Crank magnetism in action: Astrology, crop circles, and Holocaust denial, oh my!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years of delving into pseudoscience, quackery, and alternative medicine is that conspiracy theories are just like Lays potato chips; cranks can’t eat just one. No, they have to stick their hand in the bag and pull out a huge, heaping handful and snarf it all down. Believers in “alternative medicine” quackery often also believe in New Age woo or other bizarre unscientific beliefs. Scratch a “9/11 Truther” and you’ll often also find a Holocaust denier. One of my fellow ScienceBloggers, Mark Hoofnagle, has a great term for how cranks seem unable to be cranks in just one area, crank magnetism, complete with examples. Indeed, I’ve covered examples of just this phenomenon over the three and a half years this blog has been in existence. Perhaps the one that sticks out the most in my mind is Dr. Lorraine Day, whose journey from being a respected academic orthopedic surgeon into a purveyor of quackery I discussed in one of my earliest posts in the old blog. In a great example of crank magnetism, it turns out that she’s a Holocaust denier and a New World Order conspiracy theorist, not to mention a raging anti-Semite. Truly, crank magnetism has achieved its highest (or, if you prefer, lowest) form in Dr. Day.

Well, I think I may have found Dr. Day’s soulmate, courtesy of Phil Plait.

Meet Nicholas Kollerstrom, an academic recently dumped from University College London. His research fellowship was terminated a couple of months ago because of his Holocaust denial, specifically for writing an essay for the Iranian News Service entitled The Auschwitz ‘Gas Chamber’ Illusion.

Yes, I’m serious. Here was a man who studied astrology and crop circles. Let me say it again: Astrology and crop circles. Indeed, he wrote a fairly famous book on crop circles as well as an astrological analysis of times when alchemists claimed to have successfully made gold, supposedly finding “remarkable” features in common. (This, of course, makes me wonder if Kollerstrom believes in alchemy, too. It wouldn’t surprise me. Certainly he appears to believe that astrology can predict excellence in certain professions.) if I have nothing against UCL, but what on earth were they thinking here to have hired the guy in the first place? In what department was the offered fellowship? What was Kollerstrom going to study? I guess UCL will tolerate belief in and the study of pseudoscience but the administration brings the hammer down when it comes to pseudohistory:

The massacre of Jewish people during the Holocaust was “scientifically impossible,” according to an article published by an Iranian satellite channel on its Web site.

Disabled victims of the vicious policies of Nazi Germany are shown in this Yad Vashem archive photo.

The article was written by Nicholas Kollerstrom, an academic specializing in astrology and crop circles, who had his fellowship terminated by University College London last month after he said there were never any gas chambers at Auschwitz.

“The views expressed by Dr. Kollerstrom are diametrically opposed to the aims, objectives and ethos of UCL, such that we wish to have absolutely no association with them or with their originator,” the University College said in a statement. “We therefore have no choice but to terminate Dr. Kollerstrom’s honorary research fellowship with immediate effect.”

Press TV, an Iranian English-language 24-hour news channel, was set up last year, by the Iranian government, to offer “unbiased” reporting and “in-depth and complete analyses of current affairs,” according to its Web site. It posted Kollerstrom’s article on Sunday, and despite protest from a Jewish community organization, the article is still on the site.

Kollerstrom’s even written in other places:

And he added: “If a smaller number were gassed, then surely the Jewish community should be pleased that it wasn’t so ghastly.”

Lovely guy, isn’t he? There’s more, though:

He wrote: “Let us hope the schoolchildren visitors are properly taught about the elegant swimming-pool at Auschwitz, built by the inmates, who would sunbathe there on Saturday and Sunday afternoons while watching the water-polo matches; and shown the paintings from its art class, which still exist; and told about the camp library which had some 45,000 volumes for inmates to choose from, plus a range of periodicals; and the six camp orchestras at Auschwitz/Birkenau, its theatrical performances, including a children’s opera, the weekly camp cinema, and even the special brothel established there.”

The reality that there was indeed a swimming pool at Auschwitz-Birkenau does not in any way cast doubt on the fact that mass gassings took place there, any more than the fact that there was a labor camp component of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where many prisoners survived, does. The swimming pool, as far as can be told, was for the SS and the collaborator Capos who assisted them, not for the prisoners. It’s just anther typical Holocaust denier lie in which an authentic but limited exceptional case is tarted up, exaggerated, and then generalize to the situation for all prisoners at a Nazi camp. It’s also not surprising that there would be a pool there, given that the staff working at the camp did manage to have a good time when not working.

I looked up The Walls of Auschwitz, as well as another of of Kollerstrom’s “revisionist” articles, entitled The Auschwitz ‘Gas Chamber’ Illusion. From my decade in the Usenet and blogosphere trenches refuting this sort of nonsense, I immediately recognized that there wasn’t a single argument in either article that I hadn’t encountered before. “Illusion,” the more poorly written of the two, for example, begins thusly:

This essay will argue that well-designed cyanide gas chambers were indeed present at Auschwitz, and did work efficiently, but that they were operated for purposes of hygiene and disinfection, in order to save lives and not take them. Terrible mass mortality came about in the German labour-camps, especially towards the end of the war, but maybe we have to try a bit harder to understand what caused this. Amongst all the archival material for the German Third Reich, there has always been a notable lack of documentation to support the existence of an intentional mass-extermination program – of Jews, or anyone else. We’ve all heard stories about a Nazi program of exterminating Jews, but to what extent are there documents or any physical remains showing this? Has the traditional Holocaust story developed merely out of rumours, misunderstandings, and wartime propaganda?  From stories pre-dating the Second World War to the Nuremberg Trials which gave official sanction to the notion, to subsequent trials, books and films, we have had it imprinted on our collective psyche.

In this article, Kollerstrom parrots three favorite denier canards:

  1. That the gas chambers at Auschwitz were not used for extermination but rather delousing
  2. That there was no good documentation to support the existence of an intentional mass extermination program
  3. That the “Final Solution” involved expulsion, not extermination

Naturally, Kollerstrom can’t resist finishing with a reference to the “hoax of Nuremberg” and donning the undeserved mantle of iconclast willing to speak truth to power. The other article, “Walls,” expands on the canard that the gas chambers were not used for extermination. Hilariously, Kollerstrom cites the utterly discredited report by “gas chamber expert” (who’s not) Fred Leuchter, among others.

The first denier myth is, as most denier myths are, based on a half-truth. There were indeed delousing chambers. Holocaust deniers will argue that much higher levels of cyanide residue were found on the walls of the ruins of delousing chambers than on those of the homicidal gas chambers but that the opposite would be expected if the homicidal gas chambers were actually used to kill people. One thing that has to be understood as background is that it takes a much higher concentration of cyanide to kill lice than it does to kill humans. Indeed, concentrations of Zykon-B as high as 16,000 ppm for as long as 72 hours were sometimes used to kill lice, while only 300 ppm is quite effective at killing humans. Given that the the walls of the delousing chambers were in contact with cyanide at much higher concentrations for much longer periods of time, added to the fact that the extermination chambers were largely destroyed, thus leaving their walls exposed to the elements for 45 years before Leuchter, it is not at all surprising that cyanide levels would be low or nonexistent in the extermination chambers and easily detectable on the walls of the delousing chambers, as the Cracow Institute of Forensic Research reported:

The hydrocyanic acid (HCN) that is released from the Zyklon B preparation is a liquid with a boiling point of about 27 degrees Celsius. It has an acidic character, and therefore forms compounds with metallic salts, which are known as cyanides. The salts of alkaline metals (such as sodium and potassium) are water soluble.

Hydrocyanic acid is a very weak acid, and accordingly its salts dissolve easily in stronger acids. Even carbonic acid, which is formed as a reaction of carbon dioxide with water, will dissolve ferro-cyanide.

Stronger acids, such as sulfuric acids, easily dissolve the cyanides. The compounds of cyanide ions with heavy metals are longer lasting. This includes the already mentioned Prussian blue, although this will also slowly dissolve in an acidic environment.

Therefore, one can hardly assume that traces of cyanic compounds could still be detected in construction materials (plaster, brick) after 45 years, after being subjected to the weather and the elements (rain, acid oxides, especially sulfuric and nitrogen oxides). More reliable would be the analysis of wall plaster [samples] from closed rooms which were not subject to weather and the elements (including acid rain).

Of course, the Leuchter report was not the only such pseudoscientific report thrown together by Holocaust deniers trying to “prove” that there were no homicidal gassings at Auschwitz. There was also one by German Holocaust denier Germar Rudolf and others. Suffice it to say that these pseudoscientific “studies” have been thoroughly discussed by Danny Keren and Jamie McCarthy, as well as two articles by Richard J. Green entitled The Chemistry of Auschwitz and Leuchter, Rudolf, & The Iron Blues. Also don’t forget that at other camps Zyklon-B was not the favored agent of execution in the gas chambers; diesel exhaust was.

The second myth, that there were no documents, is about as ludicrous as it gets. It dismisses mountains of evidence from eyewitnesses and documentary evidence from the Nazis themselves. Of course, this entire myth is made possible by how the Nazis frequently used euphemisms in official documents for what was really going on. Howver, the confluence of evidence is irrefutable, and denying it depends upon in essence a massive conspiracy theory in which Allies supposedly tortured hundreds of key Nazis into admitting horrific crimes that they never committed and planting thousands of documents that were only recovered after the war. Indeed, the Goebbels Diaries were rescued from being sold as scrap paper and included entries such as this:

February 14, 1942: The Führer once again expressed his determination to clean up the Jews in Europe pitilessly. There must be no squeamish sentimentalism about it. The Jews have deserved the catastrophe that has now overtaken them. Their destruction will go hand in hand with the destruction of our enemies. We must hasten this process with cold ruthlessness.

March 27, 1942: The procedure is a pretty barbaric one and not to be described here more definitely. Not much will remain of the Jews. On the whole it can be said that about 60 per cent of them will have to be liquidated whereas only 40 per cent can be used for forced labor.

What is it that Holocaust deniers claims about there having been no plan to exterminate European Jewry and that Hitler never ordered such a plan or knew what was happening to the Jews. Indeed, Michael Shermer has pointed out

Okay, let’s do a simple calculation. According to Irving (p. 16), there were 11 million Jews left in Europe at this time. 11 million Jews x 60% liquidation = 6.6 million liquidated Jews. Um, where have I seen a figure like this before?

Where, indeed?

The third and final of the top three favorite denier myths is that the “Final Solution” involved expulsion, not extermination. Once again, this is a lie that contains a grain of truth. It is indeed true that the initial Nazi plan was to expel all Jews from the territories under its control. Before the war, this involved making life as unpleasant as possible for German Jews so that many of them emigrated, after, of course, having had to pay large fees and having their lives’ possessions plundered. Early in the war, it involved shipping the Jews into ghettoes, where they lived under horrific conditions. After the invasion of the Soviet Union, expulsion turned to extermination, as millions of Jews fell under the control of the Nazis, too many to be expelled. Indeed, one briefly considered plan was to take all the Jews and ship them to Madagascar; however, shipping millions of Jews thousands of miles by sea to a remote island was clearly impractical, especially given that the British Navy controlled the sea lanes. The idea was dropped in the spring of 1941. Indeed, one could say that the Holocaust evolved over the 12 years of the Nazi regime, an observation that is encompassed in the whole functionalism versus intentionalism debate. (Believe it or not the Wikipedia entry on this topic isn’t a bad brief description.)

Of course, Kollerstrom can’t resist pulling another favorite rhetorical gambit, claiming that the number of Jews murdered was nowhere near the accepted figure of around 6 million. Indeed, in a different and apparently earlier version of the “‘Gas Chamber’ Illusion” article (listed as having been revised on 5/5/08) than the one on CODOH (which is listed as being “Revised 5/24/08), we find these words starting out:

As surprising as it may sound, the only intentional mass extermination program in the concentration camps of WW2 was targeted at Germans. From April, 1945 five million Germans were rounded up after surrendering, and deliberately starved until well over one million had died, in French and American-run concentration camps[1] – an event soon erased from the history books. There was, in contrast, never a centrally-coordinated Nazi program of exterminating Jews in Germany. Lethal gas chambers did not function in German labour-camps, that’s just an illusion. The traditional Holocaust story has developed out of rumours, misunderstandings, and wartime propaganda. From stories pre-dating the Second World War to the Nuremberg Trials which gave official sanction to the notion, to subsequent trials, books and films, we have had it imprinted on our collective psyche. In most of Europe now, it is a thoughtcrime to believe what you have just read, punishable by imprisonment, so think carefully before deciding to read on.

Yes indeed. It’s pure Holocaust denial crankery. Not only does he invoke utterly discredited Holocaust denier Arthur Butz to argue that “only” one million Jews died (and not by intentional murder, by the way) but he claims the mantle of free speech victim. I’ve said time and time again that I detest laws outlawing Holocaust denial in some European countries, but that doesn’t mean that lies shouldn’t be refuted at every turn. Indeed, what I hate the most about such laws is that they give an undeserved patina of plausibility to such claims to the most despicable anti-Semites, neo-Nazis, and Hitler admirers. Consequently, we’re treated to the disgusting spectacle of white supremacists like David Duke (who hilariously calls Kollerstrom a “respected astronomer and author” and the “latest scientist to discover the limits of academic freedom”) lamenting an “unjustified” firing. Personally, I find it interesting and telling that Kollerstrom apparently sanitized the original version of his essay before republishing it on CODOH. It’s also a good thing that the wacky conspiracy loons at Rense.com kept the original posted, so that reasonable people can point and laugh at its sheer, despicably anti-Semitic idiocy.

So let’s see. We have a believer in crop circles, astrology, and Holocaust denial. It’s a trifecta of woo, a perfect example of crank magnetism. I often wonder why people who tend towards one pseudoscientific or pseudohistorical (or just plain crank) belief usually cannot resist the siren call of other forms of woo. Oddly enough, it doesn’t appear to be a lack of intelligence. David Irving, for example, for all his digustingness, is a very intelligent man. Dr. Lorraine Day, for all her looniness when it comes to religion, “alternative” medicine, Holocaust denial, and New World Order conspiracy theories, is also similarly very intelligent, having been a successful academic surgeon in the 1980s. From my perspective, the lack of critical thinking abilities is clearly one reason for this phenomenon, but in and of itself I doubt it’s enough. Also, no doubt a paranoid streak making them prone to accepting the conspiracy theories that are at the heart of a lot of pseudoscience and pseudohistory. There also has to be a streak of self-aggrandizement, in which the crank believes himself or herself to more creative, more insightful, more clever, more “free thinking” than all those boring conventional scientists or historians and thus able to see what they cannot. Certainly, David Irving has this latter characteristic in huge quantities. Of course, the individual mix of characteristics varies with the individual, with some just leaning more towards being credulous and others more paranoid and self-aggrandizing. Of course, what all of them also share is the “arrogance of ignorance,” in which they have a much higher opinion of their abilities than they in fact have and are thus ignorant that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Having hit a Trifecta of Woo, can Kollerstrom do even “better” than that? Come on, now, you shouldn’t even have to ask! In fact, crop circles, astrology, and Holocaust denial just aren’t enough pseudoscience for him. Oh, no. Not at all. Kollerstrom needs more.

He needs 9/11 and 7/7 “Truth,” too.