It seems as though Neil deGrasse Tyson‘s massive error in agreeing to debate antivax propagandist Del Bigtree on his home ground (namely his The Highwire podcast) is the blogging gift that keeps giving, both from people defending his decision but, far more, from antivaxxers who approve of it and use it as a cudgel to attack skeptics and science communicators like me (i.e., the ones who refuse to debate cranks and science deniers on general principles). One such science communicator is Timothy Caulfield, a professor of law at the University of Alberta and the research director of its Health Law Institute, and one such science denying antivaxxer upset at such science communicators is Dr. Byram Bridle, who dropped an article on his Substack yesterday entitled We Need to Follow the Science of Our ‘Misinformation’ ‘Experts’. In it, Dr. Bridle, in an act of projection typical of cranks like him, accuses Caulfield of “misinformation” and not “following the science,” because of course he does.
First off, I must note that I almost forgot who Dr. Bridle was. He has been mentioned on this blog a couple of times, but there is only one post from 2021 in which he and the misinformation he was promoting were the main topics. In brief, he’s an associate professor and viral immunologist in the Department of Pathobiology in the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph, and, from my perspective, his “contribution” to COVID-19 misinformation was the misuse of a Japanese biodistribution study of the lipid nanoparticle-based COVID-19 mRNA vaccines. The study was a rodent study that examined where intravenously injected lipid nanoparticles with a radioactive tag ended up and led to antivaxxers fixating on the observation that radioactivity was detected in the ovaries and using that accumulation to claim that the vaccines will make our girls and womenfolk sterile. (Left out were the facts that this was a rodent study that used a very large dose of lipid nanoparticles—many times larger than that of the actual vaccine—in order to observe all the organs to which they might end up.) Basically, Dr. Bridle was one of the first antivaxxers to resurrect the old “vaccines cause infertility” trope for COVID-19 vaccines. In fairness, the myth first came up in December 2020, a mere week after the Pfizer vaccine started rolling out of its factories, making Dr. Bridle’s spin on this old antivax chestnut just that, another spin.
Dr. Bridle is also known for spreading other forms of antivaccine misinformation, such as:
Describing himself as “very much pro-vaccine,” Bridle said he had assembled scientific information that he intends to make public, but “your listeners are going to be the first to hear the public release of this conclusion.”
He claimed the information shows that the spike protein produced by the vaccines, which is intended to prevent the coronavirus from infecting the body, does not remain in the shoulder muscle but gets into the blood — and can lead to clotting, bleeding, heart problems and neurological damage.
“In short, the conclusion is, we made a big mistake,” Bridle said. “We didn’t realize it until now. We thought the spike protein was a great target antigen. We never knew the spike protein itself was a toxin, and was a pathogenic protein. So, by vaccinating people, we are inadvertently inoculating them with a toxin. Some people, this gets into circulation, and when that happens in some people, they can cause damage, especially in the cardiovascular system. And I have many other legitimate questions about the long-term safety, therefore, of this vaccine.”
So that’s a two-fer in that not only did Dr. Bridle spread the misleading claim that the vaccines accumulate in the ovaries and the false claim that they cause female infertility, but he also spread the antivax trope that spike protein from vaccines is so toxic that it is causing all sorts of horrible complications and injuries. It’s no surprise that Prof. Caulfield would view him as a crank, not to be debated. I share this opinion with Caulfield, who is usually correct about these judgments.
This brings us to Dr. Bridle’s lament about “debate” and how it is so very, very wrong that Prof. Caulfield won’t debate him and, more generally, that most science communicators like myself consider it a bad idea to debate cranks and science deniers. First, he starts out by buttering up the scientific community with unctuous flattery by comparing the refusal of his critics to “debate” him with what he considers the ideal in science:
Over the past three years not one person who has accused me of disseminating mis/dis-information related to COVID-19 has ever offered me the courtesy of a conversation prior to doing so. Not one. That would be the respectful thing to do. It would be the professional thing to do. Historically, it has been a pillar of scientific ethics; to be willing to have open discussions with people that have differing viewpoints. Nor have any of these people been willing to discuss the scientific rationales underpinning my messages, even after they have publicly defamed me. Not a single person.
Nothing can help resolve disagreements or facilitate the ‘agree to disagree’ principle like a real-time conversation. Our own justice system would say that it is not acceptable to accuse another person in the absence of: 1. transparently presented evidence to back it up and, more importantly, 2. an opportunity for the accused to defend themselves.
I’ve noted on a number of occasions how often science deniers like to invoke legalistic, rather than scientific, arguments; one example is their love of inappropriately repurposing the legal principle of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus to scientific arguments. This is more of the same thing. Science communication is not the courtroom, and Dr. Bridle is not entitled to a face-to-face debate with those who criticize him for spreading pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and misinformation about COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccines. Moreover, it’s not as though Dr. Bridle is being “silenced.” He has large social media platforms and has appeared on a number of traditional media outlets, such as TV and radio. He’s perfectly free to defend himself there—and does. Like most antivaxxers, he craves having his views taken seriously by real scientists and science communicators, which leads him to continue:
I have tried to engage those who accuse me of disseminating mis/dis-information countless times. Many other people have tried to facilitate these conversations on my behalf. The universal response is that a public discussion of COVID-19 science with a so-called ‘science denier’ like myself would cause harm; specifically, it would provide a platform that could risk further spreading mis/dis-information.
That is, of course, my reason in a nutshell for not engaging in debates with antivaxxers, quacks, and science deniers. Such “debates” are not scientific debates, but rather exercises in science-denying propaganda. It isn’t necessarily the debater with the strongest scientific evidence who will be perceived as “winning.” Rather, it’s the one with the best rhetorical skills. This makes such pseudodebates a win-win proposition for a quack like Bridle. Even if they lose, they win just by appearing on the same stage or in the same studio at the same table as a respected expert like Prof. Caulfield, because they will have succeeded at presenting their views as roughly on the same plane as science and therefore worthy of “scientific debate.” Worse, if they manage to use the usual techniques of cherry picking data and Gish galloping to give the appearance of having won, they can use the “debate” as even more effective antiscience propaganda.
Then, when such invitations to “debate” are refused, antivaxxers and cranks inevitably don the mantle of the oh-so-hurt, oh-so-disappointed warrior for truth who has been wronged, as Abir Ballan did after Prof. Caulfield blocked him on Twitter after Ballan had offered to arrange a “discussion” or “debate” between Caulfield and Bridle (which Bridle was a bit too thirsty about wanting). A week later, Bridle was ranting, while invoking more legalistic arguments:
From this context, I was surprised to learn that he does not appear to hold a PhD in a health-related field, nor even a MD (an undergraduate professional degree conferred after completion of a program that provides relatively superficial overviews of medical science disciplines, generally with an under-emphasis of teaching in immunology and virology). Immediately, this is a red flag for someone claiming to be an expert in separating truth from fiction across all disciplines underpinning health science. From my experience serving as an expert witness in courts and seeing many recent judgments, it seems like many judges would not be impressed with this lack of credentials up front.
As you might imagine, I can’t resist pointing out that I have an MD and a PhD; so maybe Dr. Bridle will take my opinion that he is an antivax crank a little more seriously than he does Prof. Caulfield’s. (Probably not.) Also note Dr. Bridle’s appeal to the legal system again, in which he observes that a court might not view Prof. Caulfield as an expert witness because he doesn’t have an advanced degree in medicine or a relevant science. That’s probably true if the question were to be whether Prof. Caulfield is an expert in medicine or a biomedical science. However, the question of whether he is an expert in medical misinformation and disinformation is a different question entirely, and Prof. Caulfield clearly is an expert in this field. It’s also a hilarious thing for Dr. Bridle to have written given that a court published. an opinion that explicitly stated that Dr. Bridle is not an expert on COVID-19 vaccines. The fun stuff starts at , but here’s a sampling:
 The court accepts that Dr. Bridle is an immunologist and vaccinologist by training and that he has expert knowledge in these fields, in particular regarding the theory and science behind vaccines. However, for the reasons below, the court does not accept that Dr. Bridle is qualified to give opinion evidence with respect to the safety and efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccine for children.
 Dr. Bridle is a researcher only. He is a faculty member at the Veterinary College at the University of Guelph’s Department of Pathobiology, where he conducts research on animals.
 Dr. Bridle acknowledged that he is not a medical doctor. He has never vaccinated a child, he has never treated a child or an adult suffering from a reaction to a vaccine, nor has he ever treated a child or an adult who is suffering from an infectious disease.
 Dr. Bridle agreed that he did not have any experience or involvement in the clinical trials of a Covid vaccine. He agreed that this is when the medical doctors become involved.
 Dr. Bridle’s acknowledged that his knowledge of the Covid vaccine is limited to his understanding of the science regarding how the vaccine works and how it should work, and his interpretation of the government data of the human experience of the vaccine.
 Dr. Bridle acknowledged that there were limitations on the data that he has seen and studied at the time of trial, including how the data had been presented. He acknowledged that there is no evidence of long-term risks, which are currently largely unknown. However, he points out that this is because there has not been sufficient clinical testing.
 Dr. Bridle has no real-world experience on how human beings are actually experiencing Covid-19, and reacting to the Covid vaccine, in contrast to Dr. Sharkawy.
 Dr. Bridle is not qualified to give opinion evidence on the risk and treatment of vaccine-induced myocarditis. He does not have the medical knowledge to do so. Dr. Sharkawy also testified on this issue and strongly refuted Dr. Bridle’s claims. The court prefers Dr. Sharkawy’s evidence, which is based on his direct experience in treating patients on the Covid ward at his hospital throughout the pandemic.
There’s your “expert”!
This brings us to the point where Dr. Bridle pivots to whining about Timothy Caulfield:
A great example of this is Canada’s eminent leader in the field of ‘misinformation’ ‘science’, Prof. Timothy Caulfield at the University of Alberta, who recently received the prestigious Order of Canada for his efforts in rooting out misinformation about COVID-19. He has consistently refused to engage in discussions with experts that he has deemed to be spreaders of ‘misinformation’. This has included me. I learned from members of the public that Mr. Caulfield and his publicly funded group of ‘misinformation’ ‘experts’ within ScienceUpFirst have been defaming me for a very long time. This surprised me because most of these people don’t know me (I certainly didn’t know them) and they never talked to me. Some have openly accused me of spreading disinformation, which implies ill-intent. But how can they know my intents when they don’t even know me on a personal level.
Since learning of this, I have invited Mr. Caulfield to have public chats about the science that he is accusing me of misunderstanding. After all, if public accusations are being made, it only seems fair to prove their validity in a public setting or resolve it publicly so some of the wrongful and massive harm can be undone. Private resolution of public harm doesn’t cut it.“Experts.” Dr. Bridle keeps using that word. I do not think it means what he think it means, particularly if he means to include himself as an “expert.”
H0w many times have I been on the receiving end of this sort of appeal, and I can even see how powerful it is given that it appeals to a universally valued human trait, fairness. However, notice the rhetorical trick. Dr. Bridle can only have been “defamed” if it is not true that he is a conspiracy theorist, crank, and science denier spreading (at least) misinformation about COVID-19. His analogy fails even on its own legalistic terms because the truth is an absolute defense against an accusation of defamation. Indeed, at the risk of his doing just that and thus getting Prof. Caulfield annoyed at me, I’d suggest that, if Dr. Bridle really thinks he has been defamed, libeled, or whatever, he has the Canadian courts to hold Prof. Caulfield accountable. I realize that proving defamation in the US is very, very difficult given the First Amendment, Canada’s defamation law is a lot more plaintiff-friendly; Dr. Bridle would have a lot better chance of proving his case. Yet he doesn’t. I wonder why.
In any event, here is the article that bugged Dr. Bridle. In it, Prof. Caulfield makes a lot of the same points that I routinely make, although I like this one, which I hadn’t thought of:
Yet the University of Alberta scholar avoids mano-a-mano bouts because he considers the “debate-me” tactic a growing and dangerous distraction that can degenerate into an attack on individuals.
Indeed. Even when this tactic doesn’t degenerate into attacks on individuals, it is still a distraction, and intentionally so, because it allows cranks to play the victim. For example, look at what Dr. Bridle did after he was on that Canadian talk show:
PolitiFact emailed Bridle on June 3 asking for the evidence to back his statement, and received an automated reply from him. The reply said that the radio interview led to “vicious attacks,” including a website that emerged May 28 bearing his name. Bridle’s email said that he believes the website — which anonymously critiques Bridle’s claims — to be libeling him.
Dr. Bridle should try countering misinformation of the sort that he spreads if he really wants to see “vicious attacks.”
Dr. Bridle is also upset that Prof. Caulfield cited this 2019 study—before the pandemic!—on techniques to combat misinformation during a talk that he gave. I like the review article, one of whose conclusions is that the backfire effect, namely the idea that directly refuting misinformation serves to reinforce it, has pretty shaky evidence backing it up. Another conclusion is that refuting pseudoscience in public forums or debates doesn’t cause harm, while refusing to debate leads to negative perceptions. Unsurprisingly, Dr. Bridle extrapolated from these conclusions that by not debating him Dr. Caulfield is not following the science.
I also note that the authors did include one major caveat:
We acknowledge that in some situations contextual factors may still force the advocate to avoid participation (for example, the format of the discussion is not serious or personal safety is at risk31). However, with regard to the effectiveness of messages in conventional contexts, not turning up at the discussion at all seems to result in the worst effect. There may be one exception to this: if the advocate’s refusal to take part in a debate about scientific facts leads to its cancellation, this outcome should be preferred21,51 so as to avoid a negative impact on the audience.
I’m not entirely persuaded by this study, because, being academic and very much done in well-controlled experimental setups, I question whether it takes into account how these debates are used by antivaxxers. Sure, the findings might be correct that showing up and refuting misinformation in a debate format at worst likely doesn’t cause harm and might even persuade viewers or listeners, but it isn’t just those present at the debate that we have to worry about. That’s a huge reason why I was so disturbed when Neil deGrasse Tyson lent his prestige and fame, which are massively greater than that of Del Bigtree, to Bigtree’s podcast. I would also note that deGrasse Tyson went counter to some of the findings of this article in that he was clearly unprepared for the specific tropes likely to be used by Bigtree. Finally, this is just a single study; it might or might not be generally applicable, especially given that it was conducted prepandemic and pre-infodemic.
More obviously, though, Dr. Bridle takes his rhetoric well beyond what is supported by the study cited by Prof. Caulfield and seized upon by him when he tries to generalize what he views as the obligation of someone like Caulfield to debate someone like him into a general principle:
The golden rule for the new ‘science’ of ‘misinformation’:
“No person shall accuse another to have disseminated misinformation until a public, respectful, moderated debate has definitively proven that the accused is wrong.” Byram W. Bridle
And its corollary:
“No person can legitimately be accused of disseminating misinformation if the accuser is unwilling to debate them in public.” Byram W. Bridle
No, no, no, no, no. Nothing in the article cited as the “science of disinformation” supports or demands such a principle and corollary. These are just convenient ideas that Bridle came up with to convince people that Prof. Caulfield has treated him so very, very unfairly and that he isn’t actually a misinformation spreader. (He is.)
Nor does the study support this:
Now, knowing their science, I only see two ways that the ‘misinformation’ ‘experts’ who have been publicly labeling people like me as spreaders of mis/dis-information can save face:
I predict that many of my accusers will choose a third option, which should, by all rights, cause the public to lose faith in them: continue to disallow those they are accusing the courtesy of a public discussion. An inconvenient truth is that real-time conversations are the best way to establish expertise. In a public setting, a discussion between equally yoked experts will quickly turn into an incredibly productive sharing of information that helps hone the science and results in everybody learning something, including the experts. However, if unevenly yoked, the lesser expert will rapidly be exposed in such an exchange. Is the latter possibility the real reason why so many ‘misinformation’ ‘experts’ are failing to ‘walk the walk’ that their own scientific data promotes?
- Put up! This means, step up to the table, follow your own science, bring your original data and let’s talk.
- Shut up! But, only after publicly acknowledging that you were wrong.
Nothing in the article supports Dr. Bridle’s conclusions that “real-time conversations are the best way to establish expertise” (they most definitely are not—surely Dr. Bridle must know that many experts are not glib and don’t do well in public forums even though they are definitely experts); that in a public setting a discussion between “equally yoked experts will quickly turn into an incredibly productive sharing of information that helps hone the science and results in everybody learning something” (it might, or might not); or especially that “the lesser expert will rapidly be exposed in such an exchange.” Dr. Bridle mistakes glibness and rhetorical skills for expertise. Again, I have encountered many true experts, giants in their fields, over my decades in academic surgery and cancer research who would probably not fair well against someone like Dr. Bridle, if only because they have humility about their knowledge and conclusions and, more relevant to the question of these staged “debates,” are not slick at public speaking. In the passage above, Dr. Bridle inadvertently demonstrates that it really is rhetoric that he values, not scientific expertise.
It’s also why the conclusion of Dr. Bridle’s article amuses me. Can you guess what he does before reading the end? Of course you probably can! He challenges Prof. Caulfield to a debate again. He tries to shame him into debating, a favorite tactic of cranks. Truly, he is a one-trick pony.