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Down the rabbit-hole, or just how stupid do they think I am?

You know, like the namesake of my nom de blog, I’m not immune to a little vanity. Indeed, I daresay that no human is. What differs among humans are two things: the level of vanity and what we’re vain about. Given that I don’t have all that much in the looks department going on, it’s fortunate that I’m probably not as vain as my blog namesake. Even so, I like to think that I’m pretty intelligent and that possess close to the proper level of skepticism, being neither so credulous that I’m easily fooled nor so skeptical that it devolves into cynicism. Consequently, when someone apparently thinks so little of both my intelligence and critical thinking skills that they propose to me something that is clearly of a dubious nature, I get a little insulted, a little peeved, especially when the offer comes from an advocate of what I consider to be pseudoscience. Such was what happened to me nearly two months ago, when I got a rather odd e-mail addressed to my “real” name and work e-mail address by one “Casey Cohen.” The subject header read, tantalizingly, “An End to AIDS Denialism”:

Dear Dr. Orac,

I am helping to organize a debate on the issue of AIDS denialism to take place in February of 2007 in New York and am writing to ask for your participation in this historic event. Our intention is to demolish the basis for any further discussion on the topic by exposing and refuting purveyors of false information.

The debate will take place before a live audience of 200 but will reach millions of people via WBAI radio and other Pacifica stations around the country. It will also be permanently available on-line as an audio file that anyone, anywhere in the world can download.

We are negotiating sponsorship from POZ magazine (as you may know, POZ editor Bob Ledderer is on the WBAI board) and will have a moderator from ACTUP New York, hopefully Larry Kramer himself.

Since the event features four participants, we would like to have you plus anyone you’d care to have join you as representatives for the fact that HIV causes AIDS. We will cover travel and accommodations for you and the participant of your choice.

The denialism side will be represented by Christine Maggiore and a partner of her choice. Given your strong position against Maggiore and the stinging critique of her pathologist’s evaluation of her daughter’s autopsy report at your Orac site, we can’t imagine a more appropriate expert to take on Ms
Maggiore. Maggiore has already confirmed her availability for February. The exact date of the event can be established to suit your convenience.

I look forward to your prompt and affirmative reply–and to meeting you in person.

With thanks for all your illuminating work,

Casey Cohen

Although I generally do not post e-mails directed at me without first acting permission of the author, I consider doing so fully justified in this case. Also, as I note in my e-mail policy:

All e-mail replies to Orac in response to material posted to Respectful Insolence are subject to being publicly reprinted solely at the discretion of Orac. Requests not to publicly reprint an e-mail will certainly be considered on a case-by-case basis, but Orac makes no guarantees.

Note that, until now, I’ve never actually acted on this part of my e-mail policy, but there’s always a first time, and this seemed to be about as good a reason to repost some of Ms. Cohen’s e-mails for all to see as I could think of.

Even though this e-mail seemed very fishy, believe it or not, at first I actually thought it might be legitimate. For one thing, such “debates” are a favored technique of pseudoscientists of all stripes, particularly creationists. So why wouldn’t HIV/AIDS “dissidents,” who believe that HIV does not cause AIDS, decide to use the same sort of tactic to try to bolster the legitimacy of their pseudoscience in the eyes of the public? But why on earth would they ask me? Surgeon’s ego aside, I know that I’m not an expert in AIDS or HIV. In fact, in a lucid moment that occurred after the initial rush of ego gratification that briefly occurred after the arrival of this e-mail, I wondered whom Ms. Cohen had contacted before me. I even (correctly, as it turned out) thought that the HIV “skeptics” were probably getting desperate, even scraping the bottom of the barrel (me) so to speak, to find someone to appear.

After all, my only claim to fame with respect to HIV/AIDS denialism was a brief series of posts that I did on Christine Maggiore, the prominent HIV/AIDS “dissident” and activist who is HIV-positive. During pregnancy, based on her mistaken belief that HIV does not cause AIDS, she did not take antiretroviral medications. She also breast-fed her children, even though studies show that breast feeding in such circumstances increases the risk of virus transmission by 15%. The results were tragic; on September 15, her daughter Eliza Jane Scovill died tragically and suddenly of AIDS-related pneumonia after a brief illness. As is their wont, the AIDS denialists mobilized to defend Maggiore. One particularly sanctimonious blogger, Dean Esmay, attacked me, referencing (and thus making me aware of) a dubious report by a veterinary pathologist named Dr. Mohammed Al-Bayati, who likes to claim expertise in AIDS and is also a prominent contributor to the AIDS denialist website Virus Myth. He had previously come to prominence as paid “expert” when, for the defense of accused baby killer Alan Yurko he was commissioned to write a similar report in which he blamed the brain injuries that the infant suffered, which were classic for shaken baby syndrome, on “vaccine injury.” Now he applied his talent for spin based on dubious science and cherry picked studies to the Scovill case, eventually publishing this piece of trash in the antivaccination rag Medical Veritas. I apparently came to the attention of Ms. Cohen is through my two rebuttals of the astoundingly atrocious science, medicine, and bizarre alternate hypotheses about the cause of Eliza Jane’s death contained in the Al-Bayati report. That was it. Before Ms. Cohen contacted me, I hadn’t blogged about Ms. Maggiore for nearly a year and had only occasionally blogged about HIV in the months since joining ScienceBlogs.

Consequently, before I decided what to do, I did what any skeptic would do, namely a little Googling, and guess what came up as the first hit on my search? This:

A recent person claiming to be called “Casey Cohen” has been spending some considerable time recently trying to get me more deeply involved in the sad case of Eliza-Jane Scovill’s death. Aside from trying to organise a live radio debate with Christine Maggiore herself, pick my brains about my personal thoughts on Al-Bayati’s case, and even meet up for lunch (!) she has been diligently sending our correspondence to other dissidents for online publication.

Now, this was sadly expected and I wrote my emails back to her accordingly. Still, it is upsetting to be proven right. “Casey” of course screwed it up from the beginning by writing to me from Christine Maggiore’s email account. Woops. And the sycophantic babbling was getting to be a little too amusing to take over my afternoon coffee without spraying it over the computer keyboard.

I should have known from the beginning, shouldn’t I? It looks like I was sloppy seconds to someone who knows a lot more about HIV than I do, namely Nick Bennett. Ah, well. Nothing like a little shot to the ego to keep one humble. On the other hand, Nick’s account led me to Ms. Cohen’s increasingly hilarious attempts to rope Nick into this madness that dated back to August 31, 2006. It’s amusing to note that, as the exchange went on, Ms. Cohen becomes first initially more and more of a sycophant, but then, when Nick showed that he was on to her game, becomes increasingly hostile, finishing up with an e-mail on November 7. This is the same script that played out with me. In addition, requests to WBAI failed to find anyone who had heard anything about any such “debate” as proposed by “Casey Cohen.” Surprise, surprise–again.

Even more amusingly, guess when I got my first e-mail from Ms. Cohen? That’s right, November 10, a mere three days after her last e-mail to Nick. Not just sloppy seconds, but quick seconds! Thirds, actually, because it turns out that Casey Cohen was pulling exactly the same schtick with AIDS researcher John Moore. Ah, well. Blows to the ego are good for one’s character. Particularly amusing was Ms Cohen’s total misunderstanding of why many scientists have concluded that it is not a good idea to “debate” advocates of pseudoscience, be they HIV/AIDS “skeptics,” “intelligent design creationists,” or whatever:

If anything, I am a “debatist.” I believe confrontation between conflicting views reveals not only the veracity of the views, but the character of the parties presenting them.

I am certainly not alone in this belief. We have debates between political candidates before every major election in this country. Our legislative process and judicial system are based on confrontation and debate.

A “bona fide AIDS expert” would be eager to debate with purveyors of misinformation. Your position of avoiding direct confrontation seems cowardly and unbecoming to a scientist, and the name calling rude and unnecessary.

Ah, so seemingly democratic-sounding, so seemingly fair!

What could be wrong with such a viewpoint? Very simple. Science is not a democracy, and such debates do not determine what viewpoint is ultimately accepted by scientists as the consensus viewpoint. Evidence and data do. Besides, in such “debates,” the pseudoscientist always has the advantage because he is not bound by the same standards that real scientists are. Even if the audience and moderator are reasonably neutral (and my guess is that the audience would be stacked with HIV/AIDS “dissidents” in any such debate), you can expect that the advocate of pseudoscience to throw out all sorts of obscure studies that may or may not be valid and possibly even misrepresenting the data, some of which may stick. This is a time-honored crank technique that immediately puts the skeptic on the defensive and keeps him there, hampering his ability to present positive evidence for the scientific consensus even if the skeptic is intimately familiar with every single one of the studies cited and why it is not convincing evidence against current scientific understanding. AIDS denialists, for instance, are very fond of citing studies that were state-of-the-art ten or twenty years ago but have long been supplanted by newer data, particularly if the studies are obscure, while scientists tend to focus on newer data. Moreover, the advocate of pseudoscientist is often charismatic and glib, someone who can easily win over an audience; few scientists are able to compete in a forum made up of nonscientists, even if the facts are on their side. (Carl Sagans are few and far between, alas!) We’ve seen this phenomenon time and time again with creationists wanting to debate evolutionists. Worse, putting the pseudoscientist on the same stage as a legitimate scientist elevates the pseudoscientist and mistakenly gives the impression to lay people that there is a genuine scientific controversy to be debated when the only controversy being debated is, in fact, ideological. Lastly, in any such “debate,” Christine Maggiore would have an even bigger advantage than the average advocate of pseudoscience. She could (and almost certainly would) use her own personal history to evoke enormous sympathy; everyone feels sorry for and empathizes with a parent who has lost a child.

In any case, now that I knew this was just a scam, it gave me great pleasure to respond to Ms. Cohen thusly:

Sadly, I must decline your kind offer. My reason is simple:

Yes, I know how to use Google, too, and I also know Nick Bennett (at least by correspondence). The above link came up first on my search, and this page came up second:

No doubt my declining of your kind offer will soon be added to the page above.



P.S. You must be pretty desperate to ask me to be involved in this. After all, I seem to recall your saying about me in your exchange with Nick Bennett: “Orac is great for spreading the word, but it’s your word he’s spreading. He’s not even in a position to reply with authority on his own. I mean, who is he? He’s got a name like a magician and his web site looks like the opening scene from Star Wars!”

I’m hurt, particularly since you now apparently know who I am. Besides, I wrote the post below before ever having read Bennett’s takedown:

Of course, you’re also behind the times. I presently blog for ScienceBlogs:

Unfortunately, I was forced to lose the science fiction-themed background when I agreed to join ScienceBlogs. C’est la vie. I reach many more readers now than I did then; so it’s a small price to pay.

P.P.S. If you liked my previous work, you might like this more recent work:


Heck, maybe I’ll critically examine Al-Bayati’s new “report,” now that you’ve made me aware of its existence. Thanks for letting me know about it.

Amazingly, even after my sarcastic response revealing that the gig was totally up, Ms. Cohen kept trying to persuade me to participate in what, it was becoming increasingly clear, was a bogus exercise at worst or a stacked staged event at best, first using a rather obvious attack on my manhood to try to shame me to her will:

This sort of response from our supposed leaders looks unattractive at best, and suspicious at worst, to the foot soldiers stuck in the middle of this “AIDS war.” You AIDS leaders all are starting to look less like commanders and a lot more like a band of snipers firing at anything that moves.

Of course, I recognize that you are not Bennett or Moore. And we both know you are not replying “sadly” to decline a debate. It’s true, the invite was not was not “a kind offer” but one posed by an agent provocateur, but what difference does it make if the invitation is issued by a fan, a free agent or “the other side?” If you have the answers and the degrees and all expenses paid, you show up and put your blog where your mouth is.

Knowing I am not your friend or your fan, will you debate? The conditions are exactly as outlined.

If you won’t debate, will you at least respond to the new report on Elisa Jane that “Nick Bennett AIDS,” our resident expert on pathology (pun intended) chooses to ignore? And if that’s too much, maybe you can explain why is everyone citing Mr. Bennett–a pediatrician in residency–on matters of pathology while calling Maggiore’s pathologist a fake and/or a veterinarian when her pathologist is actually a pathologist. Was it “Orac” or “Nick Bennett AIDS” that came up with this lame strategy?! And now Bennett says the lung tissue slides in the new report are fake. Next, we’ll be hearing Elisa Jane faked her death and is living at Graceland with Elvis.

Will Orac…be an AIDS leader or a bunch of hot air with a web site?

“A bunch of hot air with a web site”? I like it! I may have to put that comment proudly in my sidebar.

When I totally ignored this last offer and did not respond, after a few days Ms. Cohen couldn’t take a hint and started insulting my choice of subject matter at the time (football and Patch Adams). Not too bright, is she? But this is where it gets really surreal. While this exchange was going on, I got another e-mail by someone calling herself Jessica Fletcher:

My name is Jess Fletcher, and I am a playwright out of Austin, Texas. I have been writing a non-biased play about Christine Maggiore, and I was wondering if I could use some of your blog in a debate scene between doctors/scientists? I would be happy to send you a final copy of the scene.

Let me know how you feel about this. I very much enjoy and appreciate Respectful Insolence.

Jessica (Jess) Fletcher

Never having heard of anyone by that name (other than the Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote, which was the main result that came up when I tried doing some more Googling), I quite naturally wanted to know who she was. Quite reasonably, I asked her to tell me about a play that she has written and had produced. Her response was that she had just graduated from a Bachelor’s degree in Performance Studies and Sociology and was trying to put together a portfolio to get into a graduate program in playwrighting. After I told her that, under the Creative Commons copyright under which my blog is copyrighted, noncommercial fair use is permitted but that, if she planned on doing anything that might earn her any money using excerpts from my blog, I’d want to see the play before I granted permission. (Heck, being in a generous mood, I didn’t even explicitly ask for a cut.) Not surprisingly, “Jess” disappeared in a puff of cyber-smoke.

Quite frankly, I don’t know what to make of this whole thing. I present this rather odd incident to illustrate the sorts of lengths pseudoscientists will go to to while trying to justify their woo to the public. Indeed, it’s not even limited to HIV/AIDS “skepticism.” Around the same time, Casey Cohen was also pulling the same sort of stunt with regards to the human papilloma virus vaccine, posing as a woman who had had an abnormal Pap smear and wanted to know about HPV and the vaccine.

This incident leaves me vaguely disquieted, as you might imagine. For one thing, I’m left with the obvious question of whether Casey Cohen, Jessica Fletcher, and Christine Maggiore are in fact all one in the same person. (Bets, anyone? I’m guessing that Cohen and Maggiore probably are one in the same, but I’m not so sure about Fletcher.) For another thing, I’m wondering what other stunts they’ll pull. (My guess is: having been embarrassed this time, probably none, but you never know.) Whatever the case, I think posting these e-mails was entirely justified, if only to publicize the level of bizarreness to which HIV “dissidents” will stoop and to warn other advocates of sound science, so that they are not taken in by such ploys.

I feel as though, for the 10 days or so that this unfolded, I took a trip down the proverbial rabbit-hole.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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