Colin is currently on the ConspiraSea Cruise doing research for a book on irrational beliefs. He is emailing summaries of each day’s experiences to me for posting here on Violent Metaphors. This is the second day’s report. You can find the first day’s report here, day 3 here, day 4 here, day 5 (part 1) here, day 5 (part 2) here and an explanation for what he is doing here. If you would like to give him questions or advice, please comment on this post–I’ll make sure he sees it. –Jennifer
This is Jennifer’s blog, and Jennifer is a scientist. So most of the posts here are about science in one way or another. And I love that, because I love science—the idea of it, the practice of it, and the success of it. So when we talk about irrationality and pseudoscience, it’s only natural that we’re mostly focused on pseudoarchaeology, pseudogenetics, anti-vaccine and anti-GMO irrationality. There’s plenty of that on this boat and I’m going to write about it, but so far it’s nothing new.
This post isn’t about pseudoscience. Not about anti-vaxers or GMO fearmongering. Lots of our readers come here for those topics, but don’t turn away just yet. I want to talk about something most of you have barely thought about, but something that may be more important than anti-vaccine pseudoscience—at least for its victims.
As much as I love science, I’m not a scientist. I’m a lawyer. I graduated from Harvard Law School, served as a staff clerk for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and clerked for a very respected federal judge in Texas. Before I left the practice I spent years litigating cases for an international law firm, doing things like suing a hedge fund for committing fraud in the securitization of esoteric financial instruments. I don’t say any of this stuff to put on airs. It never once got me a date when I was single. I just want to establish that while I’m not a famous legal scholar or law school professor or distinguished expert, I know more than a little something about how courts and laws work. That’s why this post isn’t about pseudoscience but pseudolaw.
And it matters. Pseudolaw isn’t harmless. It ruins lives. It sends people to prison. People die behind this, as you’ve seen happen in Oregon. The pseudolaw that’s happening on the boat is tame by comparison, but still has the potential to wreck the lives of well-meaning people. It’s important to take a break from pseudoscience to see how this slow-motion disaster is happening in front of our eyes, and then we’ll take a look at how it’s affecting the anti-vaccine movement.
This is a harsher post than I expected to write, and much harsher than I’ll be writing about the rest of the cruise. If you’re on the cruise with me and reading this, please do it with an open mind. This is what it means to seek the truth, which is what the cruise is supposed to be helping us all do.
The conference invited a man named Winston Shrout to speak on legal topics. He’s not the only one covering them, but that’s his specialty and I’ll use him as my primary example. I’ve now heard him speak several times on legal matters. He talks extensively about the eighteen years he’s spent studying the law and the depth of his subtle, powerful knowledge. He’s fairly typical of a breed of self-professed and self-taught legal gurus who advise people on legal matters they don’t actually understand.
I don’t just mean that Shrout is uneducated in the law. I mean that the basic vocabulary of law has defeated him utterly. He told the audience here that a court order is the same thing as a money order. I’m not joking. He literally thinks a court order and a money order are the same thing, and that complaints are a kind of court order, and that judges cash them at the Fed and keep 30% for their own retirement. And that the IRS is owned by something called the Northern Trust Co. And that it only exists to collect interest on the national debt, so it can’t touch a non-interest-bearing bank account. And that if you register a promissory note before closing, you won’t have a mortgage to pay. These things aren’t just wrong, they’re complete nonsense.
It’s like a moment in a Star Trek episode when an actor portraying an engineer pretends to solve a problem by reversing the baryonic inhibitor polarity or de-phasing the tachyon net or transposing the inertial compensator matrix: real words strung together in a way that makes no sense and accomplishes nothing in the real world.
But it sounds impressive to a lay audience, especially if their guard is down. (More on that in a second.) These tall tales about how courts work are irresponsible and harmful, if only in the long run. After all they fuel the paranoia that keeps conspiracy theorists from really engaging with the facts. But those are pretty diffuse harms. Shrout and other pseudolegal gurus are doing much worse work here.
Shrout has an elaborate and completely wrong theory about how to discharge debt. It’s extremely complex, because it has to be—if it were simple, it would be easy for laypeople to see right through it. Basically it boils down to the idea that years ago the US government had to create a “remedy” for citizens to “avoid committing treason,” so it made itself a guarantor of all our debts. So if you want to discharge a debt, for example if you lose a lawsuit, just write a promissory note and the government will pay it off. If your eyes skipped off of that, it’s OK. It was nonsense.
That’s a huge oversimplification of Shrout’s house of cards. It’s all baloney, roots to ramparts. Obviously if you write a promissory note, someone might accept it—they’re probably going to think that you’re promising to pay the debt, because that’s what promissory notes are. But then if you don’t pay it (because the government certainly won’t!) you’re right back where you started from, or worse. And that seems to have happened to Shrout. A report from 2013 detailed hundreds of thousands of dollars he owed at that time, none of which was effectively discharged by the government making good on his phony promissory notes. (I can’t confirm that report from the boat, but nothing in it surprises me.)
He’s got theories about taxes, too. They always have theories about taxes. It’s where the real money is if you’re hawking DVDs to gullible people. Again they’re complicated and boring, and again they’re complete gibberish. He tells his audiences that babies are “original issue” and not taxable, except that the wicked government writes your name in ALL CAPS on the birth certificate and tricks you into getting a social security number, so if you can just collapse the difference between the trustee and beneficiary in the trust that governs your physical body, no more income taxes!
He’s wrong. How wrong is Shrout? Well, that report from 2013 detailing six figures of debt and two Chapter 7 bankruptcies sure paints a picture of a man who can’t actually dig himself out of a hole with promissory notes. And as for his tax ideas? In December 2015, just a month before the seminar,Winston Shrout was indicted on six counts of willful failure to file tax returns. He faces up to six years in prison and another six figures in fines. None of this was mentioned to the audience who paid to listen to his advice on tax matters.
The damage pseudolaw does
So here’s why pseudolaw matters as much as pseudoscience on the individual human level. Pseudoscience does a lot more damage over the long run, and to large groups. Lysenkoism, for example, left more bodies on the ground than people like Shrout ever will. But tragedies don’t just happen on the large scale. People have their lives ruined by this slick patter. People who believe they can skate their way out of taxes with these phony theories stop paying, and it starts an ugly spiral. Soon they owe so much in back taxes that they have to believe in these theories to have any sort of peace of mind, because otherwise they’d feel the sword of Damocles over their heads. So they dig in, fight their lawsuits, and lose. Every. Single. Time. Or they rely on these arguments in other kinds of cases and never get their real issues heard, because they chose to stand on gibberish instead of actual facts.
I’ve seen this happen. I’ve been in court when theories like this were argued (but never personally involved in such a case). Some say, “You have no jurisdiction over me because this is an admiralty court!” Wrong. Those guys go to jail. Others say, “The indictment names a fictional entity whose name is JOHN SMITH in all capital letters, and I’m John Smith the natural man! I can’t be tried under this indictment!” Wrong. Those guys go to jail. If someone says, “You can’t tax me because I wrote these promissory notes and the Federal Reserve has to honor them for me!” – wrong. That guy’s going to get hit with huge civil penalties and back taxes at best, enough to ruin their savings and derail their lives, or even go to jail. If you’re interested in these theories, there’s an incredibly good Tax Protester FAQ that outlines dozens of them and gives detailed explanations of why each one is wrong. There are hundreds of examples of theories just like Shrout’s failing, and not one of them working. No one has ever won their lawsuit by claiming that bankruptcy courts are admiralty courts, as Shrout has claimed.
And Shrout is setting people up for that kind of dramatic disaster. An earnest young woman I met at dinner asked him, how can she set up a nonprofit without jumping through all the government’s hoops? Well don’t use 501(c)(3), he told her—ignore it completely or use 508 instead. I won’t bore you with an analysis, but that’s terrible advice. If she takes it and falsely tells people that her nonprofit is tax exempt, she could be committing a crime. (In fact I strongly suspect a prominent anti-vaxer is doing this, falsely claiming to run a tax-exempt foundation when its tax exemption was revoked years ago. I’m going to have to wait until after the cruise to verify my suspicions so won’t say any more just yet.)
Another woman asked for his advice on how to discharge debts. I didn’t hear his answer, but there’s no hope that it was good advice. If she files a phony promissory note to get out of debt, it’s not going to work. But if she thinks it will, she may spend money she doesn’t have, digging herself in deeper and racking up fines and fees that will wreck her financial future. Even worse, it’s obviously illegal to try to pass off a phony note—she might commit a crime because Shrout convinced her he knows what he’s talking about. She could be putting her entire future in his hands, and if so, it’s a write-off.
That’s why I think this matters even more than vaccine hysteria. If someone doesn’t vaccinate, the odds are still pretty good for their health—vaccination rates are high all around the country, so herd immunity protects us all to a large extent. Hopefully they never get a vaccine-preventable disease, and if they do, hopefully it’s nothing that causes permanent harm. But if someone stakes their kids’ college fund or their own retirement savings or even their freedom on these hopeless and meaningless theories, they’re choosing a much more probable and devastating loss.
How to respond?
It breaks my heart to watch well-meaning, hopeful, intelligent people fall for a line of gobbledygook that they aren’t informed enough to penetrate. And a lot of that anguish is the knowledge that if I shook each and every one of them by the shoulders and said, this stuff doesn’t work, he’s taking advantage of you! – I’d just be driving them deeper into this irrational ideology. Because it’s a conference for conspiracy theorists, right? And nothing proves a conspiracy more than an attempt to disprove the theory.
And yet I’ve tried. I couldn’t just sit on my hands and watch people pile kindling around their own feet. But my efforts were very, very modest. Remember my rule here is that I’m here to learn and form relationships, not interfere or derail the proceedings. So I waited until after one of Shrout’s lectures and approached him. I asked him, can you show me cases where these theories have worked? Give me case names? Sure he can! He’s just going to need a few days, he doesn’t know them off the top of his head…
Baloney. I could tell you the names of the cases I’ve won and lost in my sleep. Shrout’s poor memory masks the fact that his ideas just don’t work. Not in his cases, which is why he’s in legal trouble, and not in anyone else’s cases. He had a backup excuse: the government’s afraid of his theories so they just seal the cases and transcripts. But that’s baloney too. He should still be able to name the cases so we can look them up. Sealing a case doesn’t make the docket entry go away. (If that’s too technical for you, think of it this way: there would be a record saying that the case existed and was sealed, which we could look up to verify his claim.)
And of course I asked him about the indictment. Oh, that’s a sting, he responded—his sting. He worked very hard to get the government to attack him, you understand, and now he’s got them right where he wants them. I want to stress that I’m barely paraphrasing here, and only because I wasn’t able to take notes while I was talking to him. This is literally his explanation. Now, he says, the government has attacked the sovereignty of an international judge and he’s got or is going to get a commercial lien on the judge. This is crap, of course. Shrout’s not a judge, international or otherwise, and filing liens on judges is an old pseudolaw trick. Like the rest, it never works.
Shrout’s not stupid. He’s got a good patter, and an explanation for everything. It’s a completely transparent explanation for anyone who knows anything about law. But his audience doesn’t. And that’s the other reason why my efforts to respond to this nonsense were so anemic as to be nonexistent, and will continue to be so at this conference. I don’t have the kind of credibility here that would make my voice meaningful to the people who most need to hear it. The young woman who was asking about nonprofits was listening to his explanation about his indictment and mysterious lack of court wins. She heard the entire conversation. And I’d bet anything she walked away a bigger believer in Shrout’s fake expertise than ever. Because between him and me, who’s she going to believe? The stranger who’s skeptical about everything she believes in, or the kindly old man who’s part of her community, who’s a victim of establishment forces, and who has the tacit backing and credibility of the conference organizers?
So Shrout stands on the credibility the conference organizers have given him, and sets people up for devastating legal problems that he’ll never have to deal with—he’ll be long gone by the time the other shoe drops. And when it does, he’s got a built-in excuse: I told you this stuff was complicated, and you just didn’t do it right.
Just pointing out the holes in his theory or his misunderstanding of basic concepts is virtually useless. I probably couldn’t persuade his audience of his errors as an outsider. So in the long run, the best strategy is also the thing I most want to do: meet people, ask about their beliefs, and establish stronger relationships. The most effective way to disarm this kind of vicious nonsense is to break down the walls between us and them, so that disagreement isn’t seen as an attack. Because it’s not.
So how does this apply to anti-vaxers?
Shrout’s not the only pseudolegal guru on board. Another man, Sean David Morton, has apparently been talking about some legal theories parents can use to avoid vaccine mandates. I went to a different session and didn’t hear his presentation. That’s really too bad, because I’ve been hearing some fascinating things about it.
Morton seems to have a complicated relationship with the truth. Again, I can’t verify any of this from the boat (internet time is costly and limited), but a very quick google search found an exhaustive list of apparently false claims Morton’s made about his own credentials and life story. They include being trained by “black hat” Tibetan monks in psychic arts and sexual meditation techniques. I don’t know if he’s repeated any of those claims at this conference.
I do know that Morton has had about as much success in the law as Shrout: “On March 4, 2010, the SEC filed a civil injunctive action … charging Sean David Morton, a nationally-recognized psychic who bills himself as “America’s Prophet” … for engaging in a multi-million dollar offering fraud.” The complaint alleged, among other things, that “Morton lied to investors about his past successes.” The government won that case. That’s no surprise; according to the press release, “The defendants never properly answered the allegations in the complaint. Instead, the Mortons filed dozens of papers with the Court claiming, for instance, that [the SEC] is a private entity that has no jurisdiction over them, and that the staff attorneys working on the case do not exist.”
So that’s what I was able to find about Morton’s credentials and legal expertise in under twenty minutes of googling. He didn’t mention it when he MC’d the conference introductions and portrayed himself as a “self-taught attorney.” I doubt he mentioned it in his full presentation, but as I said, I wasn’t there, I don’t know.
It does sound like Morton and possibly Shrout have helped pioneer a new legal strategy for anti-vaxers: establish ownership over your children. Not metaphorically. File a commercial lien on them. Own them like property. Now again, I didn’t hear this straight from Morton, so who knows if it’s an accurate representation of his theory. I’ve heard it often enough from enough attendees, though, that I suspect it is. And it’s nuts. Remember the Civil War? Yeah, no American court is going to agree that human children are property like a truck, subject to liens and mortgages.
(Another theory that’s been floated is getting yourself adopted by a Native American tribe. Not only does this sound like a cynical attempt to exploit tribal sovereignty, I’m reasonably certain it’s a nonstarter. California gets to decide who attends its public schools, for example, so claiming tribal sovereignty wouldn’t get anyone out of SB277. But I admit that tribal sovereignty is outside my experience.)
It will be interesting to see if these legal theories spread beyond this conference. Say what you will about people like Andy Wakefield, he and other leading anti-vaxers are professionals with legitimate educations. I’d be surprised if they were gullible enough to fall for this, but I’m quite curious to find out. It may be that the influence of the anti-vaccine lobby at the ConspiraSea conference can be measured by how far and wide these novel, and terrible, legal theories spread.
Connecting it up
More broadly, these theories reflect something that runs throughout the conference: a total lack of filters. No one seems to have ever asked, “Are these things actually true?” I have yet to hear anyone, at any session, ask a question even remotely like that. “How do you know?” “Have you tested these ideas?” “Why isn’t the research backing us up?” And the answers, which would come as a matter of course in a mainstream conference, are firewalled away by the guru status of the presenters. They’re invited experts, they must be right.
The result is a fascinating irony. These are conspiracy theorists. They’re cued to suspect someone is lying to them. They pride themselves on being awake in the world. But they’re sleepwalking through the most transparent baloney imaginable.