If there’s one characteristic that prominent cranks share, it’s an extreme sensitivity to science-, evidence-, and reality-based criticism, particularly if that criticism comes from someone with the credentials or knowledge to dismantle their misinformation, conspiracy theories, and lies. Part and parcel of that sensitivity is a propensity to try to use whatever means they can to silence such criticism. (Indeed, many of the very same cranks who decry “cancel culture” are among its most enthusiastic practitioners.) A favored technique to silence critics involves what I’ve long referred to as “legal thuggery.” Basically, legal thuggery involves using the legal system to intimidate, in this case, to intimidate your critics into silence. This sort of legal thuggery is easy, too, if you happen to be a wealthy quack who can afford lots of lawyers, as most skeptics are regular people for whom hiring a lawyer to defend themselves is a huge expense. That’s the point. That’s why cranks engage in such legal thuggery. It’s still going on, and I still detest it, which is why I will discuss three COVID-19 era examples.
Before I get to the examples, though, I think it’s worth mentioning a few examples of legal thuggery that I’ve written about over the years. First, however, I note that my extreme dislike of such tactics actually predates this blog, when in 2000 I learned of Holocaust denier David Irving’s frivolous libel lawsuit against Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, which is recounted here and in two books, History on Trial: My Day In Court With a Holocaust Denier by Lipstadt herself and Lying About Hitler: History, the Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial, as well as a movie last year, Denial, starring Rachel Weisz. Examples go way back, such as when cancer quack Stanislaw Burzynski hired a media manager who issued threats to sue Rhys Morgan over his criticism of Burzynski’s pseudoscience. Fortunately, they backfired. Then there was antivaccine icon Andrew Wakefield’s lawsuit against Brian Deer, the investigative reporter who discovered Wakefield’s fraud and conflicts of interest. It failed. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop it from being the central focus of a recent uncritical documentary. Then, of course, there was antivaccine grande dame Barbara Loe Fisher’s frivolous lawsuit against Paul Offit. It, too, was dismissed. Other quacks and cranks indulging in this behavior include Dr. Joseph Chikelue Obi’s legal threats against Andy Lewis, Rev. Lisa Sykes and Seth Sykes attempt to subpoena Kathleen Seidel, HIV/AIDS denialist Matthias Rath suing Ben Goldacre, quack Andreas Moritz suing a student over a blog criticizing his quackery, the British Chiropractic Association’s lawsuit against Simon Singh, the frivolous lawsuit directed at Steve Novella, which was also lost, and, of course, cancer naturopathic quack Colleen Huber suing ex-naturopath turned skeptic Britt Hermes for criticism of Huber’s quackery.
I myself have been at the receiving end of harassment and legal thuggery as well, dating back to 2005. Indeed, over the last 16 years I’ve lost track of the number of times that antivaxxers or other quacks have harassed me at work by complaining to my department chair and cancer center director (and sometimes the dean of my medical school) for my blogging. One time, they even made up a fake “undisclosed conflict of interest” to try to urge the university’s Board of Governors to discipline or fire me. Then, a chronic Lyme disease quack sued me (and my fellow bloggers at my not-so-super-secret other blog) to try to silence us. He lost, but it took funding and time to get the case dismissed. Not long after, Gary Null himself threatened to sue me but never followed through after my lawyer sent a response letter. Perhaps the worst was when, five years ago, über-quackery tycoon Mike Adams wrote something like 40 libelous articles about me in a six month period and even claimed that he had reported me to the Michigan Attorney General and the Detroit FBI office for supposedly having been in league with an infamous oncologist who had bilked Medicare for tens of millions of dollars several years before. Most recently, antivaxxers threatened to come down in their full cosplay gear with their misinformation-packed signs to “protest” against me at my cancer center, while I’ve been subject to an abusive Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for my university emails, which are subject to FOIA because I’m faculty at a state university.
As an aside, I like to mention that my cancer center director was totally supportive, having come a long way. Basically, he’s gone from having been puzzled and (to my perception at the time, at least) rather annoyed by such complaints from cranks when he first took over ten years ago to being very supportive. He even jokes with me now and then when I happen to see him in the hall, saying that he hasn’t gotten any complaints about me recently, to which I usually joke back with a response something like, “I must be falling down on the job then. I promise do better.”
I’m fortunate, though. I survived the early attacks and am now at the point of thoroughly not giving any Fs, at least not about cranks calling my job, the sole exception being when they are abusive to the frontline staff answering the phones. That angers me. I won’t lie and say that the possibility of frivolous libel suits doesn’t worry me, but having been through one I’m a lot less anxious about the possibility than I was before that chronic Lyme disease quack sued me. Still, cranks use legal thuggery because it can and sometimes does work. Here are three examples.
Cranks use legal thuggery against a skeptic in Portugal
Yesterday, a skeptical physician named Dr. João Júlio Cerqueira published a guest post on Edzard Ernsts’ blog entitled A Word of Caution to Skeptics… A Chilling Story from Portugal. His story will sound eerily familiar to any skeptic who’s run up against powerful quacks or even just to readers of this blog and my not-so-secret other blog. Basically, Dr. Cerqueira became frustrated at the the health misinformation and quackery he was seeing in Portugal, in particular a TV celebrity doctor who promoted “alkaline diet, bioidentical hormones, colonic cleansings all through the ‘health benefits’ of drinking diluted saltwater,” and decided to do something about it. After studying what he referred to as the “masters of skepticism,” he started his own blog in the vein of blogs like this one, Prof. Ernst’s blog, and Science-Based Medicine:
So, frustrated by the lack of action of the regulatory institutions and the lack of critical approach by the media, I decided to create a blog that I called SCIMED. Using what I had learned through the years with “the masters of skepticism”, I tried to teach and convince people why pseudoscience is useless and dangerous. Why those selling pseudoscience are a danger to society and are only after the wallet of scientifically illiterate people.
Thanks to hard work and a lot of luck, the blog started to have a decent public projection. Started to get invitations to interviews in the media, invited to speak at conferences, started to write in the opinion section of mainstream journals, appearing on television, invited to do a TEDx talk, was invited to be one of the subscribers to the first world manifesto against pseudoscience and even had the pleasure to be a speaker in a conference side by side with Edzard Ernst, one of my heroes!
You can probably guess what happened next:
With public projection, came the problems…people calling my employers to get me fired, physical and death threats, constant harassment by email or in social media, doxing, and false accusations about my personal and professional life. You name it. And I endured…I considered it the dark side of defending Science and Truth.
I always try to warn aspiring skeptics, particularly young ones at the beginning of their careers, about the possibility—nay, likelihood—of harassment coming their way if they are effective and successful in their efforts. (If they’re not, cranks don’t bother, at least not as much.) Moreover, the higher the profile the target and the more effective the criticisms are, the more likely and nastier the blowback is likely to be.
Dr. Cerqueira also learned the hard way what the “Gish gallop” is and why I rarely, if ever, accept invitations to “live public debates” with quacks, antivaxxers, and cranks:
In April of 2019, I was invited to represent my country´s Medical College in a debate about pseudoscience on television, prime time. I was very excited and emotion clouded my reason. I didn´t think about the consequences. And well, it was a shitshow.
The audience was dominated by alternative health practitioners. The moderator was sympathetic with alternative health practices. And of course, the people representing the alternative health practitioners didn’t play by the same rules. They used deception, lying, testimonials, and all the logical fallacies you can think of.
Had Dr. Cerqueira asked me before this event, I would have warned him that this would be the most likely outcome. Even so, I give him credit for bravery in trying. These days, what used to be called the “Gish gallop,” a technique by which a crank floods a “debate” or discussion with so much misinformation (often with obscure studies), each one requiring so much time to debunk that it becomes, for all practical purposes, impossible to counter the flood of disinformation, is now known as “firehosing.” The technique remains the same. In this context, I like to refer to Brandolini’s law (also known as the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle), which states, “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than to produce it.” My only quibble with Brandolini’s law is that it underestimates the energy required to refute bullshit; it’s at least two or three orders of magnitude greater than the energy required to produce it.
Finally came the legal thuggery, which came after Dr. Cerquiera wrote a blog post criticizing a famous Traditional Chinese medicine practitioner in his country:
Soon after I wrote this last blog post, I received a letter from the court saying that I was being sued by this man. I hired a lawyer and made a lengthy response to all the accusations, more than 100 pages. Nevertheless, I have been charged with seventeen defamation crimes, awaiting trial, for defending the truth. For defending the people that Institutions refused to defend.
My country, Portugal, legally recognizes “Non-Conventional Therapies” like Homeopathy, Acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Osteopathy, Chiropractic, and Naturopathy. My country, instead of defending the consumer, took the option to give these people the legal right of robbing people. I thought that the COVID-19 pandemic would change that a little bit since pseudoscience contributed zero for solving the problem, alternative practitioners embraced negationism about COVID-19, and Traditional Chinese Medicine was put in the corner. It was Science that came to the rescue with vaccines.
But now, when the pandemic is finally getting managed in my country, the snakes are starting to come out of hibernation to sell snake oil. And the media are giving them credit, again, like nothing has happened…nothing has changed, except for me.
Right now, I face four legal battles, for defamation. Besides this man, I have another lawsuit from a Nurse that promotes Reiki and Traditional Chinese Medicine, other from a Naturopath/Quantum Doctor and, lastly, from a Medical Doctor that was the head of the “Doctors For the Truth”, an organization part of an international network of Health Professionals that still denies the science about COVID-19.
Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with such “physicians’ groups” that promote COVID-19 misinformation and even antivaccine pseudoscience.
I’m not familiar with libel law in Portugal; so I did a bit of Googling. I had become fairly familiar with libel law (at least as much as a non-lawyer can be) in the UK as a result of my interest in Holocaust denier David Irving’s libel suit against Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt two decades ago. In brief, UK libel law, unlike US libel law, tends to be far more favorable to the plaintiff than to the defendant in that the burden of evidence is shifted more to the defendant than the plaintiff. Unlike the case in the US, in the UK the party who claims he was defamed simply has to demonstrate the statements harm his reputation without having to show any damage actually incurred. In practice, defamatory statements tend to be assumed to be false, and the one who made them is required to prove that they are true.
It turns out that Portuguese libel law is even more friendly to the plaintiff. As one critic described, Portuguese courts have traditionally placed a high value on the rights to honor and reputation, considering freedom of expression less important compared to those rights. He also noted that courts at times fail to distinguish between assertions of fact and value judgments. Worse, unlike in the UK, where criminal libel was repealed a decade ago, in Portugal defamation can be prosecuted as a criminal offense. Given that knowledge, if I lived in Portugal, I don’t know if I’d be daring enough to do what I do and what Dr. Cerquiera did.
What truly depresses me is how broken Dr. Cerquiera sounds:
I learned that it is pointless trying to convince people to change their minds on social media… People don´t follow reason, follow emotion, and something closer to religious belief. People want to be right, don´t want to learn what is right. Facts don´t change the minds of believers.
I learned that “True Skeptics” are unicorns. Everyone is a rational, skeptical person that values truth, reason, and science until you hit some nerve, some irrational belief that they hold dear. And then the “skepticism” goes down the drain. The more topics you talk about, the lonely you will be. And then you became a unicorn or, in the words of Malcolm Gladwell in the book “Talking to Strangers”, a Holy Fool: the truth-teller that is an outcast.
While Dr. Cerquiera’s reaction to the legal thuggery he’s been experiencing is understandable, I hope he will realize that what we do is not useless. It is, of course, true that you will never convince, for example, die-hard antivaxxers that they’re wrong, but that’s not why I do what I do. My efforts are targeted at the vast majority of people who might be susceptible to the disinformation spread by antivaxxers and other conspiracy theorists. Consider it inoculation against pseudoscience.
Hydroxychloroquine quack Didier Raoult’s legal thuggery against Elisabeth Bik
It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about, much less paid much attention to, French researcher and COVID-19 quack Didier Raoult. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic I wrote about Raoult a few times, in particular his truly awful studies and clinical trials promoting his combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin as miraculous COVID-19 cures that bypassed evidence- and science-based medicine. Right there, criticizing Raoult’s mind-numbingly bad science before me and teaching me about Raoult was Elisabeth Bik. It didn’t take long for the evidence to show that hydroxychloroquine doesn’t work against COVID-19, which is why I refer to it as the Black Knight of COVID-19 treatments.
At the time, Raoult also attacked a French physician named Damien Barraud, doxxing him and siccing his sycophants, toadies, and lackeys on him and threatening to complain to l’Ordre des Médicins about him, thus revealing himself to be a bully. Longtime readers will recall that l’Ordre des Médicins is more concerned about “collegiality” and “civility” among its members than it is about science and quackery, as it took the side of homeopaths against French physicians who signed a statement lambasting homeopathy as quackery and urging the French government to stop funding it, even going so far as to temporarily suspend the license of one of doctors who signed the statement. So it shouldn’t be surprising that legal thuggery is Didier Raoult’s go-to tactic against a skeptic like Elisabeth Bik, who has long found manipulated images in scientific papers and called out bad science, but first there was harassment:
Bik, who is hired as a consultant by scientific institutions worldwide to analyse data and identify research misconduct, went on to identify image duplication and potential ethical issues in 62 published articles from Raoult and his institute.
Raoult and his supporters have relentlessly attacked Bik since, calling her a “nutcase” and a “failed researcher” on Twitter and in media interviews, and publishing her contact details online. This is despite Bik also exposing errors in papers that found hydroxychloroquine provided no benefit to Covid patients.
This includes doxxing:
And now, predictably, comes the legal thuggery:
Raoult’s colleague, Prof Eric Chabriere, revealed on Twitter that he and Raoult have filed a complaint against Bik and Boris Barbour, who helps run a not-for-profit website called PubPeer which allows scientists to analyse and provide feedback on each other’s work.
The legal complaint alleges harassment over Bik exposing data errors on PubPeer, and extortion because she has a Patreon account where people can donate to her work. She has responded to Raoult’s calls on Twitter to declare who is funding her by sharing links to her Patreon.
It began late last month:
It’s not just Bik at the receiving end of harassment, either:
Lonni Besançon, a French postdoctoral research fellow at Monash University in Australia, said he had also received multiple death threats from Raoult’s supporters after raising concerns about Raoult’s work.
“But the attacks I get as a white man are a fraction of what women researchers and researchers of colour get,” he said.
I echo Besançon’s experience. I have occasionally been at the receiving end of social media harassment by Raoult’s fanbois, but what I experience is as nothing compared to what women like Dr. Bik and others have experienced on social media and elsewhere at the hands of Raoult’s defenders. Science is society. Unfortunately, whenever a woman or person of color criticizes a powerful and influential male, the blowback she is likely to experience will be much worse than it will be for an old white guy like myself who says the same things.
Fortunately, the scientific community is rallying behind Dr. Bik, as it should:
He and other international scientists have published an open letter calling for the attacks on Bik to stop and for the scientific community to support her and other whistleblowers. As of Saturday it had more than 500 signatories.
“Scholarly criticism, particularly on issues of research integrity, is fraught with challenges,” the letter said.
“This makes it particularly important to maintain focus on addressing such critique with scientific evidence and not attacks on people’s appearance, character, or person.”
I urge any and all physicians and scientists reading this to click on the links in the quote above and sign the open letter too. I did. Harassment and legal thuggery such as what is being practiced by Raoult and his cronies should not go unopposed.
Finally, there’s antivaxxer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
RFK Jr tries to dox a pseudonymous blogger
You might remember how…unhappy…antivaccine activist RFK Jr. was when it came to light that he had given a speech to an “anti-lockdown” rally in Berlin that had been organized by Querdenken, a far right wing group. In particular, he was really incensed when Prof. Peter Hotez, vaccine researcher and advocate, pointed out a fact, namely that RFK Jr. had given a speech to QAnon supporters and neo-Nazis, and tried to persuade Terry Gross of Fresh Air, who had done the interview with Dr. Hotez, to retract the statement.
One source of the story was a diary in Daily Kos by a pseudonymous blogger called DowneastDem entitled Anti-Vaxxer RFK JR. joins neo-Nazis in massive Berlin ‘Anti-Corona’ Protest. This post riled up RFK Jr. from the beginning. In September, three days after the Daily Kos post, RFK Jr. demanded a retraction and backed up his demand with a “cease and desist” letter from his lawyer of the sort that I’ve received from antivaxxers and cranks (like RFK Jr.). In December, RFK Jr. had his lawyers file a defamation suit against the Daily Kos, including this hilarious claim:
The Querdenken movement is a broad-based, peaceful citizens’ movement for freedom, peace and human rights. It strongly opposes Nazism, anti-semitism and all forces of extremism. Among the speakers were doctors, lawyers, clergy of every persuasion, soldiers, police officers, parents, children, world-famous athletes, politicians from Germany’s Green Party, human rights activists and leaders of nonprofit organizations.
As usual, Querdenken took great pains to exclude extremists from the Berlin event. Those efforts were spectacularly successful. This complete absence of extremist influence is evident from the program, from all the footage publicly available on the Children’s Health Defense website, on Kennedy’s social media, and in the thousands of photos and videos of the event easily viewed on various platforms of the internet. Any respectable reporter who was interested in accuracy could easily check these sources.
Because RFK Jr. and his CHD cronies couldn’t possibly have gone out of their way to make sure that no such imagery or speech showed up in its carefully chosen coverage of the event, so that RFK Jr. couldn’t be made to look bad for playing footsie with Nazis, right? In reality, I suspect that what’s angering RFK Jr. so much is that his careful image of speaking to a broad based coalition devoid of extremists was punctured by the Daily Kos.
Unfortunately, Daily Kos lost the first round in court, in which RFK Jr.’s lawyers sought to have Kos unmask DowneastDem. The motivation behind the tactic sure looks like pure legal thuggery, to intimidate a pseudonymous blogger by removing anonymity. Basically, bully that he is, RFK Jr. is going after the weakest. Unfortunately for him, the weakest has a powerful ally, Kos himself, the founder of the left wing blog, Markos Moulitsas, who in a post entitled Robert Kennedy Jr. cavorts with Nazis, and suing Daily Kos won’t make that any less true basically responded to RFK Jr. yesterday with one of these, but in the best possible way:
Enjoy Moulitsas’ direct frontal assault on RFK Jr., as he explains why RFK Jr. is doing this:
Kennedy sicced his lawyers on us, demanding identifying information on DowneastDem. Because of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, he cannot sue Daily Kos—the site itself—for defamation. We are protected by the so-called safe harbor. That’s why he’s demanding we reveal what we know about DowneastDem so they can sue her or him directly.
Yes, RFK Jr. is going after a pseudonymous blogger because he can’t sue Daily Kos. So Moulitsas decided to call out RFK Jr.’s bluff:
We are, of course, appealing. But this is also me reiterating everything that community member wrote, and expanding on it. And so instead of going after a pseudonymous community writer/diarist on this site, maybe Kennedy will drop that pointless lawsuit and go after me. No guarantees, of course. He’s a coward who has avoided going after major news organizations like Reuters and The New York Times that are writing the same stories. But we’re certainly not done legally fighting him. In fact, consider this an escalation. Because yes, Kennedy cavorts with Nazis. And so let me explain, in detail, from the top.
This is a thing of beauty. RFK Jr. is engaging in legal thuggery against a pseudonymous blogger at Daily Kos because he can’t sue Kos itself. He also hasn’t sued large media outlets that published basically exactly the same story. So Moulitsas backed up DowneastDem by daring RFK Jr. to sue him, and, to make that possible, reiterated everything that DowneastDem had written about RFK Jr. and his cavorting with Nazis, saying, in essence, “Bring it!”
He even counters RFK Jr.’s ridiculous claim that the lack of evidence of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, QAnon supporters, and the like in his carefully curated website articles on the speech indicates that there weren’t Nazis there:
That CBS article also has pictures of people in the crowd wearing and carrying pro-Trump, pro-Q, and white supremacist extremist symbols and messages. This Irish Times article notes, “Noticeable numbers of neo-Nazis, kitted out with historic Reich flags and other extremist accessories, mixed in with the crowd.” In their briefs, Kennedy’s lawyers try to distinguish between the Victory Column protest, the one Kennedy spoke at, and a gathering of neo-Nazi protesters at the Reichstag (Parliament) a couple of kilometers away, but as this same story notes, “as the main demonstration was winding down, a small group of extremists waving historic Reich flags held an unofficial gathering at the Reichstag.” In other words, they weren’t concurrent, separate events.
Furthermore, the judicial order allowing the protests to proceed after a government ban required “the design of the stage area … be set up so that there is no concentration of people.” So any separation between groups of people didn’t indicate separate events, but the same event, with coronavirus-protocol separation. Meanwhile, the racist AfD party was agitating against the minister who originally banned the protest: “If he carries even a residual decency, he must resign now. The Basic Law must not be undermined by power-obsessed old-party politicians,” showing again how Querkendenken and Germany’s far-right racist party were working in cahoots.
Our response brief has many more examples of media coverage, as literally dozens of media organizations reported on the event the same way—anti-vaxxer Kennedy spoke at an event organized and attended by extremists. So why isn’t he suing those media outlets for saying the exact same thing DowneastDem wrote? What kind of cowardly bullshit is that?
It’s “cowardly bullshit” of the sort that quacks, antivaxxers, cranks, and conspiracy theorists frequently engage in when they use legal thuggery to try to silence criticism. RFK Jr. likely knows he can’t prevail against news organizations like Der Tagespiegel (the German newspaper whose report on RFK Jr.’s speech DowneastDem basically translated) CBS, The New York Times, The Daily Beast, and others who reported how his Berlin speech was organized for a far right wing group. So he goes after a pseudonymous blogger to intimidate others and make a point. It wouldn’t surprise me if there’s an element of grift, as well, with this report being used to raise funds and fire up RFK Jr.’s supporters.
The bottom line, though, is that this is how you do it if you can. The problem is that activists like Elisabeth Bik and most bloggers like Dr. Cerqueira, DowneastDem, and even Orac, do not have the financial resources to stand up to wealthy and powerful quacks and conspiracy promoters like Didier Raoult or antivaxxers like RFK Jr. The rich cranks know that, too. That’s why they use legal thuggery and harassment. They don’t have facts, reason, or science on their side to counter criticism. So, bullies that many of them are, they rally their followers to harass their critics and, when that fails, escalate to legal thuggery in order to silence them.
That is an example of true “cancel culture.”