The Pseudys: Initial Pseudoscience Awards

February 21, 2022

The fifth anniversary of the launch of this blog site is approaching in a few months. To celebrate that anniversary, we have decided to launch a new awards program and to announce the first five awardees. These are awards for pseudoscience, given for particularly egregious or outlandish, disastrously wrong, claims allegedly based on science, which have fueled massive harmful misinformation among the public. Our awards are thus distinct from the Ig Nobel Prizes, which are given for unusual or imaginative achievements “that make people laugh, then think.” Our awardees, in contrast, make many people shudder in disbelief, even while attracting numerous misinformed believers. The symbol of our award is the Pseudy pictured in Fig. 1. After these initial five awards, we intend to award one Pseudy per year in the future.

Figure 1. The Pseudy. Putting on a scientist’s wig doesn’t make you a scientist.

While each of the following awardees is guilty of massive nonsense, we will try to tie the awards to particular quotes from the winners.

Award #1: Richard Epstein

Richard Epstein (Fig. 2) is a libertarian law professor and Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, who presented himself near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as an expert on epidemics and infectious viruses. As we have described in our earlier post on Science Denial and the Coronavirus, on March 16, 2020, when only a handful of COVID deaths had yet been reported in the U.S., Epstein predicted that the U.S. would experience “about 500 deaths at the end” of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the face of rapidly rising deaths in Spring 2020 he “corrected” his prediction to 5000 total deaths. As we are now in early 2022 approaching one million cumulative COVID deaths in the U.S., it is clear that even Epstein’s corrected “prediction” has turned out to be an underestimate by more than two orders of magnitude.

Figure 2. Dr. Richard Epstein, Fellow of the Hoover Institution.

Why did Epstein get the COVID impact so spectacularly wrong? Because of his arrogant insistence, in a 2020 interview with the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner, that:

“…there’s a long-term tendency [for viruses to weaken over time]. And is this a hundred percent tendency? No. Is there any known exception to it? No…I do think the tendency to weaken is there, and I’m willing to bet a great deal of money on it…I spent an enormous amount of time over my career teaching medical people about some of this stuff, and their great strengths are procedures and diagnoses in the cases. Their great weakness is understanding general-equilibrium theory.”

Epstein himself clearly has a weakness in understanding natural selection, namely, that the random mutations of viruses that win out over earlier variants tend to be those that are more transmissible, enhancing the virus’ chances of reproducing itself in human hosts. This is especially true for viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2, that are based on an RNA genome, because the probability of random mutations arising during replication of the virus is then much greater than it would be for DNA. As to strength, the most successful mutations elude vaccines and previously acquired antibodies to give rise to long-term infections, while killing only a small percentage of their hosts. So it is entirely possible that viruses grow stronger, as well as more transmissible, over time. Although a significant number of previous viruses had already proven Epstein wrong, SARS-CoV-2 has done so in spectacular fashion. Nonetheless, his deeply flawed views strongly influenced the Trump administration response to COVID.

Epstein gets a Pseudy for pretending to understand infectious disease science based on his legal practice, and getting it astoundingly wrong.

Award #2: Joint to Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Judy Mikovits

Kennedy and Mikovits (see Fig. 3) have collaborated to spread pseudoscientific misinformation about COVID vaccines far and wide, as we have previously described here and here. In so doing, they have not only contributed strongly to the needless prolongation of the pandemic, but they have also fueled and participated in a politically motivated anti-vaxx movement that seems to have taken as its motto a perversion of Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty and give me death.”

Figure 3. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Judy Mikovits.

Kennedy, Jr. has been on a misinformation mission about vaccines in many forms for many years now, but COVID-19 has turned out to be a bonanza for him, greatly increasing his worldwide attention, as well as the internet traffic (see Fig. 4) and donations to his website for Children’s Health Defense. Mikovits has emerged from relative obscurity as a discredited research scientist and conspiracy theorist via the COVID-denial Plandemic conspiracy video. As the pandemic has persisted, they have both ratcheted up their claims to absurd levels. For example, at anti-COVID-vaccine rallies in late 2021, Kennedy compared people subjected to potential vaccine mandates with holocaust victims. He was forced by his own family and the Holocaust Museum to put out an apologetic tweet on January 25, 2022: “I apologize for my reference to Anne Frank, especially to families that suffered the Holocaust horrors. My intention was to use examples of past barbarism to show the perils from new technologies of control. To the extent my remarks caused hurt, I am truly and deeply sorry.”

Figure 4. The rapidly growing frequency of visits to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense website is indicative of the bonanza he has reaped from COVID-19 pandemic misinformation.

We award the Pseudy now for particularly outrageous recent quotes from Kennedy and Mikovits about COVID vaccines. At the same recent rallies where Kennedy invoked the holocaust and Anne Frank, he stated:

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr: “The Pfizer COVID-19 shot kills more people than it saves.”

As we will show below, there is no responsible calculation that could come close to supporting Kennedy’s claim. Perhaps he was relying on his friend Judy Mikovits, who has stated that:

Judy Mikovits: “…at least 50 million Americans would die, probably from the first dose” if a COVID-19 vaccine was mandated for the whole population, because “50 million Americans have the gamma retroviruses we discovered that were coming through vaccines in a contaminated blood supply.”

Mikovits’ claim is one that she has echoed in two of the four conspiracy-theory books she has co-authored during the pandemic with anti-vaxxer Kent Heckentlively: Plague of Corruption (2020) and Ending Plague (2021). (Their other two books presented misinformation about mask-wearing.) At this point (Feb. 17, 2022) 213 million Americans have been fully vaccinated with COVID vaccines and no more than a handful have died of causes related to the vaccine. So clearly, Mikovits’ claim was truly absurd, unless you believe that the “50 million Americans with gamma retroviruses” are all still among the unvaccinated. Of course, Mikovits offered the alternative conspiratorial explanation that Anthony Fauci and others would “bury the evidence” by calling them COVID deaths, but even for the conspiracy-minded there have been nowhere near 50 million COVID deaths in the U.S.

Perhaps Mikovits’ “we discovered” in the above quote refers to a long discredited 2009 study Mikovits had worked on attributing chronic fatigue syndrome to a retrovirus in the blood supply. But that work could not only not be reproduced by any other researchers, but was discredited by Mikovits herself in a 2012 press conference based on a follow-up study she worked on with others. However, she now retracts her previous retraction and claims her original unreproduced work was the real truth suppressed by “the establishment.” Mikovits has advanced from careless researcher to full-blown conspiracy theorist, but her pseudoscientific claims get wide enough attention among the anti-vaxx crowd to merit a Pseudy.

The quote from RFK Jr. that we have highlighted above cannot simply be dismissed as a rhetorical flourish, because it is characteristic of his normal, baseless schtick that vaccines do far more harm than good. To address his claim, let’s make some estimates.

From the beginning of March 2021, two months after the Pfizer vaccine had been widely available in the U.S., to the end of January 2022, the total number of Americans who have died of COVID-19 is approximately 340,000 (see Fig. 5). The probability of death from COVID has been, on average, about 14 times higher for unvaccinated than for vaccinated individuals (see Fig. 6); the ratio has been even higher when comparing to those individuals with an additional booster shot. Averaged over the period of deadly surges, roughly 60% of adult Americans had been vaccinated, so that the vaccinated “pool” of potential patients was larger than the unvaccinated pool by a factor of about 1.5. Since that pool has had 1/14 the death rate of the unvaccinated pool, they would have contributed about 1.5/14 or 1/9 as many total deaths as the unvaccinated. Thus, vaccinated individuals account for about 10% of the total number of COVID deaths, and lives saved by vaccination correspond to 90% of 340,000, or 306,000. This is most probably an underestimate, because if everyone in the country had been unvaccinated, the death rate would have skyrocketed as the infections completely overwhelmed the country’s hospitals at the peak of the Delta and omicron variants.

Figure 5. Cumulative COVID-19 deaths recorded in the U.S. and several other countries as a function of date, from Our World in Data.
Figure 6. US weekly COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people, subdivided by vaccination status, from Our World in Data.

How many people have been killed by COVID shots? The CDC reports the following:

FDA requires healthcare providers to report any death after COVID-19 vaccination to VAERS [Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System], even if it’s unclear whether the vaccine was the cause. Reports of adverse events to VAERS following vaccination, including deaths, do not necessarily mean that a vaccine caused a health problem. More than 529 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines were administered in the United States from December 14, 2020, through January 18, 2022. During this time, VAERS received 11,468 reports of death (0.0022%) among people who received a COVID-19 vaccine. CDC and FDA clinicians review reports of death to VAERS including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records.”

VAERS is required to record any adverse medical event that occurs in the wake of the vaccine in order to look for possible patterns revealing side-effects. For example, it records my own surgical removal of a pituitary tumor three months after my second Pfizer shot, even though that event is completely unrelated to the vaccine. The tumor was undoubtedly growing inside my brain for 20 years or more. The only causal death relationship identified by CDC so far is with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine: “Continued monitoring has identified nine deaths causally associated with J&J/Janssen COVID-19 vaccination.” So the number of deaths caused by the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines is presumably much, much less than the total of 11,468 deaths recorded by VAERS. If one allows very generously that 10% of these deaths were caused by the mRNA vaccines rather than by unrelated issues, then still the number of deaths is dwarfed by more (probably much more) than two orders of magnitude by the number of lives saved. There is no responsible calculation that could support Kennedy’s outrageous claim.

Of course, Kennedy prefers to attribute all of the VAERS-recorded deaths (many to quite elderly people months after receiving the vaccine, from causes unrelated to the vaccine) to the vaccine, even while he claims that the number of COVID deaths in the country is wildly overestimated because CDC doesn’t attribute the deaths to comorbidities that may have made the COVID infection worse. Consistency in approach is not Kennedy’s long suit. His pseudoscience clearly merits a Pseudy.

In a recent interview with SPIN magazine, Kennedy claimed he’s not an anti-vaxxer: “No, I’m not anti-vaccine anymore than I am anti-medicine. If there’s a vaccine that actually leaves people healthier then I’d be for it.” When asked specifically about the smallpox vaccine, which has completely eradicated the disease, he completely evaded the question. We are left to conclude, taking Kennedy at his word, that he’s not anti-vaccine, he’s just never met a vaccine that he likes. (Sort of the way we feel about charlatans.) And because of his dislike, he’s been spreading very dangerous misinformation around the world in a time of great need for medical preventative measures.

In that same interview, he asked: “If a vaccine does not prevent transmission, what is the justification for mandating it?” The interviewer took it as a rhetorical question, and did not bother to really answer. But the answer is straightforward: even if transmissibility were identical from infected people independent of vaccine status, the vaccine would still be important for public health, because it greatly suppresses long-term COVID infections, which infect others over longer time periods and tend to be the source of new, more virulent variants in patients who serve as incubators.

Award #3: Ken Paxton

The Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (see Fig. 7) filed a ludicrous lawsuit, supported by 17 other Republican state Attorneys General and 126 Republican members of the U.S. Congress, requesting the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate 2020 U.S. presidential election results from the states of Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and thereby hand the election to Donald Trump even though he lost both the popular and Electoral College votes. The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit instantaneously, but still Paxton merits a Pseudy based on his unique contribution to the Big Lie of 2020 election fraud in the following ridiculous claim in his lawsuit:

The probability of former Vice President Biden winning the popular vote in the four Defendant States—Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—independently given President Trump’s early lead in those States as of 3 a.m. on November 4, 2020, is less than one in a quadrillion, or 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000. For former Vice President Biden to win these four States collectively, the odds of that event happening decrease to less than one in a quadrillion to the fourth power (i.e., 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,0004).”

Figure 7. Texas state Attorney General Ken Paxton standing before the U.S. Supreme Court building.

Paxton based this absurd, but scientific-sounding (especially given that 4th power at the end), claim on an attached declaration from one Charles J. Cicchetti, Ph.D. Paxton apparently did not bother to actually read or understand the details of what Cicchetti claimed.  He did, in fact, claim less than 1 in a quadrillion statistical probability that two independent facts were simultaneously true: (a) that the outcomes in Georgia were similar for Joe Biden in 2020 and Hilary Clinton in 2016; (b) that the early and late vote tabulations in Georgia were “randomly drawn from the same population.” Was Cicchetti’s claim numerically correct? Who cares, because his premises made his calculation utterly irrelevant. Biden won and Clinton lost in Georgia, so nobody would have claimed that their outcomes were statistically “similar,” whatever Cicchetti thinks the definition of similarity should be. Nor would anybody who has paid the remotest attention to U.S. elections expect that early-counted in-person votes from many counties and late-counted absentee votes primarily from densely populated urban counties in each state would represent random samples drawn from identical distributions of partisan preferences. Especially after Donald Trump had spent months convincing his supporters not to use absentee ballots, leading to a predictably large advantage for Biden among the late-counted absentee ballots. And that advantage simply enhanced the usual preferences of urban areas for Democrats over Republicans.

Furthermore, it is completely unjustified to raise whatever probability Cicchetti calculated for a single state to the fourth power when considering results in the four states, because the deviations from Cicchetti’s nonsensical premise (random draws from the same population) are strongly correlated among the four states, so single-state probabilities cannot be simply multiplied by one another. Paxton apparently does not understand statistics, but he knows how to attract the attention of Texas Republican voters.

The final two Pseudy’s are awarded posthumously to two highly respected scientists who spouted colorful nonsense, fueling a great deal of science denial, when they strayed from their fields of expertise.

Award #4: David Bellamy

Dr. David Bellamy (Fig. 8) was a respected botanist in the U.K., the author of many books and presenter of hundreds of BBC television programs over the years. He passed away in 2019. Yet late in his career he had become an outspoken disbeliever in manmade global climate change, calling it “poppycock.” He is being awarded a posthumous Pseudy for his statement in a 2008 interview:

Global warming is part of a natural cycle and there’s nothing we can actually do to stop these cycles. The world is now facing spending a vast amount of money in tax to try to solve a problem that doesn’t actually exist.”

Figure 8. Dr. David Bellamy.

Why, among all the many climate change deniers we have profiled on this blog site, should we pick this one quote from more than a decade ago to highlight by a Pseudy award? Because Bellamy’s picture and quote went viral among climate change deniers on Facebook in 2021, in the midst of the COP26 Glasgow climate summit meeting of worldwide representatives to adopt guidelines for accelerating progress on reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. The posts that quoted Bellamy were among thousands of climate misinformation posts that were attracting up to 1.36 million views per day, according to an analysis of Facebook posts throughout 2021. Only 3.6% of the climate misinformation posts were fact-checked by Facebook. Interactions per post in the analyzed dataset have increased 76.7% in the past year, the report found. The research and partnerships manager for Stop Funding Heat, the group that carried out the analysis, said: “If it continues to increase at this rate, this can cause significant harm in the real world.”

And all this happened in the same year that NASA satellites were providing direct observational proof that human activities were, indeed, dominating the changing energy balance of Earth responsible for the rising global temperatures. We have previously presented on this site simple scientific explanations and data behind the now irrefutable human dominance of global warming, here and here. Scientist naysayers like Bellamy, or those who offer fundamentally flawed and misguided “proofs” that greenhouse gases in the atmosphere cannot possibly contribute to Earth warming, seriously impede progress in combating human-caused climate change.

Award #5: Fred Hoyle

Sir Fred Hoyle (Fig. 9) was a British astrophysicist who made major contributions to our understanding of the nuclear reactions that produce the energy fueling the evolution of stars. He was, however, often willing to offer provocative strong opinions about scientific subjects far removed from stellar evolution. We are awarding him a Pseudy, even though he died in 2001, for one unfortunately still influential piece of such nonsense from the early 1980s. In expressing his disdain for theories that attributed the origin of life on Earth to the gradual buildup of early biomolecules from assemblies of non-living organic compounds – that is, the concept of abiogenesis – Hoyle famously stated:

The chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way is comparable to the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein.”

Figure 9. Sir Fred Hoyle.

Although Hoyle offered this deeply flawed analogy in the context of theories of the origins of life – and that field remains somewhat speculative (Hoyle’s own speculation being that life on Earth simply arrived from elsewhere in the universe) – his junkyard tornado quote is most frequently invoked to this day by believers in Intelligent Design (ID) and other deniers of the science of evolution. Hoyle’s fallacy underpins many flawed arguments that random mutations cannot statistically lead to species improvements. Many ID believers overlook the strong filtering of mutations imposed by natural selection. And even such pseudo-scientific concepts as Michael Behe’sirreducible complexity,” although they admit some role for natural selection, rest essentially on Hoyle’s statistical fallacy.

There are a number of problems with Hoyle’s analogy, but the two major ones for applications to abiogenesis or evolution are the following:

  1. Single step vs. multi-step: A tornado sweeps through a junkyard rapidly, so that the junkyard tornado analogy suggests that a complex structure must be built up quickly in a single step. In contrast, abiogenesis and the chemical evolution on which it relies, as well as biological evolution, rely on the net result of myriad steps occurring over hundreds of millions of years in the case of the origins of life, or over tens of millions of years in the case of evolution of species. And in both cases, natural selection very strongly favors those random steps that lead to more rapid or more successful reproduction.
  2. One true path vs. multi-path: A Boeing 747 is an engineered device with a precise design and one, and only one, correct way of assembling its parts. Thus, Hoyle’s fallacy suggests that there is also one true path to arrive at biomolecules or, in its invocation for evolution denial, one true path to the evolution of species. Intelligent Design advocates who accept that there is an accumulation of many steps still argue that there has not been sufficient time on Earth to randomly sample all possible paths to find the “right one” to each species. The truth is very far from these fictions. As we have pointed out in our posts on evolution, there is an enormous degree of redundancy and robustness against small changes that are built into biomolecules and that offer an enormous diversity of paths to achieve evolutionary improvement.

The point about the enormous redundancy of evolutionary paths has been emphasized particularly by Andreas Wagner in his book Arrival of the Fittest: How Nature Innovates. For example, estimates carried out for some specific proteins suggest that among all the conceivable long sequences of the 20 amino acids relevant to human biology, there can be as many as 1050 or more distinct sequences that all accomplish the same biological function and can be thought of as belonging to a huge genotype network! There are consequently a very large number of point mutations to coding DNA that may alter an amino acid at one location in the instructions for assembling a specific protein without altering the protein’s function. Such mutations simply transform the protein to another member of the same genotype network. These abundant mutations are thus neutral in terms of their impact on biological function.

Starting from any member of such a network, there are also a small number of point mutations that may lead to either harmful or beneficial changes in biological function, by connecting to a different genotype network, which also contains an enormous number of possible amino acid configurations. Natural selection favors the beneficial changes. The consequence of all this redundancy is that there is no “one true path,” but rather very many possible paths that can be found to lead to the same eventual beneficial or harmful mutation, following and preceding different sequences of neutral mutations or other mutations that affect biological function. Evidence for this abounds in the very different amino acid sequences found by different species for certain protein functions, e.g., oxygen transport in hemoglobin in plants vs. insects. As Wagner points out, the same basic story of enormous redundancy and myriad alternative paths to beneficial functioning applies to regulatory gene networks and to the chains of chemical reactions that constitute metabolism.

The same flawed “one true path” philosophy is at the heart of Behe’s arguments for the false concept of irreducible complexity. Behe argues that even a buildup of successive random mutations cannot possibly yield “a single system which is composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.” His classic example of an irreducibly complex system is the flagellum that allows some bacteria to propel themselves.

As we have explained, his challenge to remove the genes that contribute to flagellum formation and function and to see if a flagellum is then regenerated in subsequent bacterial generations, without the intervention of an intelligent designer, has indeed been met in an experiment. The natural selection pressure to find nutrients led the tail-less bacteria to regrow flagella and regain motility, via random mutations that repurposed proteins originally designed for regulation of nitrogen uptake to instead regulate flagellum formation and function.  This is one example of exaptation, the ubiquitous process by which nature retools structures for new functions, a process that contributes to nature’s innovation and that Behe and other Intelligent Design advocates persistently ignore in flawed claims of irreducible complexity.

Fred Hoyle’s colorful, but wildly oversimplistic, junkyard tornado claim overlooks all of nature’s abundant mechanisms and myriad paths to attain and evolve life on Earth, given enough time and generations of reproduction.  It has helped to lead generations of evolution deniers astray in relying on fallacious statistical arguments. And for this, Hoyle merits one of our initial Pseudys.