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I Was the Big Fish

May 21, 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 centerforinquiry.org/coronavirus.


It’s All an Act

Linda Greenhouse at the New York Times shows how the religion cases currently before the Supreme Court are more about storytelling and creating compelling narratives than anything having to do with law or, you know, reason. For example, the tedious struggle over the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act, and how the Little Sisters of the Poor have been lifted up as a symbol of the secular state’s oppression. Except they had already won:

In other words, the nuns and all other religious employers, were not being asked to “pay for birth control,” far from it, and would have been untouched by the bureaucratic hand. But that still wasn’t sufficient, the religious employers said, to avoid their complicity in the sin of contraception because their insurance policy would still provide the link, however attenuated, between their female employees and contraception.

Usually during a Supreme Court argument the names of the parties are scarcely mentioned; lawyers and justices alike typically refer to “petitioner” and “respondent.” … So it was striking to hear Paul Clement, the Little Sisters’ lawyer, refer during the argument to his client by name, again and again, and then again — a total of 13 times, by my count in the transcript.

And then, of course, there’s the case over the “ministerial exception” in which religious schools want to be able to fire teachers without having to worry about pesky “laws”:

At issue is the nature of civil society itself. The notion that an employer can simply opt out of a legal obligation it finds objectionable on undefined “moral” grounds, or on the basis of an evanescent “complicity” with the distant choices of other actors, threatens the assumption that we all live by the same rules. That thousands of Americans who accept jobs with religious employers might have to forfeit their statutory protections against discrimination — there are an estimated 150,000 lay teachers in religious schools — cuts a hole in a legal fabric designed to protect everyone.

The belief that “we’re all in this society together” is fraying rapidly enough without the Supreme Court’s help.

But help they will.

It’s well known that the late Norma McCorvey, the “Roe” in Roe v. Wade, became a staunch anti-abortion activist and a frequent prop of the forced-birth zealots. Ready for the curveball? In an upcoming documentary, AKA Jane Roe, McCorvey admits that she was insincere and cashing in. The Daily Beast reports:

“This is my deathbed confession,” she chuckles, sitting in a chair in her nursing home room, on oxygen. Sweeney asks McCorvey, “Did [the evangelicals] use you as a trophy?” “Of course,” she replies. “I was the Big Fish.” “Do you think you would say that you used them?” Sweeney responds. “Well,” says McCorvey, “I think it was a mutual thing. I took their money and they took me out in front of the cameras and told me what to say. That’s what I’d say.” She even gives an example of her scripted anti-abortion lines. “I’m a good actress,” she points out. “Of course, I’m not acting now.” …

… AKA Jane Roe finds documents disclosing at least $456,911 in “benevolent gifts” from the anti-abortion movement to McCorvey.


Ludicrous Speed

Anyone who shows with studies, facts, and data that taking hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 is not a good idea is a “Trump enemy,” according to, you know, Trump. John Timmer at Ars Technica says:

Trump is promoting misinformation about a medication with potentially fatal side effects. He’s ignoring a wealth of relevant studies. And he’s suggesting that the only reason a study produced results he didn’t like is because the researchers behind it decided to attack him.

Trump may find himself at odds with his friends in the anti-vaxxer crowd, as the White House promotes “Operation Warp Speed” (how dare they invoke Star Trek!) in its pursuit of a COVID-19 vaccine. The Post reports:

Peter J. Hotez, a professor of pediatrics and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said his initial modeling suggests “a significant number of Americans” will need to be vaccinated against the coronavirus to interrupt transmission.

“I’m worried that the anti-vaccine movement is going to be so strengthened to the point where we won’t have those numbers, and part of this may just be people opting out because of mixed messaging,” he said. “You’d think the anti-vaccine movement would go into retreat with everyone wanting a vaccine, but it’s been energized over ‘Operation Warp Speed’ and over biotech and pharma companies sending out irresponsible press releases.”

The Orthodox Church in Moldova, meanwhile, has this wisdom to offer about a COVID-19 vaccine:

The global anti-Christian system wants to introduce microchips into people’s bodies with whose help they can control them, through 5G technology. … Vaccination introduces nanoparticles into the body that react to the waves transmitted by 5G technology and allow the system to control humans remotely.

We’re doomed.

Rather issue any guidance on how churches should handle reopening, the CDC decides instead to avoid a fight with Trump and just says nothing, nor does it plan to weigh in. The Post reports:

A coronavirus outbreak at an Arkansas church that killed three and infected dozens, as well as recent church closures in states at the forefront of reopening efforts, are already challenging the wisdom of the CDC not issuing guidance, experts said.

The Arkansas outbreak, detailed in a CDC report this week, began after a pastor at the church and his wife attended church events over six days in early March and spread the virus to others. At least 34 of 92 attendees at church events became infected, including the three who died, all over the age of 65. An additional 26 infections and one death in the community were probably linked to contact with people infected at the church events, according to the report.

Public health experts said the lack of reopening guidance for religious institutions puts some of the most vulnerable at risk for contracting covid-19.


Vectors of Nonsense

The company NewsGuard has done some contact tracing of the internet, and found the worst super-spreaders of misinformation. Jann Bellamy explains:

To qualify as a super-spreader, a Facebook Page or Twitter account must have published or shared “clearly and egregiously false content about the virus”, have more than 100,000 page “likes” or followers, respectively, and have been active on the date NewsGuard published its data — that is, neither Facebook nor Twitter had acted as of that date to take down the misinformation.

The worst offender is something called Global Informers, which I’d never heard of. Ah, but familiarity returns (and breeds contempt):

Coming in at #2 is Rush Limbaugh (over 2.3 million Facebook Page “likes”), upon whom Donald Trump recently bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom, cited for his false claims that the novel coronavirus was created in a lab as a bioweapon and that it is similar to the common cold. Also speaking from the far right of the political spectrum, The Gateway Pundit (631,000 likes, but scoring 0 out of 100 on NewsGuard’s rating scale) posted false claims that the drug hydroxychloroquine “has a 100% success rate in treating COVID-19”.

There are many more.

The Times does its own contact-tracing to track the spread of the Plandemic conspiracy theory video:

The New York Times focused on the video’s spread on Facebook using data from CrowdTangle, a tool to analyze interactions across the social network. (YouTube and Twitter do not make their data as readily available.) The ascent of “Plandemic” was largely powered by Facebook groups and pages that shared the YouTube link.

On Facebook, “Plandemic” was liked, commented on or shared nearly 2.5 million times, according to the CrowdTangle data. That far outdid [Taylor] Swift’s May 8 announcement about her “City of Lover” concert, which plateaued at about 110,000 such interactions on Facebook. “The Office” cast’s Zoom wedding video, which was posted on May 10, reached 618,000 interactions in less than a week. And the Pentagon’s videos, which were posted on April 27, had one million interactions two weeks after the first post.

Snopes investigates the coldy partisan roots of Michigan’s anti-lockdown protests:

What these connections … show is that a small group of zealous activists identified by our database do not credibly represent the voice of grassroots citizens untouched by political influence. These individuals (as evidenced by their past activism) and the infrastructure they control (as evidenced by its creation for another political purpose) mobilized not for their objection to lockdowns specifically. Instead, the primary effect of their efforts by design seems to be energizing Trump’s base in an election year. …

… The Michigan Conservative Coalition’s website, at the time of this reporting, showcases the objectively false anti-vaccine conspiracy video “Plandemic.” The Facebook groups dedicated to the anti-lockdown cause are a fever swamp of conspiracy theories ranging from Bill Gates’ desire to track the global population through microchips in COVID-19 vaccines to the notion that a cohort of patriots under the leadership of someone referred to as “Q” will overthrow the “deep state.” A $250 Facebook ad buy from the DeVos-linked Michigan Freedom Fund did not create this coalition, nor did it single-handedly launch the anti-lockdown movement.

Meanwhile in Maryland, a federal judge stands firmly behind Republican governor Larry Hogan’s lockdown orders. The Daily Record reports:

“The world is now in the grip of a public health crisis more severe than any seen for a hundred years,” U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake wrote.

“In the face of this pandemic, Gov. Larry Hogan, using the emergency powers granted him by the state legislature, has issued a series of executive orders designed to slow the spread of the disease and protect the health of Maryland residents,” Blake added. “Public officials cannot reasonably exercise their broad authority to protect the health of the entire community without considering the data, the science and the advice of experienced public health officials. Gov. Hogan, exercising the powers given to him by the legislature in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, has made reasonable choices informed, if not dictated by, such data, science and advice.”

And in an alternate reality, the Justice Department says California is discriminating against religious groups with its restrictions on public gatherings. Sure would be nice to have the CDC guidance now, huh? The AP reports:

In a three-page letter to the governor, Eric S. Dreiband, an assistant attorney general and the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said Newsom had shown “unequal treatment of faith communities” in restricting their abilities to gather and ultimately reopen.

“Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights,” Dreiband wrote.

Also simply put, there is no religious exception to viral infections.


What a Nice Dashboard. Be a Pity if Something Were to Happen to It.

Rebekah Jones, who headed the Florida Department of Health’s team that created the Florida COVID-19 Dashboard, was removed from her post because someone didn’t like the numbers the dashboard was showing. Florida Today reports:

… researchers who have relied on unobstructed access to underlying raw data said they interpret Jones’ removal as a clear indication of government censorship of science. …

… Jones’ removal and changes to the dashboard access is especially unusual given that the dashboard was lauded in April on CBS’ Face the Nation by Dr. Deborah Birx, a top official of President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force. …

… “The ability of scientists to help is directly related to how much access we’re given to data,” [Professor Ben D. Sawyer] said, warning that with less raw data, scientists will be able to produce less accurate, less useful work. There’s also “the worry that the scientists within government who can access the full data are being actively censored,” he said. “That’s a real worry.”

Stuart Vyse at Skeptical Inquirer shows how a study of a so-called “rapid prompting method” for communicating with people with severe autism is a kind of Intelligent Design for autism:

[Study authors] engaged in a highly detailed analysis of the dependent variable—the autistic participants’ eye movements and pointing—and concluded that, given the shape of their behavior, the participants must have been the agents (authors) of the words written. This kind of argument is reminiscent of supporters of intelligent design who claim that, due to the great intricacy of the human eye, human eyes could not be the product of evolution and must have been the work of an intelligent designer. In science, we don’t merely observe a phenomenon, throw up our hands, and say, “Well, it must have been caused by X.” We test for X and all the other possible causes. …

… Most importantly, there are the nonspeaking children and adults at the center of these debates. If RPM is a valid communication technique, then all is well, and it should be widely promulgated. But if it doesn’t work, then hundreds (thousands?) of children and adults have been submitted to many hours and years of wasted time.

Leighann Lord is on a roll with her new stint as co-host of Point of Inquiry, out with a new episode with Steven Novella of Science-Based Medicine and The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe.

James Alcock, a member the Executive Council for CFI’s Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, is the guest on the Critically Speaking podcast, talking about how we come to form our beliefs.


God Sufficiently Nagged

Remember, folks, God wanted Trump to be president, but as far as I can tease out from what White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told the Christian Broadcasting Network, he only made him president once he was satisfied that he’d been asked enough times. Via The Hill:

“I think prayer made a difference in this election,” McEnany, who became press secretary at the beginning of April, told CBN’s David Brody. “And that’s not to say I think God put, not to say that He puts a certain political party in a certain place at a time, but I do believe certain people are meant to be in positions at a certain moment. I do believe that President Trump is the person meant for this moment, and I think prayer made a lot of difference in the election.”

Peter Henne at Religion News Service says the religious-freedom movement may have backed the wrong horse by putting so much stake in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo:

The religious freedom movement has already mortgaged its bipartisan reputation to curry Pompeo’s favor. If he loses standing as one of the president’s closest advisers, it will have disastrous implications for persecuted believers around the world. Rather than rely so much on one person, the movement would do well to return to its bipartisan roots.

John Horgan at Scientific American interviews Francis Collins, the head of the NIH who just won the Templeton Prize. While we obviously disagree with Collins on the whole religion thing, he’s kind of adorable:

Collins: This increasing polarization between extremists on both ends of the atheism and belief spectrum has been heartbreaking to me. If my suggestion that there is a harmonious middle ground puts me at the white-hot center of debate–Hooray! It’s maybe a bit overdue.

Horgan: The danger in trying to appeal to people on both sides of a polarized debate is–

Collins: Bombs thrown at you from both directions!

And on the question of miracles:

In my own experience as a physician, I have not seen a miraculous healing, and I don’t expect to see one. Also, prayer for me is not a way to manipulate God into doing what we want Him to do.

Don’t tell the White House!

I don’t have a problem with the concept that miracles might occasionally occur at moments of greatsignificance where there is a message being transmitted to us by God Almighty. But as a scientist I set my standards for miracles very high. And I don’t think we should try to convince agnostics or atheists about the reality of faith with claims about miracles that they can easily poke holes in.


Fake New Worlds

I got all excited, and then my hopes were dashed, as usual. Scientists at the Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna did not discover parallel universes.

Finally, I want to direct your attention to something called Orb.farm, where you can create your own little biosphere in a browser tab. (I’m not having luck running it with Chrome, on Safari it’s just fine, but your biological resilience may vary.)


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.



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