practices included ice baths, contrast showers, yoga, expensive massages and bodywork, and a whole host of alternative medical treatments including acupuncture, energy work, and dubious supplements. And behind nearly every fighter, there’s usually at least one chiropractor lurking around in background.

[My interactions with these MMA chiropractors are so similar that they almost follow a script.  He (and it’s always a he) invariably introduces himself as “Dr. First Name”, even in casual social situations, and tries to impress his listeners by boasting about how many important clients he has.]

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This story gets at the psychological aspects of why elite athletes pursue useless–and sometimes even harmful–alternative practices. What I’ve observed among fighters is this exact mentality.   Magical thinking has long been endemic to martial arts, and there are few voices in the community who challenge these ideas, particularly when they’re promoted by influential teachers and coaches. Competitive martial artists, like MMA fighters, are so determined to do anything it takes to give themselves the extra edge that they are especially likely to listen to anyone who promises them a benefit to training, to recovery, to mental conditioning.  Another important motivation is the money that fighters can make through sponserships from alt med practitioners and supplement manufacturers. These athletes make so little money from fight contracts that they can’t afford to turn down any source of additional revenue.  This makes them vulnerable to all kinds of practices that are ‘desperately implausible’ , as the formidable enemy of pseudoscience David Colquhoun characterizes them.

If I sound angry here, it’s because I am. I see these quacks taking large fees from vulnerable fighters who can’t afford them…. but are convinced that they can’t afford not to pursue any possible advantage.  I’ve seen creepy alt med sponsors lurking around events and attaching themselves to athletes as if they were coaches. I’ve seen more than one person in the MMA world injured by pseudoscientific ‘treatments’, and more than one athletic career ruined by supplements.  This exploitation makes me furious.

I hope that as more attention is focused on pseudoscience in the Olympics, more attention will also be paid to these issues in MMA, and the work of people who are trying to push back against the BS in the community, like  Rosi Sexton, and Jeff Westfall.