COVID-19 Pseudoauthorities

May 13, 2020

This is the fifth in a series of original articles on the COVID-19 pandemic by the Center for Inquiry as part of its Coronavirus Resource Center, which was created to help the public address the crisis with evidence-based information. Please check back periodically for updates and new information. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, so does the deluge of misinformation about the virus. Some of it is simply wrong information or projections that turned out to be flawed based on (necessarily) incomplete data and models. In other cases, the truth is muddied by rumors and conspiracy theories. 

Self-appointed epidemiology experts are legion on social media, though fortunately a recent NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll found that overall, most people most trust public health experts to give them accurate information on the outbreak, followed by state and local governments, news media, and—in last place—President Trump.

This raises a second, related issue: Who does the public consider a public health expert? Certainly among the most qualified and highest profile experts are medical doctors Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, who have been present at White House briefings. 

But there are other doctors (and “doctors”) who have taken to news and social media to offer their own opinions on the situation. Doctors, like anyone else, are entitled to their opinions and sometimes speak outside their expertise. In April, two physicians, Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi, called a press conference to discuss the results of just over 5,000 COVID-19 cases that had come through their urgent care centers and testing sites. Their conclusions: the virus was both more widespread and less dangerous than commonly assumed, and reopening businesses was the best course of action. Within days, public health experts refuted key points of the video, noting statistical errors and mistaken assumptions made by the doctors—as well as condemning the lack of peer review in their announcement. 

Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, and Dr. Drew

Around the same time, television doctors Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, and Dr. Drew came under fire for misinformed comments about COVID-19. After a video was made highlighting Dr. Drew Pinsky’s televised comments about the severity of the virus (repeatedly claiming, for example, that it was not as bad as influenza and that the average person was at greater risk of being hit by an asteroid than dying from COVID-19), Pinsky apologized. Retracting his comment that the concern was a “press-induced panic,” he said in a video that “I wish I had gotten it right, but I got it wrong.” 

Two Oprah Winfrey–promoted TV doctors also came under fire for their misinformed and misleading comments on the pandemic. Dr. Phil McGraw, better known as “Dr. Phil,” like Pinsky, compared death rates from common causes to COVID-19: “The fact of the matter is we have people dying, 45,000 people a year die from automobile accidents, 480,000 from cigarettes, 360,000 a year from swimming pools, but we don’t shut the country down for that, but yet we’re doing it for this?” After puzzled viewers took him to task, McGraw commented that “Last night I said we as a society have chosen to live with certain controllable deadly risk everyday, smoking, auto crashes, swimming and yes I know that those are not contagious, so probably bad examples.” 

Then Dr. Mehmet Oz, better known as “Dr. Oz,” went on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program and opined about the importance of reopening: 

Let’s start with things that are really critical to the nation, where we think we might be able to open without getting into a lot of trouble. I tell you, schools are a very appetizing opportunity. I just saw a nice piece in the Lancet arguing that the opening of schools may only cost us 2 to 3% in terms of total mortality. And, you know, that’s—any life is a life lost, but to get every child back into a school where they’re safely being educated, being fed and making the most out of their lives with a theoretical risk in the back side, it might be a trade-off some folks would consider.

Oz also promoted the drug hydroxychloroquine, touted by President Trump as a potential treatment for the virus, despite a lack of evidence. As the evidence for the efficacy failed to materialize, Oz later backtracked, suggesting that randomized clinical trials should dictate whether the drug is prescribed. 

To their credit, these three since apologized and in some cases repudiated or “clarified” their remarks. Others, however, have taken the opposite tack and doubled down, including conspiracy promoters Kelly Brogan and Judy Mikovits. 

Goopster Kelly Brogan

Kelly Brogan is a “holistic psychiatrist” who has gathered a huge following online for her dangerous theories about COVID-19 that she has made clear in interviews and a series of videos. 

Brogan promotes conspiracy theorist David Icke—who claims to be the son of God and that Obama is a Reptilian (when not spewing racist tropes). As The New York Times noted:

Mr. Icke draws on ideas from the anti-Semitic pamphlet The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, argues that Holocaust denial should be taught in schools and that Jews are responsible for organizing anti-Semitic attacks, and calls the Talmud a racist document. In other writings, he has posited that a cabal of a child-sacrificing, bloodthirsty lizard people, many of whom are Jewish, are secretly running the world.

In a March 20 post, Brogan encouraged her followers to “listen through to the end [of an interview with Icke] to learn how to remain calm and manifest the impossible.” Much of what Brogan says is New Age platitudes and phrases that give the illusion of wisdom but instead offer merely an incoherent jumble of anti-establishment ideas.

Regarding COVID-19, while the world is concerned with the virus, she states that in fact “there is potentially no such thing as the coronavirus.” It’s possible that the “mainstream media” is right, she acknowledges, but she encourages her audience to “try on other narratives” to see what view fits their personal worldviews.

We have the authority to choose the story that empowers our body with wisdom, quiets our nervous system, and affords us the opportunity to smile with a deep knowing that everything is unfolding exactly as it should to serve a collective return to love. I hope to help you make that choice.

Brogan continues, “suggesting the possibility that the US government is planning to ‘link our passports with our vaccination records’ as a method of gaining ‘totalitarian governmental control not unlike the divide-and-conquer dehumanization agendas that preceded the Holocaust.’” Brogan is also associated with Gwyneth Paltrow’s New Age company Goop. It may come as little surprise that Brogan has misstated her credentials. On her website she claimed that she was board certified in psychiatry and psychosomatic medicine/consultation psychiatry, but a search of records found that she was not; after an investigation by The Daily Beast, Brogan quietly deleted the references to her certifications. 

Brogan continues to use her social media platforms to promote COVID-19 pseudoscience. For example, she advises her followers, “If you have any questions or concerns surrounding the mainstream narrative about COVID please visit this website to hear from clinicians, researchers & health experts, from around the world, interrogating the mainstream narrative around the pandemic:” 

The page (pictured below to save you a click and to not inflate its search engine profile) describes their position: 

We believe the crisis represents a world-changing opportunity to expose and transform antiquated ideologies that restrict health freedom. Germ theory is a scientifically bankrupt paradigm based in warfare models of pathogenic invasion. This theory has been leveraged as an instrument for geopolitical and social control—largely in the form of a vaccination agenda—to subdue the populace through coerced and forced bodily penetration and associated disability, mortality, and surveillance. As a result, conventional Western medicine functions as a sort of religion based on consensus assumptions and dogmatic medical monotheistic posturing. At its core, this approach is not salugenic or scientific and thus violates its stated ethical parameters around informed consent, beneficence, and an uncompromised evidence base. We believe that citizens should be free to exercise their natural right to practice medicine as they see fit—in retention both of bodily sovereignty and civil liberties. To that end, we orient ourselves around the foundational premises that the body is inherently wise, that symptoms are meaningful, and that radical healing is eminently possible when we align with the earth and honor our place in the natural world.

The turgid prose and pseudoscientific jargon is a big red flag (and it’s a bit surprising that the word quantum doesn’t appear) but challenges the basics of everything we know about medicine. Germ theory is wrong (and promoted in service of a “vaccination agenda”), the idea of viral infection is flawed, and so on. It’s quite a conspiracy rabbit hole, and the only other comparable COVID-19 conspiracy rabbit hole is probably the one promoted by Dr. Judy Mikovits and the Plandemic video. 

Judy Mikovits and Plandemic

The highest profile and most recent pseudoscientific media sensation about COVID-19 is a YouTube video for an (apparently) upcoming documentary titled Plandemic, focused on a former virologist named Judy Mikovits. She claims that the virus was somehow planned (hence the title “pun”) and offers a confused, conspiracy-laden theory about the outbreak laced with some personal grievances.

As the Washington Post reported:

When Judy Mikovits co-wrote a 2009 research paper that linked the mysterious condition known as chronic fatigue syndrome to a retrovirus that came from mice, thousands of sick patients hoping for relief rallied behind her. The scientific riddle was solved, they thought. Less than two years later, those hopes were dashed when follow-up studies failed to replicate the findings and the respected journal Science retracted the paper. Researchers posited that the study’s inaccurate conclusions were the result of contamination of the lab samples, and the theory that a virus might be the source of the still-mysterious condition died. But Mikovits’s conviction that her theory was correct, and her belief that the top scientific minds in the United States conspired to ruin her career, never faded. She has now accused the scientific establishment of conspiracy again. In “Plandemic,” and in a recently published book that topped the Amazon bestsellers chart this week, she makes a bizarre and false claim: that the doctors and experts shaping public policy in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic have silenced dissenting voices and misled the public for sinister reasons. … In the years after the 2009 study was retracted, Mikovits was fired from her job leading a research institute, arrested for theft and sued by her former employer.

Many of the claims made in the video are absurd on their face, such as that masks “activate” COVID-19. This would of course fail to explain how so many people not wearing masks have come down with the virus. Masks are merely breathable fabric and have no inherent “virus activation” capabilities (whatever that would mean). 

The video claims that flu vaccines increase the odds of getting COVID-19 by 36 percent and references a study published in the journal Vaccine as support. But Mikovits is either lying or mistaken; the study says no such thing. It did not study COVID-19 (which had not emerged at the time of the research) but instead other, then-known coronaviruses in 2017 and 2018. It did find that vaccinated military personnel were at higher risk than non-vaccinated ones, but the study design was found to have been flawed. In any event, even if the study had been valid (and it wasn’t) and even if the research had studied COVID-19 (and it didn’t), it didn’t find that vaccines increased the risk of coronavirus infection by 36 percent. That percentage literally doesn’t appear anywhere in the article. Mikovits seems to have just made it up. 

The video exploits fear and scientific uncertainty about the coronavirus. As a previous article in this series noted:

One element of conspiracy thinking is that those who disagree are either stupid (that is, gullible “sheeple” who believe and parrot everything they see in the news—usually specifically the “mainstream media”) or simply lying (experts and journalists across various media platforms who know the truth but are intentionally misleading the public for political or economic gain). This “If You Disagree with Me, Are You Stupid or Dishonest?” worldview has little room for uncertainty or charity and misunderstands the situation. The appropriate position to take on most coronavirus predictions is one of agnosticism. It’s not that epidemiologists and other health officials have all the data they need to make good decisions and projections about public health and are instead carefully considering ways to fake data to deceive the public and journalists. It’s that they don’t have all the data they need to make better predictions, and as more information comes in, the projections will get more accurate.

What’s the endgame? Well, like many things in the video, it’s not clear. Mikovits says that the plan is “to prevent the therapies until everyone is infected, then push the vaccines.” The logic here fails on several levels. First, and most obviously, there is no vaccine to “push” or profit from. If the COVID-19 pandemic were all part of some sinister scheme to either sell or force vaccines on the public, the vaccines would have been developed before the virus was released. The world seems to be at peak infection rate, and people are desperate for relief. Any company that had a vaccine would make billions in profits. Each person diagnosed with COVID-19—over four million as of this writing—is a potential customer, as are their friends and families. Because of the global concern, there’s literally billions of people who would happily pay not to contract, and potentially die from, COVID-19. If this pandemic was somehow planned for some hidden agenda, its execution has been astonishingly incompetent.

Second, Mikovits seems curiously unaware that no one is forced to get a vaccine. It’s entirely voluntary (and that’s the case even for children; in many states, parents who choose not to vaccinate their kids against childhood diseases are welcome to homeschool their kids). If and when a COVID-19 vaccine is available, if you don’t want to get it, that’s perfectly fine. Federal agents armed with automatic weapons in one hand and a vaccine syringe in the other aren’t going to be bursting through Americans’ doors to forcibly vaccinate anyone—fevered conspiracy fantasies to the contrary.

Several prominent outlets have handily debunked the video’s contents so there’s no need to repeat the details here, but good analyses can be found here, here, and here. There are many others, of course, and this is just a sample of some of the more recent medical pseudoauthorities. 

Doctor, Doctor, Give Me the News …

On a broader scale, there’s no shortage of seemingly qualified experts—many of them accomplished and accredited—who will promote some discredited idea. Astronaut Edgar Mitchell promoted pseudoscience, psychics, and conspiracy theories. Harvard psychiatrist John Mack was a firm believer in alien abductions. And so on. Even Nobel laureates aren’t immune; Linus Pauling is perhaps the best-known example (for his conviction of the curative powers of vitamin C), but there are many others; the May/June 2020 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine features a cover story titled “The Nobel Disease: When Intelligence Fails to Protect against Irrationality.” 

The same is true for scientific experiments and results published in journals. There is never absolute consensus on any given topic. There are studies suggesting that smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer. There’s at least one (since retracted) prominent study suggesting that there’s a link between childhood vaccines and autism. There’s not 100 percent consensus that climate change is real and driven by human activities; though the figure of 97 percent has circulated for years, the actual figure is in fact closer to 99.9 percent. 

Anyone can cherry-pick experts and study results to support whatever position they like; it’s easy to do. There will always be someone, somewhere, who will—for cynical profit, misguided ignorance, or some other reason—endorse misinformation. And there will always be those who share their views because they’re “just asking questions.”

Often the experts who give misinformation cast themselves as persecuted martyrs—mavericks and rebels who bravely defy conventional thinking and “tell it like it is!” The persecution complex is bolstered by perceived “censorship” by media platforms such as YouTube and Facebook, which take steps to remove false information about COVID-19 (including videos by Brogan, Mikovits, and others). This helps to reinforce the idea that there must be some validity to the claims—otherwise, what are “They” afraid of? What don’t “They” want us to know? However, as physicist Robert Park noted, “Alas, to wear the mantle of Galileo it is not enough that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment, you must also be right.” 

The important question is not whether one—or even a few or a few dozen—otherwise respected experts believe something but instead what the scientific consensus is. This is especially true when dealing with life-or-death issues such as diseases and pandemics. The best inoculations against misinformation are critical thinking, media literacy, and skepticism.