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Dingbat Armchair Scientist

May 20, 2020

We’re keeping track of COVID-19 pseudoscience, snake oil, fake cures, and more at CFI’s Coronavirus Resource Center. Separate fact from fiction and inoculate yourself from misinformation at

Propagandize Properly, Please

At the New York Times, Michael M. Grynbaum shows how Fox News seems unsure which version of reality it’s supposed to espouse, as hosts give different takes on Trump’s alleged ingestion of hydroxychloroquine:

On Monday, Mr. Cavuto was hosting his 4 p.m. show when Mr. Trump told reporters at the White House that he had begun taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventive measure against the coronavirus. When the camera cut to Mr. Cavuto, the anchor looked stricken. …

… “If you are in a risky population here and you are taking this as a preventive treatment to ward off the virus — or in a worst-case scenario, you are dealing with the virus and you are in this vulnerable population — it will kill you,” Mr. Cavuto said. “I cannot stress enough: This will kill you.” …

… Those views place Mr. Cavuto at odds with many of Fox News’s most prominent conservative stars — and certainly with Mr. Trump, who was so irked by the anchor’s remarks that he blasted out Twitter posts cursing about Mr. Cavuto and calling him “foolish & gullible.” …

… Minutes after Mr. Cavuto’s Monday broadcast, the talk show “The Five” offered up hosannas to the president. “When you get this drug to people who can tolerate it, I don’t think you can have any kind of heart condition or arrhythmias and things like that,” said the co-host Greg Gutfeld.

Paul Waldman at the Post warns us that while Trump is bullish on a COVID–190 vaccine right now, the “dingbat armchair scientist” in-chief will soon do a 180:

For the next few months, he will insist that a vaccine will soon deliver us from the pandemic. But when it reaches the point that even he can’t deny that the American public will not be vaccinated before they go to vote in November, he will make an abrupt shift.

The lack of a vaccine will become part of his wide-ranging attack on science and expertise, an argument that casts scientists and public health experts (along with China, and Democrats, and whomever else he’s mad at) as the villains of the pandemic story.

And then, if Trump loses, and a vaccine finally becomes available after he leaves office, he will become the leader of the anti-vaccine movement in America.

Oh fun.

Doug Rollins, a pharmacologist and former director of anti-doping measures for the Winter Olympics, writes in the Salt Lake Tribune of the need to heed science:

I understand people are suffering. Many are without jobs. People are afraid of meeting together, airplane travel, cruise vacations, sporting events, dining out and movie theaters. Contrary to what the virus conspiracists claim, expert scientists do not cause the loss of jobs and fear. Unemployment and fear are the natural result of a pandemic. Flaunting health directives will only prolong the agony. …

… This public health crisis is a wakeup call. We must demand crisis preparedness. We should not listen to conspiracists who spew their theories on social media with abandon and without regard for the consequences. Don’t disregard science. Pay attention to past follies and listen to scientists who follow the sound practices of ethical science and who will guide us through the crisis.

Unhinged Unboxing

At RNA, Tara Isabella Burton says America’s ideal of rugged individualism makes it fertile ground for conspiracy theories:

The mythos of American self-making — that with the right amount of grit and cunning, the individual can determine his own truth and fate — lends itself to the view that civil bureaucracies and establishments, by contrast, are inherently sclerotic and corrupt: the information they provide automatically suspect.

This tendency can be glimpsed in the contrarian programs of investor and PayPal founder Peter Thiel, who founded and funded a Thiel Fellowship designed to coax promising would-be entrepreneurs to drop out of college and go straight into solitary startup life. It is this tendency, too, that underlies our collective obsession with “fake news” — and with alternative news outlets and conspiracy theorists, like Alex Jones, who claim to “tell it like it is” — in coded contrast to the wisdom of the establishment.

Conspiracy theories tie into a wider mistrust of civic life, combined with an optimistic belief that the individual is capable of “discovering” — through a cursory YouTube search or other research in the digital landscape — truths about the world order that the establishment is trying to hide.

The Quackometer unboxes an “anti-5G USB stick device” that promises to:

… provide protection for your home and family, thanks to the wearable holographic nano-layer catalyser, which can be worn or placed near to a smartphone or any other electrical, radiation or EMF emitting device.

Enjoy the accompanying slideshow that ends with:

Here it is in all its glory. A switch, a battery and an LED light. In other words, this device is a £50 shit torch.

SFist looks at the social media blast radius of one Shelley Lewis, who acquired some internet infamy recently by berating a supermarket employee for not being allowed to shop in the store without a face mask (the employee volunteered all manner of ways to assist her, but that of course was not the point). She is deemed to be “a real prize”:

Among the topics of conversation are some conspiracy crazy greatest hits, including 5G towers, 9/11, fake moon landings, and the Earth is flat. And, as Twitter quickly found, Lewis is loud and proud in her belief system, having appeared on this Jubilee Media discussion on YouTube, arguing with scientists about whether Earth is flat.

And we learn about her flat-Eartherism from the 2019 Jubilee video in which she and other flatters debate with science experts, including our own CFI West director Jim Underdown! It all comes full circle. Not full-sphere, of course.

Speaking of Jim, he was the guest on the podcast The Bus Driver Experience, to talk about various skeptical topics and the work of our plucky organization.

The German Bishops’ Conference admonishes some its own clergy for trafficking in COVID-19 misinformation. Deutsche Welle reports:

The vicar general of the city of Essen, Klaus Pfeffer, said on Facebook that he was “simply speechless at what was being published there in the name of the Church and Christianity: crude conspiracy theories without facts or evidence, combined with aggressive right-wing populist rhetoric that sounds alarming.”

Paying for Discrimination

A new report by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for American Progress, and the Movement Advancement Project shows how the Trump administration’s “religious liberty” measures are badly undercutting civil rights protections across the board.

The Department of Labor releases guidelines on allowing religious groups to compete for federal funds, with some effort made to delineate how they can be used:

Religious organizations that receive DOL financial assistance retain their programmatic independence from Federal, State, and local governments and may continue to carry out their missions and maintain their religious character. This autonomy includes, among other things, the right to use the organizations’ facilities to provide DOL-supported social services without removing or altering religious art, icons, scriptures or other religious symbols, and the right to govern themselves and to select board members on a religious basis. Faith-based organizations, like all organizations receiving DOL financial assistance, must not use direct DOL financial assistance to support any explicitly religious activities… [including] for example, worship, religious instruction, and proselytization….

If an organization conducts explicitly religious activities using non-DOL funds and also offers social service programs using direct DOL support, then that organization must offer the explicitly religious activities at a time or in a place that is separate from the programs receiving direct DOL support.

Tyler Broker at Above the Law is not optimistic about how the “ministerial exception” case at the Supreme Court will turn out:

Unfortunately, it is more likely that we will see multiple justices paradoxically declare this term that religious liberty somehow means government is both commanded to stay out of the affairs of religious education while at the same time existing under an obligation to fund it.

Church of the Indeterminates

Rina Raphael at the Times looks at the emergence of streaming religious workout classes. Yep, this is a thing:

At first glance, the streaming fitness class looks like any other: blue yoga mats against a neutral background, with ambient music and candles to set the mood. Two athleisure-clad instructors, flanked by hand weights, introduce themselves.

The giveaway is the flash of a wooden crucifix.

“Surrender all and prepare yourself to go on this journey with us through the stations of the cross with Jesus,” one of the instructors says, her hands in prayer position. …“Coming up into a plank position, picture Jesus being condemned,” Deanne Miller, 54 and a founder of SoulCore, instructs her class participants.

Blink blink. Blink. Blink.

Jana Riess at RNS talks to Melinda Lundquist Denton and Richard Flory, authors of the book Back-Pocket God: Religion and Spirituality in the Lives of Emerging Adults to discuss how young folks are leaving organized religion. Here they talk about a group that aren’t “Nones,” but not really devotees, either:

Denton: The indeterminate category captures some residual “I’m just Christian” people who are not quite ready to get rid of the Christian label. How long they will hang on to that generic label is the question. If you hold religion up against Sunday brunch or game night with friends, religion was near the bottom for them. They prioritized family, friends, and having meaningful work all above religion or having a relationship with God.

Flory: When we ran those tables, I was surprised by how far down their list that religion was ranked.

There are apparently three Republican elected officials in the United States who are openly atheists: a city council member in Sierra Vista, Arizona, a precinct captain in Illinois, and a vice chairman of Kent County, Maryland’s GOP. And I think that last two don’t really count, since they’re offices within a party, not government offices.

Teeny Tiny Victories

Climate activists score a little win as Google pledges not to “build custom AI/ML algorithms to facilitate upstream extraction in the oil and gas industry.”

Oklahoma has passed good new science standards for public schools. Wait, what? NCSE reports:

The e-word — “evolution” — is unabashedly used: for example, a high school standard for biology expects students to be able to “[c]ommunicate scientific information that common ancestry and biological evolution are supported by multiple lines of empirical evidence.”

Anthropogenic climate change is also straightforwardly acknowledged: for example, a disciplinary core idea in Earth Systems is that “Changes in the atmosphere due to human activity have increased carbon dioxide concentrations and thus affect climate.”

Well that’s unexpected.

This, however, is completely expected. NIH director Francis Collins has won the Templeton Prize, which honors efforts to blur the line between science and religion. It’s so expected, in fact, that I first thought I must have been reading a years-old article, because Collins is about as Templeton-y as you can get. Either way, props to him for saying this to RNS:

Collins also expressed concern over the number of Christians who have fallen prey to conspiracy theories surrounding the spread of the coronavirus.

“It is troubling that in our nation that prides itself on being technologically advanced, the current circumstances — particularly on social media — make it so easy for things to spread that are simply not based on facts at all,” he said. “I would particularly urge Christians, who believe in God’s truth in all things, to be sure that they are vetting whatever they are seeing.”

But doc, vetting is so haaaaaaaard.

Linking to a story or webpage does not imply endorsement by Paul or CFI. Not every use of quotation marks is ironic or sarcastic, but it often is.