After Monday’s post, in which I described how tech bro turned antivaxxer Steve Kirsch had gone from “just” anti-COVID-19 vaccine to what I called “irredeemably bonkers antivax,” I didn’t think I’d be writing about him again for a good long while, particularly given that he had blocked me on Twitter last week, thus making my Twitter feed much better because I don’t see him tagging me anymore and therefore don’t see his more bonkers antics. Unfortunately, something this good couldn’t last. No, Kirsch didn’t unblock me. Instead, I became aware of his descent much further down the antivax rabbit hole from Tweets describing how he was both doxxing, making complaints to the state medical board about, and threatening to sue a pseudonymous family practice doctor who had criticized him, thus demonstrating that becoming a litigious bully seeking to use legal thuggery to intimidate critics to silence is a (likely) inevitable feature, not a bug, in devolving into a crank as cranky as Steve Kirsch has become. These Tweets led me to a post on Kirsch’s Substack entitled Who is “Dr. Jonathan E. Canuck” really?
In it, Kirsch reveals how vile he is.
[Note the addendums, the first of which describes how you can help Dr. Canuck and the second of which notes Mr. Kirsch’s response—such as it is—to this post.]
Steve Kirsch sets his minions to doxxing Dr. Canuck.
Apparently, Kirsch’s fee-fees have been so very, very hurt by the things that “Dr. Canuck” has been saying about him:
“Jonathan E. Canuck” aka “Jonathan E. Kraken” (both are fictitious names) is going on Twitter falsely claiming I owe him $1,000.
This article describes why I’m looking to sue him for defamation.
But first I have to find out who he really is. That’s where you come in. He currently lives near Portland, OR.
If you can help me to discover his real name and address, please let me know in the comments.
As soon as he got wind that I’m looking for him, he immediately hid his tweets from view.
However, I was one step ahead of him and preserved his tweets so you can see what he doesn’t want you to see.
Of course, switching your Twitter feed from public to hidden, so that only those who follow you and whom you approve to follow you can see your Tweets is a good first move whenever a social media bully with a large following, whether he’s litigious or not, starts encouraging his followers to dox you, even more so when that social media bully explicitly says that he’s trying to dox you so that he can serve you papers for a libel suit. Dr. Canuck, whatever his real name is, was wise to do this. I probably would have done the same thing, although it is possible that I would not have, given my long experience with legal bullies like Kirsch dating back over 18 years. I also recognize that our situations are different. First and foremost, although I use a pseudonym to blog here, I blog elsewhere under my real name, which is why my real life identity is one of the worst-kept “secrets” in the blogosphere and on social media, so much so that it’s served as sort of an “intelligence test” for antivaxxers and quacks. Basically, if you can’t figure out who I am (a near-trivial task), you’re probably too stupid for me to bother dealing with. So doxxing is no threat to me. I’ve been “out” since 2008. More likely, Dr. Canuck is not as used to the sort of threats that Kirsch is making, which is perfectly understandable. Few of us are.
Regular readers might remember that one reason that I have ceased to feel guilty about ruthless mocking Kirsch for his antivax activities is because over the last several months of dealing with him I have found him to be consistently arrogant and completely uneducable. Trying to educate him and refute the misinformation that he spreads about vaccines and COVID-19 is akin to talking to a proverbial brick wall. Actually, no. It’s worse than that. It’s more like pounding your head against a brick wall. You make no impression in the wall, and it feels so good when you finally stop.
Over the last couple of years Kirsch has developed two signature go-to moves. One is to challenge science communicators to “debate” him and/or selected members of his posse of antivax pseudoscientists and quacks, offering a “reward” or just payment to anyone who takes him up on his offer and goes through with the “debate.” (That’s why I call him a “debate me bro” and his tactics, “debate me bro” tactics.) Kirsch’s second signature go-to move has been to challenge vaccine advocates to “bets” of up to $1 million if they can “prove him wrong.” Unsurprisingly, whenever anyone tries to accept these “challenges” and bets, things do not exactly progress in a straightforward manner. Indeed, Dr. Canuck’s experience, even as related in Kirsch’s dox-happy post shows that in a way that Kirsch likely didn’t intend, as I’ll get to in a minute.
First, though, let me just provide a link to a Twitter thread describing Kirsch’s MO, and I’ll embed a few key Tweets explaining what I mean, starting with the first six Tweets in the thread:
Kirsch’s strategy was obvious. When a serious offer was made to take him up on his challenge and engage in a debate with people who know what they are talking about, Kirsch found reasons…to demur. Regular readers know that I have long argued that debating cranks is a fool’s errand and akin to arguing with a pigeon in that the crank will inevitably shit on the board and then strut around as though he’s won regardless of the actual outcome of the debate. The reasons are many, but most importantly cranks like Kirsch are not bound by good science or accurate representations of existing scientific data. They are free to “Gish gallop“—or, if you prefer the newer term, firehose—a torrent of dodgy studies, conspiracy theories, unproven claims, misleading attacks on existing evidence, and misrepresentations of existing data that can’t possibly all be refuted in the limited time frame of the debate. It’s a technique that can put the science advocate on the defensive and keep them there, unable to refute everything but, even worse, forced to try and thus waste their limited time without promoting the affirming arguments supporting the science they are defending.
My opposition to the idea of debating cranks and my tendency to discourage people who approach me for advice on how to debate someone like Kirsch from actually debating someone like Kirsch aside, I must admit that I was nonetheless highly amused at how wildly successful Karan’s gambit had been. I don’t blame Karan a bit for gloating:
Karan was quite correct. Kirsch’s wanting only debaters with an h-index (which is a measure of publication number and citations in the scientific literature) above a certain arbitrary number sure looked like a classic example of moving the goalposts, which he appears to have continued to do:
Nor have Karan and Jon Guy been the only ones with this experience:
This brings us back to Dr. Canuck. Before discussing the Kirsch-Canuck kerfuffle, though, I have to note that Karan’s crew tried their best to meet Kirsch’s ever-changing conditions and demands, without much success:
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!)
Why did Kirsch go after Dr. Canuck?
I consider it odd—to say the least—that Kirsch’s encounter with Dr. Canuck, alone above all the encounters with other doctors and scientists on Twitter, is the one that got Kirsch so ticked off that he decided to try to dox and sue him. I mean, come on! So many doctors and scientists have been ruthlessly aiming torrents of much-deserved ridicule at Kirsch for his “debate me bro” antics, but he singles out Dr. Canuck? Why?
Let’s see what Kirsch himself says:
Tweets like Canuck’s are very damaging to my reputation.
Since leaving my job in high tech, I make money on people accepting the bets and losing. These are large bets, on the order of $1M. False and defamatory statements like this from a medical doctor tarnish my reputation making it more difficult for me to earn an income. Canuck has a large following of people (17K) who trust him making his statements even more damaging.
There is very clear malice involved. Instead of mitigating damages by admitting he was wrong, Canuck hid his tweets from view to make it harder for me to gather evidence.
I’m not really going to adjudicate Kirsch’s version of events versus everyone else’s, at least not much. Kirsch’s history leads me to consider it far more likely that Dr. Canuck and Jon Guy’s versions of events are far closer to what happened than Kirsch’s. Even if Kirsch’s version of events were correct, my first reaction to his statement above would be amazement at such a startling revelation. Think about it. Kirsch is basically admitting that his challenges to “debate” about and/or to bet on these “debates” on scientific questions related to COVID-19 and vaccines are how he makes money. (From my perspective, they’re his grift.) Moreover, Kirsch openly admits that he views statements like the ones in Dr. Canuck’s Tweets in which Dr. Canuck accuses him of not paying up after losing a bet as a hindrance to this grift!
Let’s unpack this a bit further, but before I do let me note that 17K followers is small compared to Kirsch’s following on Twitter, which numbers close to 334K, or almost 20 times Dr. Canuck’s follower count. In terms of social media reach, Dr. Canuck is a minor figure compared to Kirsch. (So am I, actually, although less so given that my follower count is almost one-fourth of Kirsch’s.) No I find it difficult to believe that Kirsch truly thinks that a pseudonymous physician on social media with a respectable but much smaller Twitter following poses an existential threat to his current business model because he accuses Kirsch of welshing on a bet.
I also laughed out loud when I read Kirsch’s lament that Dr. Canuck’s Tweets were so very “damaging” to Kirsch’s reputation. Why? Simple. Look at all the dates in those Tweets that I embedded. Most are from early May to, at the latest, early June. Now look at the date of my first post about Kirsch as a “debate me bro”: February 2022. Kirsch’s reputation as a pathetic goalpost moving “debate me bro” had solidified among science communicators, physicians, and scientists who had been paying attention to Kirsch long before Dr. Canuck added his voice to all the others ridiculing him for his antics. Even if Dr. Canuck’s statement were false (and my opinion is that it is not false, not even close), in brief, Kirsch has no reputation to ruin.
Coming back to Kirsch’s revelation about these bets and debate challenges being his business model, I have to note that there are a lot of holes in this revelation. I’m not the only one who noticed some of the obvious ones:
This is an excellent question. I am unaware of a single instance in which one of Kirsch’s challenges to bet was accepted, Kirsch won, and the loser had to pay up. Yet Kirsch makes it sound as though this happens all the time. I can’t find an example, though. It’s possible I missed it and I’d be happy to amend this post if I’m in error, but there doesn’t appear to be a single example that I can find. Moreover, Kirsch is rich. He’s been rich since the 1980s. He doesn’t need the money. Why would he humiliate himself in search of such tiny payouts betting random scientists and doctors with medium-to-large social media followings? It really can’t be about the money, and it strains credibility to think that a few Tweets by Dr. Canuck could affect Kirsch’s income. Or could they, just not in the way that Kirsch claims?
What are these debate challenges and bets really all about?
One thing I noticed while perusing Kirsch’s Substack is that it is now more difficult to determine how many paid subscribers a Substack writer has, but I found it:
And here’s the subscription cost:
So let’s do some quick and dirty calculations to get a range of how much money Kirsch makes. At the low end, if he were to have 10,000 subscribers, all of them annual subscribers, that would be:
10,000 x $50 = $500,000.
Take out Substack’s 10% cut plus the 3% charged to process credit card purchases, and our estimate for Kirsch’s minimum yearly Substack income is $435,000. That’s some righteous bucks.
But wait, it could be so much more! Let’s say that Kirsch has the maximum number of subscribers that could still be called “tens of thousands,” which I’ll guess to be 95,000, assuming it would just round to 100,000 after that. Let’s further assume that all of his subscribers are monthly, which would be 12 x $5 = $60/year per subscriber. That becomes:
95,000 x $60 = $5,700,000
Take out Substack’s cut and the credit card fees, and what’s left is a cool $4,959,000. Even more righteous bucks! Putting it all together, I bet that Kirsch is likely to be earning at least well over a million dollars a year, if not two or three million, from just his Substack alone. True, he says he donates it to support “our cause,” but any money that he can donate from his Substack income is money that doesn’t have to come from his own wealth or that he doesn’t have to raise another way.
My estimates are in line with those made in a recent article on the most trafficked Substacks—which, unfortunately, includes Kirsch’s at #25—which estimates that Kirsch is making at least $500K/year from his Substack, which sounds about right to me, and might be making as much as just shy of $5 million/year. Unfortunately for anyone interested in public health, the article reports that Substack has “become a lucrative revenue stream for writers with fringe views,” and that “Covid-19 vaccine sceptics Robert Malone, Steve Kirsch, Alex Berenson and Joseph Mercola all appear among the most lucrative Substacks.” Because of course they do.
Doxxing and legal thuggery: Features, not bugs
So why does Kirsch do it? Why does he make such a fool of himself so regularly in search of reputable scientists and physicians to pit himself against—or pit some of his stable of cranks, quacks, and conspiracy theorists against?
I can only speculate, but I suspect that two things are at play, each synergizing with the other. The first is ego and arrogance. Kirsch strikes me as one of those tech bros who thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room, which jibes with this news story about him, in which a colleague describes him as someone who is “very smart” and “knows he is very smart,” but also adds that sometimes he “behaves like he thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room, whether he is or isn’t.” The overall vibe I’ve gotten from Kirsch is that of someone who, even though he’d been very successful over the four decades before the pandemic, still harbored an inferiority complex and really, really hates being told that he’s wrong, no matter what it’s about. I also sense a great deal of hubris, someone who thinks he can learn enough about any topic to be as adept as experts who’ve spent their lives studying a topic, just by reading about it and talking to experts who will put up with him.
Unfortunately, those very same characteristics are likely incentivized by the realities of Substack, where, as you can see from the article I cited, the most extreme science-denying conspiracy content tends to be the most richly rewarded. In other words, it’s difficult not to suspect that Kirsch’s challenges have a performative element to them designed to maximize traffic to his Substack and thereby potentially increase subscriber numbers. Moreover, his challenges are entirely consistent with his personality, as evidenced by this encounter with biostatistician Jeffrey Morris:
In September, Kirsch emailed Morris asking him to estimate the maximum number of deaths caused by vaccines. “Who knows,” Morris replied. “But not 150K. And not zero.”
Kirsch immediately forwarded the exchange to me and, I suspect, other journalists. “BOMBSHELL: Top biostats professor admits we have NO CLUE # of people KILLED by COVID vaccines,” he wrote. “He thinks # killed by vax could be anywhere between 0 and 150K people dead.”
Those who know Kirsch say this is a typical tactic. He’s adept at debate, rapidly shifting the premise of a conversation to put the other person on the back foot.
“He may not be a good scientist, but he’s smart,” says WVU’s Feinberg. “He’s very convincing. He might be a good snake oil salesman.”
I experienced this myself when, on one call, we discussed several studies. Kirsch told me that “meta-analyses are a higher level of evidence than randomized controlled trials.” When I responded that meta-analyses are only as good as the data they are based on, he said “I’d like to understand your source on that, because I can’t find a source that says a phase 3 trial is greater evidence than a meta-analysis.”
This is all very consistent with my experiences with Kirsch., as was this self-characterization by Kirsch himself:
When you characterize me, you need to say that Steve Kirsch doesn’t go with majority votes on interpreting data.
No kidding, Steve! (He doesn’t go with rational methods of interpreting data, either.)
No matter how many times I and others have tried to explain to him, for example, that his Internet surveys (e.g., one purporting to show that vaccines cause autism) are not evidence of anything because the samples are fatally biased based on their consisting of a subset of his readers and fans, who are likely to be antivax and believe a number of other conspiracy theories, he will not accept that. Indeed, he just posted another Internet survey purporting to be looking for a correlation between vaccination and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), when a number of rigorous studies have found no correlation; indeed, it is possible that vaccination is protective against SIDS. Basically, it appears to me that once Kirsch gets an idea in his head and cherry picks enough data to convince himself that it’s true, no science, rational arguments, data, or experts will change his mind.
Unfortunately for Dr. Canuck (and everyone else), no one should be surprised by Kirsch’s devolution from just a rich antivax crank into a bully utilizing legal thuggery in the form of threats of libel suits to silence critics who have vexed him. Again, this is a feature, not a bug, when it comes to cranks like Kirsch. Legal thuggery of this sort is a favored technique used by disinformation merchants to silence critics, so much so that I even have a tag for it because it’s so common. I’ve listed a number of examples that I’ve encountered over the years but they’re worth listing again:
I encounter my first example of this sort of legal thuggery in 2000, when I learned of Holocaust denier David Irving’s frivolous libel lawsuit against Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, which is recounted here and in two books, History on Trial: My Day In Court With a Holocaust Denier by Lipstadt herself and Lying About Hitler: History, the Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial, as well as in the 2016 film Denial starring Rachel Weisz. Examples go way back, such as when cancer quack Stanislaw Burzynski hired a media manager who issued threats to sue Rhys Morgan over his criticism of Burzynski’s pseudoscience. Fortunately, they backfired. Then there was antivaccine icon Andrew Wakefield’s lawsuit against Brian Deer, the investigative reporter who discovered Wakefield’s fraud and conflicts of interest. It failed. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop it from being the central focus of a recent uncritical documentary. Then, of course, there was antivaccine grande dame Barbara Loe Fisher’s frivolous lawsuit against Paul Offit. It, too, was dismissed. Other quacks and cranks indulging in this behavior include Dr. Joseph Chikelue Obi’s legal threats against Andy Lewis, Rev. Lisa Sykes and Seth Sykes attempt to subpoena Kathleen Seidel, HIV/AIDS denialist Matthias Rath suing Ben Goldacre, quack Andreas Moritz suing a student over a blog criticizing his quackery, the British Chiropractic Association’s lawsuit against Simon Singh, the frivolous lawsuit directed at Steve Novella, which was also lost, and, of course, cancer naturopathic quack Colleen Huber suing ex-naturopath turned skeptic Britt Hermes for criticism of Huber’s quackery.
Again, legal thuggery of the sort that Kirsch is engaged in is a feature, not a bug. So is doxxing. Indeed, antivaxxers are so shameless about it that they have even doxxed children. Even 18 years ago, it had been less than six months from my starting my first blog to my being doxxed and a cancer quack sending complaints about me to my department chair and cancer center director, and I myself have been at the receiving end of harassment and legal thuggery as well, dating back to 2005. Indeed, over the last 19 years I’ve lost track of the number of times that antivaxxers or other quacks have harassed me at work by complaining to my department chair and cancer center director (and sometimes the dean of my medical school) for my blogging. I won’t bore you by recounting the details yet again. If you’re interested, they’re recounted here and here, among other places. I will also add that I’ve also been sued by a chronic Lyme disease quack, along with my fellow bloggers at my not-so-super-secret other blog. He lost, but it took funding and time to get the case dismissed.
I’m fortunate, though. I survived the early attacks and am now at the point of thoroughly not having much in the way of any Fs left to give. I won’t lie and say that the possibility of a frivolous libel suit by someone like Kirsch suits doesn’t worry me, but having been through one I’m a lot less anxious about the possibility than I was before the chronic Lyme disease quack sued me. More than likely, Dr. Canuck doesn’t have that deep well of dealing with harassment. He did the wise thing and disengaged. Unfortunately, he also felt the need to deactivate his Twitter account, which, as understandable as his decision was, really saddened me. I hope he reaches out to people who can help him. (My contact information is here.)
In retrospect, it should have been obvious that Kirsch would eventually end up in the pathetic place that he is, a sad litigious bully who uses his Substack and Twitter accounts to send his flying monkeys off to swarm and dox physicians like Dr. Canuck. It is also not difficult to predict that some of those flying monkeys, having read Kirsch’s discussion and the crumbs he’d found out about where Dr. Canuck lives and practices medicine, might start harassing the practices of family practice docs in the area where Dr. Canuck practices, thinking that they’ve found Dr. Canuck. That, too, is a feature, not a bug. Cranks tend not to care overmuch about collateral damage, particularly if that collateral damage is suffered by their hated out group, in this case physicians and medical personnel.
For all their claims of being “persecuted” and, above all, “silenced,” cranks are all too eager to silence those they don’t like, and they use every tool at their disposal to accomplish this end, particularly if they are rich and can easily afford lawyers. Kirsch was always going to end up here, and now he’s made it. He’s silenced Dr. Canuck (for now) for doing nothing more than exposing him for what he is. I can only hope that this is only a temporary situation, even as I accept that it might not be.
Either way, though, I’ll still be here.
Unfortunately, Steve Kirsch has apparently been successful doxxing Dr. Canuck. and has updated his Substack with a screenshot that includes a photo and practice address, as well as an NPI record with phone number and alternate address. I normally wouldn’t encourage anyone to visit Kirsch’s Substack, but I make an exception in this case so that you can report him for violating Substack’s TOS by doxxing. In these cases in which cranks “out” pseudonymous social media users, I also always worry about the possibility of a situation in which a mistake has been made and the identification is incorrect. It’s not as though a bully (e.g., someone like Kirsch) hasn’t incorrectly “outed” the wrong person behind a pseudonymous social media account before, leading to harassment of the wrong person. Kirsch is very much the sort of person who would make such a mistake.
In any event, if his doxxing has outed the correct person, rest assured that I and many science advocates have Dr. Canuck’s back. We also know where he can turn to find legal assistance if Kirsch goes through with his threat of a frivolous lawsuit.
Here are the relevant links to report the doxxing to Substack:
The NPI profile has a phone number. Here are the content guidelines.
Given how much money Kirsch makes for Substack with his newsletter, I doubt they’ll do much, if anything, about it, but you never know. It’s worth a shot. At the very least, it’ll force Kirsch to defend his actions, which might annoy him. Maybe he’ll even learn something from it, although I doubt it. As I said above, my experience with him leads me to conclude that he is basically unteachable.
ADDENDUM #2 (June 15, 2023, 8:30 AM):
Kirsch has responded. I didn’t bother to read it last night because, as has been an unfortunately habit of mine over the last several months, I had fallen asleep on the couch and didn’t learn about it until around 1 AM, when I woke up, let the dogs out, and went upstairs to bed. That’s when I learned about it, because, stupid me, I checked my social media feeds before crashing. In any event, I certainly wasn’t going to bother with Kirsch then. Background aside, let’s just say that Kirsch’s response is even weaker than his usual responses. Dorit Reiss briefly summarized its flaws last night in a comment below, and she’s spot on.
I might have more to say in a future post, but, on the other hand, why bother? Kirsch claims couldn’t possibly have doxxed Dr. Canuck because he only wanted his information so that he could serve him papers for a defamation suit, which brings up the question: If that was the case, then why did Kirsch post Dr. Canuck’s real name, practice address, and NPI record (with telephone number) just as soon as he had discovered it? He couldn’t wait to trumpet the information to his followers! He claims that his motivation was not to punish or silence Dr. Canuck. Oh, really? The very purpose of libel suits is to punish (financially, of course) and thereby silence speech that is defamatory, assuming that the court rules in your favor. Certainly trumpeting Dr. Canuck’s real identity to his 225K Substack readers and >330K Twitter followers belies his claim that he only wanted to know Dr. Canuck’s name and contact information so that he could serve him papers for a lawsuit is belied by the rapidity with which he announced the information to the world as soon as he’d learned it. Is Kirsch deluded or lying? I don’t know. Take your pick and make your own judgment.
Kirsch also goes on about how his SIDS survey was “was done in consultation with very respected epidemiologists.” I laughed out loud at that one. Why does he not reveal who these “very respected epidemiologists are”? My guess is probably because they are likely Brian Hooker, James Lyons-Weiler, and/or some other hack self-taught crank “epidemiologist(s)” unknown outside of antivax circles. But, hey, Mr,. Kirsch. You can prove me wrong. Reveal who these “epidemiologists” who helped you design your questionnaire are!
I might have to blog about this later this week. We’ll see. There’s so much more, such as how Kirsch pretends that he’s never moved the goalposts by just denying that the clear examples of his moving the goalposts were actually moving the goalposts.