An innocent joke about worms triggers a scientific firestorm on Twitter

August 3, 2020 • 9:00 am

I’d heard about this kerfuffle, and wrote it off as a tempest in a petri dish until I saw this article in the Daily Beast. Surprisingly, the Beast, which I thought was on the liberal side of the spectrum,  took sides against the Perpetually Offended, as it should have given the ridiculous nature of the fracas.

You can read about it at the website below or just peruse my short take her (click on screenshot):

The ignition: Michael Eisen, a well known professor of genetics at UC Berkeley, an advocate for “open” science publishing, and editor of the respected journal e-Life, answered a Twitter question about the most overhyped animal.  He was clearly joking, as you can see below (Eisen’s also known for his sense of humor). Eisen suggested Caenorhabditis elegans, a roundworm that has been immensely useful in unraveling the genetics of development. It’s a “model organism,” which means that it’s studied in the lab rather than the wild.

This kind of mock dissing is applied to other “model organisms”, like the Drosophila I work on. That species, too, has taught us an immense amount about genetics and development, but throughout my career I’ve had to endure jokes about it not being a “real” species. I always laughed these off because a). it is a real species found in nature (it’s now a human commensal) and b). starting with T. H. Morgan in the early 1900s, it’s been the insect species used to study classical genetics, molecular genetics, and now evolutionary developmental biology (“evo devo”). From that species we’ve learned, for instance, about sex chromosomes, about gene duplication, about the linkage of genes on chromosomes, and so on—and that’s just the classical-genetics stuff.

I don’t think Eisen knew what he was getting into with his humorous response. (The worm is also a self-fertilizing hermaphrodite, which is what he means by “occasionally they fuck themselves”.)

The pushback began immediately, as if Eisen somehow didn’t realize the importance of the worm. He quickly made it clear that he was joking:

But he had to clarify himself again, for one clarification only leads to another if you’re facing the Woke.  Although scientists have previously not been that immersed in Wokeness, they’re starting to become that way big time, buffeted by the winds of social change and perhaps a bit peevish and restive from the pandemic.

Eisen even got faulted for using the word “fuck,” for his “frat boy humor” and for having a bit of fun on the Internet:

Some people, like Coleen Murphy, took umbrage because they had “grants and paper rejected based on *exactly* this reason.” I seriously doubt that this is literally true. Perhaps the rejections were based on a perceived lack of generality from results in C. elegans to other metazoan species, but they could have been rejected for other reasons. At any rate, that’s no reason to dump on Eisen. What we see here is animus aimed at editors and reviewers directed instead at Eisen:

It wasn’t long before the specter of racism insinuated itself into the discussion. But even black scientists pushed back:

The Beast gives a bit more information. (Ahna Skop’s tweets are now hidden.) The invocation of marginalized people is the new version of an old rule—I can’t remember its name—which said something like “Any Internet argument will eventually devolve to comparisons with Hitler.” Now it’s “systemic racism” instead of Hitler.

By far the most prolific poster in this vein was Ahna Skop, associate professor of genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and previous recipient of a Diversity, Equality and Inclusion-based award in 2018. Dr. Skop—who did not respond to a request for comment by The Daily Beast—argued extensively that making jokes about worms was merely the tip of the iceberg when it came to making jokes about marginalized identities, or an example of a ‘bystander effect’, a psychological theory arguing that individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim in a crowd. (For is it not said: First they came for the worm people, and I said nothing, as I was not a worm person?)

In the resulting threads, Dr. Skop—who identifies as “part Eastern Band Cherokee” and “disabled with EDS”—and others consistently failed to publicly respond to Black scientists like herpetologist Chelsea Connor, who tried to point out that this was a ridiculous conflation.  In a private communication Connor shared with The Daily Beast, Skop doubled down, arguing that as she had previously been harmed by entrenched sexism, her concerns regarding the worm joke were justified.

Oy!  But sensible people like Dr. Berg tried to defuse the crisis with the correct claim “it was only a joke”. She included screenshots of Skop’s tweets:

Let us bring this ludicrous squabble to an end with a quote from the Beast (criticizing the Offended) and a cartoon encapsulating the gist of the battle:

In falsely equating the real oppression of people belonging to marginalized groups to a Twitter joke about a roundworm, Wormageddon 2020 offers a clear example of how white and white-passing women misuse the language of diversity, equality and inclusion, with little accountability and self-awareness, and without any interest in the hurt that such frivolous invocations cause the people they’re theoretically defending. Someone who took the struggles that marginalized people face in academia seriously, after all, would not invoke them to win a Twitter argument about whether a worm joke is rude. “That comparison should never have been the knee-jerk reaction for them,” Connor said. “And then the response [to criticism] should have been better… The harm done stays with us and they get to log out and forget that this ever happened and let it ‘blow over’ meanwhile we have to work to fix what they did.”

My take: Eisen and Connor 42, Offended Worm People 0.  In this case Eisen properly refused to be mobbed, and the attempts to demonize him backfired, so that people like Skop have come off looking ridiculous. I’m just wondering if this episode shows a pushback against cancel culture, as did Trader Joe’s refusal to eliminate the brand names of its ethnic foods.

It was just a worm joke!

h/t: John, Peter

Letter to Nature denounces the term “quantum supremacy” as racist

December 12, 2019 • 9:00 am

Yesterday, in a comment on this site, reader Invisible Airwaves called attention to a letter to the editor in Nature about an innocuous phrase used in computer lingo. It’s unbelievable what things will offend people these days—even innocuous phrases—and it’s starting to get me down as I see no corrective in the future.

So, a group of scientist Pecksniffs have taken issue with the phrase “quantum supremacy“, which means this, according to Wikipedia:

In quantum computingquantum supremacy is the goal of demonstrating that a programmable quantum device can solve a problem that classical computers practically cannot (irrespective of the usefulness of the problem).

And here come the termites, gnawing away at this term, a term we’ve all heard often these days. Why do they object? Because. . . . well, you’ve probably already guessed. The complete letter, which is indented, is below, and if you don’t believe me you can click on the screenshot:

We take issue with the use of ‘supremacy’ when referring to quantum computers that can out-calculate even the fastest supercomputers (F. Arute et al. Nature 574, 505–510; 2019). We consider it irresponsible to override the historical context of this descriptor, which risks sustaining divisions in race, gender and class. We call for the community to use ‘quantum advantage’ instead.

The community claims that quantum supremacy is a technical term with a specified meaning. However, any technical justification for this descriptor could get swamped as it enters the public arena after the intense media coverage of the past few months. [JAC: I seriously doubt it.]

In our view, ‘supremacy’ has overtones of violence, neocolonialism and racism through its association with ‘white supremacy’. Inherently violent language has crept into other branches of science as well — in human and robotic spaceflight, for example, terms such as ‘conquest’, ‘colonization’ and ‘settlement’ evoke the terra nullius arguments of settler colonialism and must be contextualized against ongoing issues of neocolonialism. [JAC: Note the postmodernist language here.]

Instead, quantum computing should be an open arena and an inspiration for a new generation of scientists. [JAC: It’s not an “open arena”? Really? How so? And it is already an inspiration for people working on this promising new technology.]

Well, maybe the term has that resonance in their view, but not in mine—or in many other peoples’. You have to be on the lookout for this kind of “offense” to find it, and then, when you do find it, you tell everyone that it has “overtones of violence, neocolonialism and racism through its association with ‘white supremacy'”. But it has no association with white supremacy save that one of the words in the two phrases is the same. If you’re going to play that game, why not also ban the term “white”?

In fact, the term “quantum advantage” is not a good replacement, for Wikipedia, at least, says it means something different from “quantum supremacy”:

By comparison, the weaker quantum advantage is the demonstration that a quantum device can solve a problem merely faster than classical computers.

Beside the three authors listed above, Nature also lists thirteen others in the “supplementary material”:

Co: signatories:

Syed Mustafa Ali Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.
Steve Brierley Riverlane, Cambridge, UK.
Hope Bretscher Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, UK.
Juani Bermejo-Vega University of Granada, Spain.
Helmut G. Katzgraber Microsoft, Redmond, Washington, USA.
Chris Granade Microsoft, Redmond, Washington, USA.
Alan Aspuru-Guzik University of Toronto, Canada.
Sabine Wollmann University of Bristol, UK.
Dominic Horsman Université Grenoble Alpes, France.
Anne Broadbent University of Ottawa, Canada.
Ariel Bendersky University of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Cecilia Cormick National University of Córdoba, Argentina.
Shazeaa Nisa Ishmael University of Oxford, UK.

Readers with spare time might want to look up who these people are.

I have two questions here. First, why did Nature publish this overheated and ridiculous attempt to police language? Second, is there any way to stop this tsunami of virtue-flaunting before it inundates science, academia, and the rest of us?

This is science, Bill Nye?

April 24, 2017 • 12:00 pm

It’s no secret that I am not a big fan of Bill Nye, regarding him as a buffoon who will engage in any shenanigans that keep him in the public eye and help him retain the fame he desires—fame accrued as “The Science Guy”. I never saw the old show, and realize that many people liked it and it seemed to promote good science to kids; but his activities since I became aware of him have largely caused me embarrassment since he’s supposed to represent and burnish my own profession of science.

Well, Nye has a new show humbly called “Bill Nye Saves the World“, which apparently still has the goal of promoting science.

Here’s a new video from the show. Featuring comedian and actor Rachel Bloom singing “My vagina has its own voice,” it’s an arrant travesty:

Seriously, “butt stuff”? Now this may be social justice stuff, but it ain’t science—not even if you construe it as promoting a “spectrum of sexuality,” which is misleading because most people bunch at either end of the “spectrum.” In fact, I’m not sure what this is doing on a science show. It’s not even funny,

Nye, of course, was one of the honorary chairs of the March for Science, and this shows why I wasn’t keen on that choice. Defend this travesty if you want, but I’ll never admit it promotes anything but ideology. What’s next, Bill?:

“Do it before the paparazzi:
for the sake of Science, punch a Nazi!”

The Science March: why I’ve opted out

April 19, 2017 • 11:15 am

In the past two days. I’ve been interviewed by five media outlets: two television stations, one radio station, one journalism review, and one newspaper.  All of them want one thing: to use me as someone opposed to the Science March (I’m not marching for reasons I’ve articulated, this one being the last straw, telling me that the organizers have an ideological agenda and are merely hiding it in the face of pushback). Yet the journalists are diverse in their  background knowledge: some have read what I’ve said or written about the March, others are clueless about nearly everything, and one even misrepresented to me the views of another person on a proposed discussion panel to make me think the discussion was “balanced.”

Again, the main reasons I will not be participating are that the March hasn’t clearly articulated its goals, is infused with identity politics, has organizers that are ham-handed and are constantly revising its goals and “diversity statement” (and withdraw tweets!), have appointed Bill Nye, who’s not even a scientist, as one of its honorary chairs (that caused another fracas because he’s an Old White Man), and, mainly, because I don’t want to waste my time on a march that, I think, will be useless at best and counterproductive at worst. This is my decision and I don’t ask others not to participate. I will continue to do my bit for science, writing about it and popularizing my own field, and weighing in politically when and where I can, but, as the old song goes, “I ain’t a-marchin’ anymore.

My views will be aired in at least three of the five venues (I haven’t decided about the others), so stay tuned for links, all within a week. I’ve spoken in much more detail with some of these folks, so my reasons will be clearer when the shows are aired and the publications appear. I’ve been in many marches in my life, but the goals of the others were clearer, and those marches weren’t riven by factionalism and tests of ideological purity. I prefer to stand up for science on my own.

The Science March takes place this Saturday.

When ideology trumps biology

March 9, 2017 • 11:00 am

If I was the late Andy Rooney, I’d say “You know what really bothers me? When science shows some facts about nature, and then someone rejects those facts because they’re inconvenient or uncomfortable for their ideology.”

Indeed, when people ignore such inconvenient truths, it not only makes their cause look bad, but can produce palpable harm. Case in point: the damage that the Russian charlatan-agronomist Lysenko did to Soviet agriculture under Stalin. Rejecting both natural selection and modern genetics, Lysenko made all sorts of wild promises about improving Soviet agriculture based on bogus treatment of plants that would supposedly change their genetics. It not only didn’t work, failing to relieve Russia of its chronic famines, but Lyesnko’s Stalin-supported resistance to modern (“Western”) genetics led to the imprisonment and even the execution of really good geneticists and agronomists like Niklolia Vavilov. The ideological embrace of an unevidenced but politically amenable view of science set back Russian genetics for decades.

Other cases in point: the denial of evolution by creationists, and of anthropogenic global warming by conservatives. I needn’t belabor these.

We see this in other areas, too—especially with issues like differences between the sexes, ethnic groups, and evolutionary psychology. The assumption here is that any research on these areas could only serve to reinforce sexism and bigotry, so not only is that research denigrated, but there is an a priori ideological assumption that all groups are genetically equal for areas like behavior, mentation, and so on.  The error of this viewpoint is that whatever the truth is, it shouldn’t—and largely doesn’t—matter in the modern world. Society has advanced to the point where we recognize that equality of treatment and opportunity is the proper way to treat men, women, those of different ethnicities, the transgendered, and so on. There’s no need to assume that a biological “is” translates into a societal “ought”. As Steve Pinker has emphasized many times, we’re well past that view.

But the opposition to research on group and sex differences continues. One of its big exponents is the author Cordelia Fine, who has written two books with the explicit aim of showing that there are no reliably accepted evolved and biological differences in behavior between men and women. I read her first book, Delusions of Gender, and found it a mixed bag: some of her targets did indeed do bad science, and she properly called them out; but the book was also tendentious, and wasn’t objective about other studies. I’m now about to read her second book, Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society.  Judging from the reviews, which have been positive, it’s just as much a polemic as the first book, and has an ideological aim.

Because I haven’t finished it, I won’t judge it as a whole, but I do want to concentrate on one argument Fine makes that reviewers have found congenial.  That is her supposed debunking of the claim that men have often evolved to be promiscuous, and women to be more choosy, because of the potentially greater reproductive payoff for multiply-mating males compared to multiply-mating females. Lots of psychological studies have supported this difference in human sexual behavior, and of course it holds widely across the animal kingdom as well (there are exceptions exactly where we expect: when the reproductive payoff for multiple matings is greater for females than for males, as in seahorses). This difference between the sexes is in fact the evolutionary basis for sexual selection, and for the consequent observation of males courting females with behavior, ornaments, calls, and the like, with females choosing among displaying males. This is so common in animals as to constitute almost a biological “law”, with the exceptions proving the rule.

Fine denies this evolutionary basis, leaving her unable, of course, to explain sexual dimorphism in humans or any species. Her denial appears to be based on an early flawed experiment of Angus Bateman in fruit flies, which indeed turned out upon reanalysis to be inconclusive.  I’ve discussed this whole issue before, and you can read about it here, and how Sarah Ditum, the Guardian’s reviewer of Fine’s new book, was taken in by Fine’s bogus arguments. (Ditum is not a scientist.)

In my earlier post I pointed out the pervasive biological evidence that in both humans and other species,  the conditions for sexual selection  hold—a greater variance in male than in female reproductive output—probably explaining why men are bigger and stronger than women, and have beards and other secondary sexual differences. It also explains why male peacocks have showy tails, why male sage grouse do “jumping displays” to attract females, why male insects have weapons and ornaments, and so on. (See my bullet-point list of biological facts in that post.) Further, though Bateman’s experiments were flawed, they have been repeated properly in other species and have shown that, yes, males in general have the potential to have many more offspring than females: a higher variance in offspring number).

On February 23 the New York Times also reviewed Testosterone Rex, and the reviewer, the journalist Annie Murphy Paul, also fell for the bogus no-difference-in-reproductive-variance argument (she’s not a scientist). As she said:

Well, then, what about the even more entrenched idea that evolution has primed men to desire many and varied sex partners? Here Fine quotes the Bradley University psychologist David Schmitt: “Consider that one man can produce as many as 100 offspring by indiscriminately mating with 100 women in a given year, whereas a man who is monogamous will tend to have only one child with his partner during that same time period.” Fine expertly fillets this familiar premise, noting, among other inconvenient facts, that “the probability of a woman becoming pregnant from a single randomly timed act of intercourse is about 3 percent,” and that in historical and traditional societies, as many as 80 to 90 percent of women of reproductive age at any one time might already be pregnant, or infertile while they were breast-feeding. “The theoretical possibility that a male could produce dozens of offspring if he mated with dozens of females is of little consequence if, in reality, there are few females available to fertilize,” Fine comments. Think about it: For every man on the prowl, there simply aren’t a hundred women available to bear his child. For all men not named Genghis Khan, monogamy must have started to look like a pretty smart bet.

This is someone who doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Humans in Western society are now socially monogamous, but in effect many are polygamous, committing adultery. Men have been shown, time after time, to be less discriminating and more promiscuous than females. And many of those women who were pregnant were not pregnant by their social mate—if indeed our early ancestors had social mates—but by “alpha” males who got more than their share of offspring, or by those who mate with other males’ mates on the sly—what John Maynard Smith called “sneaky fuckers”. Most species of birds that look socially monogamous, for instance, pairing up in the nest and cooperating in brood care, have been found by DNA analysis to actually be committing adultery all over the place, so that the appearance of pairing gives a false idea of who’s really producing the chicks.

Such is the invidious result of having a non-scientist judge a scientific argument; and yes, the Times screwed up big time.  But someone who should know better is the evolutionary biologist and blogger P. Z. Myers, who bought into Fine’s bogus argument and fallacious mathematics in a post called “Cordelia Fine is doing the math.” Myers accepts Fine’s contention that promiscuous males don’t really have more offspring than do choosy human females—females who are prevented from getting fertilized when they’re pregnant.  Her arguments are wrong—for one thing, she sets unrealistic error limits for promiscuous males to outdo monogamous ones—but Myers has always rejected biology that is ideologically unpalatable to him.

In a rare occurrence at his site, the commenters, usually a choir of osculatory praise, gave him pushback. In fact one,  “Charly”, did the math correctly and showed that males in relationships with multiple females (bigamous or polygamous) have the potential to have more offspring than do monogamous males, supporting the ideas that men are selected to compete for women. (Duh!) Charly ended his calculations with this statement: “But maybe my reasoning and math is wrong, I am sure someone will point flaws out.”

In the next comment, Myers admitted that Charly’s math was actually right—math that invalidates Fine’s argument—but then he said this:

And there we have it, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters: an admission that the biology is right, at least in theory, but the person who did the calculations is immoral.  What better example can we find of someone who opposes the truth because it’s ideologically repugnant? Even Myers’s regular commenters couldn’t live with that pronouncement, with one even asking if he was all right. I won’t speculate on his state of mind, but I will say that he’s on the wrong side in this argument.

Well, be that as it may, we have two lessons from this kerfuffle.

a). Magazines and newspapers should get scientists, or at least journalists who are scientifically educated, to review books about science. Science journalists without training in math and evolution are unqualified to review Fine’s book.

b). It’s always better to accept a scientific fact than to reject it on ideological grounds. For people will know the truth, and when they see it rejected because of confirmation bias, they can see what’s going on.

It always hurts your cause to behave that way. If science finds that men and women behave differently for evolutionary and genetic reasons, or that humans have behaviors that are holdovers from selection in our ancestors, we can deal with that. Such findings do not inexorably lead to racism, sexism, or bigotry, and there’s no reason why they should. Sure, there may be a few misguided individuals who mistake an “is” for an “ought,” but society no longer works that way.  Rejecting the facts because you don’t like them, or because they go counter to your political leanings, is a sure recipe for sinking your cause. First apprehend the facts, and then just deal with them.

Michio Kaku gets human evolution all wrong on The Big Thunk

February 26, 2017 • 12:32 pm

UPDATE: I forgot that I had an earlier post showing Kaku embarrassing himself about his own field, also on The Big Thunk. Go here to see the fun.


When I saw this video on Larry Moran’s Sandwalk site, I remembered an old Jewish joke that goes something like this (“schnorrer,” by the way, is Yiddish for “beggar”):

A schnorrer knocked on the door of the rich man’s house at 6:30 in the morning.
The rich man cried “How dare you wake me up so early?”
“Listen,” said the schnorrer, “I don’t tell you how to run your business. Don’t tell me how to run mine.”

So I don’t make videos pontificating about the meaning of quantum mechanics, but Michio Kaku, a former physicist and now science popularizer, has the chutzpah to make videos about evolution, and to pronounce on whether evolution is happening in Homo sapiens right now. Here’s his mind-boggling take from The Big Thunk, in which he confidently proclaims that our species has stopped evolving.

How many misstatements can you find in this video? Besides the crazy idea that continents evolve,  and that the large brains of humans evolved to help them “live in the forest” (we got big brains long after we came down from the trees to live on the savannah), he says that evolution happens “every time two people mate” and “in our immune systems”—but doesn’t say what the hell he’s talking about. Our immune systems do respond to the incursion of antigens, but that’s not evolutionary change, i.e., not change that is inherited.

But of course we do have evidence that humans are indeed evolving “on the gross level”. As I’ve written before, we have evidence for humans evolving in “real time” (over two generations) for some traits, and for evolution in the last 10,000 years for many others (see here, herehere, here, and here.) And this is despite the fact that because of transportation, humans are mixing their genes among locations, slowing down any adaptation to local environments.  Further, there may be global evolution of our species that we simply can’t detect because the genes have effects too small to be seen in one or a few human lifetimes (a gene increasing the reproductive output by 0.01%, for example, would sweep through our species but be undetectable in real-time studies.)

Kaku always rubs me the wrong way. Like Bill Nye, he always seems to be communicating a faux excitement (and, like Nye, sometimes he doesn’t get his biology straight)—as if he’s trying to get famous instead of communicating. Neil deGrasse Tyson has a bit of that, too, but I think Tyson really is excited by his subjects as well. For me, Carl Sagan will always be the premier science communicator, because I always sensed true wonder rather than careerism when I heard him. (I get the same impression from David Attenborough.)

Who do you think are the best science communicators, and by that I mean people who know their onions, are engrossing, and are not flawed by visible ambition?

After listening to this travesty, Larry asked this question:

Is there something peculiar about physicists? Does anyone know of any biologists who make YouTube videos about quantum mechanics or black holes? If not, is that because biologists are too stupid … or too smart?

I think it’s the latter. And I won’t be making videos on cosmology for The Big Thunk.

When Nobel Prize winners misbehave

May 13, 2016 • 12:45 pm

by Matthew Cobb

This rather arsey letter was sent by the great chemist Linus Pauling to Francis Crick in 1963. Pauling is correct about the substantive issue – there are three hydrogen bonds between guanine and cytosine, something that Crick had apparently got wrong – but is this the best way of sorting the matter out? Crick’s reply is not recorded.


Source: National Libraries of Medicine.

Academic journal suggests that schizophrenia may be caused by demons

June 10, 2014 • 6:35 am

Well, this beats all! A new paper in the Journal of Religion and Health (reference and download below), written by M. Kimal Irmak, listed as on “The High Council of Science, Gulhane Military Academy, Ankara, Turkey,” suggests that some schizophrenics might actually be possessed by demons, and therefore might be better helped by faith healers than by mental-health professionals. The abstract tells most of the story:

Schizophrenia is typically a life-long condition characterized by acute symptom exacerbations and widely varying degrees of functional disability. Some of its symptoms, such as delusions and hallucinations, produce great subjective psychological pain. The most common delusion types are as follows: ‘‘My feelings and movements are controlled by others in a certain way’’ and ‘‘They put thoughts in my head that are not mine.’’ Hallucinatory experiences are generally voices talking to the patient or among themselves. Hallucinations are a cardinal positive symptom of schizophrenia which deserves careful study in the hope it will give information about the pathophysiology of the disorder. We thought that many so-called hallucinations in schizophrenia are really illusions related to a real environmental stimulus. One approach to this hallucination problem is to consider the possibility of a demonic world. Demons are unseen creatures that are believed to exist in all major religions and have the power to possess humans and control their body. Demonic possession can manifest with a range of bizarre behaviors which could be interpreted as a number of different psychotic disorders with delusions and hallucinations. The hallucination in schizophrenia may therefore be an illusion—a false interpretation of a real sensory image formed by demons. A local faith healer in our region helps the patients with schizophrenia. His method of treatment seems to be successful because his patients become symptom free after 3 months. Therefore, it would be useful for medical professions to work together with faith healers to define better treatment pathways for schizophrenia.

Irmak’s evidence for possession is the similarity between behaviors of patients with schizophrenia and those supposedly possessed by demons (hallucinations, disorganized speech, etc.). He then floats his idea of demonic possession, saying that many scholars accept demons as a reality. Irmak even gives the characteristics of demons (my emphasis)!:

Illusions are transformations of perceptions, with a mixing of the reproduced perceptions of the subject’s fantasy with the real perceptions. One approach to this hallucination problem is to consider the possibility of a demonic world.

In our region, demons are believed to be intelligent and unseen creatures that occupy a parallel world to that of mankind. In many aspects of their world, they are very similar to us. They marry, have children, and die. The life span, however, is far greater than ours (Ashour 1989). Through their powers of flying and invisibility, they are the chief component in occult activities. The ability to possess and take over the minds and bodies ofchumans is also a power which the demons have utilized greatly over the centuries (Littlewood 2004; Gadit and Callanan 2006; Ally and Laher 2008). Most scholars accept that demons can possess people and can take up physical space within a human’s body (Asch 1985). They possess people for many reasons. Sometimes it is because they have been hurt accidentally, but possession may also occur because of love (Ashour 1989; Philips 1997). When the demon enters the human body, they settle in the control center of the body–brain. Then, they manifest themselves and take control of the body through the brain (Whitwell and Barker 1980; Littlewood 2004; Gadit and Callanan 2006; Ally and Laher 2008). Demonic possession can manifest with a range of bizarre behaviors which could be interpreted as a number of different psychotic disorders (Al-Habeeb 2003; Boddy 1989).

I wonder who constitutes “most scholars”?

At the end, Irmak gives the evidence that “faith healing” can cure the apparent cases of schizophrenia that are really caused by demonis possession. Needless to say, that evidence is pretty thin:

It has been shown by World Health Organization (WHO) studies that faith healers may help patients with psychiatric disorders (Gater et al. 1991). Currently, the churches in the United Kingdom retain the services of faith healers (Friedli 2000), the task of whom is to expel the demons in cases of real possession. Rollins is an Anglican priest in London. Prior to the priesthood, he was a trained and qualified psychiatrist. He turned to the priesthood and exorcist feeling that medicine failed to address certain human sufferings (Leavey 2010). Similarly, B. Erdem is a local faith healer in Ankara who expels the evil demons from many psychiatric patients with the help of good ones. B. Erdem contends that on occasions, the manifestation of psychiatric symptoms may be due to demonic possession. An important indicator of his primary suspicions about the possession is that, if someone has auditory hallucinations, he would remain alert to the possibility that he might be demonically possessed. His method of treatment seems to be successful because his patients become symptom free after 3 months.

I haven’t had time to read the WHO study, but there are two problems: do the “psychiatric disorders” helped by faith healers include schizophrenia? And is there a possibility of placebo effects? The testimony of “Rollins” the exorcist, of course, carries no weight, since it’s accompanied by no data at all. Likewise for “local faith healer” B. Erdem.  I’d be truly suprised if his ministrations cured schizophrenics within 3 months, since the disease is notably refractory to treatment, and even drugs have limited success.

All in all, this paper, which appeared in a reputable journal put out by Springer, a reputable (though greedy) publisher, is a travesty. It misrepresents the view of “scholars,” who surely don’t accept demonic possession, it presents unscientific data which appear to be based on wish-thinking, and, most important, it reaches the unwarranted conclusion that “it would be useful for medical professionals to work together with faith healers to define better treatment pathways for schizophrenia.”

In the absence of some controlled studies of the effect of faith-healing on schizophrenia, this suggestion is not only useless but dangerous. Really, we should get exorcists working together with psychiatrists? Not until faith-healing is shown to be effective. And how do you know which patients really have schizophrenia, and thus need psychiatrists, and which are possessed by demons, and require the additional help of exorcists?

By and large, the articles in the Journal of Religion and Health appear far more reasoned than this, few espousing a religious form of faith-healing. And I doubt whether psychiatrists are going to take Irmak’s suggestions seriously.

But really, how did the referees manage to approve a paper with such a weak foundation? And didn’t editor Curtis W. Hart, a Lecturer in Public Health at Weill Cornell Medical College, whose credentials are “M. Div.” (is that a master’s degree in divinity?) exercise any editorial discretion? Weill Cornell is a highly reputable institution, and I’m surprised that someone in its “medical ethics” division would allow a paper like this to be published. To my mind, recommending unsubstantiated faith-healing for schizophrenia is unethical, because it’s untested and potentially dangerous. Anyway, I’ve written Dr. Hart inquiring about this paper.

It’s not okay to endanger ill people with ill-informed speculation masquerading as science.  Dr. Hart should know that. As for author Irmak, well, he’s probably beyond redemption.


Irmak, M. K. 2014. Schizophrenia or Possession? Journal of Religion and Health 53:773-777 LA  – English.