Bogus “challenges” to prove the scientific consensus: The M.O. of a crank

Way back in the early days of my blogging career, I remember coming across a “challenge” by a man named Jock Doubleday. I didn’t know it at the time, but Doubleday had achieved some notoriety before his “vaccine challenge” as the director or Natural Woman, Natural Man, Inc. and the author of such amazing works as The Burning Time (Stories of the Modern-day Persecution of Midwives) and Lolita Shrugged (THE MYTH OF AGE-SPECIFIC MATURITY). His “challenge” was in the same vein as his previous work, only more so and full-on antivaccine. The reason I’m bringing up Doubleday again after all these years is because just last week, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Robert De Niro teamed up to do something that reminded me very much of Doubleday’s “challenge,” something that is a classic ploy used by cranks to promote their causes. I thus viewed RFK Jr.’s new “challenge” to be what we in the biz like to refer to as a “teachable moment.”

It started out in 2001 with Doubleday offering a $20,000 cash prize (later upped to $75,000) to “U.S.-licensed medical doctors who routinely administer childhood vaccinations and to pharmaceutical company CEOs worldwide” who would…well, let’s let Jock’s own words tell the tale. The original web page no longer exists, but fortunately the Wayback Machine has it stored in all its 2006 cranky glory:

Jock Doubleday, director of the California 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation Natural Woman, Natural Man, Inc., hereby offers $75,000.00 to the first medical doctor or pharmaceutical company CEO who publicly drinks a mixture of standard vaccine additives ingredients in the same amount as a six-year-old child is recommended to receive under the year-2005 guidelines of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (In the event that thimerosal has recently been removed from a particular vaccine, the thimerosal-containing version of that vaccine will be used.)

The mixture will not contain viruses or bacteria dead or alive, but will contain standard vaccine additive ingredients in their usual forms and proportions. The mixture will include, but will not be limited to, the following ingredients: thimerosal (a mercury derivative), ethylene glycol (antifreeze), phenol (a disinfectant dye), benzethonium chloride (a disinfectant), formaldehyde (a preservative and disinfectant), and aluminum.

The mixture will be prepared by Jock Doubleday, three medical professionals that he names, and three medical professionals that the participant names.

The mixture will be body weight calibrated.

Because the participant is either a professional caregiver who routinely administers childhood vaccinations, or a pharmaceutical company CEO whose business is, in part, the sale of childhood vaccines, it is understood by all parties that the participant considers all vaccine additive ingredients to be safe and that the participant considers any mixture containing these ingredients to be safe.

The participant agrees, and any and all agents and associates of the participant agree, to indemnify and hold harmless in perpetuity any and all persons, organizations, and/or entities associated with the event for any harm caused, or alleged to be caused, directly or indirectly, to the participant or indirectly to the participant’s heirs, relations, employers, employees, colleagues, associates, or other persons, organizations, or entities claiming association with, or representation of, the participant, by the participant’s participation in the event.

The event will be held within six months of the participant’s written agreement to the above and further elaborated terms.

Doubleday concluded by listing the then-membership of the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, whose membership he said that he’d automatically update the challenge to include. After jumping to $75,000 in 2006, it supposedly increased again to $200,000 in 2009. (When Harriet wrote about the challenge in 2008, it was $150,000.)

Obviously, those familiar with antivaccine misinformation, pseudoscience, and tropes will immediately recognize this hoary challenge as being based on what I like to refer to as the “toxins” gambit, a common antivaccine trope that targets the adjuvants and other ingredients in vaccines as horrific “toxins.” For example, there are trace amounts of formaldehyde in some vaccines, which antivaxers will portray as the equivalent of childhood vaccines being laced with embalming fluid when in reality the human body (even a baby’s) produces formaldehyde as a byproduct of normal metabolism and has far more formaldehyde the bloodstream than is contained in any vaccine. Of course, thimerosal wasn’t even in most childhood vaccines anymore by 2006, the year Doubleday increased the value of the prize to $75,000, and thimerosal at the doses contained even when thimerosal exposure due to vaccines was at its height doesn’t cause autism or other neurological or neurodevelopmental disorders.

Of course, anyone with a bit of critical thinking skills can also immediately see that this challenge is not an honest one. For one thing, drinking ingredients is not the same as injecting them intramuscularly. Even if it were, if you control for weight, the amount of thimerosal, acute toxicity with thimerosal only occurs at a dose at least 500-fold more than any infant would have received from vaccines.

However, where you can really tell that Doubleday wasn’t sincere is in the various conditions he tacked on to his challenge, which, again, the Wayback Machine has provided. Some of them are truly hilarious. For instance, Doubleday requires that participants undergo three thorough psychiatric evaluations, each performed by a different psychiatrist named by Doubleday and paid for by the participant. He also wants participants to submit to him all of their mental health records and to undergo a complete physical examination by a physician of his choice. Then there’s a requirement that the participant read several antivaccine books:

  1. Vaccines: Are They Really Safe and Effective? by Neil Z. Miller;
  2. Immunization: The Reality Behind the Myth, by Walene James;
  3. Vaccination, Social Violence and Criminality: The Medical Assault on the American Brain, by Harris L. Coulter;
  4. The Sanctity of Human Blood: Vaccination Is Not Immunization, by Tim O’Shea; and
  5. What Every Parent Should Know About Childhood Immunization, by Jamie Murphy.

Oh, and there’s a test, too! It consists of five separate closed-book exams of 20 yes/no, true/false, multiple-choice, and/or short-answer questions, each based on one of the five books, and the participant has to score 90% or above to proceed to the actual challenge. Well, not exactly. That’s not all. Read the rest if you’re interested. Obviously, this test was never meant to be carried out. In fact, several doctors have contacted Doubleday to publicly accept the challenge, but—surprise! surprise!—Doubleday always finds reasons to reject them.

It turns out that this is a classic crank ploy: Issue a “challenge” to provide one piece of evidence that “proves” the scientific consensus, be it by not dying after drinking vaccine ingredients or…something else. I discussed RFK, Jr.’s “$100,000 challenge” to provide one—just one!—scientific study that basically absolutely proves the safety of thimerosal in vaccines. Of course, the whole thing is rigged. RFK Jr. controls who are the judges. RFK Jr. requires a $50 entry fee and, in the event of needing to resolve a dispute over the results of the challenge, half of the $400 an hour he claims that his scientific panel will charge to review the evidence. It’s every bit as bogus a challenge as Jock Doubleday’s.

Of course, it isn’t just antivaxers who like to issue “challenges.” I’ve learned of several of them over the years, coming from a wide variety of science denialists. They vary in format. One of my favorites came from a creationist named Joseph Mastropaolo, who issued what he referred to as his “Literal Genesis Trial Contest.” The contest reminded me when I first learned of it of The People’s Court, a bit of a different twist on an old game. The participant has to put up $10,000 as the price of entry, and the debate will be decided through a pseudo-legal proceeding, complete with a judge and bailiff. And Mastropaolo had the judges all picked out. What could go wrong? Well, Michael Zimmerman did take the challenge in its earlier incarnation as the Life Science Challenge, and he pointed out a lot of the same things we see in crank challenges like this all the time, the problems agreeing on definitions and on criteria to determine who “wins.”

Not surprisingly, creationist Kent Hovind also offered $250,000 to anyone who could “prove beyond reasonable doubt that the process of evolution…is the only possible way the observed phenomena could have come into existence.” Of course, Hovind’s definition of evolution was a bit…problematic:

When I use the word evolution, I am not referring to the minor variations found in all of the various life forms (microevolution). I am referring to the general theory of evolution which believes these five major events took place without God:

  1. Time, space, and matter came into existence by themselves.
  2. Planets and stars formed from space dust.
  3. Matter created life by itself.
  4. Early life-forms learned to reproduce themselves.
  5. Major changes occurred between these diverse life forms (i.e., fish changed to amphibians, amphibians changed to reptiles, and reptiles changed to birds or mammals).

Nowhere does the theory of evolution state anything like #1-#3. It is agnostic on how the universe came into being or how life arose, and #4 is stated in a rather dodgy manner. Like most cranks issuing scientific challenges, Hovind assured people that a “committee of trained scientists will provide peer review of the evidence offered and, to the best of their ability, will be fair and honest in their evaluation and judgment as to the validity of the evidence presented” but failed to list who these scientists would be or how they would be chosen. In other words, it was a scam.

Climate science denialists have also gotten in on the act. The scientific evidence that human activity is affecting the climate, resulting in climate change consisting primarily of an overall warming of the climate, is overwhelming, but climate science denialists never miss a pseudoscientific trick in denying this finding. For instance, Steve Milloy, proprietor of the Junk Science website, issued his Ultimate Global Warming Challenge, which started out offering $100,000 (now allegedly $500,000) to anyone who can “prove, in a scientific manner, that humans are causing harmful global warming. I can’t help but note that Milloy really needs to update his website, as he still has dates in 2008 and 2009 listed as his deadline and the date for results to be announced. Nonetheless, just the other day he bragged about his “UGWC” on Twitter; so I assume it’s still on:

No winners by design, of course. After all, Milloy states that entrants “acknowledge that the concepts and terms mentioned and referred to in the UGWC hypotheses are inherently and necessarily vague, and involve subjective judgment and that “ reserves the exclusive right to determine the meaning and application of such concepts and terms in order to facilitate the purpose of the contest”, as well as asserting that “, in its sole discretion, will determine the winner, if any, from UGWC entries.”

Same as it ever was.

I’ve even seen these sorts of “challenges” from other varieties of cranks. For instance, a 9/11 “Truther” once offered $100,000 to any engineering student who could “prove the World Trade Center buildings crashed the way the government says.” The worst one that I remember was when the Holocaust denial group Institute for Historical Review offered a $50,000 cash prize in 1979 for proof that Jews were gassed at Auschwitz. In 1981 Holocaust surviver Mel Mermelstein tried to claim the prize based on his personal experiences recounted in his autobiography By Bread Alone, which was supplemented with photos, newspaper articles, and other documents to support his claim. When IHR refused to pay, Mermelstein sued, and the court issued a judgment ordering IHR to pay Mermelstein $90,000, and write a public apology to him, with Judge Thomas T. Johnson declaring:

This court does take judicial notice of the fact that Jews were gassed to death at Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland during the summer of 1944. It is not reasonably subject to dispute. And it is capable of immediate and accurate determination by resort to sources of reasonably indisputable accuracy. It is simply a fact.

Perhaps the most hilarious version of this technique came from Mike Adams earlier this month, as he proclaimed Health Ranger issues “drink mercury” challenge to toxic vaccine pushers who poison infants for profit, in which he challenges “mercury vaccine pushers to simply drink a liter of the mercury of their choice and either prove it’s safe… or not.” This is about as idiotic a challenge as I’ve ever seen, outdoing even Jock Doubleday’s challenge. I wonder if I’ve already qualified. Back when I wore contact lenses and thimerosal was still in many saline solutions as a preservative, I accidentally spilled some while putting saline drops in my eyes to wet the lenses. It got into my mouth and I swallowed it. It was at least a few milliliters; so that should be about the amount that a typical 0.5 ml childhood vaccine contains—or more.

Yes, I’m laughing at Mike Adams.

A word of advice to RFK Jr. and Robert De Niro: When you use a technique beloved by creationists, antivaxers as out of touch with reality as Jock Doubleday, 9/11 Truthers, Holocaust deniers, climate science denialists, and Mike Adams (you know, the guy who is pushing something he calls elemonics), you might want to rethink your strategy.