Tuesday, 12 December 2017

On Pseudoscholarship

This Article is archived at http://archive.is/Qvi8q

'Dr Mary's Monkey' - a book serving as a DIY conspiracy building kit for credulous consumers of counter knowledge -  is examined in light of another entitled: 'How We Know What Isn't So'.

In December 2010 Edward Haslam wrote to ask me whether I was interested in reviewing his book entitled: ‘Dr Mary’s Monkey for the Internet Journal of Criminology. You can read the review in the book reviews secton of that journal.

Having read the full title - Dr Mary’s Monkey: How the unsolved murder of a doctor, a secret laboratory in New Orleans and cancer-causing monkey viruses are linked to Lee Harvey Oswald, the JFK assassination and emerging global epidemics - I conducted a little research of my own on what others had written about his book.

In light of what appeared to be its general readership of conspiracy consumers I was intrigued to know why the author would want his work examined by critical criminologists. Furthermore, I now wondered whether there are lessons to be had for both the academic community and the wider public in undertaking such an unusual review.

I decided to review it because, at the very least, I think that those who teach undergraduate criminology need to point a number of their students in the direction of work that is clearly pseudo scholarship in the hope that they might learn to be less credulous.

Yes I admit it - I suspected from the outset that I was signing up to review a tin-foil conspiracy theory. But, of course I wasn't sure. The problem for me, as reviewer, was to work out how on Earth I was going to review it without spending years doggedly checking the convoluted details of Haslam's craft. Unlike the author, I had no intention of becoming a 'conspiracy researcher.' The solution, I decided, was to read it alongside a guide to understanding how to identify and make sense of pseudoscholarship. In the end, I examined Haslam’s book in light of several other works that seek to teach us how to know what isn’t so.

The essential core of the story in Haslam’s book – at least as I understand it - is, to say the least, very involvedIt is a conspiracy theory regarding the assassination of US President Kennedy.

Please take a deep breath before reading any further.

The story is that ex-airline pilot (and apparently de-frocked priest - see Cook 2009) James Ferrie, a dead witness of a failed 1967 legal case by discredited attorney Jim Garrison to prosecute the businessman Clay Shaw for conspiring to assassinate President Kennedy, was working in an ‘underground laboratory’ in his New Orleans apartment with respected orthodox university cancer researcher, Dr Mary Sherman. They were working, amongst other things, for the CIA to develop a means to assassinate Fidel Castro by way of cancer. Sherman was murdered in her own home three years earlier in July 1964 and the crime never solved. Garrison claimed in an interview in Playboy Magazine, no less, that Dr Mary Sherman had worked in Ferrie’s secret cancer lab but offered no evidence to corroborate the claim.

Haslam’s claims in Dr Mary’s Monkey hinge on there ever having been an association of any kind between Ferrie and Dr Mary Sherman. His latest edition of Dr Mary’s Monkey produces a new witness to claim that there really was an association. The witness is Judyth Baker, who claims that she was recruited by Dr Mary Sherman into a Mafia and the CIA backed “Kill Castro with cancer plot”. The underlying potential conspiracy is that Dr Mary Sherman was linked to JFK’s killer (or “patsy” for the crime) Oswald through Dr Alton Ocshner (former President of the American Cancer Society) and the alleged CIA and Mafia operative and paid cancer hobbyist Ferrie. And so perhaps Dr Mary Sherman was murdered to silence her - just in case. The book is called Dr Mary’s Monkey because she experimented on them and that leads Haslam (p.223) to ask but not answer: “Was Mary Sherman using a linear particle accelerator to kill or weaken monkey viruses as part of a desperate attempt to develop an anti-cancer vaccine? Was she testing the results of those experiments in Ferrie’s underground medical laboratory? Perhaps this is how good science goes bad?” And if the CIA and Mafia did not kill her then Dr Sherman may have been killed by her own secret linear particle accelerator and the accident covered up by a coroner or other shadowy figure who stabbed her after she was dead. You choose, it doesn't really matter, because "They" can't prove its not true. No smoke without fire - and so the craft smoulders on in this pick and mix book written by an expert in advertising.

Haslam even alludes through snaky speculation that Dr Mary Sherman and Mr Ferrie may have been the cause of the AIDS epidemic.

Finally, as if that is not enough for one book, Haslam’s new so-called “witness”, Judyth Baker, - we are told - claims to have had an affair with President Kennedy’s assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

Cook (2009: 82) amusingly writes of Haslam’s convoluted tale: “Oswald supposedly told Baker that he would do whatever he could to undermine the plot to kill JFK and save the president. After the JFK assassination, Ferrie warned Baker that if she said anything about what she knew she would be killed. Baker remains alive, so perhaps the coast is finally clear. Or maybe she’s a nut.” Haslam too remains alive, despite telling us that his research made him afraid for himself.

The foreword to Haslam’s book is written by Jim Marrs, who is the author of the conspiracy books: ‘Rule by Secrecy: The Hidden History That Connects the Trialateral Commission, the Freemasons, and the Great Pyramids’ and ‘Crossfire, the plot that killed Kennedy’ and ‘The Terror Conspiracy (about his belief that the attacks of 11 September 2001 were likely to be an inside job) and several others on UFO’s. The myth buster Aaronovitch (2010: 196) mockingly writes of Marrs: “Here is a man who must think very deeply before taking a decision about whether to cross the road.”

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Marrs’s contribution to supporting the veracity of Haslam’s own speculative work is that he simply tells us that, in this latest edition of Dr Mary's Monkey, Haslam brings a living “witness” to support his belief that Dr Mary Sherman worked with Ferrie in an “underground” laboratory in Ferrie’s apartment in New Orleans to develop a cancer causing virus to assassinate Fidel Castro.

The living 'witness', as already explained, is Judyth Baker. Baker’s credibility has been seriously questioned by others looking to fact check the JFK assassination. Some of these can be found in a so called “expert” Internet forum discussion at http://educationforum.ipbhost.com/index.php?showtopic=10653 .
If you click on the above http link and then scroll down your computer screen you will see that a person purporting to be Edward Haslam himself (if indeed it is him and not one of “Them”) appears online – if only to say he is too busy to answer his informed critics in the forum. It is worth a read for that reason alone.
I think that Dr Mary’s Monkey provides a valuable bad data source for scholars of pseudo-scholarship. The book reveals how a lone author stringing together intangible and often highly personal anecdotal information, often of unverified accuracy, constructs the foundations for a dubious conspiracy theory and asks enough questions raised from dubious or ludicrous sources to allow others to build their own tangled web of claptrap cloaked in obscurity.

Dr Mary’s Monkey is essential reading for anyone interested in how intelligent and seemingly respectable authors embrace evidence that supports their aims, while paying far less attention to that which does not.

Cook (2009), in an informative but somewhat hilarious book employs humor as a heuristic device to debunk irrational conspiracy pseudo scholarship. He believes that conspiracy theories say as much about those who assemble and disseminate them and the people who believe in them as they do about the people involved. More thoughtfully, yet essentially on the same theme, Gilovich (1991) tells us that the strength and resiliency of certain beliefs cry out for explanation and that we must not only be concerned that a thing is not true, but with why people believe in that particular falsehood. (a) How are questionable and erroneous beliefs formed? And (b) how are they maintained?

How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. By Thomas Gilovich (1991). New York. The Free Press.

Thomas Gilovich has written a timeless classic text that reveals various types of erroneous thinking and then goes many steps further to thoroughly explain exactly why it happensHis book uses fully referenced orthodox research evidence to explain why we have a tendency to see what we expect to see, to do as we are told, to try to believe what others believe – even when we think it is irrational to do so. And he ends with positive suggestions for improving our fallibilities in all of these respects.

As a criminologist and social scientist I am delighted to learn that according to Gilovich critical thinking facilities of social scientists may make important inroads into knowledge about non-academic crime counterknowledge. Indeed, Gilovich (1991. p.193) has conducted and cites research suggesting that social scientists are better equipped than chemists, physicists or biologists for debunking fallacies:

An awareness of how and when to question and a recognition of what it takes to truly know something are among the most important elements of what constitutes an educated person. Social scientists, I believe may be in the best position to instill them.”

On a personal note, having debunked a long standing biochemistry supermyth last year (Sutton 2010) and challenged the position of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) on its erroneous and, therefore irrational, promotion of spinach as a good source of iron this year (Sutton 2011a 2011b), I feel somewhat unctuously in agreement with Gilovich. But having just written that, to be totally honest, I am suffering also from a dose of imposter syndrome contracted during my bio-chemistry forays. I half expect to find myself hoisted by my own petard any day now. If that happens then so be it, because this is how science makes progress.

I exploit the new technology of the Internet when publishing my findings online for peer-to-peer review in advance of traditional peer review. I invite scholarly criticism and will shake the hand of anyone who is good enough to point out any errors I make by explaining why I am wrong. When I am wrong I admit it.

Science and other academic scholarship works, one way or another, on the principle of rational hypothesis building. Most importantly it is the responsibility of those who create a hypothesis to test it by attempting to destroy it with evidence. If it stands up to a good scholarly kicking then there might just be something in it. Simply asking questions and crowing that others cannot disprove your whacked out speculations is pseudo scholarship.

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If ever Haslam were to write that his book is in fact nothing more than a crafty marketing ploy, by an advertising expert, to sell competing ideas in the market place for credulous consumers, I believe that Dr Mary’s Monkey would contribute valuable knowledge by way of its author’s own potential to provide the world with a unique explanation of the precise dynamic process involved in supplying text to meet the huge demand for spurious unanswered questions, conspiracy, counterknowledge, and voodoo history. As it is, there is important knowledge to be gained by studying how Haslam weaves a compelling account for the credulous consumer of spurious information, which can be used to construct their own DIY conspiracy theory. Such knowledge about the marketing of, and market for, pseudo scholarship is essential if we are to learn more and teach others how to know the difference between good scholarship and pseudo scholarship.
Criminology and other areas within what we call the social sciences should provide students and the wider public with effective and practicable ways to identify the difference between real and pseudo scholarship and between real conspiracies such as Watergate and, what is in my opinion, the sort of time-stealing, selective bias, monkey business that comprises the bulk of Dr Mary’s Monkey.

Talking of ‘monkeys’, evolutionary theory teaches us that we humans evolved from a common species of ape. Charles Darwin was famous for writing down any evidence he found that questioned his theory because he knew that he tended to forget it – while having no trouble remembering that which supported it. Darwin dealt with any “problems for the theory” extremely openly and thoroughly, which is partly why he is recognized as one of the greatest scientists and scholars of all time.

On the subject of evolution, I wish to leave the final words of this review to the highly respected psychologist Gilovich (1991: 10):

“The tendency to impute order to ambiguous stimuli is simply built into the cognitive machinery we use to interpret the world. It may have been bred into us through evolution because of its general adaptiveness: We can capitalize on ordered phenomena in ways that we cannot on those that are random. The predisposition to detect patterns and make connections is what leads to discovery and advance. The problem, however, is that the tendency is so strong and automatic that we sometimes detect coherence even when it does not exist.”

"… Many times however, we treat the products of this tendency not as hypothesis, but as established facts. The predisposition to impose order can be so automatic and so unchecked that we often end up believing in the existence of phenomena that just aren’t there.”


Aaronovitch, D. (2010) Voodoo Histories: How conspiracy theory has shaped modern history. Riverhead Books

Cook, M. (2009) The Skeptics Guide to Conspiracies: From the Knights Templar to the JFK Assassination: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Worlds Most Covered-Up Conspiracy Theories. Avon. Adams Media.

Gilovich (1991) How we know what isn’t soThe Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life New York. The Free Press.

Haslam, E.T. (2007) Dr Mary's Monkey: How the unsloved murder of a doctor, a secret laboratory in New Orleans and cancer-causing monkey viruses are linked to Lee Harvey Oswald, the JFK assassination and emerging global epidemics. Waterville. TrineDay.
Sutton, M (2010) The Spinach, Popeye, Iron, Decimal Error Myth is Finally Busted. Available online:http://www.bestthinking.com/articles/science/chemistry/biochemistry/the-spinach-popeye-iron-decimal-error-myth-is-finally-busted

Sutton, M (2011a) SPIN@GE USA Beware of the Bull: The United States Department of Agriculture is Spreading Bull about Spinach, Iron and Vitamin C on the Internet. Avbailable online: http://www.bestthinking.com/articles/science/chemistry/biochemistry/spin-ge-usa-beware-of-the-bull-the-united-states-department-of-agriculture-is-spreading-bull-about-spinach-iron-and-vitamin-c-on-the-internet

Sutton, M. (2011b) Spin@ge II: Does the United States Department of Agriculture’s Publication of Spuriofacts Have its Origins in a Perverse Scientific Paper Written in 1937? . Available online: http://www.bestthinking.com/articles/science/chemistry/biochemistry/spin-ge-ii-does-the-united-states-department-of-agriculture-s-publication-of-spuriofacts-have-its-origins-in-a-perverse-scientific-paper-written-in-1937-

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