Melanie Phillips: Crank magnetism in action on evolution and vaccines

A while back, Mark Hoofnagle coined a term that I like very much: Crank magnetism. To boil it down to its essence, crank magnetism is the phenomenon in which a person who is a crank in one area very frequently tends to be attracted to crank ideas in other, often unrelated areas. I had noticed this tendency long before I saw Mark's post, including one Dr. Lorraine Day, who, besides being a purveyor of quackery, is also a rabid anti-Semite and Holocaust denier who had treated arch-Holocaust Ernst Zündel with "alternative" therapies when he was in jail awaiting trial, and a conspiracy theorist. I had also noted that Peter Duesberg, perhaps the most famous HIV/AIDS denialist, had gone off the deep end pursuing an interesting but unproven idea about cancer far beyond what the evidence warranted. Mark had coined a punchy, clever term to describe the tendency. I stashed it away to be used when I feel the need.

I feel the need now.

You see, I just came across an article by a certain British pundit named Melanie Phillips that confirms the presence of some serious crank magnetism. British readers will forgive me if I'm not that familiar with Phillips. I only know her for her role in being one of the most vigorous defenders of the godfather of the anti-vaccine movement in the U.K., Andrew Wakefield, who, in addition to being an incompetent scientist who was in the pocket of trial lawyers suing vaccine manufacturers, was just this year revealed to be a scientific fraud. Over the years, Phillips has written numerous articles full of self-righteous pontificating about how the poor brave maverick doctor Andrew Wakefield has been so abused, chock full of pseudoscience, misinformation, and fear mongering about MMR and cries of "witch hunt." Not surprisingly, she trumpeted the Hannah Poling case as vindication for the anti-vaccine movement, falling hook, line, and sinker for the intellectually dishonest spin the anti-vaccine movement put on it. More recently, she joined stupid cubed in trying to spin the Bailey Banks case as "proof" that the Vaccine Court had "admitted" that vaccines can cause autism. Indeed, she is widely known for starting (or at least spreading) the claim that Brian Deer, the investigative reporter who broke the Wakefield story, had some sort of "conflict of interest" because he had allegedly reported Andrew Wakefield to the General Medical Council but continued to report on it, referring to him as "a 'deer' in the headlights."

In other words, Melanie Phillips is an anti-vaccine crank par excellence.

And, now, in a triumph of crank magnetism, it turns out that she's a believer in "intelligent design" creationism, so much so that she's very, very annoyed indeed at biologists and those who accept the scientific validity of evolution quite correctly characterizing ID as creationism:

Listening to the Today programme this morning, I was irritated once again by yet another misrepresentation of Intelligent Design as a form of Creationism. In an item on the growing popularity of Intelligent Design, John Humphrys interviewed Professor Ken Miller of Brown University in the US who spoke on the subject last evening at the Faraday Institute, Cambridge. Humphrys suggested that Intelligent Design might be considered a kind of middle ground between Darwinism and Creationism. Miller agreed but went further, saying that Intelligent Design was

nothing more than an attempt to repackage good old-fashioned Creationism and make it more palatable.

But this is totally untrue. Miller referred to a landmark US court case in 2005, Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District, which did indeed uphold the argument that Intelligent Design was a form of Creationism in its ruling that teaching Intelligent Design violated the constitutional ban against teaching religion in public schools. But the court was simply wrong, doubtless because it had heard muddled testimony from the likes of Prof Miller.

Not exactly. Judge Jones correctly ruled that ID is a form of creationism and therefore a religious, not a scientific, doctrine based on copious testimony and evidence, applying surprisingly astute scientific and judicial reasoning to it to make a decision. Moreover, it was not Professor Miller's testimony that was muddled. Rather, it was the testimony of ID boosters that was hopelessly muddled to the point of incoherence. Apparently Phillips hasn't heard of the famous "wedge strategy," whereby attacking evolution is the point of the "wedge" that will "split the log" and create an opening to insert supernatural religious beliefs into science, politics, and the broader society in general, thus defeating secularism and the materialist world view represented by science. The lawyers for Kitzmiller clearly demonstrated the "intellectual" (if one can use such a word) for ID coming straight from old-fashioned "scientific creationism." One of the most famous pieces of evidence for that was the infamous "cdesign proponentsists" error in an ID textbook, which those of us who defend biology and science against religious pseudoscience like to mock to this very day. Moreover, it was not very difficult for lawyers challenging Dover to show evidence that the Dover school board's decision to teach ID in the science classroom came from explicitly religious motivations, when Bill Buckingham so famously said, " "Nearly 2,000 years ago someone died on a cross for us; shouldn't we have the courage to stand up for him?"

But if you want utter hilarity on par with Phillips' antivaccine nonsense, check out this next bit by Phillips:

Whatever the ramifications of the specific school textbooks under scrutiny in the Kitzmiller/Dover case, the fact is that Intelligent Design not only does not come out of Creationism but stands against it. This is because Creationism comes out of religion while Intelligent Design comes out of science.

Ha. Heh. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha! Oh hehehehehehehehehehe!

"Intelligent design comes out of science." Ah, me. Too funny. Sorry about that. On to Melanie:

Creationism, whose proponents are Bible literalists, is a specific doctrine which holds that the earth was literally created in six days. Intelligent Design, whose proponents are mainly scientists, holds that the complexity of science suggests that there must have been a governing intelligence behind the origin of matter, which could not have developed spontaneously from nothing.

Apparently Phillips knows as much about creationism as she does about vaccines--or science, for that matter. No, creationism is not the narrow doctrine that states that the earth was literally created in six days. Creationism is the belief that natural forces are not adequate to explain how life in general, and human life in particular, came about, and that, therefore, God must have done it. In the case of ID, that boils down to the concept of "irreducible complexity," which claims that some biological structures are simply so complex that evolution cannot account for them. Therefore, a "designer" must have had a hand. Of course--wink, wink, nudge, nudge--that "designer" doesn't necessarily have to be God, although, oddly enough, a lot of ID proponents don't seem to be able to get that message and keep their story straight. They frequently acknowledge that the "designer" is God. Indeed, the whole point of the pro-ID movie Expelled! is that those evil secularists and atheists are persecuting the religious because they propose that a "designer" must have had a hand in evolution. Moreover, very few of the movers and shakers of the ID movement are actually scientists. Phillip Johnson, for instance, is a lawyer. The claim that ID "came from science" is utterly risible.


The confusion arises partly out of ignorance, with people lazily confusing belief in a Creator with Creationism. But belief in a Creator is common to all people of monotheistic faith - with many scientists amongst them -- the vast majority of whom would regard Creationism as totally ludicrous. In coming to the conclusion that a governing intelligence must have been responsible for the ultimate origin of matter, Intelligent Design proponents are essentially saying there must have been a creator. The difference between them and people of religious faith is that ID proponents do not necessarily believe in a personalised Creator, or God.

This is one of those observations that is more or less true, but irrelevant to the question of whether ID represents religion or a strain of creationism. It is. Indeed, Phillips just admitted it by pointing out that ID proponents may not believe in a personal God but that they do believe that God did it all. She may try to redefine creationism to exclude ID, but no one with a knowledge of the history of creationism will be fooled. She's certainly good at laying down the same sorts of logical fallacies as she does for the anti-vaccine movement and playing Humpty Dumpty, who famously said, "When I use a means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

Truly, crank magnetism in action.

Of course, two forms of pseudoscience just aren't enough for the true crank. So, let's see. Melanie Phillips is a complete and total anti-vaccine crank. She's also an "intelligent design" creationist crank as well. So what's left?

Oh, yes: She's a climate change denialist crank as well, citing fake experts. Indeed, George Monbiot included Phillips in his list of the top ten climate change deniers, referring to her as "Genuinely Scary Spice" and describing her thusly:

Mel P (Genuinely Scary Spice) appears to believe that half the scientists on earth are engaged in a series of giant conspiracies. Like Christopher Booker (below), she dismisses not only climate change but also the entire canon of evolutionary science. She also stoutly defends the thesis that MMR injections cause autism.

Truly, when it comes to crank magnetism, Phillips represents the trifecta of woo! One wonders what new form of pseudoscience she will embrace next. I wonder if she's "skeptical" that HIV causes AIDS?


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One poster boy for crank magnetism is Dr. Matthias Rath, exploiter of AIDS victims with quack supplement therapy, who also promotes weird conspiracy theories. He is given to paying for full-page grandiose warnings about the Conspiracy Du Jour in major newspapers. Here he tries to link 9/11 and the Iraq war to Big Pharma:

And of course alt med is crammed full of people who also believe in chemtrails, UFOs and the Zionist Conspiracy Behind Everything.

Once your brain filter shuts down, every kind of weirdness floods in, it seems.

By Dangerous Bacon (not verified) on 06 May 2009 #permalink

Melanie Phillips is primarily known in the UK as a religious bigot. She tends to concentrate on attacking muslems in any shape or form (she wrote a book called Londinistan that is full of the sort of ridiculous nonsense that you wouldn't be hard pressed to find on Stormfront). She occasionally writes articles attacking atheists and obviously some antivax stuff that Orac has noted but that side of things seems to be a side issue for her compared to her hate of muslems. She writes for the Daily Mail - or as its known in the UK, the 'Daily Bigot' which primarily has an audience of xenophobes with the scientific knowledge of your average Huffington Post wellness expert.

Melanie Phillips has without doubt drunk deep from the cup of conservative kool-aid, she's almost beyond parody.

Unfortunately her mix of exaggeration, misrepresentation and willful ignorence also popular with right-wing Brits and other contrarians, so she gets plenty of platforms from which to spew her bile.

I'm not sure if she's as influential now as she was a few years ago, I get the impression that her increasing crankyness has placed her further and further outside the mainstream as time has progressed.

At least I hope that's the case!

"Creating an insult to intelligence"

Whahahahahaha.Such a good title!

Need we say more?

Scienceblogs was down a few hours ago. I was happy, because I knew if I read anything, I'd just get pissed off. I couldn't resist, so I clicked on the bookmark, and voila, here's this post.

She must be in the denialism hall of fame, since she hits them all: evolution, climate change, Holocaust, vaccines. Is there anything left? Is there any amount of ridicule that we can heap on this woman that would adequately vent our true feelings?

After spending an hour or two every morning reading all of the science and medicine blogs, I'm going to have to take a pharmaceutical to make it through the day. I am really pissed off.

Holocaust denial? Where? I didn't see that. If anything, Phillips is unrelentingly on the side of Israel, decries the influx of Muslim immigrants into the U.K. to a hysterical and borderline racist degree. (Her book is freakin' called Londonistan, fer cryin' out loud!). That is, of course, more crank thinking, but it's hardly Holocaust denial.

Holy crap that woman has crazy eyes. I'd cross the street to avoid her.

She's certainly not a holocaust denier as far as I know (well if she is then she's the only Jewish pro-Israel neo-con I know that falls into that category!)
I think Micheal must be mixing her up with someone else.

Melanie Phillips is at best a complete idiot or at worst a compulsive liar. She doesn't need any publicity or acknowledgment; she should just be ignored.

While Sigmund correctly points out that the Daily Mail / Daily Hate is indeed a bigoted, poisonous fascist rag (truly fascist - look up the history of the paper), it is also - utterly depressingly - one of the most, if not THE most, popular 'newspapers' in the UK.

At times like this I remind myself of a wonderful quip from the comedy 'A Bit of Fry and Laurie':

"Well I read the Daily Mail. I prefer it to a newspaper, really"

By Anandamide (not verified) on 06 May 2009 #permalink

Melanie P is indeed well known in the UK. Mainly and originally a political writer, she moved from farish left to overboard right. If you Google "Mad Mel" or "Clinically sane Mel" (Brits are strong on irony) about half your hits will be for more unbelievable rants from this magnet.

Unfortunately she is dangerous because she takes bad peoples' prejudices, articulates, expands and "justifies" them - then feeds 'em right back.

My favorite example of crank magnetism is Tom Bethell, author the the "Politically Incorrect Guide to Science." So far I have him down for Intelligent Design, HIV/Aids denialism, Global Warming Denialism and Oxfordianism (the idea the Shakespeare was written by the Earl of Oxford).

She's also a stem-cell denialist. Check out this over-the-top claim about human cloning and stem cell research:

These developments are being hailed as scientific breakthroughs which hold out the hope of cures for a range of dreadful diseases. And of course, it is entirely understandable that those who are suffering in this way will desperately cling to anything which offers hope. But far from enhancing our humanity, this scientific race threatens to destroy it altogether.

Oops on Holocaust Denialism. So she misses out on the hall-of-fame voting.

BTW, I'm flabbergasted that she's Jewish, since she reads like a right-wing Christian. Intelligent Design is really a Christian theology (IMHO). Judaism, except for maybe some very fundamentalist sect, has no problem with Evolution.

I was going to insinuate she might be a bit racist but thought that a bit unfair, but then Orac said as much. You can see for yourself here:…

disgusting really.

there was an even more egrerious (sp?) when she said she found it amusing that a bus carrying humanitarian relief to the palestinians was pelted with stones by egyptians .... george galloway was on board apparently. No matter what your feelings for Galloway may be, when people are hurt and property is damaged it's just sad; it's not something to laugh about:…

fucking bitch (sorry Orac for swearing but this pisses me right off)


I am in no way insinuating that Orac called Mel "a bit racist" he called her "borderline racist" which i think is subtly different and probably a better desciption.

retracted in advance.

Ugh. Ms. Phillips has responded to criticisms of her ID column, and she really lets the stupid fly in this one:…

The commenters on that thread are even worse. They just go nattering on and on and on about how "secular inquisitors" are forcing "materialist dogma" on them, but it seems like the only example of the oppressive horrors committed by this "inquisition" they can come up with is, "The evilutionists think we're stupid!"

Wow. I just perused a few other entries in this blog.

This science blog is a cover for Israeli attacks on scientific people who oppose Israel politically.

I kind of figured that when I found it. It is nice to know I was right.

I know he won't, but I would like to see Orac talk to his targets instead of pointing at them, calling them names, and laughing.

I would like to see the "intelligent" audience realize that they are a mob that Orac is directing what to do. Orac tells the mob this person should be hated, and the mob then commences to post 10 inches of hate comments.

Unless of course the people posting comments are all AIPAC members helping Orac with his mission. Then "the random commenting public" that is posting already knows what is going on with this sham "scientific" blog.

I'm calling woo-POE ten times over on Happeh. When I first saw that site, I thought it had to be a joke. Now I'm convinced.

"I know he won't, but I would like to see Orac talk to his targets instead of pointing at them, calling them names, and laughing"

I would like to see this too. However, past experience of attempting to do exactly that has shown Orac - and those of us who have also attempted - that such an endevour is very rarely met with any sort of reasonable response. Often responses include insults, accusations of racism and xenophobia, nazi-ism, fraud, incompetance, professional negligence, as well as pedantic nit-picking and deliberate attempts to quote-mine and misreport. This is even amongst the rarer vaccine skeptics who actually have a working knowledge of vaccines and autism.

It's a good day around here when the vaccine skeptics that show up have effective knowledge and a willingness to accept that they may be wrong.

"It's a good day around here when the vaccine skeptics that show up have effective knowledge and a willingness to accept that they may be wrong."

care to give an example?

"care to give an example?"

Of course not. Such people rarely come here, thus examples are hard to find.

In comparison, people like cooler, lurker, Crosby and Dawn are fairly frequent visitors as are people like them. Orac has several easily available and identifiable articles/posts where he directly or indirectly challenges several such people on several related topics.

If I were to give someone one piece of advice on what to believe in today's crazy world, it would be "Read Melanie Phillips, then believe the opposite".

It's remarkable how she can be wrong on everything she puts her mind to.

Ugh, that was disgusting then i read the link Wes posted and it got even worse - now i'm angry and it's only quarter past ten. Oh, and did anyone notice John A Davison turn up in the comments? You know you're onto some solid science when JAD turns up to defend you.

By Carpworld (not verified) on 06 May 2009 #permalink


I misread your post. ignore my earlier comments.

Happeh, you can rest easy. I for one hated Melanie Phillips and all she stands for long before Orac mentioned her...and probably before he'd heard of her.

As for the pro-Israeli lobby thing you are clearly nuts. Melanie Phillips is herself a rather extreme Pro-Israel commentator (in the loosing all perspective, objectivity and reason sense), and has in the past labelled Jews who have called for better understanding of the Palestinians and more dialogue between Jews and Palestinians as "Jews for Genocide".

If this blog is "is a cover for Israeli attacks on scientific people who oppose Israel politically" why would it attack Melanie Phillips?

The Spectator used to be an entertaining read back in the day, too. It was firmly against the war in Iraq, except for the stuff it published by John Derbyshire. And I figured they included him either for "balance," or because he's well known, or because he looked completely ridiculous stuck out on his own with absolutely every other contributor and every editor slagging off the war and George Bush Jr. every chance they got. All from a very old Tory, Little England, minding one's own business POV.
I got disenchanted with the paper the more they started publishing Mark "Boy Who Cried Caliphate" Steyn, and these days I can barely read it.
I find it hard to believe that Boris Johnson, regardless of his faults, has any use for this kind of nonsense. I'd like to think he's just too busy mayorizing London to pay much attention to his editorial duties.
Splendid that the Spectator is now helping dumb down British Conservatism to Rick Santorum levels.

By Antiquated Tory (not verified) on 07 May 2009 #permalink

Surely it's the Daily Wail?

My mum reads it. Got her very worried about our kid's vaccinations. She also now assumes that danger is lurking around every corner.. it's a pretty nasty influence.

By Andrew Dodds (not verified) on 07 May 2009 #permalink

This science blog is a cover for Israeli attacks on scientific people who oppose Israel politically.

I kind of figured that when I found it. It is nice to know I was right.

One of the things that never ceases to make me laugh about conspiracy theorists is their inherent egotism. They fantasize these grandiose conspiracies and then award themselves credit for exposing those huge, elaborate, labyrinthine conspiracies -- without leaving their keyboard or doing anything even mildly difficult in the way of analysis.

I mean, by contrast, not even the most rabid right-wing armchair warrior would claim that he could go out on the battlefield and single-handedly defeat the entire army of Random Communist Nation. Yet it's practically a daily occurence to see crackpots like Happeh Meal announce, in effect, "You! You represent millions of tainted dollars from the war chest of Big Pharma/Big Moon Landing/Big Israel/Big Gluten/Big Big Band and all their decades of practice at nefariously deceiving the public! But I am so blessedly smart that simply by pulling guesses from nether regions I can single-handedly ascertain The Truth behind all your lies! I just have to guess, and my guess is confirmed, confirmed by the fact that I guessed!" Pretty hilarious.

By Antaeus Feldspar (not verified) on 07 May 2009 #permalink

Melanie Philips also writes (or has written, not read it in the past few months) for the Jewish Chronicle. To my everlasting shame as a onetime member of Anglo-Jewry, as the JC is usually fairly good. Sadly, I'm stuck with the woman as one of the tribe. She's not a denier.

When MelPhilosteles first pubished her antivax tirade, I wrote her a long rebuttal, addressing every point she had raised and knocking them down one by one. To which I received a six word reply: "I stand by what I wrote".
Deep thinker, this woman ain't.

Here's a simple test: if your entire hypothesis is based on nothing more than a false dichotomy, criticism of evolution, and a little bit of faith in the supernatural, it's a form of creationism. Using science-y sounding terms doesn't make it scientific.

Thanks for posting, Happeh. I had a look at your web site: pure gold, the funniest parody I've seen in weeks. I started my day with a belly laugh.

Melanie Phillips is a political commenter and she needs to stay away from science.

Melanie Phillips is a bigot and her views on equal rights for gay people are an absolute disgrace. No wonder she writes for the Daily Mail! Nice hair.

Melanie Phillips is a bigot and her views on equal rights for gay people are an absolute disgrace. No wonder she writes for the Daily Mail! Oh and nice hair Mel.

Melanie Phillips is a political commenter and she needs to stay away from science.

. . . and politics of course

I caught Melanie Phllips on Culture Shocks today (7/27/10)That woman is a loon. She thinks Obama is a Muslim and thinks believing that Argentina might have a legitimate claim on tha Falklands is siding with America's enemies. The host tried to ask her about the MMR stuff but she tried to pretend it wasn't true. She is also supposedly agnostic, but spent a hel of a lot of time defending Judeo-Christian (and only J-C)religion

By Thomas A Everett (not verified) on 28 Jul 2010 #permalink

@42 - It is inconsistent to believe in evolution and a literal reading of most religious creation accounts. It is not necessarily inconsistent to believe in both evolution and God.

By Mephistopheles… (not verified) on 19 Dec 2010 #permalink

Ali @42:

It is no more inconsistent to "believe in" both evolution and a god than to believe in the gravity and a god. Gravity and evolution are both descriptions of how the world works. If a religion teaches that these things aren't true, that natural selection doesn't happen or that massive objects do not attract each other, that religion is wrong.

One doesn't have to be an atheist to see that there's a major difference between "a god exists" and "a particular 20th century American interpretation of Genesis is literally true." Genesis cannot be literal truth: it contradicts evolution and geology, and it contradicts itself. That in itself is not proof there are no gods, and believers are doing their cause no favors by insisting that believing in god means accepting that their god created the Earth, grass, and fruit trees before the sun and other stars.

Would you guys accept that it is inconsistent to believe in evolution and God at the same time?

Not at all. If God is all-knowing and all-wise, then without a single doubt He could have created built evolution into the world He devised, as a means to His ends.

The only halfway intelligent argument I can see for even considering there to be an inconsistency ("my particular denomination says it's inconsistent" doesn't qualify) is the idea that a God who watches the fall of every sparrow would never allow His creation to progress according to a process such as evolution which has such uncontrolled results. However, the same logic would suggest that God would never entrust the creation of new people in His world to a similarly uncontrolled process such as sexual reproduction -- he would demand on having every new child come into the world as a result of special creation, since simply allowing men and women to copulate as they choose and produce offspring no matter whether the union was rightful or sinful.

Since obviously children are produced by sexual reproduction all the time (we have no knowledge that they have ever come about through special creation) obviously all those who are claiming "Oh, God would never do it that way!" don't know the mind of God as well as they claim to.

By Antaeus Feldspar (not verified) on 19 Dec 2010 #permalink