Peter Popoff: religious scammer still scamming decades after being caught

Waaay back in 1986, James Randi appeared on the Tonight Show and demonstrated that faith healer Peter Popoff had a source other than God’s word for his surprising insights into the lives of those healed. I strongly urge you to watch the video of Randi pulling back the curtain on Popoff’s blatant and despicable fraud. (Johnny Carson, the then-host of the Tonight Show, was a former magician like Randi and a like him an exposer of spiritual/religious scams, in the tradition of Houdini.)

After his exposure, Popoff lost most of his income and ended up declaring bankruptcy the following year.

He’s back. Unbelievably, he’s making money by the simple expedient of lying to people. Lots of money. He is literally raking in millions, again.

Recently, a video-maker got one of Reverend Popoff’s solicitation letters. He seems to have stolen a lot of his techniques from the late Oral Roberts and other colleagues in the field of promising miracles in a non-legally-actionable manner. Some of the things Randi documented in his classic book The Faith Healers:

  • Give the mark a cheap gift. This creates a sense of obligation to give something in return.
  • Offer miracles but only if a donation is made.
  • Suggest a minimum donation and imply that larger ones show more faith and get bigger miracles.
  • Write your letter as if you (the scammer) personally sat down and hand-typed it (with fake handwritten parts) and personally mailed it to the sucker, even though your organization sends out millions of them a week.

Popoff’s letter does all of these. There’s more. Watch the video. If you want to educate yourself about the subject, read Randi’s book.

Mike Jeavons made his video funny, but Popoff is just infuriating. He exists to suck the money out of vulnerable believers. He’s exactly what people hate about religious leaders, maybe part of one step short of Jim Jones.


Bees are not aliens–When real news is not weird enough

This is apparently my day to rag on Chuck Shepherd.

In today’s News of the Weird, Chuck writes, “An ovipositor is the organ that inserts or receives an egg (especially from parasites like bees — and that thing in “Alien”).

Bees are not parasites! They lay their eggs in various structures they make, whether hives, holes in the ground, or holes drilled in wood.

OK, there are a very few bees that are nest parasites, but even they lay their eggs in holes in the ground, not in other organisms as Chuck implies.

(Receives? I’m not familiar with any usage of the term “ovipositor” for an organ that receives eggs.)

I’m pretty sure he was thinking of the various wasps that paralyze a living organism, then lay eggs on/in it, or the wasps that use the ovipositor to insert their eggs into plants, but bees and wasps can’t just be confused like that!

I like Chuck’s column, please don’t take this as a recommendation to avoid. He just knows (apparently) not very much about entomology.

Best Yet Pseudoscience

I’ve been eating much more healthily lately. Losing weight quite rapidly, to the point where my pants are falling down embarassingly and even the unpleated ones are pleating now when I put on my belt.

Part of that is buying more veggies (and eating them, of course). So I was a regular at the Best Yet Market on my route home. Great selection of produce, reasonable prices, clean, nice staff.

And now I can’t buy from them.

See, while searching for info on blueberry nutrition I came across this page. “Detox With Food!” Yuck.

I’m a scientific skeptic. That implies both that I care about using logic and evidence, and that I know something about common areas of pseudoscience. Detox is pseudoscience.

There are real toxins out there, and medical treatments for some of them. For instance, if a person accidentally drinks ethylene glycol (antifreeze) they can be treated with booze. Ethanol doesn’t remove the antifreeze from the body, but it prevents its toxic events until the toxin is naturally cleared. However, medical and scientific types don’t say “detox”. That’s pseudoscientists. They’re in general talking about toxins they can’t define, which have very non-specific effects, and the levels of which are never measured, making it impossible to demonstrate whether the “detox” or “cleanse” regimen does anything at all. Others demonize non-dangerous toxins like mercury in dental work, use non-authenticated tests like “challenge” urine tests, and interpret the results in ways supported by no science.

Best Yet Market’s web page leads with some utter nonsense: “Did you know that digesting food requires more energy than any other function in the human body?” Yes, I knew that was absolutely false. Let’s ignore actual research and just think for a moment, shall we? Is the article claiming that eating is more energy-intensive than running an ultramarathon? Would weight-lifting be considered a rest after the huge effort of consuming some bananas and drinking a Coke?

It continues to be stupid. “… the best way to free up some extra energy is to make our digestion as quick and efficient as possible. This extra energy can better support the body’s other crucial functions, like circulation, respiration, and excretion, all of which help improve your complexion, oxygenate your cells, and eliminate excess waste in the body. The less waste that’s stored in your body, the better you’ll look and feel.” Wow. Making digestion quick and efficient sounds good, but what does it mean? Diarrhea gets food through the gut faster, but I don’t think it’s desirable. Efficient digestion helped make me fat–I get all the calories out of the food I eat. Anyone in the United States (where Best Yet Markets are located) is not short of energy–we get plenty of food, we are not starving. Therefore, “extra energy” would make us fat. (Do you see a theme in my writing today?) And how does more energy “support” circulation? If it makes the heart beat harder it just raises your blood pressure. In fact, “extra” energy tends to become fat, which then can deposit on the arterial walls, causing arteriosclerosis. And how on earth does extra energy support excretion? The kidneys do consume energy (as do the other excretory organs like the pancreas and sweat glands) but pumping more energy to them as fats and sugars in the blood doesn’t somehow make them better.

I don’t want to spend thousands of words deconstructing the entire pile of woo here. Among the nonsensical and/or unsupported ideas present are:

  • “By simply adjusting how we eat, we can improve our digestion and enjoy effortless weight loss, without giving up any of the foods we love. In other words, you can still eat practically anything and everything you want — just not necessarily all at the same time.” No, you can’t. Weight is to a first approximation calories in vs. calories out.
  • “Properly combine your meals.” They seem to mean that foods from certain categories should not be eaten together. “Be sure to wait three to four hours between your meals before switching categories (such as animal protein, starch, or nut/seed/dried fruit), and feel free to snack on neutral foods, like non-starchy vegetables, at any time of the day.” There is no scientific basis for this idea.
  • “Begin each meal with something raw.” Raw veggies (they don’t mean raw meat or sushi) are a good element in a healthy diet, but there’s no magic about starting with them and they don’t have to feature in every meal. This seems to be pure raw foods faddism, including a telltale reference to “enzymes”. “Raw plant foods are hydrating, filling, and bursting with nutrition.” Hydrating? Some of them (e.g. cucumbers) contain lots of water. Others (e.g. peas) not particularly. And why does the anonymous author think cooking removes water from food. Often it gets added, if the food is steamed or boiled.

There is actually some correct-ish advice in the article (e.g. limit sugar and animal protein). It would be hard to write at that length without being right about something. On the whole, though, it’s an embarrassing, infuriating pile of nonsense. I wrote to Best Yet suggesting they get their nutrition articles vetted by a registered dietitian, physician, or maybe scientist. No answer.

So I can’t buy from them. I’m not organizing a protest, I just would feel guilty about it.

And I miss the store. They really do have the best produce selection of any grocer within 30 minutes of my house. I need to look into local farm stands.

RFK Jr. and the legacy of Camelot: stop embarrassing everyone!

A NY Times journalist writes about how strange it is to avoid talking to a Kennedy son, which he does because RFK Jr. is so irrational and anti-factual. (May be behind a paywall–the Times allows one to read only a limited number of articles free, last I heard.)

Mr. Kennedy to the contrary, the risk from routine vaccination is incredibly low, orders of magnitude less than the risk of the actual diseases you might get if you don’t vaccinate. All his talk about “toxins” and “their brains are gone” is just not based in reality.

Kudos to Mr. Frank Bruni for calling him out on it.

Is RFK Jr. our own Prince Charles, and embarrassing pseudo-science promoter prominent in our media because of who he is related to?

Grocery Shopping With Obby

I’ve been reading The Devil’s Panties for years now. I’ve always enjoyed its slice-of-life humor. Since creator Jennie Breeden married Obby, there have been occasional position-taking strips. Obbie is listed as co-writer these days, maybe he’s more of an advocate. This one is very much to the point:

The Devil's Panties goes on a diet

The Devil’s Panties goes on a diet

I had the pleasure of meeting Jennie at Dragon Con in 2014. (Obby was away from their table when I went by.) Take a look at their comic, I think you’ll like it–and it will never, ever insult your intelligence or tell you to eat Free Range Kale.

Media Getting It Right: Anger at Antivaxxers

There are lots of blogs and columns that take bad science coverage to task. I want to provide balance, so I’m starting a new subcategory here: good science journalism. I think those who put forth the effort and spend the time to get things right deserve some recognition.

Anyone who cares about the truth of things on the Internet knows about Snopes, the site that documents and analyzes urban legends. Today I read an article on Snopes about a mother’s fury at how antivaxxers, with their lies, laziness and lack of a conscience have now very possibly exposed her son Griffin to deadly risk of measles, an almost-totally-preventable disease.

I’m with Jennifer Hibben-White:

If you have chosen to not vaccinate yourself or your child, I blame you.

I blame you.

You have stood on the shoulders of our collective protection for too long. From that high height, we have given you the PRIVILEGE of our protection, for free. And in return, you gave me this week. A week from hell. Wherein I don’t know if my BABY will develop something that has DEATH as a potential outcome.

I appreciate Hibben-White’s reasoned and powerful rage, and I appreciate Barbara and David Mikkelson’s help in spreading the message.