Anti-ScienceSkepticism

Skepchick’s Top Ten Jackasses of 2008

That’s right, it’s time for yet another end-of-year countdown! Of course, this isn’t a regular list of jackasses, oh, no. These are those specific jackasses who at some point in 2008 assaulted science, reason, and basic human decency. I’m sure I missed some, so take a look and let me know who you think should have made the list by logging on and posting in the comments. Enjoy!

10. Oprah Winfrey

I’ll be honest, Oprah didn’t really do that much to annoy me this year. I mean, compared to previous years, when we had to put up with bullshit like The Secret, aka the Law of Attraction, which is still enjoying popularity amongst certain subsets of the American public. This year was mostly filled with her endorsement of Dr. Oz, a credulous surgeon who somehow managed to get a degree from a reputable university before marrying a reiki practitioner and rejecting everything he ever learned about clinical studies, science, and/or integrity.

Dr. Oz appears on Oprah wearing scrubs, which is shorthand for “don’t ask questions, just trust me.” Early in 2008, Dr. Oz appeared on Oprah to laud “alternative medicine,” in general, as the “globalization of medicine.” Bob Carroll did a great job dissecting his craziness here.

Oprah’s helping Dr. Oz get his own platform to spread misinformation, so look forward to him gaining his own spot next year. In the meantime, this slot goes to Oprah, since Dr. Oz is just one part of her zany world of superstition. Want more? Check out this tutorial, All About Homeopathy, which is distinguished by not containing more than 10% of actual true reality-based facts.

9. The View

That’s right: five women, one show, one giant jackass. To be fair, I think Barbara Walters is intelligent, strong, and generally kick-ass. Joy Behar has her moments of good humor and rationality. Whoopie Goldberg, is, well, there. So why doesn’t this popular talk show work? Why doesn’t it make me proud to be a woman? Because they’ve taken care to “balance” their panel with two complete idiots.

Elizabeth Hasselbeck is famous because she was on a reality show. This year, she gave a glowing introduction to Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, making it not at all surprising that she shares Palin’s uneducated views on science. Combine her idiocy with that of Sherri Shepherd, a fundamentalist Christian “comedian” who last year said she wasn’t sure if the world was flat, and what do you get? “Evolution is false because of designer handbags.” Kill me.

8. Kevin Trudeau

If you watch late-night infomercials, you’ve probably seen Kevin peddling all sorts of products “THEY” don’t want you to know about: namely, natural cures, weight loss cures, and debt cures. The last of those is probably the one he’s most interested in these days, considering that he was just fined $5 million by the FTC.

Prior to that recent slapdown, Kevin already had a rap sheet straight out of Law & Order: Special Douchebags Unit. Larceny, credit card fraud, pyramid schemes, class-action lawsuits, contempt of court – a lesser (read: more moral) man would have given up by the third or fourth lawsuit and settled down to a long career as stockboy at the local Stop & Shop. Not our Kevin, though! He continued advertising his useless and sometimes dangerous products, leading to the $5 million judgment for flat out lying about some of his weight-loss cures. My favorite is that Kev says once you complete the course, you can eat whatever you want, but Phase 4 of the course literally goes on for the rest of your life. Ha, sneaky. Apparently not sneaky enough.

7. Bill Donohue

What if you got paid to be a jackass? Like, specifically, that’s your job. You show up at work and you surf the ‘net for awhile, looking for something to be insulted by. Some days you really have to work hard, like finding insults in a pop song about love and forgiveness. Other days, it’s easier, like when a popular cartoon show depicts you being ripped in two by your own deity. Now that’s insulting! Fire off a letter to a network or maybe the FCC and ka-ching, your bank account grows. That’s right: you are Bill Donohue.

Bill reached new heights of shrillness this year by helping create one of the stupidest controversies ever: Crackergate. The short story is this: a kid in Florida walks out of Mass holding a Eucharist wafer. Bill Donohue calls it a hate crime. PZ Myers says it’s silly and offers to personally desecrate a wafer to prove it’s no big deal. Bill Donohue freaks the fuck out. Hundreds of insulted Catholics call for PZ’s head, sometimes a little too literally. PZ kept his job and never got his brains beaten in as threatened, Bill got plenty of the attention he desired, the world kept turning, and transubstantiation is still a myth.

As the thrill of Crackergate slowly dissipated, Bill cheered himself with the notion that soon the War on Christmas would begin.

Ka-ching!

6. Matthias Rath

Matthias Rath sold vitamin pills that he claimed could cure AIDS, which, let’s face it, pretty much guarantees him a place on any list of jackasses worth its salt. Rath peddled his pseudoscience in South Africa, where every day 1,000 people die of AIDS, which pretty much guarantees him a place on the shuttle bus to a special level of hell if only such a thing actually existed.

Matthias distinguished himself further this year by bringing a million-pound libel suit against our friend Ben Goldacre and The Guardian, for an article that explained all the above to the general public. This suit was dropped this past September forcing him to pay the Guardian’s legal fees (up to a half-million pounds), making Matthias a dangerous nuisance, an obvious con artist, and ultimately, a total loser.

5. Bernie Madoff


I admit there’s something fleetingly romantic about the old-fashioned financial con. Maybe I’ve watched too many David Mamet movies, because in my imagination Bernie Madoff’s a fast-talking trickster in a fedora with an admirably cunning wit, but in reality I know that he’s a jackass scammer. Madoff recently pulled off the largest Ponzi scheme in history by abusing the trust and exploiting the greed of an incredible swath of the population, earning himself about $50 billion before his kids turned him in.

In essence, a Ponzi scheme is your basic pyramid scam: people pay to get in, and they get paid back with a portion of what later “investors” pay. The few at the top of the pyramid make gobs of money, but after only a few levels, it becomes literally impossible to find enough people to enlist to pay back those above them. The scam is illegal, but many companies get around it by offering actual products that “investors” sell, like Herbalife and Amway, and probably any company that hosts parties at your neighbor’s houses. These are varying degrees of scamminess, depending upon how much money is made through actual sales compared to how much comes in through people buying in to the company.

Lovable carney Todd Robbins recently bestowed upon Bernie “The Largest Investor Swindle Ever by a Single Individual” Award, recommending that you read up on the guy who started it all in Ponzi: The Incredible True Story of the King of Financial Cons (Library of Larceny)

4. Sarah Palin

She made rape victims pay for their own forensic investigation kits, and if a 14-year old rape victim is impregnated by the encounter, she’d prefer the government force the girl to have the baby. She’s a young-Earth creationist who thinks that schools should teach kids that “Goddidit” is a good alternative for evolutionary theory. She thinks men and dinosaurs co-existed. She doesn’t believe in man-made global climate change. She wants the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. She did a lot more.

She was seriously in contention for Vice President of the United States and considered by some to be a strong feminist symbol.

Jackass.

3. Jenny McCarthy


I nearly gave her first place. After all, few other people have done as much to put the lives of others at risk through the spreading of misinformation, and few others have shown themselves to be bigger clowns than Jenny. (Our #2 and #1 choices, respectively, have accomplished these goals.) Jenny spent her year convincing otherwise logical people that doctors are out to kill their children through vaccines, which is akin to suggesting that CPR was invented by succubi who secretly want to steal your soul through your mouth. She enjoyed broadcasting lies that have been repeatedly debunked, again and again. Our friend Orac has pretty much turned his blog Respectful Insolence into a full-time JennyWatch, and a new site called Stop Jenny started specifically to catalog the reasons why she is wrong in just about every word that comes out of her mouth. For instance: she thinks there are no autistic adults, because these vaccines weren’t around 40 years ago. No, Jenny: there are no autistic adults because you’re living in a fantasy world where there are no autistic adults, as opposed to the real world where there are, unfortunately, plenty of them.

2. George W. Bush

W

Eight years of lies, half-truths, and misleading half-literate ramblings – what could I possibly say that hasn’t been said a hundred times over? Oh, I know, this: one of his last major acts before leaving office was expanding Health & Human Services regulations that allow health workers such as pharmacists to restrict women’s access to birth control due to “religious reasons.” Awesome feminist Amanda Marcotte writes about how he also opened up Title X family planning funding to organizations that refuse to educate newly pregnant women on all their options (including, of course, abortion). Thanks, Bush! It’s so nice to have something to remember you by. Like an unwanted baby.

1. Ben Stein

Ben wins our number one spot not because he caused the most damage. On the contrary, he wins because he drew the most attention to himself, and then made the biggest ass of himself as was possible. The nearest equivalent would be your drunk, shirtless cousin climbing to the second story balcony and shouting “Hey y’all, look et me!” before tripping over the ledge and tumbling into a pig sty full of manure.

Here’s a quick recap of Ben’s jackassery: first he starred in Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a documentary that lived up to its name by being the stupidest feature to hit the big screen since Paulie Shore was relevant. Which, oddly, was the last time Ben Stein was relevant. Weren’t they both in Biodome?

Anyway, the idiocy of the movie is difficult to summarize in one short blog post, since Ben’s ultimate point in Expelled is that Darwin personally green-lit the Holocaust. On the circuit when Ben was shilling for his crapumentary, he specifically said this:

When we just saw that man, I think it was Mr. Myers [biologist P.Z. Myers], talking about how great scientists were, I was thinking to myself the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed … that was horrifying beyond words, and that’s where science — in my opinion, this is just an opinion — that’s where science leads you.

No, Ben. The last time any of your relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were probably having their fucking lives saved with bypass surgery or maybe they were buckling their seat belts thanks to studies showing it keeps you safer or maybe they were wearing eyeglasses invented by a scientist, improved by a scientist, and prescribed by a scientist. Dickhole quotes like the above make me want to stab Ben Stein. WITH SCIENCE.

Anyway, Expelled bombed in the theater and earned a golden 3.7 of 10 on IMDB and 10% on the Tomatometer, worse than Blair Witch 2 (13%), The Dukes of Hazzard (14%), and Cat in the Hat (12%). It was panned by pretty much everybody, everywhere, most recently Roger Ebert. Ben Stein is, once again, a joke, and his sad little movie will be forgotten.

Well, that’s it! Who did I forget? Mention your favorite jackass in the comments.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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72 Comments

  1. Well, Oprah didn’t make any friends in animal welfare circles when PETA recently announced that she was one of their favorite celebrities. I wish someone would give her a clue that when you have lots of opinion-making power, you need to use it wisely.

    Ben Stine? Sarah Palin? Dubya? Jenny McCarthy? The less said, the better.

    Bernie Madoff? It takes a real villian to rip off charities for millions of dollars. I hope that if there is a Hell, he rots there for all eternity. He and Dick Cheney seem to fit the definition of sociopathic to me…No matter how you parse it, these two (and maybe Trudeau) are predators.

    Kevin Trudeau: I hope he gets some painful, hopelessly fatal disease and is forced at gunpoint to try to cure it with his own worthless “cures.”

  2. Ha! I remember reading an article by someone on…Salon, I think, who was complaining about PZ Meyers.

    I didn’t realize he was even a remotely famous person. I thought the guy had just picked his name out of a hat.

  3. This is something minor, but it annoyed me due to the scale of the inaccuracy of it. I’m cheating a little, because this was on a show that aired here in the UK on New Years Eve, but it was less than half an hour before midnight so it was 2008 on half the planet.

    The Jools Holland Hootenanny (an annual new years eve music show on BBC2 with various other guests) annually has on astrologer Jonathan Cainer as a guest. This year his prediction was that by the end of 2008 the president of the USA would be a woman.

    Obviously at the time he was talking about Hilary Clinton (and he got that wrong), but considering that the winner of the election doesn’t actually become president until January, he was essentially predicting that Bush was going to have a sex change.

    All this of course is nothing more than an elaborate excuse to link to a clip I stumbled across again recently of Cainer on James Randi’s show where he is taken apart by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nfbn_z8xxJ8

    It’s probably been on here before, but it’s a goodun.

  4. @andrewnixon: “…he was essentially predicting that Bush was going to have a sex change.” That is hilarious, and it does indeed qualify that guy for jackass status!

    @arvind: McCain’s jackassery paled in comparison the Palin’s this year, I think, but you’re correct that he is one. Your comment also reminds me that I forgot to mention Palin’s “fruit fly” comment. ARG.

  5. Robert Mugabe.

    MO: Beat up the opposition. Rig the election. Lose it anyway. Beat the opposition some more and offer a ‘power-sharing’ agreement. Beat up the opposition until they agree. Deny all reports of cholera sweeping the nation.

  6. I’d like to see some honorary mention given to Pope Palpatine. At least twice this year he decried the emptiness of the material world while wielding a golden staff. I’m still waiting for the reports of people in the holy city who exploded from the hypocrisy.

  7. Politics and war aside (cuz if ya go there ya gotta start puttin folk like the pope on that thar list) I give the #1 spot to Jenny McCarthy for the number of potential deaths and permanent disabilities she will ultimately be responsible for and Trudeau a close second for the same reason and for being such an unapologetic shit head con man.

  8. [rant] I find Donohue particularly vile, mostly because he KEEPS ABUSING my name. Every time I see William/Bill Donohue attached to some reeking load of this guy’s crap, I have a horrible urge to introduce his kneecaps to a shinty stick. [/rant]

    — w (call me Brian) donohue out —

  9. The Bashing of Number One Jerk only slightly loses its momentum of vehemence by saying ‘proscribed’ instead of ‘prescribed’. Quick, edit the post and whitewash this comment, and nobody will know!

    Otherwise, well done. Keep up the good work.

  10. Great list – might quibble about the order of some of them, but only minor quibbles.

    I love how # 1 jackass and all-around hypocrite Ben Stein makes money shilling a product that (Gasp!) was created by scientists. I mean, does he think Clear Eyes is a natural product produced by drilling or mining (or maybe he thinks it comes from tapping special trees)?

  11. @sethmanapio: I don’t know if I would really say that. It had the twelfth largest US box office for a documentary since 1982 (not adjusted for inflation) while opening on many more screens than any other documentary before it, while also having a highly aggressive publicity campaign. On a per-theatre basis, it didn’t do very well, even for a documentary.

  12. @NoAstronomer: Unfortunately I tend to glaze over at African candidates for Jackass awards, as the entire continent seems like it operates on a different metric of jackass-ary. Maybe there should be a separate category of *developing nation* Jackass award? Kind of like best Foreign Film Oscar?

  13. I love awards shows. We should also pick some lifetime achievement jackasses.

    The award itself could be named for the person who should be a unanimous vote-getter for the Jackass Walk of Fame. The 2008 Falwells!

    Good list, Rebecca. I think I would have put Elizabeth Dole on there too, but I’m not sure who I would bump off to make room.

  14. @Rebecca – this was really well thought out. It’s hard to argue with anyone on the list itself, but I would have to put George W Bush at number one specifically BECAUSE of the power of the office and the cultish mindset of the man who ultimately had that power.

    As an aside, but related to the above, because of the dangerous conflict between politics and a religious agenda, I highly recommend the film ” MILK.” Not only is it compelling as entertainment, but it’s a stark reminder that if this list was composed 30 years ago, Anita Bryant might have been number one.

  15. “In essence, a Ponzi scheme is your basic pyramid scam: people pay to get in, and they get paid back with a portion of what later “investors” pay.”

    When government does this, it’s known as “Social Security.”

    It’s true: Don’t steal–the government hates competition!

  16. “Anyway, Expelled bombed in the theater and earned a golden 3.7 of 10 on IMDB and 10% on the Tomatometer, worse than Blair Witch 2 (13%), The Dukes of Hazzard (14%), and Cat in the Hat (12%). It was panned by pretty much everybody, everywhere, most recently Roger Ebert. Ben Stein is, once again, a joke, and his sad little movie will be forgotten.”

    Just to note: if you do manage to get a hold of a copy of this movie, and want to see it with a proper science injection to help ease the pain, you can watch it with lie-correcting subtitles.

  17. Social security is a “ponzi scheme”?

    I’ve heard someone else say that… Oh yeah, it was Ben Stein.

    All the other people, on FOX, agreed with him whole heartedly, as I recall.

    That’s just my recollection. I turned the channel immediately.

    I’m just sayin’,

    rod

  18. @Rodney: Social security is a “ponzi scheme”?

    ————–

    Not at all! The way social security works is that the people working now pay the benefits for the people who are retired now. As long as there is an increasing supply of workers, the system will be fine. It’s not like a Ponzi scheme at all.

  19. “Not at all! The way social security works is that the people working now pay the benefits for the people who are retired now. As long as there is an increasing supply of workers, the system will be fine. It’s not like a Ponzi scheme at all.”

    Hel-lo??? That’s what a Ponzi scheme IS!!! Money is taken from new investors to pay off the existing investors. That’s the distinguishing characteristic of a Ponzi scheme, and that’s exactly why it’s unsustainable.

    My video explains this in great detail.

  20. I think that what makes SS a ponzi scheme is the pension part, where they probably forgot to take increased life expectancy and inflation into account. Retired people nowadays are getting much more out of the system then they originally put into it.

    It works fine with regards to healthcare benefits I’m sure. Assuming it’s also used to that end in the US.

  21. Exarch:

    Actually, that’s not the case at all. Benefits have continually been cut, the retirement age increased, and taxes raised.

    The truth is, if you took even a fraction of the money paid into SS and put it in even a basic money market account you’d end up with much more to retire on than you would from SS.

    It’s a Ponzi scheme because Congress spends it all every year–even the surplus–and has to raise the money next year from zero.

  22. Oh, wait, let me guess, to top it off, they spend the retirement fund on stuff other than retirement as well? Right? Leaving a tiny pink post-it in the chest saying “I O U x billion dollars, but we kinda had to fund this war”.

  23. Rebecca, let me live up to this alias.

    Ponzi schemes are NOT pyramid schemes. They have some similarities, but they are quite different.

    A pyramid is a multi-level marketing deal, where participants have to recruit others to sell the product. The name comes because each level (starting from the top) gets wider as a person has to recruit 2-10 more sellers to earn rewards. A chain letter is an example of a pyramid scheme.

    A Ponzi is what Madoff did, where you simply lie about the source of income and pay early investors with the money from later ones.

  24. Nitpicking:

    You are correct, sir! A pyramid scheme has multiple levels where investors themselves collect investment money. Ponzi’s scheme didn’t have that. Ponzi was the only one collecting.

    Also, you can tell by the structure if the scheme you’re buying into is a pyramid scheme or not. It’s not so easy to tell a Ponzi scheme. You usually need some kind of inside information. Most victims of Ponzi schemes have no way of knowing they’re being conned.

  25. Nice list. I’d have moved Oprah ahead of the view because of market share and the consistant booking and promoting of woo and it’s purveyors. Larry King’s suspender driven madness would have made the list as well.

  26. Not that it’s needed, but you could add to Ben Stein’s list of jackassery, the fact that he spent plenty of time on Fox News telling us all that the economy was fine, nothing to worry about, buy plenty of stock in Merrill Lynch. Granted, most of that was said last year, so maybe it doesn’t qualify him for this year. But watching the recap on YouTube is reminiscent of the scene in Erik the Viking where Hy-Brasil sinks into the ocean.

  27. You are a POOR skeptic for propagating the now oft discredited lies concerning Sarah Palin:

    – As mayor, she did not force rape victims to pay for their own forensic kits, a common practice throughout many towns in Alaska besides Wasalla. It is not even clear that she even knew of this practice.

    – Gov. Palin would permit classroom debate about creationism if the topic arises, but she doesn’t favor inclusion of creationism in the curriculum.

    – She is more of a skeptic than you concerning global warming. The data has yet to have a signal to noise ratio greater than one, and the so called consensus is collapsing like a house of cards.

    A member of Senator McCain’s own staff spread these untruths to discredit her and blame her for losing the election.

  28. @Bowie Bill: Thanks, I’d love to see some citations for those points. For instance, it’s pretty well-documented that while Palin was mayor of Wasilla, rape kits were in fact billed to the victim. The victims with insurance may have been able to defray most of the cost through them, but it doesn’t detract from the simple fact that rape is the only crime in which Wasilla forced the victim to take responsibility. You may be able to argue that Palin didn’t know about this particular budget issue, which brings up plenty of other questions about how she could be so incredibly ignorant of what her small town was doing.

    Also, how many other Alaskan towns considered this “common practice?” Former governor Tony Knowles is quoted as saying that Wasilla was unique in this practice.

    I’d also like to see your source for Palin not favoring the teaching of creationism in the classroom. I provided a link to a newspaper quoting her saying “Teach both. You know, don’t be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both.” How is that unclear? Did she change her mind later?

    Your comment on global warming is just odd, and I don’t even know where to start with that can of worms.

  29. @Bowie Bill: the so called consensus is collapsing like a house of cards.

    ——————-

    Really? This is a topic I’m pretty interested in, and I have access through school to full text articles from a lot of journals, so could you cite the peer reviewed articles that lead you to think that the so called consensus is collapsing like a house of cards?

  30. In no particular order

    Steven Novella
    Bob Novella
    Jay Novella
    Evan Bernstein
    Rebecca “will you marry me?” Watson. lol
    James Randi
    Phil Plait
    PZ Myers
    Ben Golacre
    Richard Wiseman
    Abbie Smith (ERV)
    Jon Stewart
    Matt Dilahunty

  31. I’d also like to throw in a vote for Montel Williams, although his show is officially over now.

    His coddling and promotion of shyster Sylvia Browne earn him a special place in the Idiot Hall of Fame.

    I’m just sayin’…

  32. Hey Shanek,

    I watched your video carefully, and I think I got your point, but I don’t agree.

    Social Security, defined as the financing by everyone of some specific needs of a few, usually healthcare and/or retirement income, doesn’t have to be a Ponzi con.

    To wit Social Security in my country, France: SS funding here comes from everyone’s income as a percentage. That money never goes to the government. Instead it goes to Unedic, a specific non-profit organization, in charge of managing SS, run by worker Unions.

    In effect, all those with a job finance everybody’s health care bills, retirement income, and unemployment benefit. This is redistribution, but there is no room for any con act.

    Of course this doesn’t make the scheme efficient. And indeed, the French SS consistently runs a deficit year over year:

    – the healthcare branch is chronicly in deficit, due tu rising healthcare costs. As a result, some health expenses are now less reimbursed, and SS financing is now levied upon all sources of income, not only salaries as yesteryear.

    – the retirement branch is getting into deficit also, for demographic reasons: more older people, less working people. As a result, the retirement age is getting pushed back.

    – the unemployment branch may or may not be running a deficit, depending on the unemployment rate. With the depression looming, it is expected to run a deficit also. Conditions to be eligible for unemployment benefit may become more stringent as a result.

    So clearly, SS is not (necessarilly) a scam, while it probably is not the most efficient scheme.

  33. jdmuys:

    If you’ll watch the video again, you’ll see that I covered the system in Galveston County, TX which isn’t run like a Ponzi scam and works a lot better. I could also have added the scheme that Guam uses, since their special status means that the government of Guam keeps all of their Social Security money to use for Guamanians. It isn’t a Ponzi scam either, and works a lot better.

    So there isn’t anything in the video that says that SS has to be a Ponzi scam.

  34. I think you were gratuitously kind to King George; IknowIknow you’re just glad to see him go. But that Miss Jenny appeared on your list at all, much less elbowing out Palin’s 32DD’s for 3rd place, well, where have you been all my life? And you even mention my dear friend AD (I have 5 tiaras, thank you), I’m suspecting PLU.

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