Antivaccine nonsense Bad science Medicine Skepticism/critical thinking

Neil deGrasse Tyson demonstrates why debating cranks is a horrible idea

Astrophysicist and famed science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson appeared on The Highwire, an antivax video podcast, to “debate” its host, antivax propagandist Del Bigtree. This incident demonstrates quite well why it is almost never a good idea for a scientist to agree to “debate” science deniers.

Those who’ve sent me videos to debunk or comment on know this about me: I rarely watch videos, especially from cranks. If the video is longer than about five or ten minutes, your chances of getting me to watch and comment on it are damned near close to zero (and they’re not so great even if the video is short). The reason is simple and all about me. I find videos to be a highly inefficient way to imbibe information and, when it comes to blogging, an even more inefficient use of my time given that I might have to spend an extra one or even two hours watching the video, stopping to transcribe relevant parts, and the whole thing always ends up taking a lot more time than just doing one of my regular blog posts, which already takes up a lot of time given my tendency towards verbosity. That’s not to say that I don’t occasionally make exceptions to this rule, in particular for antivaccine propaganda movies like VAXXED and The Greater Good, for cancer quackery movies like The Beautiful Truth or the documentary by Eric Merola about Stanislaw Burzynski plus its sequel (and even laetrile!), or even movies about how COVID-19 is a “plandemic.” However, I tend to make fairly rare exceptions to my rule for notable pieces of propaganda that allow me to illustrate larger points.

Which brings me to Neil deGrasse Tyson (whose name will be abbreviated NDT, from here on out, so that I don’t have to type it a million times and screw up hitting the shift key).

Neil deGrasse Tyson is, of course, an astrophysicist and longtime director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City. However, he is better known as one of the most famous science communicators, if not the most famous science communicator, in the world. It is not an exaggeration to say that he is arguably the Carl Sagan of this generation, a connection that was cemented when he hosted the 2014 updated version—or, if you prefer, a sequel—of Cosmos the groundbreaking 1980 PBS documentary series about space, physics, geology, and the history of life on Earth originally hosted by Carl Sagan. In other words, NDT is a science rock star, a bona fide celebrity, who appears frequently as a guest on various television shows to promote science and the scientific perspective. I even met him once in the green room at The Amazing Meeting 9 in 2011 and was utterly starstruck—because of course I was.

All this is why I was so shocked and alarmed to see this earlier this month:

That’s right. The most famous science communicator in the world had agreed to appear on the podcast of one of the most influential and rabid antivaccine activists and propagandists in the world. Regular readers know what my reaction would be, but for those who are not, let’s just say that alarm would be a mild description of my reaction, and right then, right there, I knew that I would have to make an exception to my usual rule about videos, even though I knew that watching Bigtree’s hypercaffeinated, sometimes unctuous, and utterly overconfident televangelist-like schtick would be painful. The reason? Basically, everyone knows that it is my position that it is almost always a really bad idea for science communicators, scientists, physicians, and actual experts to agree to appear in “debates” with science deniers like Del Bigtree, much less in what turned out to be a segment lasting over one hour and 45 minutes. There’s a saying about debating cranks that’s applicable: Debating someone like Del Bigtree is like playing chess with a pigeon. The pigeon will knock over the pieces, shit on the board, and then strut and preen as if he had won the match.

I’ll explain in more detail near the end of the post why I have argued over the years that it is almost always a bad idea, a no-win proposition, to debate cranks, but the TL;DR version is because (1) you can’t have an honest scientific debate—or any evidence- and reason-based debate—with bad faith actors like Bigtree, who can distort, Gish gallop (or firehose), and misrepresent data and science to their heart’s content in such a way that even the most skilled disinformation debunkers will be hard pressed to keep up and, more importantly because (2) the crank controls the narrative, which makes it incredibly unlikely that you will persuade anyone in the audience and, worse, you will be used as a propaganda tool by the host to demonstrate that his positions are worthy of being heard on the same platform as him, side by side. Also, no matter how much you might have science, evidence, and facts on your side, in a televised debate format like this it often doesn’t matter. Again, the science advocate is the foil that the propagandist uses to spin his propaganda. This is not a real debate, and it is the incredibly rare person who can go “into the lions’ den,” so to speak, successfully. Such people are so rare, in fact, that their existence does not change my general position that “debates” of this sort are useful only to science-deniers as a means of promoting their message and falsely elevating their status. If you don’t think that NDT’s status didn’t rub off on Bigtree, at least a little bit, because NDT had been willing to appear on his podcast, think again.

When the show featuring the “debate” between NDT and Del Bigtree finally hit the web over a week ago, I knew that Bigtree, at least, believed he had accomplished his mission just from the introduction to the segment, in which Bigtree was even more hypercaffeinated and chipper than usual, even saying how “pumped” he was.

So how did this debate come about?

Right at the beginning of last Thursday’s episode of The Highwire, Bigtree related how in January he had seen NDT appear on a podcast with Patrick Bet-David, where the topic of COVID-19 vaccines had come up. Truth be told, I had never heard of Bet-David before—really!—but it was obvious immediately to me that he is an antivaxxer of the libertarian variety, as this Tweet demonstrates:

And, indeed, in the segment featured on Bigtree’s show The Highwire, Bet-David basically ranted about how horrible “mandates” are, what an affront to “freedom” they are, even going so far as to liken them to forcing women to get abortions—a telling analogy. NDT reasonably—but futilely—responded that a woman who undergoes an abortion does not endanger those around her and how it’s “not [just] about you,” but about others and the social contract. It was an argument that was like waving the proverbial cape in front of the bull to Bigtree, as antivaxxers have rejected the idea of any sort of social contract with respect to infectious diseases since, well, long before I started paying attention to them. Indeed, before the pandemic they routinely used to go ballistic over that very same argument whenever it was used to support, for example, measles vaccine mandates in schools—or any school vaccine mandate of any kind, for that matter.

Bigtree also featured NDT saying this to Bet-David, using it as an introduction to how he “challenged” NDT to a “debate” of this sort, after which they could “go have a beer”:

I’m in conversation with you. Let’s call it a debate. We know—you and I know—walking into that room that either I’m right and you’re wrong, you’re right and I’m wrong, or we’re both wrong. We know that in advance. So we start having the conversation. “Well, what about these data?” “Well what about these data?” Well, I think those data are flawed and here’s why.” “Well, how about this?” Yes, that’s a debate. But you know how that debate ends? It ends where, you know, we need this new dataset to resolve this difference. Now let’s go have a beer.

Then, Bigtree aired his response from January, which was to go on about how he’s “debated” all these people but still was able to remain friendly with them, citing Alan Dershowitz, of all people. After that, he concluded, “Neil, I’m all about getting a beer. Let’s do it. But first I’m asking you to come on The Highwire, and let’s have a real debate.”

I’m afraid I facepalmed here, if only because in most “debates” the participants do not actually “know” ahead of time that one of them is wrong or the other one right. Quite the contrary! In general, unless this is high school debate club-style debate, both participants generally believe that they are right and their opponent wrong—in the case of Del Bigtree, fanatically so! He is so certain that he is correct about vaccines that his antivax views are more akin to a religious “truth”—I use the term because NDT discussed the different kind of “truths,” including religious “truths”—than to a position that he came to through a careful consideration of science. Moreover, there is no new dataset that could ever get Del Bigtree—or anyone like him—to change his mind and decide that vaccines are safe and effective after all. (He produced VAXXED with Andrew Wakefield, who directed it, fer cryin’ out loud!)

Seriously, in February 2020, Bigtree even quote-Tweeted NDT about COVID-19 vaccines, previewing examples of the sorts of disinformation that antivaxxers would weaponize against COVID-19 vaccines—and doing it over nine months before the vaccines were granted emergency use approval by the FDA:

No, seriously. How many times have we heard antivax talking points like this since the vaccines rolled out in December 2020? In fact, as you will see, near the end of the debate Bigtree even trotted out the bit about vaccines supposedly creating asymptomatic carriers! In any event, Bigtree related how he had Tweeted out his challenge to NDT, which apparently got NDT’s attention, and, through a “group of friends,” the two hashed out how the debate would occur. NDT then did the debate on Wednesday when, apparently, he was in town. Bigtree, predictably, crows about how “yes, I do ask some hard questions,” one specifically, “Why are you putting out and executive producing a movie that seeks to put me and people like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in a bad light?” I can’t speak for NDT, but if it were me, I’d answer simply: Because you are both antivax propagandists, leaders of the antivax movement, who endangered children before the pandemic and now endanger everyone. NDT, of course, was more civil.

I also can’t help but wonder if NDT naively thought that he was going to be able to get antivaxxers to see his documentary, A Shot in the Arm, which features Drs. Anthony Fauci, Paul Offit, and Peter Hotez, as well as vaccine advocates Karen Ernst and Blima Marcus and does indeed  feature critical takes on Del Bigtree and RFK, Jr. Maybe he even thought the movie might move some of Bigtree’s audience. Unfortunately, I have not had a chance to see the movie, which has not been released yet and appears to be only available through sponsored screenings by groups. The film has a good pedigree, having been produced and directed by Academy Award nominee Scott Hamilton Kennedy, who had previously produced a documentary about GMOs, Food Evolution, featuring NDT as narrator. I can’t help but wonder if NDT’s involvement with A Shot in the Arm, combined with a naive faith that the way to counter misinformation is to provide good information, led him to be susceptible to Bigtree’s challenge and blandishments. Also, one can’t help but also note that, even though NDT is undoubtedly a brilliant guy, vaccines and infectious disease are not his areas of expertise.

To quote Del Bigtree, though, “But first…”

Context matters

I finished the last section with “but first” because the Bigtree-NDT “debate” is the very last segment in Bigtree’s show. Indeed, The Highwire usually runs around three hours (another reason why I rarely can stand to watch even a significant portion of an episode), and, even though the “debate” runs 1:48, that’s still less than two-thirds of the show’s runtime. Of course, this lengthy amount of time allows Bigtree to set up the “debate” with multiple briefer segments promoting typical antivax propaganda, including a segment about a “wave” of vaccine reactions in Australia, one on how Sweden supposedly had “gotten COVID right” (not exactly), one on how apparently Americans are “souring” on COVID-19 vaccines, and a segment featuring an interview with Dr. Joseph Ladapo, the Surgeon-General in Florida who was a member of the quack group America’s Frontline Doctors that promoted hydroxychloroquine in 2020 and who has since abused his position to claim that children don’t need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and to promote a highly deceptive anonymous study by the Florida Department of Health that portrays COVID-19 vaccines as more dangerous than COVID-19 in the young. (It’s a study that also turns out to have been highly spun, with “inconvenient” data left out in order to make the vaccines look as bad as possible. I was, of course, amused at how Dr. Ladapo, who is now an antivax rock star himself, found himself playing second fiddle to NDT on Bigtree’s show. However, it is also alarming at how often an actual doctor in charge of an entire large state’s public health apparatus appears on antivax podcasts. Prepandemic, this is something I never imagined that I’d ever see, but here we are.

What I am getting at here is that, however the debate between Bigtree and NDT were to turn out, Bigtree had expertly set it up with segments promoting antivax disinformation, the key message being that the “consensus” about COVID-19 had been not just wrong but disastrously wrong. (It’s almost as if Bigtree knew that NDT would appeal to scientific consensus a lot, which he, in fact, did!) If I were one to advise NDT (an arrogant dream on my part, I know, but let me run with it for a moment), I would, after advising him not to do it, have advised him that, if he were bound and determined to ignore my advice not to do it, he should at least make sure that the debate was a standalone video, not just part of Bigtree’s weekly three hour podcast. Why? Because context matters, and the context set up by Bigtree was that there is a real debate to be had about vaccines, worse, a debate on antivax terms, complete with antivax propaganda segments with some of the usual characters before NDT’s segment aired. Moreover, unlike Bigtree, who had clearly done his research on the arguments that NDT uses in favor of COVID-19 vaccines, NDT gave no appearance of having done much, if any, homework about the sorts of bogus arguments and conspiracy theories that Del Bigtree routinely employs, other than Bigtree’s tendency to appeal to his own “experts” (the brave maverick quacks who support the sorts of antivax conspiracy theories that he spreads and the more reputable doctors who became “COVID-19 contrarians”).

The debate, such as it was

The segment featuring the “debate” between NDT and Del Bigtree is nearly two hours long, which means that I’m mostly only going to be able to relate my impressions, citing specific quotes and segments that led me to that impression, as transcribing too much would have taken way more time than I had. Even doing just that, this post ended up being considerably longer than even an average Gorski post. (You know what that means.) I will also say that NDT actually did acquit himself about as well as any nonexpert could be expected to, given the gaps in his knowledge. Even so, I found the whole debate frustrating, because, absent those gaps (particularly his lack of detailed background knowledge about specific “brave maverick” doctors and scientists cited by Bigtree), NDT could have been better able to push back more effectively against Bigtree. If you question my impressions, I’m afraid that you’ll have to suffer as I did and watch for yourself. I will, however, point out an interesting thing. There is one five minute excerpt from the debate that antivaxxers are sharing far and wide on social media that I found quite cringey:

I included a response to the Tweet because it’s one of the key messages behind all forms of science denial, namely that the scientific consensus exists to shut down dissent and that the cranks will someday be vindicated nonetheless by overcoming the “consensus.” Indeed, the segment starts with Bigtree putting up an image of what he calls “top ranking medical professionals” who were supposedly “silenced”:

For Neil deGrasse Tyson: Del Bigtree's "top docs" who were silenced.
“Top medical professionals” according to Del Bigtree. Funny how pretty much every single one of them has been featured on SBM as quite the opposite. Moreover, when you appear on Fox News and dozens of other news and social media outlets over and over again, as several of these people do (e.g., Ioannidis, Bhattacharya, McCullough), you can’t really claim to be “silenced.” The same is true if you have huge audiences for your paid Substack. Also, only one of them could really be called a “top ranking medical professional,” and that’s Prof. Ioannidis.

Unsurprisingly, three of these doctors (Martin Kulldorff, Jay Bhattacharya, and Sunetra Gupta) were the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), a statement issued in October 2020—before there were COVID-19 vaccines available—at the headquarters of the libertarian “free market” think tank American Institute for Economic Research (AIER). It was a statement that advocated a “let ‘er rip” approach to the pandemic, with a poorly defined to undefined strategy of “focused protection” for the elderly and those whose chronic medical conditions put them at high risk for serious disease and death from COVID. It was a strategy that, even then, epidemiologists knew wouldn’t work, and since then the rise of SARS-CoV-2 variants like Delta and Omicron able to evade “natural immunity” due to infection with earlier variants has demonstrated conclusively that the “natural herd immunity” advocated by the GBD was never achievable. Since then, Martin Kulldorff served as “scientific advisor” for the Brownstone Institute, the “spiritual child of the GBD,” which pivoted right away to promoting antivaccine disinformation. With Bhattacharya, Kulldorff has also promoted inflammatory messages echoing the “Nuremberg 2.0” retribution that antivaxxers have long wanted with respect to public health officials. While it is true that these three were all respected researchers before the GBD, since then they have aligned themselves definitively on the side of COVID-19 and antivax conspiracy theorists.

Another scientist on the graphic, Dr. John Ioannidis, was indeed considered a titan in medical research before the pandemic. We used to cite him regularly. Unfortunately, since COVID-19, Dr. Ioannidis has become a pathetic shell of his former self, a parody reduced to unironically using the satirical “Kardashian index” to portray signatories of the John Snow Memorandum—which countered the GBD by arguing that “natural herd immunity” is not achievable any time soon, if ever, for COVID-19—as unserious social media celebrities with no real scientific impact where it counts, in the peer-reviewed biomedical literature. (As it turns out, the John Snow signatories were right, and the GBD ones were wrong.)

As for the rest, I laughed. They are all what we sarcastically now call “contrarian” doctors or “medical apostates” with respect to COVID-19 and, increasingly, everything else. Dr. Robert Malone, for example, is now inarguably an antivax conspiracy theorist who started claiming around the time COVID-19 vaccines were being tested to be the true “inventor of mRNA vaccines” and soon after the vaccines were released started showing up at antivax events and roundtables, to the point where he has become indistinguishable from “old school” antivaxxers and was never a “top ranking” medical scientist. Ditto Dr. Paul Marik, who has promoted ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, as well as antivax conspiracy theories. Ditto Geert Vanden Bossche too, who repackaged Andrew Wakefield’s old claim that measles vaccines would select for ever more virulent variants to apply to COVID-19 vaccines. While it is true that he at least shows some discomfort at the rabid antivax fanbase that he’s attracted, he, too, is now indistinguishable from old-school antivaxxers. In brief, while a few of these doctors did indeed have excellent scientific reputations before the pandemic and one (Dr. Ioannidis) was even a superstar, most did not, and all of them have become “contrarians” promoting COVID-19 and/or antivax disinformation to varying degrees.

I will give NDT credit for pointing out how these doctors do not represent the scientific consensus , “titles don’t matter here,” whenever a doctor like that cites his university or training pedigree it’s almost always to give the undeserved appearance of credibility to his declarations that contradict the current scientific consensus. He was correct! I also liked how he pointed out how he could find an astrophysicist who claims to have been visited by aliens, although I would ask: Could he also find one who is a flat earther? That to me is a better astrophysics analogy for these “contrarian doctors” and COVID-19 vaccines. Where NDT also stumbled was in not pressing Bigtree, who bragged that he had had many of these doctors on his show, about how much he pressed them for data. How much did he question their take? (Answer: Not at all, because he used them to promote his antivax message.) I would also have pointed out that Bigtree was full of you know what when he claimed that these people were “censored” and kept from talking to people in Washington. Drs. Bhattacharya and Kulldorff, for instance, had extensive contacts with the Trump administration in 2020 and even got to meet with President Trump in the friggin’ Oval Office during the dark days of that first pandemic summer. Admittedly, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins did strongly say in an email that the GBD needed to be countered, but no one at the top echelons of the Trump administration listened, while lots of high-ranking officials in the US, the UK, and other countries did listen to the GBD signatories.

All of this led Bigtree to declare:

We had a medical consensus around a product that we knew nothing about and a medical consensus around a virus that they told us they knew nothing about.

Unsurprisingly, Bigtree also portrayed these scientists as being “on the ground,” even though none of the GBD signatories were “on the ground,” nor were Drs. Malone, Ioannidis, Vanden Bossche, or McCullough, and the one who sort of was (Kory) was promoting hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. In any event, hostility towards the very concept of consensus is the central message of science deniers, the claim that there is no such thing as a scientific consensus and there can never be a scientific consensus.

NDT did spend considerable time trying to explain how and when an individual scientist does and doesn’t matter, in particular how hard it is to tell when an individual scientist’s finding that calls the consensus into question is just an outlier or when it might be the first indication of an “emerging truth.” Unfortunately, even though NDT was correct, saying in such a blunt manner that the “individual scientist doesn’t matter” provided the perfect soundbite for antivaxxers to use to claim that “consensus” is nothing more than a tool of The Man to silence dissent, which is exactly what Bigtree did. One way that I like to explain it that I wish NDT had used is to point out that a scientific theory is nothing more than the best existing scientific consensus about a particular area or question in science; e.g., the Theory of Relativity, the Theory of Evolution, etc. Back in the days when I used to write about evolution a lot, this explanation used to serve as a two-fer, too, because it effectively defangs the dismissal of evolution as “just a theory.” Of course, I must point out that most of the scientists cited by Bigtree (e.g., Malone, Vanden Bossche) don’t publish much about COVID-19 in decent journals, and almost none of them have published about COVID-19 vaccines. What they are saying isn’t even based on good evidence that they personally have produced through study and experimentation! To sum it up, denying the very concept of a scientific consensus about anything is same message that climate science denier Michael Crichton promoted when he once said that “work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus.” He was wrong then as science has everything to do with developing a consensus that, of course, can be challenged with evidence, and Bigtree is wrong now.

Unsurprisingly, just like Lyons-Weiler, Bigtree also tried to claim that all of these brave maverick doctors and scientists actually turned out to be right, because claiming “vindication” now (or predicting future vindication) after their having been “censored” is a powerful message, which is why this clip concludes with Bigtree saying:

…all that being said, in the end, what I am standing for is that there’s no challenge being allowed, that the NIH, when it’s telling us that it’s objectively looking at a virus that they were telling us they don’t know much about, is pushing out top people in their field who were trying to get to the table, who are just saying there’s something you’re not looking at. This, and when you want to talk about a problem of not funding to do that study again, how about not allowing into the room people with great perspectives.

Interestingly, NDT’s response was cut off right there, because the above was the central message that Bigtree had promoted successfully and that NDT unsuccessfully tried to push back against, largely because he doesn’t know the full background of these “brave mavericks.” That is why this five minute segment, less than 5% of the debate, is what antivaxxers are sharing all over social media.

But what about the rest?

The rest of the debate

At the very beginning of the debate segment, Bigtree set up what was to come with a montage of NDT clips from other shows, including, tellingly given the messaging about consensus, an appearance on The Daily Show in which Jon Stewart joked about how he had “destroyed” Pluto as a planet and in which he discussed the scientific method and how rivals might do better experiments that either confirm or refute his results, particularly the part where NDT discusses how science is true whether you believe its findings or not. That being said, the interview (or debate or whatever you want to call it) started out benignly and even to NDT’s initial advantage. That’s because NDT has long excelled at discussing science and the scientific method in general, particularly the idealized version of how science works, and that’s what he did. For example, I like how NDT pointed out that the scientific method, boiled down to its essence, is to do whatever it takes to avoid being fooled into thinking that something is true when it isn’t or that something is not true when it is, which is quite the opposite of how cranks like Bigtree operate. He also pointed out later how it’s really hard for politics to bias the findings of astrophysics compared to some other sciences. While it’s good that NDT understands this, I rather suspect that his position as an astrophysicist might partially blind him to just how much politics can facilitate the denial of medical sciences, be the science vaccines, cancer therapy, or, for that matter any medical intervention.

Even so, I give NDT major props regarding how he answered Bigtree’s introductory question about what NDT wanted people to know about the scientific method. Specifically, NDT correctly described how the human mind is “embarrassingly” unable to deal with probability, after which he discussed how the mathematics of probability and statistics did not develop until more sophisticated branches of mathematics had been developed (e.g., calculus), and asked why? He pointed out how probability is not a natural way for the human mind to think, and he was absolutely right. He pointed out how feelings often trump statistical data and how we are social creatures who respond more strongly to anecdotes than we do to dispassionate data, using the example of how often advertising uses testimonials. He even included an amusing anecdote about how a meeting of physicists in Las Vegas had resulted in the lowest casino take ever for a meeting. (I do wonder if the story is apocryphal.) Then he used this observation to point out how it’s understanding (more specifically, misunderstanding) statistical analyses of probability in science are where human perception gets us into trouble.

This exchange also gave Bigtree an excuse to flatter NDT by praising him for how he had managed to get people to care about scientific findings with emotion, to which NDT also responded well when he pointed out how there’s peril to his using emotion to persuade about simple objective scientific findings about the cosmos has peril in that people react to such language skeptically, assuming that the speaker is just expressing an opinion. He also discussed “personal truths” (mainly religious) and how convincing someone of such “truths” requires an act of persuasion and can result in conflict, sometimes violent. NDT was also correct about “political truth” in the form of propaganda, and how repetition persuades people to believe a statement to be true and the Internet can turbocharge that process. (Ironically, Bigtree is a master of this form of “truth.”) Let me also just point out that I don’t like the use of the word “truth” with respect to science, but I have to go with the terminology that NDT chose to use in this show.

This then led to NDT contrasting these with “objective truth,” which exists outside of what people want to believe, and how the methods of science bring us to these “objective truths.” He pointed out the difference between one scientist’s finding and the consensus, as well as how media celebrates findings that don’t jibe with the consensus, as well as how scientific findings evolve to produce what NDT calls an “emergent truth.” It’s as good a description as any of how scientific consensuses evolve, and it led to NDT trying to describe how one differentiates a one-off finding from a harbinger of an emergent truth, which led to a discussion of Pluto, how it had been discovered, and why its status had been changed from a planet to that of a dwarf planet. NDT also discussed how Newton’s laws (which, as he pointed out, got us to the moon) failed at extreme velocities and accelerations, leading to the Theory of Relativity, a great example of how new theories encompass old theories. In this case, the predictions of the Theory of Relativity collapses to Newton’s laws when velocities are so small that the relativistic contribution can be approximated as zero. I could see immediately where Bigtree was going with this, but I wondered as I watched whether NDT did, as Bigtree says that he totally agrees with NDT thus far, “but””…

The “but” is Bigtree’s invocation of bias and the levels of funding needed to do science. In brief, Bigtree tried to portray scientists as being hopelessly biased and in the thrall of their funding sources, as well as susceptible to laudatory news coverage, mentioning that he and NDT agree that there are human beings and egos involved in deciding how to fund science. This led to a discussion in which NDT correctly noted that a scientific consensus is not just an “opinion” or an average of opinions, but rather a summary or average of what scientific data and results are finding. He was also correct regarding how findings at the fringe of the scientific consensus and what is known will, if sufficient evidence arises, become incorporated into the scientific consensus. In other words, a brave maverick scientist can be correct, but he has to prove it.

Here we get to the mouth of Bigtree’s trap, in which he repeated three common quotes beloved of antivaxxers and science deniers. First up was a quote from Richard Horton, longtime editor of The Lancet, who said that most scientific findings are wrong and that science had turned into darkness. (As an aside, this made me cringe, because Horton was editor of The Lancet a quarter of a century ago, when Andrew Wakefield published his bogus and fraudulent case series linking vaccines to autism that launched the modern antivax movement. It then took nearly 13 years and an investigation by journalist Brian Deer to push Horton to retract Wakefield’s study.) Next up is a quote by BMJ editor Richard Smith, who referred to peer review as a “sacred cow” that should be slaughtered. Finally, of course, was the favorite quote of former NEJM editor Marcia Angell’s quote about how it is “no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published.” Predictably, Bigtree then invoked pharma funding and influence on biomedical research.

This is also where NDT started to get into significant trouble. First, he argued that peer review is “broken” in that there is no money to fund studies replicating new findings. This is sort of correct in that doing a straight study attempting to do nothing more than replicate a new finding has never been considered particularly interesting or high priority for funding. It is even true that some scientists have bemoaned a “replication crisis.” (Of note, I have argued that the “replication crisis” is a in actuality problem, not a crisis.) What is perhaps not as necessary in astrophysics, however, as it is in biomedical sciences, is how generally a scientist has to replicate previous results as the first step necessary before he can build on them. In other words, if another scientist wants to explore the implications of another scientist’s result and thereby build on that result, that scientist first has to be able to replicate the result. I’ve discussed this very issue a number of times, in particular a problem replicating the work of a a very famous scientist came up during my early work as a fellow. In brief, we couldn’t replicate Dr. Judah Folkman‘s work on the angiogenesis inhibitors angiostatin and endostatin. Ultimately, we worked it out, with Dr. Folkman’s help. Unfortunately, NDT’s view of “broken peer review” is a simplistic (not simple) version of the real problems with peer review in the biomedical sciences. I would also point out that it is unethical to repeat a randomized clinical trial with a positive result because it would involve knowingly randomizing a group of patients to a treatment that existing evidence has shown to be inferior. Clearly, astrophysicist that he is, NDT is not aware of the concept of clinical equipoise, which is a precondition for any randomized clinical trial to be considered ethical. Similarly, large epidemiological studies are very complex and expensive. It is poor use of resources, not to mention utterly impractical, to repeat such studies just for the sake of repeating them. Ethics is a huge issue in determining which RCTs can be done, something that is not true of most astrophysics.

At this point, Bigtree attacked, invoking the documentary that NDT had executive produced and its fundraising page, which features a picture of him and cites a Hollywood Reporter article about the documentary, using them to claim that the film is biased against him and RFK Jr. Hilariously, he then attacked a massive straw man, claiming that his documentary VAXXED never “proved” that the MMR causes autism (no one I’m aware of ever said that it did), nor was it his intent to do so. According to his telling he showed that there was a “whistleblower” with “ten thousand documents” showing that there had been a coverup of changes in the design of a scientific study that had found no link between the MMR vaccine and autism. None of this is true, as I have explained more times than I can remember. (Search this blog and my not-so-secret other blog for “CDC whistleblower” if you don’t believe me.) If NDT had been familiar with Bigtree’s background, he would have been able to say, “Stop right there!” and refute—or at least strongly push back against—Bigtree’s VAXXED conspiracy theory, also known as the CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory, something I’ve been doing since 2014 when it first arose. He didn’t, though, because he didn’t know. All he could do was to demur that he isn’t a physician and doesn’t know enough to comment on the specific allegations. That was a problem, a big problem. If you think you can go into one of these “debates” and prevail, you’d damned well be familiar with the conspiracy theories that your opponent will likely employ, because propagandists like Bigtree will use them against you. NDT failed here.

Similarly, NDT distressingly fell into another of Bigtree’s traps, in which he likened vaccines to a drug like penicillin by pointing out that a small number of people can have deadly reactions to penicillin and therefore will not benefit and that mandates for penicillin would do harm. It’s a bad analogy because penicillin is generally used to treat, not prevent disease. The analogy did allow Bigtree to entice NDT to basically agree with him that would be great if there were a test to see who would be harmed by vaccines, leading Bigtree to suggest that antibody titers indicating “natural immunity” from previous infection might be a good test to determine who doesn’t need vaccines. Bigtree then pivoted to common false antivax claims about the Disneyland measles outbreak, including the false claim that a huge number of cases were due to measles vaccine failure and that 38% of cases were due to the strain of measles used in the MMR vaccine, which was wrong, very wrong. NDT was flummoxed. He shouldn’t have been, given that his film dealt with the Disneyland measles outbreak. But he was. He didn’t know the basics and was apparently unaware of these common false antivax claims.

NDT was somewhat better prepared for the antivax claim that the Pfizer vaccine was never tested for its ability to prevent transmission, which is true but irrelevant given that the endpoint was to determine if it could prevent severe disease and that most vaccines are not initially tested for their ability to prevent transmission. Also, there have been a number of studies since then that showed that the vaccine does prevent transmission, albeit imperfectly Bigtree also made the blanket claim that “natural immunity” is always superior to vaccine-induced immunity in terms of strength and duration, which utterly flummoxed NDT again, leaving him to weakly say that he is “an astrophysicist,” not a physician. Similarly, he had no good answer to Bigtree’s false claim that the vaccine is “more dangerous to the social contract” because it turns everyone into asymptomatic carriers. Indeed, Bigtree’s rhetoric in this part of the debate was perfect example of how imperfect prevention of transmission equals “the vaccine doesn’t stop transmission at all,” an example of the very failure of understanding probability that NDT emphasized throughout the interview. It was basically concrete, either-or thinking. NDT could have countered by saying that the vaccines are imperfect at preventing transmission, but even partial protection would, on a strictly probabilistic level, still mean that there is benefit to vaccinating as many people as possible.

These failures led Bigtree to be able to rant on and off about how most of the problem is “waning immunity” to vaccines, not to antivaxxers, and how waning immunity is not discussed. (It’s actually discussed extensively, both in the medical literature and the lay press, not to mention how obsessively antivaxxers harp on it.) He cited a Brownstone Institute article on how the infection fatality rate of COVID-19 is so low, as well as John Ioannidis’s studies lowballing the IFR of COVID-19. In doing so, he ignored the number of people who are hospitalized from the virus or become very sick from it, as antivaxxers always do. He claimed that COVID-19 fatality rates are “just the flu,” on which, if he had been better prepared, NDT would have been able to call bullshit, but did not. Instead he said that Bigtree needed to have the conversation with a medical professional, not an astrophysicist.

Cue the five minute segment discussed earlier, which ignored NDT’s response in which he basically said, “Just because an expert does not agree with the consensus does not mean that the expert is correct,” which, I will concede, is an perfectly valid response to Bigtree’s appeal to brave maverick doctors. He also notes that there is no better YouTube clickbait than someone saying “everything scientists thought about this was wrong.” All of this is correct, but not likely to persuade anyone in Bigtree’s audience. Similarly, after a rant by Bigtree about the NIH getting a $400 million “catch up payment” from Moderna for its vaccine, making the NIH hopelessly biased in his view, NDT gets Bigtree to admit that he personally has “skin in the game.” However, instead of hammering home that point, the comment passes so briefly, with Bigtree making the admission as almost an aside, that it leaves no impression. Again, that’s lack of preparation and familiarity with his opponent.

It also left another opening for Bigtree to appeal to shared values with NDT, before suggesting that they should both want a dataset to answer the “concerns” that Bigtree and RFK Jr. have raised about measles vaccines and other vaccines. He also argued that the consensus “ignores” the people who are being “vaccine-injured.” At this point, NDT came so very, very close to doing what needed to be done in that he briefly mocked Bigtree for his “irresistible clickbait” of saying that the entire system is wrong but he (and his small band of contrarians) have The Truth. He should have, at that point, made it explicit that what he was accusing Bigtree of was conspiracy mongering and hammered that point home again and again, instead of falling for yet another of Bigtree’s traps, in which Bigtree asked NDT whether any pharmaceutical product can cause harm. The answer, of course (as Bigtree knew when he asked the question), has to be yes. The question is, of course, what is the risk-benefit ratio for any single pharmaceutical, specifically the vaccines. This led Bigtree to propose a study that we “need” based on “common ground.”

Longtime readers could certainly have predicted what was coming next, namely a call for a “vaccinated/unvaccinated” study, a longtime demand of the antivaccine movement going back at least two decades. This time around, Bigtree suggested using the Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD) database. In response to NDT’s suggestion that if he wanted to do such a study he should submit a proposal, Bigtree claimed that he and RFK Jr. had done so and that the CDC already had its own proposal. According to Bigtree, the CDD said it would never do this study. I must admit that initially even I was unclear about what Bigtree was talking about here, and if I was initially flummoxed just imagine how much less NDT knew about how to answer.

I ultimately came to conclude that, most likely, Bigtree is referring to when he and RFK Jr. met with NIH Director Francis Collins in 2017 to demand a “vaccinated/unvaccinated” study. I note that RFK Jr.’s article and letter about it is, as is typical for him, full of distortions. In it, RFK Jr. tries to argue that the NIH concern that there weren’t enough unvaccinated children in the VSD was invalid without providing actual statistical justification to make that claim while referencing a 2013 study that actually justified the NIH concern that healthcare seeking behavior is very different among the unvaccinated compared to those who vaccinate according to the CDC recommended schedule. Particularly amusing to me was RFK Jr.’s claim that the VSD is not readily available to outside researchers. It is, but you have to follow the rules, among which is that you must have a protocol that has been approved by a valid institutional board (IRB). Also, the CDC is cautious after the notorious incident when antivax “researchers” Mark and David Geier were clueless about SAS and stymied by a command line interface and then later tried to merge databases from the VSD in a manner that could have compromised patient confidentiality and that violated their IRB approval.

In any event, NDT, most likely correctly, inferred based on what Bigtree said that the reason for the CDC’s declining to do the requested study was that there were probably confounding factors among the unvaccinated that they hadn’t figured out how to account for. Here’s where NDT came the closest to actually saying that Bigtree is a conspiracy monger by suggesting that either the study authors couldn’t convince some peer reviewers or that some “diabolical force” is keeping it from happening, that Bigtree was claiming a “coverup.” I suspect that NDT was getting tired at this point and had started to realize the mistake that he had made when he had agreed to this debate. Unfortunately, we could have used a lot more of this sort of bluntness and calling out of conspiracy mongering earlier in the debate. It was, once again, too little too late.

Overall, Bigtree consistently got away during the entire interview with portraying himself (and the brave maverick scientists) as just someone who is just “trying to bring balance” to the discussion of vaccines and COVID-19 and provide information and “great viewpoints” from his “experts” that are being “suppressed,” “censored,” and “canceled.” The best he could do was to point out Bigtree’s bias, which led Bigtree to magnanimously concede that “we all have biases.” Left unsaid was the obvious conclusion that there is a huge difference between the magnitude and types of biases exhibited by the Del Bigtrees of the world compared to the magnitude and types of biases exhibited by the NDTs of the world. In fairness, NDT did make reasonable points about how messaging about vaccines should include statistics and measures of uncertainty. Of course, what he did not appear to understand is how people like Bigtree are all about magnifying uncertainty to the point where nothing can be knowable and their conspiracy theories are credible. They always spin statistics and probabilities to make vaccines look as bad as they can. If you’re not prepared to deal with that, you will not be very effective countering antivax propaganda. Unfortunately, overall NDT’s record in this debate was highly mixed.

Why debates like this are a bad idea

On the one hand, I don’t want to be too hard on NDT. He did probably acquit himself better than I had feared. On the other hand, he misses the entire meta-context, namely that his appearance on the show of a science denier and outright conspiracy theorist like Del Bigtree, whom I’ve been writing about since I first encountered him in 2016. Surely NDT must have known this, having executive produced a movie in which Bigtree featured prominently. He must have or should have known that Bigtree is a skilled sophist and propagandist. Maybe he did, but if he did he sure seemed unprepared for Bigtree’s Gish galloping, flattery, conspiracy theories (other than in generalities), and misrepresentations.

At the very end, Bigtree suggested—surprise!—a live public debate between three scientists on the “provaccine side” and three scientists on the “vaccine skeptic” antivaccine side moderated by NDT, a nice bit of extra flattery there in that Bigtree preceded this proposal by saying he couldn’t imagine a better person to moderate such a debate. I will also give NDT credit for answering by saying that Bigtree or his brave maverick scientists should write up a proposal for a research project whose results would “make you happy,” to write up a list of experiments and studies that he would like to see. In fact, I’d go one step beyond NDT and suggest that Bigtree and his cronies not just write up study proposals for studies that he thinks should be done, but to post them on his website so that real scientists, clinical trialists, epidemiologists, vaccinologists, autism experts, and infectious disease doctors could evaluate it. (I predict that he won’t do this.)  It depressed me that this sort of pushback from NDT had to wait until near the very end of the debate. Ditto NDT asking Bigtree if there is a threshold for lethality from a virus that would lead him to support vaccine mandates, a question that Bigtree danced around by saying he would be “open to that conversation.” Unfortunately, when Bigtree claimed again that COVID-19 lethality is “right in line with the flu” NDT didn’t know enough to respond, “Bullshit!” Because bullshit that claim is.

In conclusion, I will say again that it is not always a bad idea for a science advocate to agree to a debate like the sort in the “challenges” by Dr. Oz and Steve Kirsch. After all, Steve Novella showed me how it’s done back in 2012 when he accepted a challenge of convenience to debate Dr. Julian Whitaker about vaccines at FreedomFest in Las Vegas in 2012. (The Amazing Meeting was being held the same weekend in Las Vegas so Steve and I were there already.) However, it turns out that Dr. Whitaker was very bad at the deceptive debate techniques that cranks use, but also Dr. Novella was very, very good at anticipating and responding to common antivaccine arguments. Even though Dr. Novella basically mopped the floor with Dr. Whitaker, I still had misgivings. These were the same misgivings that I had when Bill Nye appeared to have wiped the floor with creationist Ken Ham in a debate of science versus pseudoscience with respect to evolution, given that it has been credibly argued that the debate was, in actuality, a disaster for science and a huge win for Ham and creationism. Basically, I view these examples as only possible exceptions that prove the rule that scientists really shouldn’t debate cranks. Unfortunately, NDT’s debate is not another example of such an exception.

Indeed, the main reasons that debating cranks is pointless at best, and counterproductive at worst, are well-known to most regular readers of SBM. This debate revealed a lot of those problems. Even though NDT did fairly well at some points, at other points I was cringing mightily because he clearly didn’t know necessary background information that would have allowed him to push back against Bigtree far more effectively. Common “live public debate” formats favor science deniers because they are not bound by science or even the truth. They are free to Gish gallop to their heart’s content; that is, to “baffle them with a torrent of BS” that includes obscure studies, bad studies, studies that don’t support their points, and even irrelevant information that superficially to nonexperts appears to support their arguments. Unless a scientist or science communicator is not only very skilled at dealing with this technique but also very familiar with the deep well of studies ranging from the highly dubious to the good studies misrepresented by the science denier, it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to swat down each gallop in turn and have no time left to make an argument for science. In fact, NDT fell into a different trap. Specifically, when he didn’t know the background behind a claim made by Bigtree, he would either let that claim slide uncontested, giving the impression that he accepted it as accurate, or he would fall back on the “I’m an astrophysicist, not a physician or medical scientist” gambit, which has the same effect.

I also suspect that NDT fell into a different trap as well, that of excess civility. Most of his missteps were in the first three quarters of the “debate.” It was only near the end, when he was looking a bit tired and more than a little exasperated—just look at his face when Bigtree speculates that the vaccines could be found to be more deadly than the disease—that NDT started actually landing some points and calling Bigtree out as the conspiracy theorist that he is and telling him, in essence, to “put up or shot up” with respect to the sort of data that might convince him that vaccines are safe and effective. Even then, it was too little, too late, and right before the end he had nothing when Bigtree started trotting out misinformation about Sweden and how supposedly the least vaccinated countries (e.g. in Africa) supposedly did much better than the most vaccinated countries and then demur that Bigtree should get a “consensus” doctor on his show to do a “debate.” It saddened me, because Bigtree appears to have succeeded at his stated aim of portraying himself as “not a radical” and not a science denier.

As much as I like and admire NDT, I fear that in this case he screwed up. The old Spider-Man adage goes, “With great power there must also come—great responsibility” (often shortened to, “With great power comes great responsibility”). The same is true of fame, particularly if one uses his fame to promote education and science. NDT is arguably the most famous science communicator in the world. By appearing side-by-side with Bigtree, NDT has allowed one of the most influential antivaxxers in the world weaponize his fame against vaccines and science, and then bring out two beers for him to share with NDT.

And then, immediately after wrapping the segment with NDT, Bigtree added on a plug for facilitated communication for autism, which is still pure quackery. Sadly, this felt very appropriate.

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]

201 replies on “Neil deGrasse Tyson demonstrates why debating cranks is a horrible idea”

Debating cranks often helps me learn new conspiracy theories and how they combine according to the laws of crank magnetism, and motivates me to look up the new ones to see where they came from and what they’re being used for. (In the applied sciences, it’s usually to sell something). It also helps consolidate my understanding of logic and skeptical principles.

But it does tend to feel like talking to a wall. And I only did it in public without a ‘nym like, once in a bar.

Bigtree hawking FC was kind of a surprise to me since covid denialism tends to the “dang them all” libertarian right and FC belief is more associated with the wokester left (if you don’t believe in FC you’re assumed to be bigoted against disabled people). Perhaps the common link is grift.

Both Handley and Rossi advocate for FC in its latest incarnation ( STC; “spellers”) as a means of denying long standing estimates of cognitive level: their children’s scores were vastly “underestimated” they assert as if psychological testing has not ever taken account of non-verbal subjects’ abilities. Spelling alone is not evidence of the huge differences that would be necessary to change the situation they experience as parents.

I thought Handley was at the forefront of biomed quackery back in the day and wrote off genuine selectively mute autistic self-advocates as faking it. But I guess after trying all the biomed and finding it didn’t work, he and other medical-model autism cranks were open to conversion to social-model-based magic tricks.

And yes, there are hyperlexics, those who can read before/better than they can talk, but the science says FC is a magic trick. So teach the hyperlexics to use independent AAC.

“But it does tend to feel like talking to a wall.”

Not at all the point of why there is, and should be, a strong push NOT to debate cranks publicly.

I highly suggest you REREAD this article again, especially the last part. You seem to have missed quite a bit.

I read in full the version on the secret identity blog. This one is not much changed. I’m speaking of my own, private experience with talking to no-name cranks as a no-name scientist regarding the “talking to a wall.” The issue with a big-name scientist debating big-name cranks seems to be the implication that the scientists have to take the cranks seriously, and then it all looks worse if they have no idea how to discredit Gish gallops of conspiracy disinfo. It’s already frustrating without concerns over making science look bad and scientists look closed minded next to someone whose mind opened so much their brains fell out, then closed on irrefutable conspiracy theory. Sorry if I appeared to be a dimwitted troll or something. This is probably my sign from the Universe to back off from the vice of comment sections.

@ space_upstairs_cluttered:

“… my sign from the Universe to back off from the vice of comment sections.”

But I wouldn’t back off 100% because you contribute a great deal.

I try to be highly selective in whom I respond to because so many scoffers, based on their comments, seem to be intractable believers, vicious and nasty or off on their own tangents unrelated to reality or other people in general.
Or sometimes they drift right into my areas of expertise or interest.
PLUS THEY AREN’T THE ONLY READERS: regulars and lurkers can benefit as well.

I have responded to our regular contrarians ( John and Igor) because I venture, or perhaps hope, that they may be very, very slightly open to information that contradicts their stated positions. IOW, they aren’t total lost causes and aren’t stupid at all. Igor may be prepping to write Substack articles and John may have another agenda in mind.
Some of the others though show less prospects.

Thanks for the vote of confidence. Interesting regarding your takes on John and Igor…I’ve also occasionally found contrarians worth debating, but those two in particular strike me as swimming fairly deep in conspiracy waters and, not working in the health field, only interested in keeping up with conspiracy theories and pseudoscience in it as a target audience (having a kid “on the spectrum” and having covid minimizers in the family), I often don’t know what to say to them. But I do tend to need breaks, often long ones, when get unexpected negative reactions to comments (and then recognize that I sometimes am talking out my butt) or a particular debate provokes despair.

So mostly lurking for a while might be a good idea, until a topic of particular interest comes up again and I feel confident that I actually have something relevant to say. (This topic was of interest as it involved someone in my line of work, but what I had to say was perceived as irrelevant.) I kind of think I should have backed off once I figured out how pseudoscience drove the autism wars.

Sorry if I appeared to be a dimwitted troll or something.

You did nothing of the sort; I concur with Denice’s take.

“The issue with a big-name scientist debating big-name cranks seems to be the implication that the scientists have to take the cranks seriously”

nope. try again. I’m curious if you can ever actually get what the point is.

Well, English was always my worst subject in school and social sciences my second worst, so I probably cannot make a relevant, witty, and accurate comment on the contents of the OP in my own words and pass your test. If you prefer I not comment on these issues from here on, I will take your advice. I never troll intentionally.

“I’m curious if you can ever actually get what the point is.”

An oldie but goodie.

Play chess with a seagull and it’ll screech and shit all over the board, then fly off with the king. The other seagulls will applaud it’s masterful victory. Henceforth, this seagull is obviously superior to you. After all, it beat you at chess.

Dammit. Don’t know why I didn’t notice that Orac already did this analogy.

There’s a difference, I think, between responding to misinformation online or in a one-on-one talk and appearing on a show directed to an anti-vaccine crowd.

I don’t think Handley retracted his support of quack treatments, up to and including MMS. I think the support for FC is in addition, not instead.

Laughter is undeniably persuasive. When the debater makes you laugh, they’ve got you temporarily hooked with an endorphin high. NDT’s astrophysicist/alien rebuttal was funny. In contradiction, Del Bigtree was humorless throughout the “debate.”

@ Orac,

Nice post, your pigeon analogy was very funny and well timed. The consensus is if you can make the audience laugh, it’s wonderful engagement.

Del and other alties “debate” SB advocates only when they completely control the scenario whilst rejecting debate through published research or data-friendly internet venues where studies can be linked easily. Del’s core audience chalk up a win for him before NdGT even says a word. I wonder how many of Del’s followers are truly “on the fence” or even “hate watchers” ** – not many because watching him ( or the others I survey) takes a huge investment of time- personally, their broadcasts and only watch parts I think of value ( mostly as negative examples).

NdGT correctly explains consensus and why citing contrarians’ credentials illustrates how problematic their position is: if that’s all you have to stand on, you already have failed. Alties usually praise their colleagues to the skies as if that would make up for their highly suspect status as outliers ( and usually, out-liars).Altie hagiography serves as a substitute for data, facts and salient details. Sometimes, it’s all I hear.: it gets tiresome.

** a FOX right wing talk show included a high percent ( over 30% IIRC) of liberals

“Del’s core audience chalk up a win for him before NdGT even says a word”

and, rather sadly, they are correct. for all the reasons detailed in the last half of the article here.

Overall I agree with your summary, but one quibble: “I would also point out that it is unethical to repeat a randomized clinical trial with a positive result because it would involve knowingly randomizing a group of patients to a treatment that existing evidence has shown to be inferior.” In fact, FDA usually requires replication of randomized controlled clinical trial results, in part because the false discovery rate (alpha) is 5%, and independent replication increases the level of confidence prior to approval.

What is Neil Degrasse Tyson’s (or Carl Sagan’s) greatest discovery or achievement in any field of science (Astrophysics) that proves their unquestionable intelligence, authority and knowledge?

Well, for Sagan, let’s start with ‘was the first to calculate the surface temperature of Venus based on radio telemetry before any probes had landed, and was involved with designing the Mariner probes that actually landed on Venus and verified his calculations’. He was also an active part of the imaging team for the Voyager missions; he may be better known for being responsible for the ‘golden record’ carried by Voyager, but he also worked on the sensor systems and the data analysis from the probes.

In terms of study of the other planets in the solar system, Sagan is one of the big names.

I’m less familiar with Tyson’s list of accomplishments.

Antivaxxers are not cranks since their message is evidence-based. The cranks are those who insist that Covid vaccines work and demand to silence those who demonstrate, based on solid evidence like the VA studies, that they do not work.

Covid vaccine, an unproven and non-working intervention, akin to snake oil of the past, perfectly fits the definition of “medical quackery”. (look up the definition of “medical quackery”)

People promoting and profiting from said Covid vaccine are, therefore, medical charlatans.

All we need to do is change the social consensus – and redefine who are the “fringe scientists”.

Covid vaccines were socially very useful – they woke up millions of people, myself included.

Antivaxxers are not cranks since their message is evidence-based.

To quote Bender Rodriguez from Futurama:
Ah, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! Oh wait, you’re serious. Let me laugh even harder.

Antivaxxers are not cranks since their message is evidence-based.

Nothing you’ve ever said is “evidence based” There’s more evidence that the result of a cross-species mating of a unicorn and bigfoot is driving an Uber in Dayton Ohio than there is for anything you’ve claimed about covid or the vaccines.

Igor’s a troll. He’s here to stir the pot. Fully consciously or not, his utterances are startegic performances, significant not in what they say, but in what the act of making them demonstrates (opposition to presumed authority, etc.). Thus, while the content may be moronic, that does not at all mean Igor is a moron. After all, he’s getting the responses he wants.

Again you just make claims without any evidence. Has it ever occurred to you that some evidence is needed?

Considering how much victim-blaming Bigtree has indulged in during the pandemic – contending that poor personal life decisions contributed to the deaths of COVID sufferers – his insistent demand to “get a beer” after the ‘debate’ seems a little hypocritical.

If one nearly bled to death from hemorrhagic hemorrhoids, imbibing ethanol in any form might not be the healthiest idea.

If someone with cirrhosis needs a liver transplant, they will have to take some vaccines first, or so I’ve heard. I do wonder if there aren’t other reasons someone went out of the US to treat their bleeding hemorrhoids. Time will tell.

Beer’s also full of one of those chemicals Vani Hari says makes bread a health danger, a lot more than the bread has, in fact. Someone should tell Del…

Did you take the shot? Are you up to date on the boosters? If not, why not? Are your children/grandchildren all boosted with the most recent booster? If they aren’t, doesn’t that make you a “crank” too? I mean, the science IS settled, right?

Do you still wear a mask wherever you go? Why not? COVID is still around you know, and since herd immunity is “conclusively demonstrated” to be false, you should be wearing your N95 everywhere you go. I mean, it just makes sense, right? Otherwise someone might call you a hypocrite.

Are your children/grandchildren all boosted with the most recent booster?

Thank you for packing lazy, dimwit, and creepy parsimoniously into one sentence.

Did you take the shot? Are you up to date on the boosters?

Yes and yes.

Are your children/grandchildren all boosted with the most recent booster?

I don’t have any children, alas, but all my nephews are indeed vaccinated and fully boosted, and I’m happy that my sister and her husband are as provaccine as I am.

I’m an outsider mildly interested in this topic with the only related experience being that Covid vaccines didn’t work for me and my wife.

Please indicate an objective test to determine what team is actually made of cranks in this debate? You or them? Thanks

Well, relying on personal anecdotes instead of rigorous scientific studies (as) you just did, all while posing as an “outsider” only “mildly interested in this topic,” is definitely one indicator.😏

First, I asked for an objective test, not an “indicator”.

Second, is your analysis of an YouTube interview “reliance on rigorous scientific studies”?

Third, what does the Covid vaccine actually promise? Did it deliver? It certainly is not on par with what vaccines are known for : immunity to the disease and ideally the eradication of that disease as in the small pox case.

You can find vaccine efficiency data if you want. This is the promise. At first it was 95% quite good. I was allowed to mutate and spread, so it is not as good now.

“ First, I asked for an objective test, not an “indicator”.”

I get a strong whiff of “debate me, bro!!!” Here.

As the old saying goes: “wish in one hand and sh*t in the other…”

Third, what does the Covid vaccine actually promise? Did it deliver? It certainly is not on par with what vaccines are known for : immunity to the disease and ideally the eradication of that disease as in the small pox case.

Trying to abstract a vaccine from the pathogen is not a particularly useful idea.

” ideally the eradication of that disease as in the small pox case”
And how many other diseases have been eradicated with a vaccine?

One, and it’s not a human disease.

The world is close on polio (painfully close), but it’s not like vaccines that eradicate diseases are common. Frankly, the world got plain old lucky that the first vaccine was so effective (and that smallpox is so species specific).
So rather than demand the near impossible, come on down to the reality of biology and all its messy probabilities and see the world for what it is.

One, and it’s not a human disease.

And related to measles, which by rights should also be in the crosshairs.

@ Nonlin Org

So, the vaccines didn’t work? What do you base this on? Perhaps without the vaccines you and/or your wife may have been much sicker, etc?

Vaccines don’t always prevent illness; but reduce risk of severity, hospitalization, and death, reduce not totally eliminate. So what level did you experience?

The burden of proof is on the authorities that force compliance. Perhaps nothing. Show proof or else.

Read any vaccine efficiency study There are lots of them available.

Define “work.”
I got covid 3 times last year. The worst time was the second time, on top of another cold, where I got bronchitis and laryngitis and couldn’t talk for 5 days.
Do vaccines work? You’d think no, right?
Well, I didn’t go to the hospital any of those times, nor get long covid.
Does natural immunity work? If it did work so much better than vaccines, why would I get covid two more times after that?
Do masks and lockdowns work? Well, I didn’t get covid until lockdowns ended. The only time I got it from someone I saw while masked was the second time, when I already had another cold, and we met for over an hour with closed windows.
That’s why anecdotes aren’t data. You can pick your sweet cherries saying stuff like nothing but natural immunity works and nobody under 50 needs shots and anybody who says otherwise must be one of Them ™ (illuminati, lizard people, Freemasons, WEF, pick your favorite cabal), but the cherry tree says shots keep people out of the hospital and somewhat reduce the risk of getting sick. And “natural” immunity makes your next covid case less bad too, unless like me, you catch covid again while already sick.

If voluntary, it’s buyer beware.

If mandatory as in the Covid story, the burden of efficacy proof is on the authorities.

They didn’t meet that threshold. In fact, the whole thing was highly politicized and it’s obvious the cure was worse than the disease.

“They didn’t meet that threshold.”

Sez U.

“it’s obvious the cure was worse than the disease.”

Sez U.

But who politicized it? Clearly “the other side”, right? That’s what everyone says, on both sides.
And with a public health crisis involved, it’s kind of impossible for it not to be political. Because the politicians are tasked with deciding whether acting or not acting on a mass scale will be worse according to what they know.
As for the burden of proof, well, they met it by “good enough for a public health crisis” scientific standards. If it “failed” for me and “failed” for you and “failed” for those veterans Igor likes to bring up, so be it, but the people who know this field and manage the data see that hospital pressure went way down after the shots, and there was no better explanation for that than the shots working for more people than not, at a flu-shot (won’t eradicate the disease but makes it less bad) level. Which means you may well think flu shots are quackery until they manage to develop one that will protect against even bird flu. You are not alone in that, but more people may suffer than necessary as a result of that view.
Someday, a couple years from now, with potentally better shots, better data, and the political dust settled, we will probably know better how to manage the new challenge of endemic covid. But in crises, as in freshman physics classes, hardly anyone aces the first test.

Actually Republican party found a nice vote getter. VE in first studies were 95%, quite enough for everybody.
Do you know anytning about the disease ? 1120000 deaths i US an counting

It seems that you have learned a lot in just a couple of days.
Or maybe you description of yourself as ‘mildly interested’ is less than truthful…

@ Igor Chudov

You write: “Antivaxxers are not cranks since their message is evidence-based. The cranks are those who insist that Covid vaccines work and demand to silence those who demonstrate, based on solid evidence like the VA studies, that they do not work.”

In a previous exchange I already refuted your reading of VA studies; but here is there own summary:

“This study found that hospitalization severity dropped dramatically following the availability of COVID-19 vaccinations, and that vaccinated patients hospitalized with a positive SARS-CoV-2 test had lower rates of severe disease than unvaccinated patients . . . A follow up study evaluated the impact of boosting on hospitalization severity, and found that boosted patients had even lower rates of hospitalization with severe disease than patients with an initial vaccination series.3 This study also found that using a simple metric of “positive SARS-CoV-2 test and hospitalization” underestimates vaccine effectiveness against severe disease.”

[U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (2022 Aug 10). Research on COVID-19 mRNA Vaccine Safety in Veterans]

And as I mentioned in a previous exchange:

“The VA patient population had poorer health status, more medical conditions, and higher medical resource use compared with the general population.”

[Zia Agha et a. (2000 Nov 27). Are Patients at Veterans Affairs Medical Centers Sicker? A Comparative Analysis of health Status and Medical Resource Use. Archives of Internal Medicine; 160: 3252-3257.

And I also refuted your claim that since the one study you referred to only discussed hospitalized patients your inferring deaths from COVID, etc refuted in many other studies.

See my comment Joel A. Harrison, PhD, MPH
April 14, 2023 at 12:10 pm

You live in your own fantasy world, scientifically illiterate, lacking basics of immunology, microbiology, etc


The blah-blah from VA scientists was written so that the pro-vaccine magazine would publish it. A perfect example of a “vaccine cult” in action.

The data in the article, however, shows that the vaccine does not prevent hospitalization.

That’s unfortunate. I did my surgical oncology fellowship at UC. It always saddens me to see that an institution where I trained produced an antivaxxer.

My MBA is from the University of Chicago, thanks for asking

Apparently from a department where the only criterion for granting an MBA was the speed with which the checks cleared.

That’s unfortunate. I did my surgical oncology fellowship at UC.

The Booth School’s terminal bureaucracy program is far enough removed from the actual academics that it doesn’t even use the domain.

@ Igor Chudov

You are sick Igor, so sick you project your beliefs into what you see. First, the article doesn’t talk about preventing hospitalizations; but about the severity of the disease, etc.

The study does not talk about whether Covid vaccine prevents hospitalization; however, it presents data that shows clearly that no such prevention exists.

Had the study brought up readers’ attention to that data, it would not be published and the authors would likely be defunded by the funders of the Covid quack science.

So, I am thankful to the authors for providing the important data even though they did not specifically direct our attention to it. I realize that they were not free to do so.

There were several other VA studies that compared outcomes of vaccinated vs. unvaccinated veterans, where individual vaccination status was reliably known.

These articles were sources of amazing data-based antivax conclusions.

For example, a March 2022 VA study titled “Long Term Cardiovascular Outcomes of Covid-19” proved that Covid vaccines cause myocarditis in veterans. The increase is 57% in covid-recovered veterans who were vaccinated, and 51% in covid-naive but vaccinated veterans.

Nobody says that vaccines are 100% effective. This does not mean they are 0% effective. An MBA cannot count percentages ? Universiy of Chicago has a really bad business school.

You should know numer of vaccinae among veterans, befor calculating VE. Armed forces had vaccine mandates, actually.

And you cannot find any problem in it
Nobody has claimed that VE is100%, try to put that into your thick skull

And you still cannot tell us what is the prolem with VA article.
Noboy has said that vaccines are 100% efficient, You have a really thick skull, have you not ?

LOL. Bridle is indeed a major source of misinformation, and Caulfield appears to be taking the correct approach to him.

@ Jon Schultz

You prefer, based on what? I don’t prefer, I base my position on science and I know that there are always “scientists” who, for whatever reason, ignore or twist the science. The science is usually NOT based on one or two studies. There are about 500 medical doctors who don’t believe in vaccines and don’t believe HIV causes AIDS. They even have their own organization Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. The late Luc Montagnier, one of the two discoverers of the HIV virus, didn’t think it caused AIDS and was an advocate for homeopathy. Linus Pauling, Nobel Prize winner, considered the most brilliant chemist of the 20th Century in later life believed megadoses of vitamin C would protect one from cancer and guess what he died of? Though a brilliant chemist he displayed no knowledge of human medical science. Our bodies can only use a certain amount of a vitamin at any particular time and since vitamin C is a water soluble vitamin, what isn’t used simply goes out with our urine.

So, your preferring is based on your unscientific belief system.

Hive brain! I need help!

I teach at a medium-sized, well-regarded school, with an attached med school; let’s just call it “SmallU”. I got an email this afternoon (work email, probably harvested) from “Concerned Alumni of SmallU”. Anonymized, it reads:

“Please join us for “Important Conversations Never Had — College Covid-19
Vaccine Mandates: Scientific, Legal, and Ethical Considerations” on
Wednesday April 26 at [venue].

[SmallU], along with many other colleges, recently dropped its vaccine
mandate. While this is good news, a rigorous examination of the conditions
that prompted mandates, and the benefits and harms that resulted from them
is essential and timely. ”

And then it goes on to announce the featured speaker, none other than …. ROBERT F KENNEDY Jr..

So, it’s clearly cranks. And debating them is never a good idea, but I’ve nonetheless alerted the head of the med school’s immunology dept, in case any real experts would like to show up. But I did forewarn that they should expect nothing but bad-faith arguments — I’m hoping someone, or even more than one, is expert enough at intellectual thrust-and-parry against people who fight dirty to make a good showing. At least the lurkers might realize that the group is deluded.

So, am I nuts? Should they just be ignored? Or what?

Did your institution’s administration sanction this “discussion”? Will it be on campus? Unfortunate if so — that will give it an air of legitimacy it certainly won’t deserve.

No, I’m reasonably sure it’s unofficial. Otherwise I’d really have raised a stink!

I didn’t see your response when I wrote but
I assumed it might be libertarians or fear mongers.

You should still try to let people know regardless. His supporters will use your school’s good name to support their cause.

If this follows the established anti-vax pattern, the “Concerned Alumni” will have no current university affiliation, and will merely have rented a lecture hall on campus. Pretty much every college and uni rents out space to all sorts of groups with minimal vetting. When anti-vax groups have rented out on-campus venues in the past, they typically create promo materials misleadingly implying the school is somehow sponsoring the event. However, it’s also possible that in this case some registered campus student political (Libertarian?) group could be a sponsor.

As I mentioned below, this isn’t on campus as such, but campus-adjacent in a hotel the university owns.

You should clearly be upset with young adults standing up for themselves. They are all cranks and anybody that disagrees with the party line is either a crank, or a right wing nut.

Start with this:

Debunk this, and explain why it’s incorrect.

“COVID-19 vaccine boosters for young adults: a risk benefit assessment and ethical analysis of mandate policies at universities”

These are very likely not “young adults standing up for themselves”, but a splinter group of alumni.

You didn’t leave a link with your title, so it’s a little difficult to respond to. Aside from which, my expertise is elsewhere.

Then why am I so opinionated? I am, in real life, a scientist with a long career and a track record of doing careful work. When I read Orac, I recognize a kindred spirit — he clearly has a deep understanding of medical research and the many ways one can be misled. The anti-vax side, on the other hand, is sloppy and obviously employing heavily motivated reasoning.

I’m not the person to go tell these people to go to hell, because I don’t have the kind of comprehensive field expertise to do so persuasively. I’m hoping my colleagues in the med school — who DO have such expertise — will rise to the occasion.

I apologize, I missed that in your initial post.
I now see that this was from alumni not students.

All you have to do is copy and paste… It seems that whenever I post a link something happens and my comment doesn’t make it.

This is a study that directly addresses what you are talking about.

I’m honestly curious if it’s flawed or not, that’s why I posted it because I can count on the people here, with the necessary expertise to be able to critically analyze it and give feedback.

If it’s not inherently flawed then the results would support the conversation this group is trying to have.

Well then, it’s good to have someone curious who is honestly Just Asking Questions. Otherwise you might be misinterpreted as posting the equivalent of “Just try and debunk this, so-called science people!”

It’s not 100% but there is a high likelihood that anyone who starts a statement with

They are all cranks and anybody that disagrees with the party line

is not arguing in good faith and may even be a crank themself.

Especially if they ignore an attempt at a detailed response to one of their previous comments that actually had a specific reference.

It’s an extended essay by (among others) Alison Krug, Vinay Prasad, Marty Makary and Tracy Beth Hoeg. Their reputation precedes them.

And as such it is just their opinion. But choosing such a source instead of one that at least tries to do an actual cost-benefit analysis says a lot about your thoughts.

For instance, look at 10.3390/vaccines10010059

The results suggest that vaccination campaigns for COVID-19 may have a high return for both the health care system and society as a whole. In Catalonia, the impact of mass vaccination was highly beneficial in the last waves, avoiding serious cases, deaths and sequelae, and an excessive healthcare and economic strain on the public health system.

@ palindrom:

That sounds really awful because anti-vaxxers can use your school’s/ its med school’s good reputation to add to their largely-imagined cache. I would be interested in finding out who invited RFK jr and who sponsors the event. “Concerned Alumni”?

Lately, decent news outlets who reported his candidacy described him as an anti-vaxxer/ conspiracy theorist: if you google, you’ll see a long list you can cite.

A few years ago, a former cabinet member/ current professor/ writer/ commenter was interviewed at prn by Null who said that he would allow the guy to contribute his articles to that ( loony bin) network. I e-mailed the professor and informed him about his host with links. I never heard him speak there again or have his writings featured. I think that he was fooled by the “progressive” title. I respect the prof and wanted to warn him: fortunately, it worked.

Since you have a week, is there a university blog or news site where you can contribute? Your first steps are good, maybe alert a few more departments/ professors in life sciences/ higher ups in the university.
RFK jr is bad news all around.

“Concerned Alumni”?

True — that’s pretty vague, and given the lack of honesty associated with these folks it would not be surprising to find that there were no alumni involved.

Good News! The head of immunology got back to me and wrote “I had heard of this event and will likely attend along with some reinforcements.” I’d written him saying it would be better for some people with real chops in immunology to be there, since I, a simple country astrophysicist, would likely just yell “THIS IS B*******!” and stomp out, which isn’t particularly effective.

I do not remember if it was here, or at Orac’s other blog: someone suggested that RFK, Jr really cared about children’s health that he would tackle the gun violence towards children.

I am pretty sure that deaths and injury from guns affect more kids than any vaccine.

The panel most likely won’t have opportunity for any kind of debate, just a brief Q&A. So you won’t need a vaccine expert skilled in “intellectual thrust-and-parry” as Orac wished NDT might have been with Del, because that won’t fit the format. The most anyone can do within the live presentation is a bit of trolling, from getting a pointed question in to some more theatrical stunt ala The Yes Men (e.g. posing as the most crazy anti-vaxer one could imagine, to see how far RFKJ would go to validate you).

I’m guessing you’re more inclined to engaging anti-vax more directly on substance. The best way to do that, IMHO, would be to:
• Organize an ad hoc group of pro-public health faculty
• Create handouts addressing the issues, in terms and with rhetorical strategies geared to lay audiences.
• Set up a table outside the venue, hang a sign with a punchy slogan, have at least a handful of your ad hoc group there to pass out the handouts and engage the attendees in conversation as they enter and leave the session.

Now, to rhetorical strategy:
• The first step is to consider your audience, and make appropriate goals. By “your audience” I don’t mean “everyone who’ll be there”. I.e. you probably won’t want to try to convert hard-core antivaxers, but appeal to those who might take in your perspective absent a totally closed mind.
• It’s a uni setting, so the crowd will likely be light on Tucker Carlson stans, and even full-scale balls-out antivaxers. I’d expect a mix of anti-mandate Hoover-Institute-wanna-be libertarians, and a swath of folks just curious about RFKJ, who is making his big formal announcement of his POTUS candidacy today.
• I’d imagine the later group would include a fair number of liberals, who may know that RFKJ has/had a rep as an environmentalist, assume he’s typical “Kennedy liberal”, and only minimally knowledgeable about his anti-vax activities. That is, they may know he’s been labeled a “vaccine skeptic” or “anti-vaxer”, but no specifics or details beyond that.
• I’d think the various Kennedy-curious folks are the best targets for your appeal.
• As such, I’d strongly suggest taking whatever appeals you make in handouts, signage, discussion go beyond the facts of vaccine science and into the politics/morality of public health. You might have different handouts focused on different topics.
• As such, I would suggest extending outreach for participation in your ad hoc counter-programming group beyond science and medicine to include faculty from other departments who support public health, decry conspiracy theories, etc. Humanities faculty might be better at executing handout material, talking points outlines, etc. on the wider frames of the greater good.
• I took a quick look at RFKJs campaign website, and he’s clearly disingenuously framing himself as the sort of fighting liberal he hasn’t been for decades, rather than a monomaniacal vaccine conspiracy theorist willing to crawl into bed with anyone who’d spread that gospel, especially neo-fascists and 1/6 insurrectionists. So I’d say you absolutely need something to highlight the fact that a push from Steve Bannon is behind the campaign, the Bannon quote that a campaigning RFKJ will be a “useful chaos agent” , and the photo of RFKJ hobnobbing with Roger Stone and Mike Flynn.
• Since this occasion is really about the politics of science, I’d want to consider what I consider one of the first rules of politics: Follow the money. Just who are these “Concerned Alumni of SmallU”? Is this an astroturf front, with only a couple SmallU alums as beards. What institutional connections do the various members of the have? Is this fishy in that no actual members, connections, or funding info is disclosed? IOW, you’d be looking for possible evidence of extremist bias behind the panel, such that outing that would duly undermine the panel’s credibility.

Just my 2¢ of course, YMMV. Good luck regardless.

More like your $200,000 than your 2 cents! Your comments are very thoughtful, and extremely useful, and I’ve passed them on to the head of immunoloty who is intending to attend, “with reinforcements”.

I hadn’t thought of the possibility that the “Concerned Alumni of SmallU” might be an astroturf group. That’s a really interesting perspective.

Additional thought: If you do make a handout dealing with the pseudo-science, I’d suggest imagining it as “pre-bunking”. Any speakers who’ll be appearing at SmallU will probably be reusing material they’ve presented before, So you might be able to come up with a specific list of the kind of disinfo they’ll likely spew. The handout then might be a series of AV talking points paired with punchy pre-buttals based on the real science. E.g. Talking Point: “MRNA vaccines pose a risk of myocarditis in young men!” Truth: “That risk is tiny, and the risk of myocarditis from COVID is far greater for the same population.” Maybe fleshed out with relative numbers?? You could also include footnotes to legit science sources (in small print at the bottom of the page) as a demonstration of legitimacy (rather than a pragmatically useful bibliography).

Let them talk. Who cares? They’ll just accuse you of censoring them if you don’t. Their ideas are foolish; best to let them prove it and refute them.

It’ll also be amusing when only five people show up to a huge lecture hall.

I agree they should be allowed to talk: I asked about the possibility of it being campus authorized for this: If it were I’d think having some faculty, who have relevant expertise, write a signed letter rebutting the crap the speakers put out, and have it in a campus and/or local paper.

This isn’t quite ‘on campus’, but in a hotel next to the campus (which, like so much in town, is actually ownd by the university). No one who’s paying attention would think this was a university-sanctioned event.

Of course, part of the point is that the speakers expect that their audience won’t be ‘paying attention’ so they can get away with using the University name.

Debunk the Funk with Dan Wilson PhD has several youtube videos of Junior, including a book review of his Dr. Fauci book. Strongly recommended.

Pointing out Junior’s new alliances with virus deniers, Steve Bannon, Roger Stone, General Michael Flynn and other January 6 organizers could be helpful, although the die hard cult members will just deny that the connections exist (or claim the photos of them together are just frauds – as one well intentioned foolish friend claimed).

I liked the story from December 2021 about how Junior required guests at his Hollywood home (Christmas party) to have a vaccine receipt or negative Covid test. When the media asked him about this seeming hypocrisy he blamed his wife.

Junior’s book promoting HIV denial and HIV denier Peter Duesberg is a de facto suggestion that HIV positive people should not take medication and the logical consequence of that is they should kill themselves based on hoaxes from a homophobic bigot (Duesberg). Somehow I don’t think a lot of liberals are going to be happy with the RFK Junior candidacy, especially if they look closer at his actual record.

It’s possible, especially if he’s really not vaccinated, that he will get a Herman Cain Award as a result of this. Choices have consequences, sometimes.

I think President Kennedy was the best in US history. I think the CIA had him extrajudicially removed from office for calling off the Cold War, the first disarmament treaty with the Soviets, ordering the withdrawal from Vietnam, negotiating resumption of relations with Cuba and similar policies. (RFK Senior immediately suspected this and wanted to reopen the investigation if he got the Presidency. That is not a theory, it’s well documented for decades those were his private views, but he told aides he was afraid to say it in public before the 1968 election.). But I think Junior needs therapy, not a far right backed campaign for the Democratic nomination that is just chaos (as Steve Bannon is seeking). In 2018, Junior signed on to a call for Truth and Reconciliation regarding the Kennedy, MLK and Malcolm X assassinations. I would love to see Junior do some reconciliation for his anti-health campaigns — perhaps he could do reparations, too, and donate the profits of his awful Fauci book to offset the public cost of the federal security that Dr. Fauci has had to have.

I think President Kennedy was the best in US history. I think the CIA had him extrajudicially removed from office

So you support your own favorite asinine conspiracy theory.

At least back in its heyday, that conspiracy theory wasn’t asinine. That is, compared to the fantasy premises of COVID CT – Bill Gates 5G! – factions in the CIA did have a beef with JFK in the wake of the Bay of Pigs, they had spooks posing as leftists, and they’d engineered violent overthrows of foreign governments…

OK, I confess, this is the only CT I ever credited myself. On reflection, I think in the pre-internet era, it was easier for certain select narratives to go viral because proper debunking didn’t circulate in their wake. IOW, the cherry-picked evidence for the assassination theory was pretty persuasive on their own.

The clincher for me was the Zapruder film. When the fatal shot hits JFK, his head snaps back, bloody bits of his skull spew onto the trunk, and Jackie tries to crawl back there as if to pick up the pieces and try to put him back together. As the conspirators claimed, how could this be the result of anything but the exit wound of a shot through the front? Unfortunately, at that time, the science of gunshot wounds belying this “common sense” was pretty obscure. I didn’t encounter a persuasive explanation of that until the mid-80s. Around the same time, there was a really good debunking of the theory in general by Alex Cockburn in The Nation. His take had credit for me since he was about the last person who would ever give the CIA a pass for anything…

I’m not necessarily trying to defend Mark here, just detail a bit of history that might be relevant to a general discussion of countering conspiracy theories. A lot depends on the information environment people inhabit. If that has a particularly blinkered set of facts available, a reasonable person might find a certain conspiracy theory at least plausible. In such cases, tossing insulting dismissals like “asinine” is more likely to be counterproductive than helpful.

The question is which CIA conspiracy theory: one of their own pulled the trigger, or did they have a mob contact employ a hit man to do it? The more those conspiracies were thought about the more you realized that the number of people involved would have to be large, and each one of would need to be quiet about his/her part in the assassination of a US president until their death: no, not a reasonable thing on which to hold for long. Just as unreasonable as the claims by Igor, labarge, etc., that everyone involved in covid research is corrupted.

It was far from the worst: I don’t remember the name of the guy who came up with this one but: there was a book written about how the kill shot was fired by a Secret Service agent. There was a shot that missed: the agent stood up in the following car and as they accelerated the jolt caused him to fire his weapon and that’s the one that hit JFK. The author named the poor guy in his book.


Did you ever see the X-Files episode “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man”? It’s a hilarious send-up of CIA conspiracy theories, featuring (of course) the Lone Gunmen, the group of guys trying to prove conspiracy theories who occasionally pass on useful info or material aid to Mulder.

FWIW, I didn’t need there to be a specific plot described to imagine the CIA was involved. If the spooks had been involved, setting up Oswald as a patsy, and arranging for another shooter, it only makes sense they could have covered their tracks on exactly how they did it. Of course, I did encounter the ‘so many people would have had to be in on it’ argument even back then (I was all of 17 y/o, mind you), I just didn’t buy it. Plenty of secrets you’d think would come out sooner-or-later, only come out later, like 40-50 years, e.g. when the USSR collapsed and the West got access to KGB records.

I’d say the better debunking of Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory comes not from some general principle, but from an accumulation of counters to specific points: like how a bullet from the rear would act inside a skull, (I don’t remember the rest…)

If you’re 56, you’re too young to remember the assassination. I was in fifth grade, and it was traumatizing. I think that generational experience had a lot to do with the spread of the conspiracy theory among otherwise reasonable people.

Sadmar, the “56” portion of my title doesn’t refer to my age — I’m far past 56, but your interpretation is understandable.

I too remember the news breaking in school — a bit different setting than most I imagine since I attended a 1 room elementary school in central Michigan.

Most of the people I encountered who didn’t believe Oswald was the shooter rested their ‘argument’ on the difficulty, as they saw it, of someone pulling off the shot on a moving target, completely ignoring his Marine ratings and exactly what those ratings mean. They also tended to ignore the replications of such shots in tests.

And, re X-Files: I never watched that. I’m pretty sure I missed some good stuff, but that’s how some things go.

Kennedy probably has the most glowing legacy of any president since World War II. But it’s hard to know how it would have held up if he had served 5 more years.
He was a great public speaker and had voted for a civil rights act under Eisenhower.
He jump started the U.S. space program, stood off the Soviets in the Cuban missile crisis and the annexation of Berlin. If he had won a landslide victory in 1964 he likely could have gotten a Civil Rights Bill passed again.
He thought Viet Nam was hopeless but couldn’t just cede it to the Communists. He supported the military overthrow of the civilian government there. We also started Operation Ranch Hand and the strategic hamlet program at that time.
And he had the benefit of a more discrete press policy about the private lives of our leaders.

Historians give him a high rating, but not the very highest. Wikipedia compiled a long list of ratings of American presidents. Lincoln, Washington and FDR rank 1-3, followed by Jefferson and TR.
Kennedy ranks 8-18 with Eisenhower at 5-12 and LBJ at 8-18 but generally lower ranked.

I have a copy of On The Trail of the Assassins somewhere but never got around to reading it.

There are good claims and stupid claims for conspiracies. Hoaxes and nonsense discredit actual scandals. Some of the really dumb BS about covid served to immunize the Trump administration from accountability for their willful criminal negligence in responding to covid. I think most of the readers of this site (apart from the antivaxxers) could probably agree, more or less, with that. This tactic – mixing real and bogus – is a specialty of tricksters like Roger Stone (who is allied with Junior in his new campaign).

On the Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison is an excellent read. Also recommended is JFK and the Unspeakable: why he died and why it matters by James Douglas, False Mystery by Vince Salandria and The Last Investigation by Gaeton Fonzi (who was on the 1976-1978 House Select Committee on Assassinations, which concluded the obvious – there were multiple gunmen, but the real issue is the motive, not the ballistics).

In reality, President Kennedy did not support the overthrow of (South) Vietnam. Many things happened in his administration that were not specifically ordered by him – as has happened to most other Presidencies. In October 1963 JFK signed National Security Action Memo 263 which called for starting the withdrawal of “advisors” from Vietnam — which was overturned by LBJ immediately after Kennedy was removed from office. NSAM 263 was declassified in the wake of the “JFK” movie that stirred up more public interest in this topic.

And none of the members of the Warren Commission actually believed their own report, this is not speculation, merely inconvenient to admit. The most notorious member of that commission was Allen Dulles, fired by JFK from being director of CIA. Generally murder investigations are not supposed to appoint a bitter enemy of the deceased to supervise the inquiry especially if the opponent of the dead person ran an organization well documented to hire assassins.

It was discovered in the 1990s that Jackie Kennedy sent a trusted family friend to tell Krushchev, in person, the month after the assassination that the family knew the Communists were not involved but it was a domestic right wing plot. Timothy Naftali, then of the Nixon Center, found the documentation in the recently opened Soviet files. It’s in his book “One Hell of a Gamble” (about the Cuban Missile Crisis). He wrote of his surprise seeing this, since he thought the family supported the official story of the Warren report. Well, in private, they never did support it, which is a complex psychological situation.

I’d be interested in hear Junior open up about why he kept his views on the assassination quiet until 2013. But I do not support his crazy campaign for President. Anyone pushing HIV denial – as he does in his smear book about Dr. Fauci – does not deserve anything except pity. Perhaps he could get some therapy for his PTSD (President Trump Spread Disease).

In the flat earth world , NDgT is a NASA shill, in the pay of the new world order, freemasons, illuminati or whoever. I have always though that flat earthers were essentially harmless. That is not the case now I find because whilst not all anti vaxers are not flat earthers, all flat earthers are amtivaxxers. They are also anti lock down, anti mask, anti mandate covid deniers. Unfortunately one of flat earth’s leading proponents (akin to RFK Jr, Bigtree etc), Rob Skiba, got covid and died. If through social media you can convince people the earth is flat, anti vax is easy.

RFK jr announced his candidacy today and followed up with a shitload of tweets including long videos that I didn’t watch at his twitter account. @ RobertKennedyJr
One odd image showed him and his wife, Cheryl, sitting in what appears to be a barricaded vault ( probably an ancient structure Peru? Petra? ) to suggest his captivity or some other heroic posturing

@ Igor Chudov

You write: “These articles were sources of amazing data-based antivax conclusions. For example, a March 2022 VA study titled “Long Term Cardiovascular Outcomes of Covid-19” proved that Covid vaccines cause myocarditis in veterans. The increase is 57% in covid-recovered veterans who were vaccinated, and 51% in covid-naive but vaccinated veterans.”

Please give page number(s) in article or supplement where you got this data and your calculations because I carefully read the paper and the supplement and the following is what I found:

“Risk of myocarditis and pericarditis without COVID-19 vaccination.
Because some COVID-19 vaccines might be associated
with a very rare risk of myocarditis or pericarditis, and to eliminate
any putative contribution of potential vaccine exposure to the outcomes
of myocarditis and pericarditis in this study, we conducted
two analyses. First, we censored cohort participants at the time
of receiving the first dose of any COVID-19 vaccine. Second, we
adjusted for vaccination as a time-varying covariate. Both analyses
were conducted versus both the contemporary and historical control
groups. The results suggested that COVID-19 was associated
with increased risk of myocarditis and pericarditis in both analyses
(Supplementary Tables 21–24).

Our analyses censoring participants at time of vaccination and
controlling for vaccination as a time-varying covariate show that
the increased risk of myocarditis and pericarditis reported in this
study is significant in people who were not vaccinated and is evident
regardless of vaccination status.”

Yan Xie et al. (2022 Mar). Long-term cardiovascular outcomes of COVID-19. Nature medicine; 28(3): 583-590.

Or, as usual, are you simply displaying your delusional antivax bias???

Mostly for Igor:

Didn’t Orac already include a really nice graph illustrating the relative risk of myocarditis from vaccines vs illness in the Lying with Statistics in Florida post ? It’s the one where risks for age cohorts are shown in green vs yellow-orange. Very clearly.

Denice, what is the point of saying “but Covid causes worse myocarditis”, if the vaccine does not prevent covid?

Vaccinated people get myocarditis from vaccines, then myocarditis from Covid, then from boosters, then more from their endless Covid reinfections.

Hopefully, this works….

Igor, please re-read Orac’s Lying with Statistics in Florida again.
Look at the numbers in the graph across different groups/ situations.
Vaccines greatly reduce frequency of myocarditis.

As a comparison, if your country/ city would reduce your taxes if you filled out a form by 20%, 50% etc NOT 100% wouldn’t you do it?
Same with vaccines- a simple action prevents a worse situation.

Unless if you think that vaccines are more dangerous than Covid.

@ Igor Chudov

You write: “The study does not talk about whether Covid vaccine prevents hospitalization; however, it presents data that shows clearly that no such prevention exists. Had the study brought up readers’ attention to that data, it would not be published and the authors would likely be defunded by the funders of the Covid quack science.”

Give the page number, where you found the data and if you actually did a calculation, give it; otherwise, just one more example of your sick delusional antivax biased mind. Plus, there is ample examples of published articles in good peer-reviewed journals that don’t always agree with each other. Basically, if youdisagree with something, then, despite your lack of understanding of science, immunology, microbiology, etc. then must be something nefarious going on because despite your ignorant stupidity, you know you are right????????????

I’m telling you…Igor is the vaccine Lysenko (or wants to be.) The parallels are uncanny.


The VA study is here:

Take a look at Table: Baseline Characteristics in Seasonal Influenza and COVID-19 Group Before and After Propensity Score Weighting

Look at the columns “After propensity score weighting”

Now look at the percentage of hospitalized veterans with Covid who are flu vaccinated (63.84%), and compare it with the percentage of hospitalized veterans with flu who are flu vaccinated (63.43%). (flu vaccine does not protect against Covid) Had the flu vaccine had any effectiveness, the second percentage would be significantly lower as the flu vaccine would prevent flu hospitalizations. The percentages are essentially equal, suggesting no effectiveness of the flu vaccine.

Similarly, look at the percentage of hospitalized veterans with flu who are Covid boosted (55.43%), and compare it with the percentage of hospitalized veterans with Covid who are Covid boosted (54.54%). (Covid vaccine does not protect against flu) Had the Covid booster had any effectiveness, the second percentage would be significantly lower as the Covid booster would prevent Covid hospitalizations. The percentages are essentially equal, suggesting no effectiveness of the Covid booster.

This VA study refers to a relatively recent period Fall-Winter 2022-2023.

Meanwhile, the CDC is telling us tales about how Covid vaccine reduces hospitalization risk by many times.

Not surprisingly, Chudov doesn’t understand why one can’t use a sample of only individuals that were hospitalized to assess whether vaccines provide protection against hospitalization. I’m also certain he has no clue about what propensity score weighting is or why the authors are using it here.

Search google for “test-negative design vaccine effectiveness” – the table above allows using test-negative method of estimating VE

“Broome et al. (16) showed that assuming pneumococcal vaccination did not affect the risk of non-vaccine-type pneumococcal infections among vaccinees (an assumption verified in early randomized controlled trials of polysaccharide vaccines (17, 18)), the odds of vaccination in those infected with non-vaccine-type and vaccine-type disease can be compared to estimate the effectiveness of pneumococcal vaccines” –

Even if the COVID vaccination doesn’t protect against influenza or vice versa, there is a confound because both diseases are “vaccine-type” (i.e. have vaccines) and individuals with one vaccine are more likely to have the the other.

Take another look at columns “Before propensity score weighting”.

The percentages are essentially the same as after propensity score weighting. The changes are very minor.

Whichever percentages you use, with our without propensity scores, the outcome is the same.

And so what? What do you imagine the propensity score weighting is being used to do here? The authors aren’t addressing VE. The sole purpose of the weighting is to illustrate what the death rates would have been like IF the group being hospitalized for influenza has similar characteristics to the group being hospitalized for covid.

I’m still waiting for you to explain the assumptions that are necessary to establish VE from the data in the table and show that they’re satisfied. If you want to make the claim, you’ve got to the legwork.

Vaccine efficacy or vaccine effectiveness is the percentage reduction of disease cases in a vaccinated group of people compared to an unvaccinated group.
You should actually calculate VE. Find out vaccination rate among VA patients. I do remember vaccine mandate.

@ Igor Chudov


PROPENSITY SCORING is an adjustment to equalize based on pre-existing demographics, comorbidities, etc. not comparing hospitalized or deaths by vaccination status. Though it did compare hospitalization and deaths by pre-existing demographics, etc.

Look at Figure. Hazard Ratio, Death Rates. . . clearly shows unvaccinated had excess deaths.

And once more I simply cut and paste authors own conclusions:

“The risk of death decreased with the number of COVID-19
vaccinations (P = .009 for interaction between unvaccinated
and vaccinated; P < .001 for interaction between unvaccinated
and boosted). No statistically significant interactions
were observed across other subgroups (Figure).”

As usual you don’t really try to understand anything; but project your own stupidly ignorant antivax bias into papers, ignoring what they actually show.


And youR antivax bias clearly indicates total ignorance of how our immune systems work. If we get infected it takes up to 10 days for the adaptive immune system; e.g., antibodies to clear the infection, 10 days where we suffer, get hospitalized, maybe even die. But the adaptive immune system also creates memory cells that are ready to act if same infection experienced. All vaccines do is create the same memory cells while not exposing us to whole live intact microbes, thus preventing the 10 days or so of suffering. So, once more, if infected we eventually produce memory cells that next time will recognize and act immediately and all that vaccines do is create the same memory cells without us going through the actual illness.


The study only includes individuals that were hospitalized with either COVID or influenza. The propensity score weighting is used to adjust the influenza group to resemble the COVID group. This is fairly obvious from the table Igor refers to, where only summary statistics for the Influenza group change with the propensity score weighting, but the authors are explicit in their supplemental material: “The inverse probability weights for the COVID-19 group were
constructed as one and for the seasonal influenza group were constructed as propensity score/(1-propensity
score) to estimate the risk in the target population of the COVID-19 group.”

Contrary to any fantasies that Igor might have, this study has nothing to say about the risk of hospitalization by vaccination status.

The baseline characteristics include all veterans HOSPITALIZED with Covid of influenza, so it lets us figure out VE against hospitalization (zero)

Are you really this dense? You can’t figure out a conditional probability of an event happening without knowing something about the group for which it didn’t. I suspect you’re trying to infer something about the non-hospitalized population via a set of implicit assumptions that (i) you are incapable of articulating and (ii) that are unlikely to met in the “real world”.

You forget number of vaccinated and unvaccinated. Armed services has a vaccine mandate.
Vaccine efficacy or vaccine effectiveness is the percentage reduction of disease cases in a vaccinated group of people compared to an unvaccinated group.
So, find vaccination rate among veterans.

There are two things that Igor’s “analysis” fails to address: the extent to which the influenza vaccine protects against hospitalization from influenza and the extent to which vaccination status for COVID and influenza are correlated for “breakthough” cases.(i.e. those that have been vaccinated against the disease with which they are hospitalized).

Please attempt to uphold vaccines with better drivel then this . Lots of claims with appeals to authority and ad hominem attacks in this article. So disappointing. Do better !

You did not notice Orac said that Bridle did not notice that LNPsudy he cited used much higher concentraion than vaccines ? A very trivial error, if it is an error.

@ MedicalYeti

Yes and no. Yep, Lysenko denied evolution, weird approach to genetics, etc; but he was supported/believed by Stalin and was a major force in Soviet Union for a number of years and also China while Igor may have a few followers; but, on the whole, is a delusional nobody. So, yep, his position is as unscientific as Lysenko’s; but only a few idiots believe him.

I have over 50,000 subscribers on Substack – exceptionally intelligent critical thinkers

“Intelligent critical thinkers.” You keep saying that term. I do not think it means what you think it means. 🤦🏻‍♂️

As a subscriber, I thank you. But, as a reader of many comments left by your audience, I have to question your statement.
I wonder if questioning that statement will keep me from being a critical thinker, at least according to Igor…

David, I love your sharp, well thought-out and relevant comments.

I generally appreciate when people disagree with me, especially politely, and always appreciate your skeptical and oppositional point of view.

@ Igor Chudov

You write: “I have over 50,000 subscribers on Substack – exceptionally intelligent critical thinkers.”

From Wikipedia QAnon: “In March 2021, 14% of Americans considered themselves QAnon believers, increasing to 17% in October of that year.”

That is exponentially more believers in QAnon that followers of your Substack.

There are 10s of thousands in US who support or are active members in violent far right groups; e.g., Proud Boys, KKK, alt-right, etc.

Surveys have found that 70% of Americans either don’t understand the basics of science and/or reject science, each believing in themselves as Litmus test for “truth.” And you even admitted you don’t understand the basics of science.

And as Orac, myself, and numerous other commenters have clearly shown, namely, that you have been wrong over and over again, displaying a total lack of understanding of science; e.g., immune system, microbiology, etc. that you find outlier papers and focus on them, that you misread papers and/or project your own bias into them, seeing facts not actually in the papers, and on and on it goes. So having 50,000 people following your Substack, given just how unintelligent uncritical thinker you are, only says you have followers as literally stupid as you are! ! !

I have to admit that I did not look closely into the QAnon conspiracy.

I do not like the subject matter and I cannot be well informed about all things, so I mostly ignored it. (QAnon also seemed to be a “theory of everything”)

But if that theory centers about powerful people loving children in unsavory ways and cavorting together, is it totally false?

Wasn’t there a certain guy named Jeffrey who managed to run a big operation involving extremely famous and influential people?

And…there goes Igor down the QAnon rabbit hole. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened before.

He’s repeatedly floated conspiracies about “big pharma”, researchers, scientists, that Covid-19 was a weapon released by China, he’s hit Bill Gates and George Soros conspiracies — there was no reason at all to believe there would be any right-wing conspiracy too far-fetched for him to push, especially since he wants to build his population of suckers [substack subscribers]. Given the fact he claims to have studied economics at U of Chicago, and the fact that the econ department there has a history of supporting authoritarian ideas and the right-wing view of reality, Igor’s support for this nonsense isn’t a surprise.

“But if that theory centers about powerful people loving children in unsavory ways and cavorting together”

Child abuse happens at every level of power and income. Adding it in to a world domination conspiracy is just a way of making the supposed perpetrators more evil. I expect they kick puppies and drink the blood of virgins too.

Well, but all those QAnon supporters consider themselves critical thinkers, so Igor might be right that his subscribers consider themselves higly intelligent critical thinkers.

Chudov is indistinguishable from a flat Earther (known as a “flef”). The general approach is virtually identical – dismiss and deny. Any evidence they don’t like is either summarily dismissed as wrong or denied as fake. They grasp and hang on to any notion that fits their prejudices, regardless of evidence to the contrary. They parrot each other. Their general level of relevant understanding is astoundingly low. Their egos are huge (as one YouTuber who debates flerfs says “If I wanted to hurt myself I’d climb to your ego and jump to your IQ”). They love to believe that only they know the truth and everyone else is a deluded fool easily mislead by “them.” Flerfs assert that “they” will lie to you every chance they get and tales of a globe-shaped Earth that spins on its axis and rotates around the sun are tools to control the gullible.

Speaking of the gullible:

RFK Jr. has a couple of semi-celebrity endorsements: Dennis Kucinich and Aaron Rodgers.

Kucinich was a left-wing Congressman who has unsuccessfully run for President, Governor of Ohio and Mayor of Cleveland, being badly beaten on all three occasions, so he knows something about failed campaigns. He also morphed into a Trump supporter.

Rodgers is known for lying about his Covid-19 vaccination status, saying he was “immunized” when he wasn’t. He’s been tweeting in support of RFK Jr. – maybe he needs another “darkness retreat” for political healing purposes.

Fun article in the Boston Globe today. “Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Antivax 2024 Presidential Campaign” (“His clown train runs into Boston”).

“…virtually everyone I talked to (at the campaign event) quickly made it clear that the big reason they back this Kennedy epigone is his opposition to vaccines. Except for one fellow who was sure the CIA was behind the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and thought that as president, RFK Jr. would get to the bottom of that, as well as the real reason the World Trade Center collapsed.”

“Even so, one mustn’t say anti-vaxxer. It’s more respectful to say Citizens Who Are Not Just Deeply Skeptical About Having Foreign Substances Injected Into Their Bodies But Also Certain Those Shots Will Cause Endless Damage To Humanity Once The Real Truth Comes Out, Which It Surely Will, Because These Anti-vaccine Iconoclasts Know Far More Than The Supposed Experts Who Say The COVID Inoculations And Other Vaccines Are Safe. (Hereafter, CWANJDSAHFSIITBBACTSWCEDTHOTRTCO, WISW, BTAIKFMTTSEWSTCIAOVAS.)”

The reporter seemed a bit confused about RFK Jr. having described himself as “fiercely pro-vaccine”. Evidently he’s unfamiliar with this kind of dodge, which typically excludes all vaccines in use today.

Just noticed that an ad for Prevnar 20 (pneumococcal vaccine) is running alongside the Globe’s article on RFK Jr.

Maybe it’s just an insert by an advertising algorithm, but enjoyable regardless.

re RFK jr
He has an advert ( #Kennedy24) that runs for over 2 minutes a great portion of which features footage of his father and uncle. One of his comments includes “fear” being so prevalent in politics today: this is from the guy who frightens people about vaccines, 5G, food additives, evil PH doctors etc.
IOW, many 1960s images but no obvious mention of vaccines.

It’s easier to lean upon your audience’s mostly positive associations about your family than rely upon your own qualities that may be sketchy or mostly negative.

re Igor

I think he found his niche writing articles on Substack which attract a large number of followers- some paying, I assume. If one of Orac’s regulars had an account there, discussing SBM/ related material, I doubt they would gather such a large crowd even though we have many extremely intelligent people who are good writers as well as having expertise.

Nothing sells like nay-saying: contrarians attract attention and like-minded followers applaud their audacity and oppositional stances because they see one of their own out there fighting the power. So many of the alties I survey do just that: they oppose medical findings, political positions, economic policies and reality in general and there is a ready-made audience waiting for them. Studies show that anti-vaxxers/ CT believers have personality traits in common which obviously reflect their bearings on life ( I’ve written about them are too many times to repeat here) and can be catered to by a particular style. It’s easy to construct messages like these. I’m sure that personality issues like these are exacerbated by difficult issues of daily living that makes people feel powerless- and writers who address these feelings will find followers who seek validation and a sort of vicarious empowerment: the applaud the writer for “giving it to the Man” who tramples upon them. The bigger their target, the greater their imagined success.
Why oppose a simple fact of PH when you can attack all of it since John Snow? Other contrarians here are a lesser species of the same. Money is only a part of the eventual payoff- they experience a lift to self-esteem and those with an axe to grind ( e.g. parents of “vaccine injured” children) feel this is payback for their betes noires’ sins.

Truth be told, I’ve intermittently toyed with the idea of moving this blog to Substack, not so much to profit (Substack will allow one to use it to host a free blog and i wouldn’t have to offer paid subscriptions) but to eliminate the expense of paying for hosting myself and the bother of trying to keep this blog running with minimal skills v to do that. (Even though I use Dreamhost’s managed WordPress hosting service, I’m still lost when things go wrong.) A couple things have thus far stopped me. First, I’d be bothered to be on the same platform as all the cranks I lambaste. Second, Substack is just so plain ugly. I mean, really ugly, so ugly that a free WordPress template from 2020 is far more visually appealing than the most attractive Substack blog that I’ve seen.

Your blog is perfectly fine. You will have a problem on substack with a flood of hostile comments and that will create problems building a participating subscriber base.

You have a generally nice company here, it may not reproduce correctly on substack due to unmoderated comments.

Jetelina limits comments to paying subscribers, but that is a poor solution.

Yes, commenters that continually engage in asshattery can easily be blocked on Substack, though Orac has shown here that he’s much more tolerant of opposing views (however moronically and nastily stated) than typical science deniers.

I guess I don’t see an innate “ugliness” to Substack formats. Photos can be incorporated easily into posts (I haven’t tried yet to import graphs or videos); links go in smoothly and editing is a breeze.

The more I look around, I see additional voices of reason on Substack.

On substack, you can remove comments after they are posted. What you are doing now is approving comments before they are posted. It is not quite the same in terms of outcomes.

Substack is a great platform for posting long-form thoughts and the looks of it can be customized. If you do not like its default style you can change very many visual parameters (font, colors, etc etc)

On my own substack, I only remove spams. The only exception was one particular conspiracy theorist, who like many was trying to save the world, but he was spamming identical messages in lower-level replies, so I banned him for a month. I explained to him that what he was doing was like showing up to a nice party with a megaphone. Now he is fine and posts a limited number of distinct messages.

Many pro-vaccine people have successful substacks, examples are Eric Topol and Kateryn Jetelina. But they obviously have problems with hostile comments. Topol disallows any comments and Jetelina allows only paid subscribers to comment. Most likely it is because of the issue I mentioned.

Jetelina had “tens of thousands of paid subscribers” last time I checked.

The less successful provax blogs are misinformationkills, and Karam Bales’ counterdisinformationproject. (both authors are crazy)

I wish I had more pro-vaccine people posting in my comments.

Several COVID vaccine supporters have large substacks. Eric Topol and Katelyn Jetelina are two examples. Jetelina, I believe, has over 10,000 paid subscribers.

I was going to add below my comment that if I ever wrote there it wouldn’t be about what I discuss here but about STYLE ..
however Substack’s ungainly appearance precludes that topic entirely for me.

C’mon Denice, join the party. It’s free.* I’d subscribe.

*unless Elon Musk gets his mitts on it.

@ Igor Chudov

Just because someone follows a blog and/or Substack does NOT mean they agree with/support it. Groups, such as Southern Poverty Law Center monitor racists and antisemitic posts. Orac, myself, and others sometimes monitor blogs/Substacks to try to learn/understand and counter unscientific, foolish, hateful, etc. positions. So, though 50,000 is NOT a huge number in a nation of 330 million and even larger world, even the 50,000 does NOT necessarily equate with people who agree with/support your positions

A sizable number of my readers disagrees with me on every post I make.

The reasons for disagreement are all individual, but it is all fine with me

I have no problem with that, and consider it to be important for building a community of people who can disagree in a polite and constructive way

@ Igor Chudov

Except when people don’t just disagree with you; but back it with solid science, nothing changes your mind.

I suggested some time ago that you read an excellent short book on the immune system, Lauren Sompayrac’s “How the Immune System Works”. Without understanding how the immune system works, one can’t understand how vaccines work

In a comment you claimed to have ordered the book; but in no following comments did you ever mention it, so, given your typical dishonesty, I really doubt you ordered it. Otherwise you would have commented on it, even disagreed with it, based on your ignorant unscientific

@ Nonlin Org

You write: “what does the Covid vaccine actually promise? Did it deliver? It certainly is not on par with what vaccines are known for : immunity to the disease and ideally the eradication of that disease as in the small pox case.” “Show proof or else” “the burden of efficacy proof is on the authorities. They didn’t meet that threshold. In fact, the whole thing was highly politicized and it’s obvious the cure was worse than the disease.”

First, smallpox had only humans as its reservoir, so the vaccine did successfully end smallpox. There are a few other infectious diseases that only have humans as reservoirs that also could be ended; e.g., measles, polio. However, if a disease has other reservoirs; e.g., animals, insects, then it can’t be ended only controlled. As for proof of COVID vaccine effectiveness, we have several large Phase 3 clinical trials, between 30 and 40,000 participants and they have continued to follow the participants more than six months after the trials. We have clinical trials in numerous other nations. And we have statistics on hospitalizations and deaths. Maybe sometimes vaccine status of person not known; but one can also look at differences between areas with low per capita vaccinations vs high and the stats on hospitalizations and deaths clearly support the highly vaccinated areas. And finally, you obviously, as other antivaxxers, don’t know even the most basics of immunology. If infected, we suffer, perhaps end up hospitalized, and even dying; however, our adapted immune system, including antibodies takes time to rev up, 5 – 10 days and then removes the microbe and also creates memory cells that patrol and if same microbe returns, stops it cold. Well, all vaccines do is create the memory cells while avoiding us going through the 5 – 10 days of sickness. However, I don’t live in a fantasy world of all or none. Some vaccines reduce risk by over 90% while others; e.g., flu vaccine, by much less. Do you use your seatbelt? Do you understand seatbelts only reduce risk of serious injury or death by 50%. And vaccines have rare serious adverse events; but compared to risk from actual microbe, any intelligent person would weigh the odds and get vaccinated. However, given the rare risk, if people decide will be protected by others getting vaccinated and avoid risk, gradually fewer and fewer get vaccinated and we again all are at risk. You are just one more stupidly ignorant antivaxxer.

[…] Note the further frantic goalpost moving in the form of Kirsch insisting on a Q&A format, which, Guy notes quite correctly, is not the format of a debate, but rather a format that would allow Kirsch and his merry band of cranks to Gish gallop, JAQ off, and firehose to their hearts’ content. This whole incident is just another example of how cranks view “debate,” not as an actual scientific debate, but rather as an opportunity to be seen alongside actual experts in front of a friendly audience where they can promote their pseudoscience, quackery, and conspiracy theories as though they deserve to be on the same stage as actual science. (Neil deGrasse Tyson, take note!) […]

[…] He was wrong. Tyson’s first mistake was to agree to appear on Bigtree’s webcast, rather than in some neutral setting. But his main problem was that, as an astrophysicist, he simply did not have the knowledge to counter Bigtree’s torrent of anti-vaccination propaganda. The result was a train wreck for legitimate science in which the anti-vax position prevailed, or such was the impression that was left. […]

[…] He was wrong. Tyson’s first mistake was to agree to appear on Bigtree’s webcast, rather than in some neutral setting. But his main problem was that, as an astrophysicist, he simply did not have the knowledge to counter Bigtree’s torrent of anti-vaccination propaganda. The result was a train wreck for legitimate science in which the anti-vax position prevailed, or such was the impression that was left. […]

[…] O yanılıyordu. Tyson’ın ilk hatası, tarafsız bir ortamdan ziyade Bigtree’nin web yayınında görünmeyi kabul etmekti. Ancak asıl sorunu, bir astrofizikçi olarak, Bigtree’nin aşı karşıtı propaganda seline karşı koyacak bilgiye sahip olmamasıydı. Sonuç, aşı karşıtı pozisyonun galip geldiği meşru bilim için bir tren kazasıydı ya da bırakılan izlenim buydu. […]

[…] Nagkamali siya. Ang unang pagkakamali ni Tyson ay ang sumang-ayon na lumabas sa webcast ng Bigtree, sa halip na sa ilang neutral na setting. Ngunit ang kanyang pangunahing problema ay na, bilang isang astrophysicist, wala lang siyang kaalaman upang kontrahin ang torrent ng Bigtree ng propaganda laban sa pagbabakuna. Ang resulta ay isang pagkawasak ng tren para sa lehitimong agham kung saan nanaig ang posisyong anti-vax, o ganoon ang impresyon na naiwan. […]

[…] He was wrong. Tyson’s first mistake was to agree to appear on Bigtree’s webcast, rather than in some neutral setting. But his main problem was that, as an astrophysicist, he simply did not have the knowledge to counter Bigtree’s torrent of anti-vaccination propaganda. The result was a train wreck for legitimate science in which the anti-vax position prevailed, or such was the impression that was left. […]

[…] O yanılıyordu. Tyson’ın ilk hatası, tarafsız bir ortamdan ziyade Bigtree’nin web yayınında görünmeyi kabul etmekti. Ancak asıl sorunu, bir astrofizikçi olarak, Bigtree’nin aşı karşıtı propaganda seline karşı koyacak bilgiye sahip olmamasıydı. Sonuç, aşı karşıtı pozisyonun galip geldiği meşru bilim için bir tren kazasıydı ya da bırakılan izlenim buydu. […]

[…] He was wrong. Tyson’s first mistake was to agree to appear on Bigtree’s webcast, rather than in some neutral setting. But his main problem was that, as an astrophysicist, he simply did not have the knowledge to counter Bigtree’s torrent of anti-vaccination propaganda. The result was a train wreck for legitimate science in which the anti-vax position prevailed, or such was the impression that was left. […]

[…] O yanılıyordu. Tyson’ın ilk hatası, tarafsız bir ortamdan ziyade Bigtree’nin web yayınında görünmeyi kabul etmekti. Ancak asıl sorunu, bir astrofizikçi olarak, Bigtree’nin aşı karşıtı propaganda seline karşı koyacak bilgiye sahip olmamasıydı. Sonuç, aşı karşıtı pozisyonun galip geldiği meşru bilim için bir tren kazasıydı ya da bırakılan izlenim buydu. […]

[…] He was wrong. Tyson’s first mistake was to agree to appear on Bigtree’s webcast, rather than in some neutral setting. But his main problem was that, as an astrophysicist, he simply did not have the knowledge to counter Bigtree’s torrent of anti-vaccination propaganda. The result was a train wreck for legitimate science in which the anti-vax position prevailed, or such was the impression that was left. […]

[…] He was wrong. Tyson’s first mistake was to agree to appear on Bigtree’s webcast, rather than in some neutral setting. But his main problem was that, as an astrophysicist, he simply did not have the knowledge to counter Bigtree’s torrent of anti-vaccination propaganda. The result was a train wreck for legitimate science in which the anti-vax position prevailed, or such was the impression that was left. […]

[…] He was wrong. Tyson’s first mistake was to agree to appear on Bigtree’s webcast, rather than in some neutral setting. But his main problem was that, as an astrophysicist, he simply did not have the knowledge to counter Bigtree’s torrent of anti-vaccination propaganda. The result was a train wreck for legitimate science in which the anti-vax position prevailed, or such was the impression that was left. […]

[…] He was fallacious. Tyson’s first mistake was to agree to seem on Bigtree’s webcast, moderately than in some impartial setting. However his primary drawback was that, as an astrophysicist, he merely didn’t have the data to counter Bigtree’s torrent of anti-vaccination propaganda. The end result was a practice wreck for professional science wherein the anti-vax place prevailed, or such was the impression that was left. […]

[…] He was wrong. Tyson’s first mistake was to agree to appear on Bigtree’s webcast, rather than in some neutral setting. But his main problem was that, as an astrophysicist, he simply did not have the knowledge to counter Bigtree’s torrent of anti-vaccination propaganda. The result was a train wreck for legitimate science in which the anti-vax position prevailed, or such was the impression that was left. […]

[…] He was wrong. Tyson’s first mistake was to agree to appear on Bigtree’s webcast, rather than in some neutral setting. But his main problem was that, as an astrophysicist, he simply did not have the knowledge to counter Bigtree’s torrent of anti-vaccination propaganda. The result was a train wreck for legitimate science in which the anti-vax position prevailed, or such was the impression that was left. […]

[…] He was wrong. Tyson’s first mistake was to agree to appear on Bigtree’s webcast, rather than in some neutral setting. But his main problem was that, as an astrophysicist, he simply did not have the knowledge to counter Bigtree’s torrent of anti-vaccination propaganda. The result was a train wreck for legitimate science in which the anti-vax position prevailed, or such was the impression that was left. […]

[…] He was wrong. Tyson’s first mistake was to agree to appear on Bigtree’s webcast, rather than in some neutral setting. But his main problem was that, as an astrophysicist, he simply did not have the knowledge to counter Bigtree’s torrent of anti-vaccination propaganda. The result was a train wreck for legitimate science in which the anti-vax position prevailed, or such was the impression that was left. […]

[…] He was wrong. Tyson’s first mistake was to agree to appear on Bigtree’s webcast, rather than in some neutral setting. But his main problem was that, as an astrophysicist, he simply did not have the knowledge to counter Bigtree’s torrent of anti-vaccination propaganda. The result was a train wreck for legitimate science in which the anti-vax position prevailed, or such was the impression that was left. […]

[…] He was wrong. Tyson’s first mistake was to agree to appear on Bigtree’s webcast, rather than in some neutral setting. But his main problem was that, as an astrophysicist, he simply did not have the knowledge to counter Bigtree’s torrent of anti-vaccination propaganda. The result was a train wreck for legitimate science in which the anti-vax position prevailed, or such was the impression that was left. […]

[…] 彼は間違っていた。 タイソンの最初の間違いは、中立的な環境ではなく、ビッグツリーのウェブキャストに出演することに同意したことでした。 しかし、彼の主な問題は、天体物理学者として、ビッグツリーの反ワクチン宣伝の奔流に対抗する知識をまったく持っていなかったことだ。 その結果は、反ワクチンの立場が優勢な正当な科学の惨事、あるいはそのような印象が残った。 […]

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