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 word…it 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?