Thursday, March 5, 2015

#1307: Amy Allan & Steve DiSchiavi

The Dead Files is a television series that runs on the Travel Channel. It features psychic medium Amy Allan and former NYPD homicide detective Steve DiSchiavi as they investigate locations reported to be haunted. Allan says she was tormented by shadow people (popularized by Heidi Hollis at Coast to Coast AM in the early 2000s) at age four and has developed psychic powers in the meantime. She used to work odd jobs as a private investigator and security guard before finding this new source of income in the area of ghosts and gullible TV viewers. 

The show’s setup is really just an extensive hot reading adapted to the pseudo-documentary format. Allan and DiSchiavi supposedly do separate investigations of locations reported to be haunted and only compare notes at the very end. Invariably, Allan claims to be in psychic contact with ghosts who tell her what happened at the location, whereas DiSchiavi's research remarkably backs it all up. It’s hard to imagine anyone really falling for it, but they do, indeed.

Diagnosis: It’s pretty hard to treat Allan and DiSchiavi as if they believed their own bullshit; but in any case, anyone who has ever been fascinated by their show deserves an honorable mention in our Encyclopedia.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

#1306: Eben Alexander

Eben Alexander III is a American neurosurgeon and the author of the best-selling Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, in which he describes his 2008 near-death experience and asserts that science can and will determine that heaven really does exist. You can probably already imagine the quality of the evidence he presents for that claim.

Alexander’s book asserts that his out of body and near death experience (NDE) while in a meningitis-induced coma in 2008 proves that consciousness is independent of the brain, that death is an illusion, and that an eternity of perfect splendor awaits us beyond the grave, complete with angels, clouds, and departed relatives, as well as butterflies and a beautiful girl in a peasant dress who turns out to have been his departed sister (Alexander realizes that when writing up the book). But how is this account different from standard NDE experiences, which certainly do not even suggest the existence of an afterlife? Well, the difference (really, the whole difference) is that Alexander is a neurosurgeon, so therefore his motivated reasoning somehow constitutes evidence. Indeed, on the basis of his experience, Alexander happily claims that the current understanding of the mind “now lies broken at our feet. What happened to me destroyed it, and I intend to spend the rest of my life investigating the true nature of consciousness and making the fact that we are more, much more, than our physical brains as clear as I can, both to my fellow scientists and to people at large.” In other words, Alexander demands that all of science be revised to accommodate treating his vivid hallucination as reality (since the existing natural explanations of his experiences are … too boring?). Interestingly, and tellingly, none of the experiences conflicted with anything he believed before or yielded any new insights into the afterlife beyond the ones Alexander was convinced of before the experience. Remarkable, isn’t it?

Of course, critics were quick to find rather obvious holes in Alexander’s account. Esquire magazine found discrepancies; in particular that “Alexander writes that he slipped into the coma as a result of severe bacterial meningitis and had no higher brain activity, while a doctor who cared for him says the coma was medically induced and the patient was conscious, though hallucinating.” Esquire’s article also investigated Alexander’s medical background, finding that prior to the book, he had been terminated or suspended from multiple hospital positions, and been the subject of several malpractice lawsuits, including at least two involving the alteration of medical records to cover up a medical error (also here). In other words …. Alexander was not pleased with the article.

Despite being bunk, Alexander’s book achieved enormous popularity in certain segments of the population. Of course, scientists had a pretty easy time debunking the claims. Sam Harris appropriately described it as “alarmingly unscientific,” pointing out that “everything – absolutely everything – in Alexander’s account rests on repeated assertions that his visions of heaven occurred while his cerebral cortex was ‘shut down,’ […]. The evidence he provides for this claim is not only inadequate – it suggests that he doesn’t know anything about the relevant brain science.” Even in “cases where the brain is alleged to have shut down, its activity must return if the subject is to survive and describe the experience. In such cases, there is generally no way to establish that the NDE occurred while the brain was offline.” Oliver Sacks points out that Alexander’s account is “is more than unscientific – it is antiscientific.” In particular, his experiences have a perfectly natural explanation (having occurred as he was surfacing from the coma and his cortex was returning to full function). Alexander rules out this natural explanation in favor of a supernatural one … by fiat. Alexander’s response to his critics was to appeal to special pleading.

Diagnosis: Severe crackpot and pseudo-scientist with appalling lack of knowledge of how science works or about the field (neuroscience) he writes about when that science conflicts with quasi-religious fluff he really, really wants to be true.

#1305: Jan Aldrich

Jan L. Aldrich is a UFO enthusiast and apparently the main guy behind Project 1947, a research effort funded by CUFOS, FUFOR, and MUFON, to gather information about alleged UFO sightings, personal accounts and material UFO nuts usually take as evidence for extraterrestrial interference with life on Earth, especially from the period up to and including 1947. A resource like this could, of course, be a completely neutral affair, but that doesn’t seem to be the direction in which Aldrich wants to take things (as for instance per his contribution to the Proceedings of the Sign Historical Group UFO History workshop edited by Thomas Tulien.) In one sense that’s understandable; the truth of the claims made by UFO enthusiasts are impossible without a major conspiracy, and although a case could be made that Aldrich remains on the less unhinged side of UFO enthusiast efforts, he is still perilously close to donning the tinfoil hat for real. Like so many others, Aldrich appears to take e.g. the absence of declassified US Naval UFO documents and undisclosed O.N.I. UFO investigations as evidence that the government knows stuff they don’t want to share. There are alternative, simpler explanations.

Diagnosis: Again, Aldrich does not appear to be among the more hysterical or incoherent in the UFO crowd, but his research efforts can hardly be classified as unbiased and reality-based either.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

#1304: Mohammad al-Asi

Mohammad al-Asi is a Muslim Imam active in the global Islamic movement and involved with the Crescent International news magazine. He also claims to be associated with the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., but was, in fact, expelled in 1983; the Islamic Center denies any connection to him, though al-Asi still holds Jumu’ah khutbahs every Friday on the sidewalk in front of the Center.

Al-asi is perhaps most famous as a 9/11 truther, and has claimed that the 9/11 attacks were “planned were planned by the American administration, to be used as a pretext and justification to fight terrorism.” al-Asi has accused Israel of carrying out the WTC attacks after the U.S. refused their request to put down the Palestinian intifada, though it is, ultimately, somehow the fault of the US, who “fabricated the racist state of Israel in our Holy Land”. He even offers some “evidence” (PRATTs) for Israel’s “macro-managing” of the events that should be relatively familiar to those who have engaged with 9/11 conspiracies.

-       “Why were people on Wall Street, why were those people frantically selling airline and insurance shares in the days before September 11?”
-       Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon “was supposed tocome to the U.S. on September 11, and he didn't make his appearance here … . Did he know something the rest of us didn't know?”
-       Where were the 4,000 to 5,000 Israeli Jews that were supposed to be in those two buildings on the 11th, and after the dust settled, why can they only confirm one dead and two injured?”

His article “The Qur'an says: Zionist Israel will be shattered,” sums up his views on Israel. Needless to say, the views are not particularly favorable, but for the purposes of this Encyclopedia the views are more importantly backed up by standard Zionist world government rhetoric. It does, for instance, not suffice to criticize Israel politics; all Jews are evil: “We have a psychosis in the Jewish community that is unable to co-exist equally and brotherly with other human beings. You can take a Jew out of the ghetto, but you can't take the ghetto out of the Jew.” He has also predicted the defeat of the Jews by Muslims, stating that “The prophet of Allah, upon whom be peace, summed it up when he said: ‘The final hour shall not commence until the Muslims engage Yahud [Jew] in warfare. And the Muslims will deal the deathblow to Yahud. These Yahud will hide behind timber and boulder that will call out on Muslims: ‘O Muslim there is a Yahudi in disguise, come and annihilate him.’

Diagnosis: Religiously motivated conspiracy theorist. Though al-Asi’s influence is probably rather limited, religious fanaticism and conspiracy theory is a powerful combo. Should be watched.

Monday, March 2, 2015

#1303: Tony Alamo

A.k.a. Bernie LaZar Hoffman (birth name), Mark Hoffman, Marcus Abad, etc.

Well, this one is pretty obvious, but we couldn’t very well leave him out, could we? Tony Alamo is an American cult leader and figure at the unhinged end Christian right, known to many by virtue of their tendency to leave their literature, mostly insane anti-Catholic and anti-American government rants (“Did you know that the Pope and Ronald Reagan are a couple of Anti-Christ Devils and that they are selling us all down the drain?”), on car windshields across America.

Alamo himself has an impressive criminal record, and a multitude of former cult members have leveled charges against him (particularly rape charges), including reports that he has had as many as seven “wives”, whom he married when they were still children. Indeed, Alamo claims that women are the property of men, and that once a girl reaches puberty she needs to marry and begin having children. God told him that. God may also be the source of his information that 9/11, the Kennedy assassination and Pearl Harbor were inside jobs (that is, caused by Satan, who is the guy really in charge). When his wife Susan died of cancer, Alamo tried to raise her from the dead by keeping her on display for six months with members of his “church” praying around it (the story actually gets a bit bizarre after that). Apparently God wasn’t really forthcoming on that occasion.

The congregation use to live in a compound in rural Arkansas, though it was raided by Federal agents in September 2008 after reports of child sexual abuse. Soon after Alamo himself was arrested and being charged with multiple crimes involving child sexual abuse and transporting minors across state lines for those purposes. Alamo's response has simply been to declare that everything he has done is OK, since it was done in the Bible. Which may be correct.

He is presently serving a Life sentence, and the cult has probably come to an end, though it is a bit difficult to determine for sure.

Diagnosis: Probably neutralized, though one suspects that there are plenty of similar monsters out there ready to take his place.