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The Yawning Gaps

May 6, 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

Welcome to the time loop.

OH BOY. It’s Argue Over Filling Out a Form Because Jesus Day at the Supreme Court. At about the time this post goes live, the black-robed uber-magistrates will pretend to not have already decided the outcome of this “religious liberty” case over the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, all via teleconference. The only real suspense here is whether Justice Kagan will decide she kind of likes making that hole in the wall of separation a little bigger, or how far back Justice Ginsburg will roll her eyes, given her most recent medical issues.

Way to go, genius.

Len Niehoff of the University of Michigan Law School writes in the Detroit Free Press that we all need a big lesson in evidence-based thinking:

Numerous public officials and individuals have made dreadful decisions about how to assess and respond to the threat posed by COVID-19. Those errors reveal a fundamental flaw in our K-12 and collegiate education systems. We have failed to teach a subject of critical importance, and as a result have imperiled our health, our economy, and our republic.

We teach it in law school. We call it Evidence. …

… COVID-19 has revealed our societal failure to understand what evidence is and to respect how it works. National and local political leaders have made decisions that ignored the evidence. Members of the general public have proved slow to accept the evidence. Measures adopted to help flatten the curve have been met with virulent protests, despite the evidence that they are working.

At Skeptical Inquirer, Candice Basterfield, Scott O. Lilienfeld, Shawna M. Bowes, and Thomas H. Costello explore whether or not having been awarded a Nobel Prize in the sciences means you’re really all that smart. No, really:

To do so, we draw on case studies of several Nobel-winning scientists who appear to have succumbed to the Nobel Disease. … In the case of the Nobel Disease, the capsule case histories we present strongly suggest that intellectual brilliance can coexist with yawning gaps in skeptical thinking. Specifically, we offer brief descriptions of eight Nobel laureates in the sciences who embraced “weird” ideas.

So. Much. Fake. Medicine.

Removed from his position as the government’s vaccine director when he challenged Trump on hydroxychloroquine, Dr. Rick Bright is punching back. CNN reports:

Dr. Rick Bright, the ousted director of the office involved in developing a coronavirus vaccine, formally filed an extensive whistleblower complaint Tuesday alleging his early warnings about the coronavirus were ignored and that his caution at a treatment favored by President Donald Trump led to his removal.

“I was pressured to let politics and cronyism drive decisions over the opinions of the best scientists we have in government,” Bright said on a call with reporters after filing his complaint.

Truth in Advertising has filed a complaint with the FTC against Herbalife, the alt-med pyramid-scheme, to force the multi-level marketing company to stop its cult members distributors from claiming or implying that Herbalife products have any effect on COVID-19:

While some Herbalife distributors tag posts #coronavirus, #nocoronavirus and #COVID-19, and make explicit claims that the company’s products are “good for fighting corona” and can act as a “Corona Defender Kit,” other distributors don’t mention the virus by name. No matter. In the era of the coronavirus, immunity-boosting claims, which in normal times may be considered structure/function claims exempt from FDA approval (depending on the context), are elevated to implied disease-treatment or prevention claims requiring substantiation and FDA approval. On top of this, there is no known treatment or vaccine for the coronavirus.

Sasha Chavkin at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists looks at some of the major unproven COVID-19 treatments being hawked by such marginal figures as the President of the United States, including the flu drug Avigan and, of course, hydroxychloroquine. Oh then there’s this:

In Turkmenistan, the eccentric despot Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov has charted another course entirely. He ordered his government to fumigate the country with smoke from burning a traditional herb called harmala, which he said would destroy the viruses.His ministers praised the move, noting that Berdimuhamedov had written about the herb in his book Medicinal Plants of Turkmenistan.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it’s working with big retailers and manufacturers to stop the trafficking of fake COVID-19 treatments, for example, as reported by The Hill:

The unit has also assisted U.S. Customs and Border Protection in seizing 494 shipments of “mislabeled, fraudulent, unauthorized or prohibited” coronavirus test kits, treatment kits, homeopathic remedies, antiviral products and personal protective equipment.

Harriet Hall, writing at Skeptical Inquirer, is trying to find the humor in all of this insanity:

I can’t decide whether I should laugh or cry. Here are just some of the items that have caught my attention recently. Most of these made me angry, but first they made me laugh. You may want to laugh, cry, scream, curse, spit, stamp your feet, throw a tantrum, or write your congressman—but it won’t do a bit of good.

And I guess just to make sure we get a chance to shove it back in the faces of the anti-vaxxers now trafficking in COVID-19 conspiracies, once again it has been proven that the MMR vaccine is safe and effective. Steven Novella writes:

A recently updated Cochrane systematic review of the safety and effectiveness of the MMR vaccine is a good time, therefore, to emphasize that antivaxxers have been wrong about the MMR vaccine for over two decades. They claim it doesn’t work, and that it isn’t safe. They tried to link it to autism (and when that failed they migrated over to the preservative thimerosal, and when that failed they just blamed the vaccine schedule and vaccines in general). They are persistently and demonstrably wrong, which of course never slowed down an ideologically motivated activist, and certainly not a conspiracy theorist.

This new review shows that the evidence for the safety and effectiveness of the MMR vaccine is overwhelming.

Alienation and misinformation.

Rachel Thomas at The Independent says that despite the noises social media platforms are making about curbing coronavirus information, they are blowing it:

[T]hey haven’t managed to successfully curb the misinformation virus at all. Research reveals that the vast majority of false information about the virus appears online. In a recent study, Oxford’s Reuters Institute found that 88 per cent of false or misleading claims about coronavirus appeared on social media platforms, compared with just 9 per cent on television or 8 per cent in news outlets. It’s no surprise, then, that the Pew Research Centre found that nearly 30 per cent of US adults believe Covid-19 was developed in a lab, despite this not being an attested theory. Conspiracy theories falsely connecting 5G with the spread of the pandemic has also led to threats, harassment and even petrol bomb attacks.

Perhaps we are giving too much credit, then, to social media platforms and their quest for truth during this pandemic, whose whole ecosystem depends on engagement and virality, with no value placed on accuracy. Now we are in the throes of a global emergency, they want to rush to be the most reliable sources, but we cannot hide from the reality that they are the main reason that misinformation spreads at all.

But Facebook is taking down QAnon groups, not just for spreading misinformation, but specifically for what it calls a “coordinated inauthentic behavior” campaign directed at the 2020 presidential election.

Shaun Raviv at the Columbia Journalism Review profiles John Greenewald, the UFO-obsessed master of FOIA requests who maintains the Black Vault website. The story seems to want to paint him as mostly harmless, but then there’s this:

Though Greenewald is not especially interested in storming the halls of power, the Black Vault traffics in theories that have sometimes embroiled it in controversy. In 2018, Greenewald appeared on Alex Jones’s InfoWars (on the same episode as Roger Stone) to talk about the MKUltra documents and modern attempts by the military to allow soldiers to control robots with their brains. In early March, on the Black Vault podcast, Greenewald hosted Jordan Sather, a right-wing YouTube star, to discuss QAnon, a conspiracy theory Sather espouses. Greenewald received criticism for giving Sather a platform, but he told me that he didn’t consider it an endorsement of QAnon. “I personally don’t buy into that whole allegation that there’s this secret person or persons that are posting from the inside of the White House and they’re doing all this stuff,” he told me. “That show was actually spawned by me publicly stating I do not believe in this whole conspiracy thing when it comes to QAnon. But I received a response from the CIA that said they would neither confirm nor deny that they have documents on QAnon. I thought that was interesting. Because generally if the government doesn’t have it, they will say, ‘Well, sorry, we have no records.’ ”

Greenewald does dabble in some unlikely theories. For instance, he believes that the US government shot down United Airlines Flight 93 after the World Trade Center was hit—“as crazy as that sounds,” he said.

As crazy. As that sounds.

Apparently responding to the official release of the U.S. Defense Department’s “UFO videos,” Japan’s Defense Ministry is readying protocols for dealing with “aircraft of unknown nationality.” I suggest social distancing.

Meanwhile, in Florida (sigh), UFO sightings have “skyrocketed” in the wake of the UFO videos, according to MUFON anyway. Someone check with a philosophy professor, please! Via WBBH:

Dr. Landon Frim is an assistant professor of philosophy at FGCU, and he said whenever we see something in the sky, many of us believe it is a UFO because it’s how we grew up.

“We have in this culture, especially since the last several decades mid part through the 20th century a narrative about, you know, little green men or grays,” said Frim. “When we see an unidentified thing it is very easy to fill that with a cultural narrative that we have been pre-programmed with.”

Blasphemy and sporting equipment.

Supporters of Nigerian atheist leader Mubarak Bala, who was arrested for blasphemy, are coordinating social media protests urging the government to free him.

Pakistan, meanwhile, won’t let a global pandemic stop its own crusade against blasphemy. Pakistan Today reports:

While the entire country, and indeed the world, has been completely shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, the coronavirus has failed to stop the relentless spree of blasphemy allegations in Pakistan. The most recent accusation has come in Sialkot, where a football maker was accused of blasphemy on Friday owing to a design on the ball, which members of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) deemed insulting to Islam.

Next thing you know they’ll be demanding that Tom Hanks hand over Wilson. So what happened?

Instead of penalising the Islamist hordes completely discarding social distancing, the local police registered the blasphemy case against the football maker under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code. Section 295-C mandates death penalty for blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad … As the world mulls the post-coronavirus changes, rights groups believe that Pakistan would be best advised to undo its succumbing to the Islamists. However, many argue, that it is during the pandemic that Pakistan has showcased an unparalleled level of that capitulation.

Here’s some religious freedom for you: A group of Jewish community leaders in Missouri is insisting that absentee ballots for voters are absolutely necessary because staying home on Election Day reflects a “deeply held religious belief.” Republicans won’t like that. Hemant Mehta calls upon other faith groups to do the same.

Ireland’s RTÉ reports on the resolution of a case against the Yellow Furze Primary School, which had been giving get-out-of-homework passes to students who participated in a first communion choir ceremony:

In her submission, the mother said that the initial act of discrimination took place when her son’s class teacher told him that any child who did not participate in the choir for the school’s 2019 communion ceremony would be penalised with homework.

His class was told that children who did take part would receive a homework pass. She said that her son had come home from school upset and crying, and feeling that he had been “singled out”.

She told the [Workplace Relations Commission] she believed that he was being punished for not being Catholic.

The kid is being awarded €5000. That’s about $5400 USD. He can now afford to buy a lifetime pass to the Ark Encounter fake-history museum for his whole family!

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.