So now Steve Kirsch wants to “collaborate” with vaccine scientists, claiming that the “best way to settle an argument about ‘what the science says’ is with a collaborative experiment”? Maybe I should, as Kirsch likes to say a lot, “talk about it.” First, however, a little background is in order to explain why I find Kirsch’s offer to “collaborate” so risibly silly.
Steve Kirsch is a tech bro who early in the pandemic the COVID-19 Early Treatment Fund (CETF) in order to fund research into off-label treatments for COVID-19 using existing drugs already having FDA approval for other diseases. Unfortunately, his reactions to the results of his project, the good and the bad, were a major foreshadowing for the antivax heel turn that he would later take. He refused to believe the results of a study funded by CETF that found that hydroxychloroquine had no value treating COVID-19 and turned on the investigators, accusing them of poor study design and statistical errors. Even for an early promising result with the antidepressant fluvoxamine, Kirsch didn’t seem to understand that preliminary results are often overturned by later, larger and more rigorous clinical trials and hectored his scientific advisory board to stop being so cautious in its statements about fluvoxamine and to promote it. It wasn’t long before Kirsch was weaving conspiracy theories about how “they” were “suppressing cures” like ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine, and fluvoxamine and his scientific advisory board all resigned in frustration. This was the first example of how he collaborated with scientists after the pandemic hit.
It didn’t take long before Kirsch went completely off the deep end and became a hard core conspiracy theorist about COVID-19 vaccines. By 2021 Kirsch was promoting ivermectin as a miracle cure (with fluvoxamine) for COVID-19. By May 2021 he was claiming that COVID-19 vaccines impair female fertility (they don’t), and by. September 2021 he was falsely claiming that the mRNA vaccines kill more people than they save—150,000 killed by the vaccines—!using some truly risible arguments to claim that grew by May 2022 to a claim that mRNA vaccines have killed over a half a million people while only saving ~25,000. By 2022, Kirsch had developed a penchant for challenging critics of COVID-19 quackery and antivax misinformation to live public debates, a penchant that leads him to annoy the crap out of legitimate scientists with fatuous “challenges” conveyed by email and publicly on his Substack. (I’ve been at the receiving end of a few.) Equally predictably, Kirsch’s anti-COVID-19 vaccine variety of antivaccinationism soon expanded to encompass “old school” antivax conspiracy theories, such as the CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory featured in the 2016 antivaccine propaganda “documentary” VAXXED (even more recently resurrected by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.) and, of course, the long debunked claim that childhood vaccines cause autism, all while using legal bullying and doxxing to silence critics.
It is the “old school” antivax claim that vaccines cause autism that has led to Kirsch’s sudden desire to sing Kumbaya and bring “vaccine skeptics” and vaccine scientists together to…prove that vaccines cause autism? Well, that’s not how he puts it, but his history suggests that’s what he means. Here’s how he starts out:
Important scientific questions like “do vaccines cause autism?” have been around for over 20 years.
Debates won’t change anything. Publishing more papers won’t change anything.
There is one way to change things: invite both sides to collaboratively design a series of experiments that they agree in advance will finally resolve the issue to the satisfaction of each side.
To keep things honest, everything will be in public view, and the experiments will be designed so they cannot be gamed by either side.
I’m glad to see that Kirsch seems to finally recognize that “debates won’t change anything.” Of course, his version of “debate” is the old antivax trope beloved not just by antivaxxers but by cranks of all stripes (e.g., creationists, quacks, etc.) the “live public debate,” which lets the crank put the defender of science on the defensive with rhetoric and sophistry, particularly Gish gallops, firehosing, citing obscure studies, misrepresenting studies, and other tricks that take far more time to refute than to trot out. I’m being snarky, of course, because Kirsch appears not to have backed off in the least from his grandstanding challenges to “debate.” Mentioning this, though, does put his sudden offer to “collaborate” with provaccine scientists into proper perspective.
He’s also almost correct that publishing more papers won’t change anything, but again not in the way he means. We already have huge amounts of well-designed studies, some very large, that have failed to find a whiff of a hint of a signal that vaccines (or vaccines that contained mercury) are associated with a detectably increased risk of autism. Publishing more negative studies—and, yes, they will be negative—won’t change antivax minds. Scientists have been publishing such studies for close to a quarter century, and each one is met by antivaxxers with either a collective yawn dismissing it as the product of big pharma, deceptive attacks on the methodology, demonization of the researchers, and/or appeals to anecdotes. This history, too, puts Kirsch’s sudden thirst to “collaborate” into perspective.
In particular, Kirsch framing his offer as wanting to “invite both sides to collaboratively design a series of experiments that they agree in advance will finally resolve the issue to the satisfaction of each side” might seem reasonable, but only if you’re a crank like Kirsch. There are not “two sides” to the issue of whether vaccines cause autism, at least not two scientifically equal sides—or even sides that are roughly equal (or, come to think of it, are somewhere in the same order of magnitude). Such an offer to bring together adherents to rival scientific hypotheses to “collaborate” might make sense when both of the two hypotheses have a lot of evidence to support them, but it’s still unclear which hypothesis best explains existing evidence. What Kirsch is proposing, whether he realizes it or not, is akin to “bringing together” flat earthers to collaborate with geologists and astronomers to design experiments to determine once and for all if the earth is round or flat.
As is typical for Kirsch, he can’t resist wasting no time in making a private challenge public, in this case by publishing his email “offer to collaborate” on his Substack. One notes right away the—shall we say?—asymmetry in the scientists as defined by Kirsch
|“Pro-vaccine” (To: line)||“Antivaccine” (cc: line)|
|Stanley Plotkin||James Lyons-Weiler|
|Paul Offit||Aaron Siri|
|Peter Hotez||Del Bigtree|
|Martin Kulldorff||Paul Thomas|
|Jay Bhattacharya||Andrew Wakefield|
|Vinay Prasad||Anthony Mawson|
|Tracy Beth Høeg||Brian Hooker|
|Christine Stabell Benn||Chris Martenson|
|Greenland Sander||Clare Craig|
|Peter Marks||Norman Fenton|
I had some trouble deciding how to classify a lot of these; so I more or less accepted that anyone in the cc: line was considered to be on Kirsch’s side, given his brag that they are “his friends” in the email. Obviously, Andrew Wakefield, Anthony Mawson, James Lyons-Weiler, Brian Hooker, Del Bigtree, Aaron Siri, and Paul Thomas are all “old school” hardcore “vaccines cause autism” antivaxxers, as regular readers will immediately recognize. Chris Martenson, Clare Craig, and Norman Fenton are clearly “new school” anti-COVID-19 antivaccine, while Harvey Risch was a hydroxychloroquine promoter early in the pandemic. (I haven’t paid much attention to the evolution of his views since.) I also couldn’t help but point out that Del Bigtree and Aaron Siri are not scientists, nor is Chris Martenson, former pharmaceutical financial analyst and founder of Peak Prosperity turned COVID-19 conspiracy theorist. Although it is clear that Wakefield, Mawson, Lyons-Weiler, Hooker, Bigtree, and Thomas all believe that vaccines cause autism, I am less sure about Martenson, Craig, Risch and Fenton, although Fenton has of late seemed receptive to the idea.
As for the “provaccine” side in the To: header, Kirsch’s only criteria seem to be to lump people who are just not as antivax as he is in with a handful of real vaccine advocates. Indeed, only three of the ostensibly provaccine side can be unequivocally truly be classified as truly provaccine: Stanley Plotkin, Paul Offit, and Peter Hotez. Martin Kulldorff, Jay Bhattacharya, Vinay Prasad, and Tracy Beth Høeg have turned out to be anti-COVID-19 vaccine. While some of these have started to echo “old school” antivax tropes—e.g., “we don’t need to vaccinate children because they are at such low risk”; provaccine and promask advocates have an “irrational fear” of disease; “natural immunity” is superior; public health officials deserve punishment—they still don’t believe that vaccines cause autism. I will note that in the case of Dr. Vinay Prasad, his denial is rather lukewarm, basically that RFK Jr. hasn’t presented good evidence for a link, but he nonetheless, at least as of now, appears not to accept the “old school” antivax conspiracy theory that vaccines cause autism. (I predict that this will change as audience capture pulls him further and further down the antivax rabbit hole.) Finally, I know Christine Stabell Benn from her appearance with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his “urgency of normal” roundtable—never a good look for an ostensibly “provaccine” scientist or physician. In other words, many of the “provaccine” doctors chosen by Kirsch are arguably—shall we say?—not exactly provaccine. In his offer to “collaborate,” Kirsch appears to have stacked the deck.
Sander Greenland is an interesting case. I put him in the provaccine side because that’s how Kirsch clearly views him. However, Greenland was co-author of a widely publicized and very bad paper looking at “serious adverse events of special interest” due to COVID-19 vaccines that seemed custom-designed to make the vaccines look as dangerous as it could. More importantly, Kirsch likely does not know—or maybe he does—that this article was not Greenland’s first antivax rodeo. Indeed, way, way, way back in the day—15 years ago!—he was an expert witness for the test cases in the Autism Omnibus proceedings, who supported the claim of a link between vaccines that contained the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal and an increased risk of autism with bad statistical arguments. On reconsideration, perhaps I should have put Greenland in the antivaccine column, regardless of how Kirsch views him.
So let’s see what Kirsch proposes:
I love the part where Kirsch characterizes himself as an “independent journalist” and then brags about being “friends” with the folks on the cc: line as well as with RFK Jr. With amusement, I note that Kirsch has not always been so careful as to bcc: RFK Jr. on emails to people…like me. Be that as it may, Kirsch is more like an independent advocate and crank. What he does resembles journalism only in that he writes words on a website and not much else.
Let me just respond to Kirsch’s proposal to collaborate in a way that, I daresay, none of the small number of truly provaccine scientists on the list would be so blunt as to do. Collaborating with antivaxxers to design a study like this would be akin to how Mark Crislip likes to characterize “integrative medicine” (or, as I like to call the pseudodiscipline, “integrating” quackery and pseudoscience with science-based medicine):
If you integrate fantasy with reality, you do not instantiate reality. If you mix cow pie with apple pie, it does not make the cow pie taste better; it makes the apple pie worse.
Adding a bunch of antivax cranks, quacks, and pseudoscientists to a group of scientists to study whether vaccines cause autism will not make them and their previous “science” any less antivax pseudoscience and quackery, but it will contaminate any scientific protocol that is produced by the effort. I’m sure that Peter Hotez and Paul Offit likely ignored Kirsch’s offer, while I suspect that Stanley Plotkin was probably puzzled by it, given his age and lack of online presence. I wonder, though, how Jay Bhattacharya, Vinay Prasad, Martin Kulldorff, Tracy Beth Høeg, and Christine Stabell Benn reacted to this offer to “collaborate” on the design of a study to answer once and for all the question of whether vaccines cause autism. (Never mind that it’s been answered quite conclusively again and again over the last quarter century.) Their turn to anti-COVID-19 antivaccine views notwithstanding, they all still appear to view themselves as “provaccine,” which is perhaps why Kulldorff reacted so negatively to claims that vaccines cause autism:
This lead to this hilarious rant by Kirsch:
I was amused, for the simple reason that at the time of this Tweet, RFK Jr. was all hot to “debate” Peter Hotez on Joe Rogan’s podcast. The fact that he found excuses to demur when challenged by Martin Kulldorff tells you all you need to know about his original challenge to Hotez. It was performative, not substantive, as is the case with effectively all such “challenges” to “debate” by cranks. In brief, Kulldorff was just too small a fish for RFK Jr. to bother with.
I’m almost touched by the seeming naïvété of Kirsch’s faith that just bringing together his group of cranks with some real scientists will produce a plan for a study to answer any scientific question once and for all. Even if such a plan were produced and weren’t irredeemably tainted by the pseudoscience of the cranks helping to design it, there would still be the issue of finding funding for the study, which would no doubt cost millions of dollars given the sample sizes likely to be required, getting it approved by an IRB, and then actually doing the study and analyzing its results. Given that we already have more than adequate evidence to reject the hypothesis that vaccines cause autism, it would be an utter waste of money and effort. Maybe Kirsch knows that, but I fear that he really doesn’t.
Also, it’s not as though this sort of thing hasn’t been tried before. Safeminds funded a study to test whether mercury in vaccines causes autism using a rhesus macaque monkey model. When the study came back negative, with no detectable association between mercury-containing vaccines and changes in brain anatomy associated with autism, the antivaxxers who funded the study turned on the investigators whom they had funded, calling for a “reanalysis” of their data and accusing them of “cherry picking” their data because the larger study didn’t agree with the results of a prior pilot study, while avoiding publicizing the results of research they had helped to fund. (Sound familiar? It sounds a lot like what Kirsch did with the results of CETF-funded studies that disagreed with his preconceived beliefs, doesn’t it?) Meanwhile, 36 monkeys died for no reason.
On the other hand, Kirsch’s offer to “collaborate” might still also be about the grift, given this contact page recently pointed out to me:
If you want to book my time and ask me anything (including whether viruses exist) and get instant answers in an interactive Zoom call, use this link. You can purchase anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours by changing the quantity. After your purchase, you’ll be able to immediately book a mutually agreeable time slot by following the instructions. You control how the time is used so you can interrupt me at any time.
The paid link is meant for serious discussions.
You will need to be respectful at all times; I reserve the right to terminate the call if you are not. The point of this is to show that I’m not hiding from questions from anyone. If you’re willing to compensate me for my time, I’m perfectly happy to answer any questions. Now wouldn’t it be great if people on the pro-vax side of the debate were open to doing the same thing I am? But they aren’t and that’s the problem.
My consulting rate is currently set at $500 for 15 minutes. The price is set high enough to discourage people from using this method to waste my time and high enough that I don’t spend all day long in these calls.
And I’d be absolutely delighted to pay the exact same rate to any prominent “pro narrative” people to buy their time to defend the narrative.
I think I’ll pass as I wonder if anyone has ever been stupid enough to actually pay Kirsch this much to talk to him about COVID-19 or vaccines.
I will, however, suggest that if Kirsch really was so willing to pay the “exact same rate,” he probably owes me around $4,000 for the time I wasted trying to educate him by email about science when he emailed me about his antivaccine ideas. I don’t ever expect to see a penny, but will admit that the only way I could stomach talking to him would be at a $2,000/hour rate. On second thought, even that rate is too low to put up with his bloviating about his conspiracy theories and pseudoscientific beliefs.