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Criticism and quality control ≠ “Censorship and defamation”

Minerva published an op-ed disguised as a “study” decrying “censorship and defamation.” It was really just criticism and quality control, but the usual suspects are all over it as evidence of evil.

One characteristic of cranks, pseudoscience promoters, conspiracy theorists, and antivaxxers is that they always—always—view countering and trying to limit the dissemination of their misinformation and disinformation as “censorship” and criticism of their activities (which often include grift) as “defamation.” This is nothing new. I’ve noted it time and time again going back nearly two decades, although in age of the COVID-19 pandemic, to the point where everywhere you see COVID-19 minimizers and antivaxxers, you will see them misrepresenting accurate criticism as “defamation” and attacking any attempts at quality control in journals and the media to correct misinformation as “censorship.” Of course, one key component of defamation is that it is not truthful; so they’re misdirection fails right there for that word at least.

An example of this phenomenon started making the rounds on the usual Substacks (which is where the quacks all go now). First, Robert “inventor of mRNA vaccines” Malone promoted it under the title Censorship and Defamation- Weapons of Control, with the subtitle Academic publisher Springer allows the unspeakable truth to be printed. My first reaction was: Ooooh. Not just truth but unspeakable truth! Do tell, Dr. Inventor of mRNA vaccines:

In a stunning article published in the academic journal “Minerva”, the mainstream academic publisher Springer has allowed truth to be spoken. Minerva may not be known to many of you, but by no means is it “obscure.” It has a decent 5-year impact factor of 2.7. (That is decent for the social sciences, anyway.). And it’s a Q1 journal in its subfield. And by the way, the first author on the paper is Yaffa Shir-Raz, who broke the story with video from the internal meeting at the Israeli ministry of health and how they hid many of the key findings regarding the Pfizer mRNA vaccine adverse effects.

So basically a conspiracy theorist was first author on this paper! Dorit Reiss wrote about this particular conspiracy theory recently; so before moving on to discuss the actual paper, I’ll refer you to her post over at Shot of Prevention, Guest Post! Everything is a Conspiracy in Anti-vaccine Land, Even when it Isn’t, Take #3125: The Israeli Version, and in her criticism noted:

In September 2022, Israeli Journalist Yaffa Shir-Raz, who has a history of making inaccurate claims about vaccines, claimed she discovered a conspiracy to hide COVID-19 vaccine harms. She released snippets of a discussion from a presentation about a new report regarding adverse events in Israel. A series of short videos published on Rumble elaborated on the conspiracy theory. Then, anti-vaccine activist Steve Kirsch picked up the claim in an article, and – potentially unrelated – Epoch Times amplified it, too. This kind of conspiracy theory is especially easy to market outside Israel because the evidence to counter it is mostly in Hebrew, so outsiders are at the mercy of their sources… and their sources here are not reliable.

The problem for Shir-Raz and her amplifiers is that their claims are wrong. Israel had multi-pronged monitoring of vaccine adverse events from the start, and multiple studies were published off it, showing high safety. Further, the report they are basing their conspiracy theory off is a report of voluntarily reported events – like the VAERS database – that do not show causation and did not suggest a serious problem.

You can read the whole post for the full explanation, but let’s just say that the US isn’t the only place with a VAERS-like database that antivaxxers like to misrepresent and abuse in order to stoke fear, uncertainty, and doubt about vaccines. It’s therefore not surprising that Malone represents Shir-Raz as some sort of persecuted “truth teller” even as he points out that he was not one of the people interviewed for this “study.” (I wonder why not, given that going back to very early in the pandemic Malone has been one of the most prominent “brave maverick doctors” promoting COVID-19 misinformation, even to the point of misrepresenting himself as one of the key scientists in the history of mRNA vaccine—the “inventor of mRNA vaccines, even!—based on 30 year old work as a graduate student and later work as a young scientist. One would think that Malone would be a key figure that the authors would have wanted to interview, but apparently they did not.

Elsewhere on Substack, one of the coauthors, Josh Guetzkow, Senior lecturer at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, touted his work thusly, Hot off the presses! “Censorship and Suppression of Covid-19 Heterodoxy: Tactics and Counter-Tactics.” First of all, it’s a bad sign that an author touting this paper on Substack, given how much Substack has become a happy home for COVID-19 conspiracy theorists. However, let’s just see how Guetzkow describes his paper:

It is based on in-depth interviews with scientists and doctors around the world who have faced censorship and suppression due to their views on COVID-19. Many of the people we interviewed for the study are undoubtedly familiar to anyone reading this post, but we maintain their anonymity in the paper. Although the current stark reality of censorship and suppression is also undoubtedly familiar to most people reading this, it will be news to many outside our circles, and we felt there would be value in having it documented and discussed in the peer-reviewed academic literature.

In his post, Malone echoes these sentiments:

Having personally lived through what may be among the most intensive slander, defamation and derision campaigns of the COVIDcrisis, none of what was described in this article surprised me. I think that I can probably guess the names of some of the interviewed physicians and medical scientists discussed in the article, as so many have shared their own experiences with me. But seeing it written out in a dry academic style and published like a case series study of global corporate, organizational and governmental psychopathology and greed is another thing altogether. I expected the article to bring a tear of relief at being heard and validated, but instead it just left me numb.

I could tell just from this description that in essence what Shir-Raz et al did was to interview a bunch of cranks, who, predictably, characterized criticism as defamation and attempts at quality control in the media and scientific literature as “censorship.” Reading the paper, I wanted to see if I could guess who was being interviewed. It doesn’t much matter, though. What matters is the conspiracy theory narrative of brave “Truth” tellers being “persecuted” by The Man. Indeed, that very narrative is explicitly spelled out not just in the title (Censorship and Suppression of Covid-19 Heterodoxy: Tactics and Counter-Tactics) but in the introduction through the use of a biased retelling of various scientific debates over the COVID-19 pandemics that conveniently neglects to recount the massive rise of firehosed misinformation and disinformation about the coronavirus, tests for it, vaccines, nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to slow the spread of the disease, and public health in general.

The present study explores the phenomenon of censorship of dissent from the point of view of well-known scientists and doctors who were censored for their heterodox views on COVID-19, in order to learn about the range of tactics that have been used to censor and silence them, as well as the counter-tactics they have used to resist these attempts.

Naturally, the introduction goes on to pull a bunch of “science was wrong before” tropes that seek to cast criticism of conspiracy theories and pseudoscience as having turned out to have been “vindicated” now:

It is worth noting that orthodox positions can change. For example, by mid-Spring 2020, discussion of the laboratory origins of SARS-CoV-2 was forbidden on certain social media sites, like Twitter and Facebook (Jacobs 2021). More recently the lab-leak theory has since gained more legitimacy, especially following articles in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Harrison and Sachs 2022),  Frontiers in Virology (Ambati 2022) and Vanity Fair (Eban 2022) as well as a statement by WHO director-general Ghebreyesus, who commented on an interim report by the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens, saying that all hypotheses need to be considered and criticizing the report for inadequate assessment of the lab-leak hypothesis (WHO 2022). Another example relates to the necessity of mask wearing: US officials such as the director of the National Institute of Allergic and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Anthony Fauci, are on record recommending against universal mask wearing in March 2020, only to change their position in April to recommend universal mask wearing and mandates (Roche 2021).

That bit about masking is a favorite among COVID-19 cranks. From my perspective, it was one of Anthony Fauci’s uncommon big missteps. I know what he was trying to do then. It was March 8, 2020, and he was worried about how bad the surge of cases would get. Also, then it was not clear how extensive asymptomatic spread of the novel coronavirus would be. Masks were in short supply, and he was trying to preserve that supply for frontline healthcare workers at a time when cases were still pretty low, and the recommendation was changed one month later. It’s not as though Fauci never explained his change of opinion, either, as he did in this interview in The Washington Post in July 2020, in which he noted, “We didn’t realize the extent of asymptotic spread…what happened as the weeks and months came by, two things became clear: one, that there wasn’t a shortage of masks, we had plenty of masks and coverings that you could put on that’s plain cloth…so that took care of that problem. Secondly, we fully realized that there are a lot of people who are asymptomatic who are spreading infection. So it became clear that we absolutely should be wearing masks consistently.”

As for the second point, lab leak was a conspiracy theory then. It’s still a conspiracy theory now, the recent stories by ProPublica and Vanity Fair notwithstanding. (Stay tuned for more on these wretched exercises in disinformation.) Yes, it was possible that the novel coronavirus escaped from a lab, but the evidence has overwhelmingly trended towards a zoonotic natural origin. Moreover, this article neglects to mention that going along with that were a number of conspiracy theories claiming that the virus was “engineered” or even a bioweapon that dated back to January 2020. That’s the tell about where the authors are coming from.

And of course, the authors mention the Great Barrington Declaration:

While complaints regarding scientific censorship and suppression preceded the pandemic (Elisha et al. 20212022; Martin 2015), a new feature of the COVID era is the prominent role played by information technology companies such as Facebook and Google (Martin 2021). One prominent example was the down ranking of the Great Barrington Declaration’s website by Google (Myers 2020). The Declaration, spearheaded by three epidemiologists at Harvard, Stanford and Oxford universities, was released in October 2020 (Kulldorff et al. 2020) and signed by many notable scientists and doctors, including the Nobel Prize laureate Michael Levitt. It argued against universal lockdowns in favor of focusing on protecting vulnerable groups. However, to reduce exposure, Google altered its search algorithm (Myers 2020). In February 2021, Facebook deleted a page set up by a group of scientists involved with the declaration (Rankovic 2021). In April 2021, YouTube removed a recording of an official public hearing on the pandemic that featured Florida governor Ron DeSantis and the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration. One of them, Prof. Kulldorff, who is one of the most cited epidemiologists and infectious disease experts in the world, was himself censored by Twitter in March 2021 (Sarkissian 2021). Though his tweet saying that not everyone needs the COVID-19 vaccine was not taken down, he was warned, and users have been prevented from liking or retweeting the post (Tucker 2021).

Regular readers know that the Great Barrington Declaration was a call by three scientists in October 2020 who served as useful idiots for a right wing think tank, the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER). Unsurprisingly, it advocated a “don’t worry, be happy” approach to the pandemic, in which the virus would be allowed to spread among the young and healthy—because, you know, it’s not dangerous to them—in order to reach “natural herd immunity,” while the “vulnerable” (e.g., the elderly and those with chronic health conditions) would somehow magically be protected through measures that were largely undefined that the signatories referred to as “focused protection.” Basically, it was eugenicist and an obvious exercise in magnified minority, in which fringe scientists try to represent their views as mainstream by issuing a statement and getting a lot of people sign it. Also unsurprisingly, as time went on, GBD signatories aligned themselves more and more with the antivaccine movement. It’s a strategy that never would have worked, both practically and because “natural herd immunity” requires lifelong—or at least very long-lasting—robust immunity and, if there’s anything the Delta and Omicron variants have shown us, SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is good at evolving to evade preexisting immunity due to infection with prior variants.

Tipping their hands, the authors go on and on in a very long introduction, railing against tech companies for “censorship,” claiming that “censorship” is bad because of the “backfire effect” leading to its being seen more, and how “silencing” opposing views can supposedly generate mistrust. Let’s just say that they overplay their hand, given that despite all this “censorship,” I daresay that none of the physicians and scientists they interviewed had difficulty getting their views out to the world. That doesn’t stop the authors from concluding:

One main contribution of this study is in giving voice to scientists and doctors who raise questions, doubts or criticism in controversial areas in public health and science, especially during times of crisis. At the same time, we seek to raise awareness of the increasing use of censorship practices and aggressive tactics of suppression, targeting even leading figures who dare to criticize or doubt the dictated “consensus.” Censorship and silencing practices can have far-reaching consequences, manifested in the violation of freedom of speech and of ethical principles, harming science, and potentially risking public health and safety (Elisha et al. 2022). Researchers have already warned that the COVID-19 crisis confirms previous concerns about the deleterious implications of censorship (Cáceres 2022; Mucchielli 2020). We concur with Cáceres’ assertion that censorship and dogma are foreign to true science and must be abandoned and replaced by open and fair discussion.

Funny, but I don’t see any actual scientific contribution claimed here. Rather, the purpose of this “study,” which was pretty close to completely subjective, was to “give voice” to anonymous but apparently prominent COVID-19 quacks.

Let’s see who was interviewed:

Study participants include 13 established doctors and scientists (12 men and 1 woman), from different countries around the world (viz., Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Israel, UK and US). Of these, 11 have formal medical training from a variety of fields (e.g., epidemiology, radiology, oncology, cardiology, paediatrics, gynecology, emergency room management) and two are research scientists without medical degrees (in the areas of risk management and psychology). All participants hold either an MD or PhD degree, and four hold both. Most of them are well known in their fields, with a proven research background that includes many academic publications. We used a purposeful sampling method, i.e., a non-probabilistic sampling according to which a deliberate selection is made of individuals who could teach us about the phenomenon under study (Creswell 2012). To preserve the respondents’ anonymity, details that might lead to their identification are omitted.

I really wanted to start playing, “Guess the crank!” right here just based on this information, but let’s see what else the authors did:

The study is based on in-depth interviews using a semi-structured interview guide. The questions focused on the respondents’ stance towards COVID-19 that was seen as controversial, events they experienced due to their stance, the implications of these events for their professional and personal lives, and their responses to these events.

Recruitment was done in several ways. First, through a Google search we located the contact details of doctors and researchers known for their critical stances toward COVID-19 pandemic measures and policies. Second, we used the “snowball” method to reach other respondents. 

So we’re looking at a very qualitative study of a specific group. The themes that came out of the interviews were very predictable to anyone who deals with misinformation and how cranks, grifters, and misinformation, characterized as “silencing dissent” and “censoring and suppressing tactics”:

  • Exclusion
  • Denigration
  • Online censorship
  • Censorship and suppression by the medical and academic establishment
  • Official inquiries
  • Retraction of scientific papers

Then the authors characterized the “reaction”:

  • First reactions: shock and surprise
  • Determined to fight
  • Exposing the censorship
  • Using alternative channels
  • Creating social support networks

My first reaction looking at these “tactics” was recognition. These are exactly the same terms that antivaxxers, quacks, and cranks have used to characterize attempts to counter their misinformation and grift ever since I first started paying attention to medical misinformation and the reaction of cranks to criticism. For example, here’s a quote by a scientist complaining of “exclusion”:

Neither X nor Y [two central newspapers in the respondent’s country] wanted to publish my articles. Without a proper explanation. Just stopped receiving articles. It was quite blatant, that they stopped accepting articles expressing a different opinion from that of the ministry of health (MOH). The number of journalists who can really be talked to, who are willing to listen to another opinion, to publish, has been greatly reduced, and most health reporters today are very biased towards the MOH (#10).

Of course, it never occurs to him (probably, given that the vast majority of the scientists and physicians in the sample were male) that maybe—just maybe—when you start publishing and promoting a message pushing dangerous misinformation about a virus killing lots and lots of people, newspaper editors might start to view you less favorably and therefore become less willing to publish your editorials. This could well be the case even if before the pandemic they had published your editorials. What you or I might see as either the crank failing in the marketplace of ideas or of newspaper editors not wanting to provide an outlet for dangerous misinformation, cranks perceive as “persecution.”

Moreover these COVID-19 “contrarians” really, really, really don’t like criticism directed their way, referred to in the paper as “denigration” instead of criticism:

Respondents reported that exclusion was only the first step: shortly after that they started being subjected to defamation by the media, and disparaged as “anti-vaxxers,” “Covid deniers,” “dis/misinformation spreaders” and/or “conspiracy theorists”:
After that report came out…, I was front page of the Sunday Times… it said… X [the respondent name], a professor in A [the institution this respondent works in] is co-author of anti vax report… I was now, yeah…, I was told I was anti-vaccine (#9). I have been vilified.… I’ve been called a quack…, an anti-vaxxer and a COVID denier, a conspiracy theorist (#13).

One is tempted to respond, “The truth hurts.” However, what’s interesting is how, even as these scientists and physicians embraced misinformation, disinformation, quackery, antivax, and anti-public health stances, their self-image of being upstanding scientists remained firm, leading them to be shocked when terms such as the ones listed above began to be applied to them. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about “brave maverick doctors” over the years, it’s that they have an inordinately and unjustifiably high opinion of themselves as, yes, “mavericks” who are “not part of the herd.” If anything, the cranks who arose during the COVID-19 pandemic possess this trait even more prominently than those who arose before the pandemic.

Particularly amusing is how some of them resent criticism (which they call “defamation”) from those whom they consider inferiors. I really had to wonder if this quote came from John Ioannidis, but then the mention of “three” doctors makes me think that this is either Martin Kulldorff or Jay Bhattacharya, each one of the three authors of the Great Barrington Declaration. (I leave out Sunetra Gupta, the third signatory, as she has been fairly quiet over the last year or so.) Anyway, here’s what the “study” says:

One prominent tactic our respondents claim was used by the media to discredit them was the use of seemingly independent “third party sources,” such as other doctors, to undermine them, for example by writing defamatory articles:
I was shocked at what came out the next day in The Wall Street Journal… So here we had three of the most senior doctors with hundreds and hundreds of publications and scientific credibility to our resumes and …a major media outlet allowed a junior doctor to publish who has no academic standing or track record…[and] have him publish a defamatory piece (#6).

How dare this peon criticize me? Let’s just say that I’ve been on the receiving end of this complaint, often in the form of: How dare this blogger—who’s just a surgeon and has one-tenth the scientific publications that I do—criticize me? (Never mind the PhD.) Indeed, John Ioannidis’ attempt to cast those voicing criticism of the Great Barrington Declaration as vapid social media stars devoid of scientific accomplishment, compared to him and the Declaration signatories at least—”science Kardashians,” if you will—dishonestly using a scientific citation index originally intended as satire comes to mind as a particularly prominent example of this tactic.

I would love to know the specific op-ed to which this “brave maverick” is referring. I’d be willing to bet, based on my previous experience, that it was not defamatory, just full of criticism. My other reaction was: The Wall Street Journal? The WSJ editorial page has been one of the major “mainstream” sources of COVID-19 misinformation throughout the pandemic. I could be wrong, of course. I couldn’t find an obvious editorial written by a “junior doctor” criticizing the Great Barrington Declaration, just an article quoting other scientists. Of course, I also can’t help but point out that the GBD was anything but “silenced.” Rather, it became the basis for policy in a number of populous countries, its signatories finding an eager audience in the Trump administration in the US and the Johnson administration in the UK.

It’s no surprise that disinformation merchants don’t like fact checkers, either. From the paper:

Another “third party” source used by the media, according to our respondents, was “fact-checking” organizations, a practice that is ostensibly meant to verify published information to promote the veracity of reporting. However, some respondents alleged that the fact-checking groups were recruited and operated by corporate or other stakeholders to discredit them and try to discredit the information they presented:
…the fact checkers are a source of misinformation, so though it may review something and say, Dr. X said something, but… they make a counterclaim. The counter claims are never cited in the data… they all trace back to the vaccine manufacturers or the vaccine stakeholders (#6). you get the fact checkers… They tried to discredit S, but also, because I was a co-author, they were picking on me…, and all this sort of stuff and… discredit by association… (#4).
As seen in the second example above, some of the participants said that those “fact-checking” groups were used to discredit and defame not only the researcher or doctor who presented a contrarian opinion or information, but also others who were associated with them.

I’m reminded of how much Paul Thacker and the editors of The BMJ, which published Thacker’s disinformation-packed report claiming that the Pfizer randomized controlled trial of its COVID-19 vaccine was full of problems that invalidated it (it wasn’t) railed against Facebook’s fact check of the story. It’s the same principle. Cranks hate fact-checkers, including bloggers and Twitter influencers who debunk their misinformation and do everything they can to discredit them, with a highly exaggerated portrayal of them as biased and tools of The Man.

Next up, I thought knew who this was:

Some respondents said that the media persecuted them to the point of blackening their name at their workplace, resulting in their dismissal, or that they were forced to resign:
I lost my job…, I was working for the last 20 years in X [the institution’s name]… And so, the media started coming to X… there was a concerted effort to… ruin my reputation, even though, this is unbelievable, they had the lowest death rate basically in the world, and the doctor who brought it to them, gets vilified and slandered. So, I left on my own… My reputation was slandered. I mean the level of treatment that I didn’t expect and abuse I would say (#1).

On the other hand, Massachusetts didn’t have the “lowest death rate in the world.” So maybe it wasn’t Martin Kulldorff, who left Harvard a year ago in order to become the Scientific Advisor for the “spiritual child of the Great Barrington Declaration,” the disinformation-spreading Brownstone Institute. I always suspected that he had been fired, given his laments about how his COVID-19 minimizing views were not welcome among his colleagues, because, you know, ideology and “intolerance” for “dissent.”

I wont’ spend a lot of time on the complaints about “censorship” on social media. It’s predictable, and the debate over how far tech companies should go to slow the spread of misinformation is complex. I’ll just mention that appreciating that complexity is not what this paper is about. Portraying attempts to slow the spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories as horrific “censorship” is.

Similarly, attempts by the academic and medical establishment to police their members who spread conspiracy theories and misinformation are portrayed as—you guessed it!—”censorship and suppression.” Clearly, there are some ivermectin pushers in the group interviewed, because they complain about hospitals not renewing their contracts or only offering them contracts in which there were new restrictions:

In some cases, respondents reported that following a position or criticism they expressed, they were dismissed from their institution, or were notified that their contract would not be renewed.
I was told that my contract [at the medical clinic] wasn’t going to be renewed… There’s a whole variety of checklists for the contract not to be renewed, there must be a due process, and the first red flag is that there was no due process. I asked specifically was there a board vote…, and the answer was no, and I said… why is this action being taken, and their response was “no reason”… [Later] I received a letter from [X] University saying that I was stripped of my professorship, with no due process, with no faculty senate, nothing…. Then, I received a…letter from [Y] University, again no due process, no faculty senate, no explanation (#6).
Similarly, respondents said they were summarily dismissed or disqualified from prestigious positions, such as serving on leading health or scientific committees, or editing medical journals, without due process or transparency:
… the director general of the Ministry of [X] approached me … and said that the Minister had reached an agreement with the Ministry of Health, that he was putting a representative on the [prescription drug] basket committee …, and she said all fingers had pointed to me… Then comes a phone call after a week, and she says, “listen, your name was already passed on as a request of the Minister to the Basket Committee, and has been disqualified unequivocally because you oppose [COVID] vaccinations in children”… I was shocked… Until then the responses I received were from the bottom. This is a response from the top (#11). …there was a whole series of actions taken again with no due process and no explanation so… I received a notice from the [medical association] that I was being stripped from a committee position… I received a letter from a journal…where I was the editor in chief, being stripped of the editorship, again with no due process, no phone calls no, tractable explanation… I received a letter from the National Institutes of Health being stripped from a longstanding committee position, I was on the committee for several decades and was stripped off of that, again no phone call, no due process, no explanation (#6).

Cranks call this “censorship” and “suppression,” I call it quality control and have long argued that science, medical boards, medical specialty societies, and the scientific establishment in general have not done nearly enough to protect the public from quacks and cranks in their membership. This is not a new problem, either. It’s a problem that dates back to long before the pandemic.

Indeed, I view some of the complaints as hopeful signs that maybe journal editors, public health officials, and those running medical boards and professional societies are finally starting to “get it,” especially the cranks’ complaints about their papers not being accepted in academic journals or even being retracted.

It’s also predictable that these cranks have found alternative channels to promote their misinformation. Again, none of this is new in concept. Quacks have been doing this since time immemorial. What is new is how influential these escape channels from criticism have become. There’s mention of doctors running Telegram channels because they got banned from Twitter and Facebook or starting to do videos on Rumble because they were banned from YouTube. Again, this is all an indication that none of these doctors have truly been “censored.” They were just denied popular platforms. Unfortunately, they found other platforms more amenable to them that have, even more unfortunately, become very popular.

Like quacks going back years and years, these COVID-19 cranks are forming what Kimball Atwood used to like to call pseudomedical pseudoprofessional organizations (PPOs). (Note the year, 2008.) Let me quote him:

This is part of an ongoing series† discussing pitfalls of regulating physicians, but I’ve decided, in the interest of flexibility, to vary the title. A couple of weeks ago I gave some examples of how individual physicians practicing substandard, implausible medicine manage to avoid or delay being disciplined by state medical boards. I observed that the boards themselves seem reluctant or slow to act against such practices, even those that are illegal, and that this stands in contrast to their prompt actions against other types of malfeasance: those of the “low-hanging fruit” variety. In a comment, David Gorski reminded me that he had previously offered a few reasons for that discrepancy, with which I agree. Nevertheless, it seems odd that state boards don’t do better.

In an attempt to find more explanations, this week we’ll look at another tactic of practitioners of pseudomedicine: banding together to create pseudomedical pseudoprofessional organizations (PPOs), complete with pseudo-legitimate names, pseudo-legitimate conferences, pseudo-legitimate appearing websites, pseudo-“board certifications,” protocols for pseudo-therapies, patient brochures hyping pseudo-therapies, pseudo-consent forms for pseudo-therapies, pseudo-Institutional Review Boards to approve pseudo-research, pseudo-journals to publish reports of pseudo-research, very real financial contributions from pseudoscientific corporations to help pay for very real advertising, very real lobbying, very real legal representation, and more.

Does any of this response to legitimate scientific criticism of pseudoscience sound familiar? It should. If it doesn’t, let’s look at the paper again:

Beyond their activities in disseminating information and data, some of the respondents noted that they are working to establish new alternative platforms and organizations dedicated to developing and providing health information and medical treatments—including new journals and non-profits, instead of the existing ones, which they claim have failed and disappointed. They explain this as a means of coping with the censorship and suppression they experienced due to their opposing positions, which grant them a sense of hope and a feeling that they are building “a new world”:
I have a new thing in life. N and I, we started the X organization…, whose sole mission is to try to figure out and help people to treat COVID. And I think we’ve done a real service to the world (#9). …there’s a lot of talk about starting a journal… Tess Lawrie started The World Council for Health. There is increasing amount of talk about starting a new health system. Like, people want to go to hospitals where the doctors can be doctors and not the other role of all these regulations and corrupt agencies, so you know, there is maybe a new world that will form…(#4).

This is exactly what acupuncturists, homeopaths, naturopaths, reiki masters, and every variety of quack did prepandemic. It was incredibly successful too, with some “integrative medicine” associations even having naturopaths eligible to serve a term as president and running fellowships. It should surprise exactly no one that COVID-19 quacks and antivaxxers are doing the same thing now. The formation of PPOs and fake journals is a time-dishonored strategy by quacks to try to make their quackery seem medically and scientifically legitimate and respectable.

Similarly, that’s the purpose of this series of interviews of a carefully curated list of anonymous quacks presented as a “study”: To portray COVID-19 contrarians as “brave maverick” scientists and doctors whose views are being “censored” and “suppressed.” It’s a conspiracy narrative that goes back to the beginning of quackery but has become far more potent than I can ever recall its being since COVID-19 started spreading across the world nearly three years ago.

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]

13 replies on “Criticism and quality control ≠ “Censorship and defamation””

A few thoughts.
A. That “Martin 2012” reference used by the authors to show that this is not new? That’s exactly in line with what you’re saying, because it’s Professor Brian Martin’s complaint about the criticism directing at him for Judy Wilyman’s anti-vaccine thesis. I think you may have written about it.

B. Josh ‘s “Wow, this was so surprising to read in an academic format is pretty weird from a co-auithor.

C. If this was a snowball sample, chances are most of the people are not even in the legitimate scientists gone rogue pool, but cranks. With the exception of maybe DRs. Kulldorf and Bhattacharya, I doubt many would respond positively to a reference from, say, Malone, McCullough, and co, even among COVID-19 minimizers.

D. This is a small sample even for a qualitative study. Not unheard of, but also not usual.

E. I wonder how many of these people were dismissed from refusing to vaccinate (Kheriaty?) rather than their claims. Or had more complex situations, like Baylor’s call to McCullough to stop misusing their name.

Josh the Law professor and Shir-Raz (not a scientist) sure takes some serious liberties in his writing. It’s pretty fun reading their earlier tripe (May 2022).

“Vaccines have been considered one of the most controversial areas in the field of medicine almost from the advent of vaccination in the eighteenth century (Bragazzi et al., 2017; Johnston, 2004).”

They cite a joke Shoenfeld paper whining about how he’s not taken seriously and a discussion of how alt-med practitioners have always been against vaccines. This is a complete failure to establish their claim right out of the gate.

“While those who question the safety and efficacy of certain vaccines, usually referred as “vaccine opponents” or “anti-vaxxers,“ are portrayed by vaccine advocates as charlatans and conspirators who spread “fake news” and threaten public health (e.g., Arif et al., 2018; Marco-Franco et al., 2021; Jolley & Douglas, 2014; Lewandowsky et al., 2013), vaccine critics argue otherwise. Some scientists, healthcare professionals, and citizens question the benefits attributed to vaccines, claiming that the mortality from infectious disease had already decreased significantly prior to the widespread use of most vaccines (Halvorsen, 2007).”

Same old attempt to label themselves as “concerned with safety and efficacy” then the “vaccines didn’t save us” gambit.

They then claim Mary Holland and her coauthor are credible, and the Children’s Health Defense blog as credible sources. These are nothing but ridiculous attempts that have been discussed in the science blogosphere and in published research, repeatedly.

Another paper they cite is another of their own whining about retractions:

“According to some scholars, questionable practices have been employed to silence dissents in
controversial fields, such as AIDS, environmental studies, and fluoridation (e.g., Delborne, 2016;
Kuehn, 2004; Martin, 1981, 1991, 1996).”

I would say there is no quackery and pseudoscience that these two (and their fellow co-authors) won’t whine about.

I’m forever reminded when dealing with ‘true believers’ they can never be wrong, they always ‘know’ the ‘truth’ either through secret knowledge, suppressed by the mainstream, or cos of their vastly superior faculties. I know this is not some staggering incite on my behalf, it’s a well-known phenomenon among conspiracy theorists of all ilk’s.

I do think it’s been amplified by a more modern iteration of faux victimhood, many many more are claiming to be victims just because things around them are changing in ways they have little control over (see those who believe idiocies such as ‘replacement theory and ‘Trumps Big Lie’), so it’s natural for them to claim they are being silenced (despite still having many outlets to spread their BS) and defamed when faced with their BS being debunked, I mean how dear anyone contradict one who ‘knows’ they speak the truth (sic)

I’ve been reading and commenting on SBM sites of various types since the early days of message boards and I often wonder if it’s a loosing battle, nothing has got better in terms of scientific or medical reporting, it’s as lamentable as it ever was, too many outlets still give platforms to cranks with no apparent understanding, dramatic headlines have given way to click bait headlines, I still remember The Times running scare stories about MMR being a ticking time bomb, so little has changed when these, so called, quality broadsheets continue to give a platform for Covid cranks. As Orac says at least once per week, ‘everything old is new again’. It’s depressing really.

“Minerva may not be known to many of you, but by no means is it “obscure.””

I dunno, Bob, being known only to a relative handful of social sciences academicians is pretty much the working definition of an obscure journal.

Speaking of “obscure”, why was it necessary to anonymize the 13 interviewees for the article? Presumably they’ve already been “censored”, “defamed”, “canceled”, stamped, spindled and mutilated by the forces of Orthodoxy, so why not allow their names to be used? Brave Mavericks apparently aren’t as brave as they used to be.

There was a brief reference in the paper to Tess Lawrie, though it’s unclear if she was one of the 13 Defamed Disinformationalists. As for Tess, she has an intriguing definition of a quality physician:

“At this point, a dr being investigated, threatened with gaol time or revocation of their licence indicates adherence to the Hippocratic Oath until proven otherwise.”

Tess Lawrie on Twitter, 11/2/22

The way this quote appears, it seems to cover any alleged infraction for which a doctor may be punished, including sexual harassment of patients, illicit drug use and violent felony convictions. No matter – if the board’s coming after you, it means you truly are a Hippocratic Oaf.

“why was it necessary to anonymize the 13 interviewees for the article?”

That’s because co-conspirator Springer is censoring them.

Editors are not popular.

It’s a sign of the sickness that people take fact checking as censorship.

NASA is not obliged to hire astrologers to direct their rocket launches just because that Belief System (b.s.) has some popularity.

What’s in a name? Censorship by any other name would still smell as rank…

Call it whatever you want. Censorship is the last refuge of the self-appointed authority whose claims don’t hold up under scrutiny.

Censorship is the last refuge of the self-appointed authority whose claims don’t hold up under scrutiny.

Gee, none of yours stand up under scrutiny. Where are you being censored?

I guess the concept of a “meritocracy” doesn’t apply to them. Is it any wonder there is such an overlap with creationists, climate change deniers, etc.? They just know they’re right, so they can ignore any evidence they want.

“Where are you being censored?”

Laughter = Censorship

““meritocracy” doesn’t apply to them”

Sure it does, but credibility within their community is proportional to 1/logM.

That pesky denominator has many of them taking to extreme antics to achieve marginal increases in their (local) credibility. In contrast, our laughter is in proportion to 1/M, which may help to explain their histrionics at RI and elsewhere.

I get the feeling that CI would like to be censored, as being martyred is almost as good as being right…

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