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…”
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”:
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.