Gary Null and Sayer Ji love me! They really love me!

Gary Null loves me! He really loves me!

Well, maybe not Gary Null, but Sayer Ji. You remember Sayer Ji, don’t you? He’s the guy who runs who showed up on my skeptical radar when he claimed that vaccines are “transhumanism” that subverts evolution. (Seriously, you can’t make stuff like this up.) On another occasion, he attacked Bill Gates for funding projects to monitor the antivaccine movement, and went wild attacking such activities as though they were a bad thing. Most recently, Ji launched a spectacularly inept attack on evidence-based medicine in which he tried to represent it as being no better than a coin flip. It was perhaps the most spectacularly clueless argument I’ve seen in a very long time, and that’s saying a lot.

That last bit of fun passed through the pages of this very blog here a mere two and a half months ago, and it would seem that Ji is still upset about it. I say this because he made a recent appearance on The Gary Null Show a mere week ago. I couldn’t help but be seriously amused by this particular show, because it was just so damned entertaining to me. I rather suspect it will be equally entertaining to you. Basically, Sayer Ji appears on the show as Null’s guest and makes the argument that there is a new “science-based medicine” movement that is a grave threat to “alternative health.” Again, I can’t help but say to Ji: You say that as though it were a bad thing. I’d even go a bit further and say: Would that it were true! Sadly, it’s not. If anything, the SBM “movement” amounts more to a rag-tag band of rebels facing a much more powerful empire Think Battlestar Galactica and the fleet versus the Cylons (particularly the “reimagined” series that wrapped up a few years ago in which the infiltration of human-appearing Cylons can be a metaphor for “integrative physicians”), or, even better, Roj Blake and his crew against Servalan and the Federation. Maybe someday that will change, but in the meantime Gary Null fantasizes that it’s the other way around.

Before I get to Sayer Ji’s segment, which shows up around 35 minutes into the podcast, it’s worth checking out the Null’s introduction. He starts out asking, “What is the the science behind vaccines?” noting that there are a lot of blogs out there telling you that you should be vaccinated. This is true. We proponents of science-based medicine tend to be very pro-vaccine for the simple reason that vaccines are one of the most effective preventative measures to protect people from disease that there are, and the evidence supports that statement. Unfortunately, what Null fails to mention is that there are at least as many, if not more, blogs out there (Null’s website and radio show included) telling people that vaccines are toxic, don’t work, and give your kids autism. Our blogging is reactive to this misinformation and pseudoscience. Of course, to Null, it’s all a conspiracy, because the first thing he asks is: “Who’s paying for this?” Certainly, in my case, I can tell him that the answer is: No one. Yes, I get a small check from ScienceBlogs, but not because I blog about vaccines or medicine. Rather, it’s because I blog about science and medicine and have a pretty decent-sized audience for a blog. I would continue to blog if ScienceBlogs ceased to exist and I had to do it for free. It’s my hobby.

Be that as it may, Null drones on in a voice that can best be described as a combination of a golf announcer and a conspiracy nut, as he says he’s going to talk about the “new science-based medicine movement in the United States” and its “threats to alternative and holistic health.” He sets it up by saying that the “quackbusters” have been “completely discredited,” that they’re being sued and have been neutered. While it is true that, for instance, Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch is being sued by Doctors Data, it’s a huge exaggeration to claim that the “quackbusters” have been rendered ineffective. In any case, apparently Null views the “science-based medicine movement” as the successor to the quackbusters, and he doesn’t like us. Not one bit!

Instead, Null seems inordinately impressed by sheer numbers. He goes on and on about the sheer numbers of papers that Sayer Ji had featured on his website, as though quantity could make up for cherry picking and misinterpretation. Creationists have a lot of papers that they feature, too, and that doesn’t make evolution any less true. Similarly, quacks do the same thing, listing paper after paper, devoid of context (or worse, given in a deceptive context) as “slam dunk evidence” for their viewpoints when a more objective survey of the entire literature would demonstrate that the studies cited don’t necessarily say what the quacks think they say. With that background, it’s not surprising that Sayer Ji’s definition of SBM is wildly off-base, as you’ll see.

But first Null does what Jake Crosby did to ScienceBlogs by trying to imply that it is very “secretive” because he couldn’t find any contact information. In particular, Null is disturbed by Seed’s manifesto about science, which says:

It’s a different way of looking at the world. It’s about using data to uncover patterns and design to confront complexity. It’s about connecting things to reveal systems. It’s about traversing scales and disregarding disciplines, applying neuroscience to economics, math to global health, virology to manufacturing, and genetics to law… It’s about experimenting all the way to understanding. It’s about changing your mind with new evidence – and getting as close to truth as humanly possible.

Getting 7 billion people to think scientifically has never been a small mission. And it has never been more important.

Since 2005, we have offered ideas and stories to help people think scientifically. Now we’re taking the next big step in this journey by creating tools and services to help institutions – companies, governments, and international organizations – do the same. We’re taking our way of seeing and thinking to parliaments, courtrooms, hospitals, construction sites, boardrooms… around the world – to catalyze scientific thinking at scale.

Whether Seed or ScienceBlogs has always lived up to this ideal or not, it is a good ideal. At least, it’s a good ideal unless you’re Gary Null, who is very disturbed that Seed apparently donated to President Clinton’s initiative to promote science literacy—as if that were a bad thing! Through Seed’s other partnerships, Null than somehow manages to pull a Jake Crosby (you remember Jake Crosby’s hilarious conspiracy theories about ScienceBlogs, don’t you?) and do them one better, linking ScienceBlogs to “many prestigious universities (again, as though that were a bad thing), the World Economic Forum, TED, and—gasp!—The Huffington Post. Oddly enough, one would think that Null would like HuffPo, given its longstanding support for quackery and antivaccine pseudoscience, but apparently not. Actually, if this is true, I’m mildly disturbed, but obviously the connection with HuffPo is so tenuous that no one has ever said anything when I’ve written the harshest criticisms of HuffPo in which I routinely characterize it as a “wretched hive of scum and quackery.”

Sayer, as usual, is none too bright in that he fires off a massive straw man, namely saying that skeptics deny that there’s any evidence for “natural medicine,” and that his website is designed to counter that. Of course, we do nothing of the sort. We analyze the evidence and usually find it wanting. Moreover, we complain about the co-opting of natural products pharmacology by “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), such that CAM practitioners overlay mysticism, vitalism, and magical thinking. We try to counter the infiltration of pseudoscience and quackery into medicine. Of course, the truly hilarious thing is the massive case of projection that Ji mentions. What’s also hilarious is that only one other blogger on ScienceBlogs, Mark Hoofnagle, routinely blogs about CAM and quackery (but I repeat myself). Yet Ji and Null make it sound as though ScienceBlogs does nothing but attack purveyors of “natural health” like them, when in fact there are a few dozen blogs, and only rarely do any of them other than Marks and mine cover these issues, and Mark doesn’t post nearly as regularly as I do.

Which means that Ji and Null appear to be conflating ScienceBlogs with me. I had no idea I was so powerful! “L’état, c’est moi!” (Or at least the blog network.) Or maybe “La médecine basée sur la science, c’est moi!” (Sadly, I couldn’t think of a pithy French term for SBM.) It’s ridiculous, of course. While ScienceBlogs might not have the same identity that it once did, it’s still made up of a bunch of really talented bloggers, the vast majority of whom probably don’t even know who Sayer Ji is. In fact, in light of this it’s rather hilarious to me that Ji seems to conflate ScienceBlogs with the SBM movement, neglecting…oh, you know…the Science-Based Medicine blog that started it all five years ago.

In particular, I was amused by Null’s attempted defense of Tom Jefferson, whom I criticized for having appeared on Null’s show and for his tendency towards methodolatry. Not surprisingly, Null exaggerates Jefferson’s criticism of the evidence base for the flu vaccine and then takes a not-unexpected tack, in essence an argument from authority that goes something along the lines of, “How dare this Orac character criticize the Great Tom Jefferson?” My reasons, of course, are in the links, along with my citation of the evidence that leads me to believe what I believe, none of which Ji addresses. For instance, what Jefferson said about vaccinating pregnant women was shockingly in its level of ignorance and mischaracterization. While dismissing my readership (which, while not insubstantial, is probably not as wide as Gary Null’s), Ji then accuses me of trying to write posts with an eye, more than anything else, to search engine optimization to put my posts at the top of Google search lists.

It was at this point that I lost it. The very thought was just too hilarious. If I could really do that, if I really knew what I was doing to the point where I could slime people like Null intentionally by writing my posts so that they show up at the top of Google searches, I don’t think Ji would be able to disparage my traffic so easily. It’d be through the roof because I’d craft those oh-so-Google-savvy posts in such a way as to get my posts at the top of the relevant Google searches. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. On the other hand, on uncommon occasions I do apparently get lucky in spite of my lack of Google gaming skills. For example, last night I typed “Gary Null” into the Google search box, and guess what came up on the first page of hits? This post from three years ago about Null’s having accidentally poisoned himself with his own supplements! That was completely unintentional, but it happened. Then I typed “Sayer Ji” into Google, and guess what came up on the first page of hits? This link! Again, that was unintentional, but somehow my post ranked high in spite of my lack of search engine savvy. Maybe Ji’s on to something after all, but probably not, particularly if he thinks I have a lot of money and power. Maybe some day when my nefarious plans come to fruition I will (insert obligatory rubbing of hands together accompanied by a hearty, villainous, “Muhahahahahaha!”), but right now I’m just a moderately successful blogger who is exercising his First Amendment right to free speech.

At this point, Null tries to take the high ground, saying that he doesn’t mind being criticized as long as “it’s all out there” and his critics’ funding and conflicts of interest are known. The implication, of course, is that all my funding and COIs are not known, that I’m hiding something. It’s the pharma shill gambit, of course, which is why I’ll say right here, right now: I am not funded by any pharmaceutical company. In fact, my research seems not to be of much interest to drug companies, and they won’t fund it! True, I have had one small pharma grant in the past, but right now I have none. My only sources of income are my day job, the small amount of cash I get from ScienceBlogs each month for my blogging, and the meager interest on my savings and retirement accounts. But, hey, if Null and Ji want to think me some sort of powerful avatar of SBM, I won’t do or say anything further to disabuse them of the notion other than to mock them for their use of the pharma shill gambit.

Much of the rest of the interview consists of Null attacking Stephen Barrett, gloating about Stephen Barrett, and saying that we supporters of SBM are “not worth talking about” as he spends several minutes talking about us. Meanwhile, Ji holds up the peer-reviewed literature that he cites as a talisman against criticism, while cluelessly not realizing that individual studies prove little. Replication, is critical, as is study quality, filtered through Bayesian prior plausibility, which makes Ji’s fetishizing his citation of scientific papers all the more amusing, particularly in the context of Null’s rant against SBM, which he ends up characterizing a “stupid.” Meanwhile, Ji touts his background in philosophy and phenomenology, as if that were even relevant, as he complains about science “objectifying our bodies as machines.” Then Null wraps it up by criticizing Steve Novella for being the “grand inquisitor,” pulling the silliest bit of nonsense quacks like. Basically, he pulls the “how do you know it’s quackery if you haven’t tried it?” gambit, saying that if you haven’t met quacks or spoken to their patients, you have no right to criticize their methods.

I have to wonder. Does it mean I’ve arrived, now that Gary Null apparently knows who I am and has spent a whole segment of his radio show attacking me?