Antivaccine nonsense Medicine

Antivax tech bro Steve Kirsch “reinvents” challenging a scientific consensus

Tech bro turned antivax propagandist Steve Kirsch reinvents how to challenge a scientific consensus, basically offering $1 million to reinvent the wheel.

Regulars have probably noticed that my contributions over the last couple of weeks have been pretty sparse. There’s a good reason for that—actually two. First, I had a grant application deadline to try to keep my lab funded. That, as you might understand, takes precedence over my little hobby here. Secondly, there was a family health issue that occurred last weekend, making finishing my grant even more difficult than usual. I won’t give any details other than to say that the family member is doing better and I submitted my grant application yesterday, which frees me to try to get back to normal around here next week. (It’s a holiday weekend here in the US, and not everything is back to normal yet.) However, given my time constraints, I couldn’t do anything too strenuous for today…at least not yet. That’s why it’s a good thing that there was a particularly brain dead post by tech bro turned rabid antivax propagandist Steve Kirsch that I’ve been meaning to address. In it, he “reinvents” what it means to challenge a scientific consensus…very, very badly. Indeed, he claims to have found A better way to challenge scientific consensus. See if you can find the flaws in his “reasoning” (such as it is) before I apply a dose of well-deserved not-so-Respectful Insolence to it.

If there’s one thing about Kirsch, of course, it’s that he’s very good at discovering very old antivax and science denialist arguments and techniques and then regurgitating them for his thousands of paid followers on Substack as though they were new and he had discovered them. So it is here, as you will see, with his method of “challenging” the current scientific consensus that vaccines do not cause all the horrors that he and other antivaxxers attribute to them. When last we left Kirsch, he had finished blaming vaccines for turning kids gay and trans (also not a new antivax claim) after having incompetently used Excel to falsely claim that being vaccinated against COVID-19 makes one more likely to catch COVID-19. Such is the brain trust that wants to teach his followers how to “challenge” a scientific consensus. I could, of course, just tell you how it’s done, as it’s a topic that I’ve written about before on a number of occasions, but I thought I’d just amuse you first by quoting Kirsch:

In this article, I suggest a simple way to resolve scientific disagreements on important issues.

The method is simple:

  1. The two parties mutually agree on a series of experiments to resolve the conflict.
  2. The experiments are designed so the results are reproducible, for example, by having several independent efforts doing the same thing.
  3. Win or lose, the “mainstream view” party (who should be led by a prominent scientist in the field being explored) agrees to write up the results of the experiment(s) and submit it to a prominent peer-reviewed technical journal.
  4. The “mainstream” party gets a large monetary award (a research grant) upon publication. The more prestigious the author, the higher the reward.
  5. We pay all costs in addition to the reward for people’s time and to fund the experiment(s).
  6. The idea is to make this “an offer that nobody can refuse.”

Ah, yes. So seemingly reasonable. So seemingly fair, right? Well, not quite, but first let’s see Kirsch’s example, which should show you right away just how, under a facade of what seems on the surface to be reasonable and science-based is something that scientists recognize right away as being vacuous and deceptive. Kirsch chooses an old antivax example, one that antivaxxers have been deceptively claiming for the last three decades:

Suppose we want to prove whether vaccines cause autism.

The two parties could agree on two experiments and how they are carried out such as:

  1. Gather data from a randomly selected list of parents of autistic kids which looks at the date the parents first noticed symptoms of ASD vs. the date of the most recent vaccination prior to the diagnosis.
  2. Gather the same data from doctors who treat autistic kids.

The parties agree in advance what success (for each hypothesis) looks like.

The parties agree that if both experiments agree with each other on deciding the question that they will publicly accept the result as scientific truth going forward, until such time as there is more persuasive data showing otherwise.

On the surface, this seems to be a reasonable way to challenge the scientific consensus, but only if you are unaware of certain rather important things. A scientific consensus—any scientific consensus about any scientific question—by its very nature, is a conclusion that is based upon the best available data and experiments. Basically, Kirsch is ignoring all of the copious evidence from basic science, clinical studies, and epidemiology that already strongly supports the scientific consensus that childhood vaccination is not associated with an increased chance of being diagnosed with autism. It’s not as though this is a new question. It’s something that’s been studied many times and often going back, yes, nearly thirty years. He is “challenging” those defending that consensus, in effect, to reinvent the wheel by doing more experiments that are, in light of the huge body of existing evidence, unnecessary and quite possibly even unethical if they involve, for instance, anything resembling a randomized placebo-controlled trial that would randomize children to a group unprotected against infectious diseases by vaccines.

In fact, I’d argue that Robert F. Kennedy, as much of an antivax crank as he is, seems to understand this principle, which is why when seven years ago he and antivax actor Robert De Niro offered a prize of $100,000 to any scientist or journalist who can prove that vaccines don’t cause autism, he didn’t insist on new experiments, but rather challenged scientists thusly:

We hereby issue a challenge to American journalists (and others) who have been assuring the public about the safety of mercury in vaccines. We will pay $100,000 to the first journalist, or other individual, who can point to a peer-reviewed scientific study demonstrating that thimerosal is safe in the amounts contained in vaccines currently being administered to American children and pregnant women.

At the time, I called this the “one true study” gambit, in which a crank challenges scientists to point to one study that proves the scientific consensus. As I have pointed out many times, there is rarely, if ever, any one single scientific study or observation that by itself can conclusively demonstrate a scientific consensus. That’s not how science works! It’s almost never the case that any one scientific study settles a scientific question.

What Kirsch proposes might be reasonable for a scientific question for which a scientific consensus has not yet formed, a scientific question for which the evidence is indeed conflicting in which there are two (or a small number) of competing hypotheses that are roughly similar in likelihood of explaining the phenomenon. Might be. I say “might” because, even then, in general, resolving scientific controversies is something that happens in the scientific literature and at scientific conferences, as scientists supporting competing hypotheses publish and report the results of their studies and experiments, while the scientific community decides which hypothesis is most consistent with the totality of the scientific evidence published on the subject.

Moreover, these sorts of questions are not resolved by, in essence, a bet or a prize. Once again, Kirsch reveals his obsession with monetary rewards in the form of bets and prizes. You probably remember that his go-to signature move has long been to challenge legitimate scientists to dubious bets (or to challenge anyone at all who pushes back strongly enough against his antivax disinformation) in which the winner of a debate wins the bet. Given that he is wealthy, he often likes to set the monetary amount of the bet so high that few people can afford to take such a bet, the better to crow about how “no one will debate” him, the implication being that they are too afraid of losing. Of course, when the occasional brave soul actually does accept one of Kirsch’s performative challenges, his usual move is to find any way he can to avoid paying up for losing or put so many conditions on the “debate” that no sane person would accept.

Of course, Kirsch gives the game way by immediately going on to say:

If we set the reward at $1M and there are no takers, the question is resolved by default.

And to conclude:

The problem with challenging scientific consensus is that the party with the mainstream beliefs simply ignores anyone who challenges them.

So it’s up to the challengers to get their attention.

By providing a large monetary incentive to create and execute a set of mutually agreeable scientific experiments to answer the question, we may be able to make progress on these intractable issues which have been unresolved for decades.

What’s new here is large monetary incentives combined with a mutually agreeable set of experiments.

This resolves the issue under investigation definitively. 

Either: 1) the mainstream party accepts and we do the experiments or 2) the mainstream party refuses to engage in which case it is a tacit admission of defeat. 

Either way, there is finally resolution on each issue explored.

Again, that’s not how science works, particularly when there is a scientific consensus that has a huge amount of data supporting it, like the conclusion that childhood vaccines do not increase the risk of autism. Because a scientific consensus is established by many studies that usually include lines of evidence from different scientists and scientific disciplines that converge on a single conclusion, which becomes the scientific consensus, it generally requires a lot more than one experiment or study to overthrow it. While it is true that, in theory at least, a scientific consensus can be overthrown by a single study, that rarely happens, if only because a finding that is so anomalous compared to existing evidence is usually far more likely to be erroneous than it is to be correct, which is why scientists will demand replication before accepting it.

Here’s how a scientific is usually modified or rejected. It often starts with a single study (or group of studies) that cast doubt upon the existing consensus and lead to more studies that also cast doubt upon the consensus. Ultimately, the accumulation of new data and new experiments will end up leading scientists either (1) to modify the old consensus to account for the new evidence or (2) less commonly, to reject it in favor of a new consensus.

Finally, Kirsch has rediscovered a common crank technique to call the scientific consensus about any topic into question. As I documented in a previous post, bogus “challenges” or bets like his have long been the M.O. of cranks, be they antivaxxers, creationists, HIV/AIDS denialists, 9/11 Truthers, climate science denialists, and, yes, Holocaust deniers. But Kirch gonna Kirsch and act as though he were the first one to think of using large sums of money to cast doubt on the scientific consensus when real scientists, quite sensibly, recognized a rigged game and a trap when they see it. In reality, as usual, Kirsch is utterly unoriginal and not even that imaginative in regurgitating old science denial tropes and techniques. No one should take him seriously unless and until he can come up with some scientific evidence far more compelling than his usual poorly designed Internet surveys administered on his Substack. I won’t hold my breath waiting.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

28 replies on “Antivax tech bro Steve Kirsch “reinvents” challenging a scientific consensus”

And what if the mainstream accepts, but the cranks want madness from the protocol? Because they’re known for such a good understanding of ethical restraints on protocols, practicalities, and statistics

All I’m left thinking from his mindless rants is that it doesn’t take many brain cells to design an optical mouse.

The final problem with challenges like this is that frequently cranks have been involved in studies that test their hypotheses, fully expecting to be vindicated, only for the studies to disprove the cranks’ hypotheses, causing the cranks to reject the outcomes.
Despite what Kirsch says, cranks will not stick to the terms of the “agreement” when (and it will be when) the study proves them wrong.

Yeah, my immediate thought was that most of these were going to fail hard on the first step:

The two parties mutually agree on a series of experiments to resolve the conflict.

because frankly the only way there was going to be any agreement was in the admittedly possible event that Kirsch was too ignorant to realize he had agreed to something he couldn’t win. And you can absolutely guarantee that if anybody actually accepted this and it got through, Kirsch would claim he had been tricked. It’s not like he hasn’t done it before.

Kirsch is the epitome of “See? It’s so simple and obvious!” where the response is “Yes, it’s so simple and obvious that we tried it over a hundred hears ago and discovered it didn’t work, so we’ve moved on to things that actually do work now.” One of the extreme cases of assuming that he really is the smartest person in the room no matter what room he’s in…

Yes! I say this all the time about cranks—but not just cranks. You might remember physicists Paul Davies and Charles LIneweaver. About a decade ago they made a splash in the news for rediscovering an old theory about cancer and presenting as though it were a new idea. But they didn’t do just that. They were shocked when cancer biologists didn’t immediately appreciate what they thought was their brilliant insight, mainly because it was a 100 year old theory that had been rejected decades ago based on an accumulation of evidence. Basically, not knowing the basics of where oncologic science and clinical care has been led them down the path to an “obvious” insight that was indeed obvious—and wrong:

Last time I checked, a patent is no indication of the invention actually working (apart from perpetual motion machines, patents on which are no longer accepted without proof of function).

The sort of thing he submits are correctly referred to as “crank patents” in honor of their quality.

@ aairfcchaIdw56old,

Yes, I’ve combined aairfccha with Idw56old in that their respectful insolence is misdirected. If you don’t like the way the USPTO operates help change it. MJD wasn’t happy with the USPTO and wrote an article describing how office actions could be changed to support wide-reaching cancer research.

@ Orac,

Also, first-to-file patent law in the U.S. makes the teachings appear essentially free of experimental data. Can you write something about cancer and patents? Would be most interested in your perspective.

Right, they seek the “one study to rule them all” as if scientific discovery greatly resembles a fantasy novel.
AS Orac says, it’s more likely that accumulated studies in related fields support the basics. Moreover, it’s usually not just a few studies ( for vaccines/ autism like KiGGs and Anjali Jain et al) but many and the underlying brain/ genetic developmental work that shows what really does cause autism.

Because I survey anti-vax/ alt med contrarians like Kirsch, Wolf, Del, Null, Adams, RFK jr and other poseurs in depth, I can assure you that AFAIK, not one of them has had as much bio/ physio/ life science as I do. ( Several undergrad general plus several grad related to psych topics) yet they critique the whole world.

“Gather data from a randomly selected list of parents of autistic kids which looks at the date the parents first noticed symptoms of ASD vs. the date of the most recent vaccination prior to the diagnosis.”

Surely he’s already fallen at this hurdle? This is basically a survey type question, open to confirmation bias. It also assumes that one particular vaccination could be a trigger.

Maybe if he proposed the following of new births by professionals looking for signs of autism…..

Either way, this method of testing hypotheses has already been used with conspiracy theorists. They never hold up their end of the bargain.

I’m also wondering how much time Mr K thinks scientists have? Generally they’re going to be busy and not working for themselves. He’d have to find a person in financial charge of their own organisation, expert in this field, not particularly busy at the moment and keen on doing research that has already been done?

It’s also highly vulnerable to selection bias. Where do you recruit these parents? If you post in anti-vaccine sites, we know what these parents think.

There have been studies looking at time of vaccination and autism, but they have not relied on recollection of people, for good reason, as you point out, and they took random samples. Those studies did not find the link Kirsch imagines. E.g. for MMR –

More Steve Kirsch posturing. Most of the failings of this sort of challenge have already been made in the comments. Some points of emphasis.

Getting to the agreed protocol. My guess is the whole shebang would fail at this hurdle. Having attempted to discus experimental design with anti-vaxxers online, I am struck by how little they seem to know about appropriately testing hypotheses. The survey that Kirsch suggest is certainly not the way I might approach testing a hypothesis about vaccines and autism.

Goalpost moving. This is just about a national pastime among anti-vaxxers. If the result of the test was not to their liking, they would simply default on their part of the bargain through goalpost moving.

Testing ideas that have been tested over and over again. Who wants to do that? In fact on this particular point, I had a meeting with a funding body yesterday who want to give us far more research funding than Kirsch is offering in his challenge (add another 0 and then some). One of my comments to them about the proposed idea is that I don’t want to be addressing questions that I already know the answer to. Life has become too short to spend it re-inventing the wheel.

“Testing ideas that have been tested over and over again. Who wants to do that?”

It’s part of the antivax credo.

The science must be done over and over and over (and over) again until we get the results we want! And as incentive, here’s a wad of cash (grifters are motivated by money, so we figure everyone else is too).

That’s the essence of the latest “challenge”.

I was going to say that a million bucks doesn’t go far in the lab. (Heck, a million bucks doesn’t go far in the housing market around here.)

Like, maybe if you’re doing mostly survey work and not lab work it might go a little farther, but you’d have to pay the salaries of so many people just to collect, upload, store, sort and analyze the data that you’d easily spend more than a million dollars just setting up this mythical “study”.

“Oh, the opportunity to be yelled at by a mountain of anti-vaccine weirdos and end up in debt to add nothing to the existing body of knowledge? Sign me up!” Said no one.

Can anyone help me with Kirsch’s examples? Beyond all the issues with the “challenge”, I just fundamentally don’t understand what would even be going on in those examples.

In the first one, he wants to ask parents of kids with autism about when they first noticed ASD symptoms vs. the date of the most recent prior vaccination. He also wants to “gather the same data from doctors who treat autistic kids.” And then…??? Is the doctor retrospective data supposed to be some sort of control? Does he want to do some sort of statistical comparison between doctor reports and parent reports? I get the first part, and I get why it’s a terrible way to try to “prove” that vaccines cause/don’t cause autism, but I get why antivaxxers think otherwise. But what the heck is going on with the second part?

In the second example, he wants to “pick hospitals at random and look at the vaccination rates of people hospitalized for COVID vs. the flu.” And then…??? Does he want to do some sort of cross comparison? I’m really at a loss here how this would help answer “Did the COVID vaccines save lives?”, even given antivaxxer ideas about “proving” causation.

Well, in the first example, parents obviously know best, so if there’s a significant difference showing that doctors didn’t notice autism behaviors until much later, it means that doctors are stoopid and/or trying to cover up vaccine damage, which proves vaccines cause autism. Survey says!

The second example is a bit unclear, but if you got a mainstream view party (who should be led by a prominent scientist in the field being explored, i.e. Peter McCullough or Pierre Kory or really, anyone with a Substack who wears a “misinformation superspreader” t-shirt, and paid them a million dollars or even larger financial incentive to funnel hospital patient information to Steve Kirsch who would then “anonymize” the data, conduct surveys of his Twitter followers based on the data and construct Excel spreadsheets on survey results, everyone will then have to accept the outcome which will show that Covid vaccination makes you sicker and die, which resolves the question by default.

Pretty simple, really.

Many things are wrong with Kirsch’s ideas so I’ll just stick to one:
anti-vax parents “believe” that they know better and usually assert that autism “started” right after MMR ( 12-18 months)-the kids were fine before
BUT researchers observe signs much. much earlier than that ( Sally Ozonoff**) In fact when parents submitted videos to “prove” that their child was perfectly alright before the vaccines, trained observers saw obvious signs and the parents lost the case.

Anti-vaxxers usually believe that doctors know little compared to themselves so what is Kirsch trying to prove? Parents know BETTER?
Even before studies like Ozonoff’s, doctors measured boys’ heads in infancy. Why do you think they did that? Macrocephaly is an indicator. There are other signs and test results including signs in utero.,genetic tests, EEG.

But these people believe the child was autism free until 12-18 months.

** good articles about her work at UC Davis

At minimum, you should ask all parents (a sample of them). Then you get children without autism. How many of them are vaccinated ? And medical would be interesting, too.
German KiGGS study actually did that. I doubt that Kirsch accepts the results.

For cranks, any attention they receive is a positive outcome. “Debate me! Take me seriously! If you don’t, I declare victory by default!”

We spend a lot of time parsing words and sentences in law school, so I was struck by these conditions/limitations:

We hereby issue a challenge to American journalists (and others) who have been assuring the public about the safety of mercury in vaccines. We will pay $100,000 to the first journalist, or other individual, who can point to a peer-reviewed scientific study demonstrating that thimerosal is safe in the amounts contained in vaccines currently being administered to American children and pregnant women.

My understanding is there is no thimerosal in vaccines anymore (or at the top this “challenge” was made. So an experiment whose conclusion that can’t be falsified?
(Also, we look for vague words – what is his objective criteria for “is safe”? Safe for 99% of the population? 100%. What’s the definition of safe – few side effects? NO side effects?)

In related tomfoolery,,

Mike Adam is suing the US government, “overseas NGOs”, Big Tech, DoD, “google, Facebook, Twitter” ** for CENSORING him, NN, Brighteon et al. He is being silenced!

** note the archaic usage

“tomfoolery…note the archaic usage”

I vote to modernize our dictionaries by changing the spelling to mikefoolery.

He is being silenced!

I’m constantly amazed how much I hear from these clowns who have been silenced by every organization known to man. /snark

Well, they aren’t as much silenced as people in power are just ignoring the bs they spread. They should say no-one is listening to us and acting accordingly.

Like our biggest party in parlement, who’se leader says: “We are the biggest party, so things should go our way”. Well if 25% of the voters have voted for him, it means that 75% hasn’t voted for him. The second biggest party is completely ignored.

@ Renate:

I imagine that there’s another source for their existential angst than purely restriction of their freedom to express beliefs: since they were tossed off of social media ( former Twitter, FaceBook, YouTube, etc) they had to create their own channels as well as post on less restrictive -and less reality based outlets- like Rumble, Gettr, Gab.. all of which take money.

They have developed their own interactive social media that depends upon expensive support for “broadcast”, “publishing”, video services, storage et al. which used to be free when they utilised FaceBook etc. PRN often goes off “the air” because of dodgy tech support and The HighWire displays a group of workers at the beginning of each broadcast ( 6 or 8 people at consoles). NN now has incorporated their own AI / “information” service for faithful followers. Even though Mike has a background in computers I doubt that he does all the work himself. Restricted generic social media costs them money and access to a greater number of potential followers.

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