It’s a new year, and my vacation is over. I won’t tell you much about what I was doing during my week off other than to say that this was a pretty lousy vacation, and Orac’s tarial cells are not nearly as recharged as he’d hoped they’d be by the time this day rolled around. (Don’t ask. That’s all I’ll say for now.) Be that as it may, before disappearing for ten days, I had made what appears to have been my first mention of a COVID-19 crank and antivaxxer whom I hadn’t really discussed before, a fact that I now find surprising given how prolific a source of misinformation that he’s been. I’m referring to tech bro turned incompetent conspiracy-mongering epidemiologist and scientist, Steve Kirsch.
In brief, Mr. Kirsch, not content with standard antivax weaponization of the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) database by claiming that VAERS shows that COVID-19 vaccines have killed tens of thousands of people, has been pushing a false claim that it’s really hundreds of thousands of people dead due to the vaccines, justifying this estimate on his own wildly implausible and poorly derived estimate that VAERS undercounts deaths due to COVID-19 by a factor of 41. Having been made aware of Mr. Kirsch’s prodigious capacity for producing COVID-19 disinformation on his Substack, a capacity that reminds me of me 15 years ago, when I produced at least one post a day seven days a week—sometimes more than one—I figured that he and his disinformation should be featured here more frequently in 2022. Actually, now that I look at his Substack again, I see that Mr. Kirsch is far more prolific at producing misinformation than I ever was at refuting it, even back in my heyday, when my output was at least twice what it is now. I guess that’s what comes from apparently having a hell of a lot more free time than I do.
Over the weekend, I saw just the bit, Mr. Kirsch’s “secret plan to end the vaccine madness.” It’s basically a rundown of selected antivaccine talking points all bundled into one concentrated bit of conspiracy mongering and misinformation. I guess he thinks he’s being “ironic” by calling it “secret” and adding a tagline that says, “Don’t tell anyone, OK? Just between us” as he publicizes it on his Substack, and not even behind a paywall, but whatever.
As COVID-19 cranks do, Kirsch leans into the “persecution for free speech” angle, coupled with a conspiracy theory that COVID-19 vaccines are deadly, but “they” don’t want you to know about it, complete with the “enlightened” coming to the realization about this “suppressed knowledge”:
There is no one thing that ends the madness. Each activity contributes to moving the ball forward.
The good news is that people in healthcare are getting really upset now and many are sacrificing their jobs to speak out. So I think this will end sooner than later.
As always, our biggest “convincer” is the vaccine itself. Sooner or later doctors and nurses are going to have to stop ignoring the side effects and speak out just as occurred here.
The particular story Mr. Kirsch quotes reminds me of antivax claims of old that confuse correlation with causation (and often don’t convincingly demonstrate even correlation). What do I mean? Pre-pandemic, antivaxxers used to blame vaccines for conditions that we know from large epidemiological studies not to be caused by vaccines (e.g., autism) based on the coincidental appearance of first signs within days or weeks after a vaccine. We’re seeing the same thing here, but with healthcare workers, many of whom have unfortunately demonstrated themselves not to have critical thinking skills any better than that in the regular population. It’s a bunch of antivaccine nurses in Ventura County telling a credulous reporter a bunch of anecdotal accounts buffered by confirmation bias, in which supposedly there is a huge increase of patients admitted for clotting problems and the like. They, of course, blame COVID-19 vaccines. They also—of course!—claim that the hospital is “covering it up” and denying that the vaccine could be the cause of these issues.
If you want to see where these nurses are coming from and why Mr. Kirsch likes them, a previous article in the same source from October is just chock full of the same sort of claims, complete with conspiracy mongering, including claims that doctors won’t fill out VAERS reports, a claim that I love to refute by pointing out that anyone can fill out a VAERS report, including family members. It doesn’t have to be a doctor. If these nurses are so convinced that these strokes and heart attacks are due to COVID-19 vaccines, they themselves could report the cases to VAERS, or they could suggest to family members that they report the cases. The reasons that the doctors supposedly aren’t considering COVID-19 vaccines as the cause of these cases? To these nurses, it obviously isn’t because COVID-19 vaccines aren’t the cause or aren’t even correlated. Perish the thought! It has to be because the doctors are biased and the hospital doesn’t want its “numbers to skyrocket” among the vaccinated.
Moving on, Mr. Kirsch invokes freedom:
I’m currently of the belief that there are only two basic ways to victory:
- End the censorship of doctors. Enable the 30% of “red pill” healthcare provider to speak out without fear of retribution
- Discredit the authorities. Find a way to discredit the “authorities” in a way that the “blue pill” public can relate to, e.g., a debate, show “hidden camera footage,” getThe New York Times to run a whistleblower story, etc.
Who knows where Mr. Kirsch got that estimate that supposedly 30% of healthcare providers think COVID-19 vaccines are deadly and “fear retribution” for “speaking out.” but this is, again, conspiracy mongering, pure and simple. The “red pill” imagery is a definite “tell,” given how much conspiracy theorists love the image themselves as having taken the “red pill” that reveals to them unpleasant “truths” and shatters the conspiracy to keep them ignorant of those “truths,” as compared to the rest of the “blue pill” populace, who are kept in contented ignorance of “The Truth” and are afraid to take the red pill. That imagery as annoying before the new Matrix movie was released last month, and it’s even more annoying now.
Of course, one of my rebuttals to claims that doctors and other healthcare professionals are being “silenced” is along the line of Jonathan Howard’s: The don’t seem very “silenced” to me, but rather very, very loud. Another of my rebuttals is that professional speech is different from free speech. Sure, doctors have the First Amendment right to free speech, just as everyone else does in the US. However, when they use their status as doctors to lend more plausibility to dangerous misinformation and conspiracy theories because they come from a trusted healthcare professional, that’s a different thing. Misusing professional stature that way is profoundly unprofessional and unethical, and it is not at all unreasonable that there should be professional consequences resulting from such behavior, be they from state medical boards, professional societies, or certifying boards.
Indeed, my complaint has been that state medical boards have only come very late to this conclusion and that, even after their realization that they need to do something about doctors misusing their professional credentials in this manner, are still quite toothless. Even so, there’s a reason why antivaxxers attack state medical boards and try to portray physicians promoting quackery and misinformation as “brave mavericks.” This tactic is nothing new. It long predates COVID-19 and hasn’t been used just by antivax doctors and their supporters, but by all variety of quacks and quackery supporters as well; e.g., cancer quack Stanislaw Burzynski.
Similarly, “discrediting the authorities” is another longstanding antivaccine tactic, except that I generally refer to it as falsely discrediting authorities using misinformation, disinformation, lies, pseudoscience, quackery, and conspiracy theories. Fortunately, large media outlets are much more savvy than they once were about these sorts of tactics. Unfortunately, certain other once proud media outlets—I’m talking to you, BMJ, but not just you—have demonstrated themselves to be useful idiots for antivaxxers.
But Mr. Kirsch isn’t through. He has 15 other ideas, because of course he does. I’ll just peruse the ones that caught my eye the most, as others are rather risible; e.g., “Get RFK Jr. on Rogan,” because RFK Jr. will be on Joe Rogan’s podcast at some point, given that equally “out there” cranks like Dr. Robert “inventor of mRNA vaccines” Malone was just on Rogan’s podcast last week.
The first one, as you might have predicted, is this:
Enable doctors to speak the truth without fear of retribution from medical boards and hospitals. Stopping the censorship of doctors either in a single state, or across the country with a coordinated day where 100,000 healthcare providers speak out at the same time. This includes activities such as suing state medical boards for violating the free speech rights of doctors and creating a special substack to coordinate action
I’d like to thank Mr. Kirsch for providing me a very “target-rich” environment that I will keep in mind for future blogging, for instance, the part where Mr. Kirsch pontificates direly:
Challenging the current set of COVID policies can get your fired and/or lead to revocation of your license. You cannot challenge the safety of the vaccines, question the need for masks, question the need for mandates, or prescribe a safe medication like ivermectin without fear of retribution, as shown here.
That last link, by the way, goes to an article by a “naturopathic oncologist” named Colleen Huber. We have met this “not-a-doctor” before, for instance, when she herself tried to “cancel” former naturopath turned critic of naturopathy, Britt Hermes, by threatening to sue her. The irony here is just too rich. Mr. Kirsch is representing not-a-Dr. Huber as a champion of free speech four years after she had actively tried to silence a critic using legal thuggery, even taking advantage of the fact that Ms. Hermes was living in Germany at the time, where the libel laws are far more plaintiff-friendly than they are in the US. The article amused me sufficiently that I might have to write a post just about not-a-Dr. Huber’s COVID-19 activities, because of course she’s gone full COVID-19 crank. Given her cancer quackery before the pandemic, that’s no surprise.
I also can’t help but laugh at Mr. Kirsch’s Substack coordinating action. To me it looks as though it’s just more of his own blather, without any real contribution from anyone else. I also laughed out loud when I got to this idea from Mr. Kirsch:
Debate with prominent pro-vaxxer(s). This is a low probability event. Nobody on their side wants a fair debate. We couldn’t even get pond scum like @ZdoggMD to the debate table. Even very low-profile people like “Your local epidemiologist” wouldn’t debate. Apparently, all these “experts” are deathly afraid of being challenged publicly.
I find it rather amusing that Mr. Kirsch singles out ZDoggMD (a.k.a., Dr. Zubin Damania) for special opprobrium for refusing to “debate” him. The reason is that, of late, a lot of us who promote Science-Based Medicine have become rather disillusioned with ZDoggMD for his turn towards COVID-19 contrarianism and platforming contrarians with bad (and demonstrably wrong) takes on the pandemic, such as Dr. Jay Bhattacharya (who is a cosignatory of the eugenics-adjacent Great Barrington Declaration), Dr. Vinay Prasad (who’s now gone full Godwin over COVID-19 public health interventions), and Monica Gandhi, PhD. In this case, he appears to have shown better-than-usual judgment in refusing to debate a crank like Mr. Kirsch. Naturally, what made me laugh is how, by crying out “Debate me!” and portraying the refusal of real scientists and doctors to “debate” him as fear of him, Mr. Kirsch is confirming my longstanding contention that cranks think that all truth comes from live public debates. My response: Not in science, where live public debate not only allows the crank to Gish gallop to his hearts’ content but also falsely elevates the crank in the eyes of the public to a level similar to that of the scientist. There’s a reason why I’ve long refused to “debate” people like Mr. Kirsch. It’s like the proverbial wrestling with a pig. You get very dirty and the pig loves it.
Another suggestion that Mr. Kirsch has is a survey of the public by “professional polling organizations” to estimate the prevalence of adverse events after COVID-19 vaccination, which is even more of a facepalm-inducing idea. Seriously, this is about the least accurate method I can think of to determine the rate of adverse events after these vaccines. Of course, even though he’s a crank, Mr. Kirsch is not stupid, just ignorant of science. He probably knows that such a survey would vastly overestimate the incidence of adverse events after COVID-19 vaccination. Perhaps that’s why he pivots to suggesting a “university study of vaccine side effects,” an idea to which my response can only be: WTF? Do you not follow PubMed? I just searched PubMed while writing this for “COVID-19 vaccine adverse events,” and the search returned 700 articles, nearly all of them from medical schools and university medical centers. While it is true that some of the articles are probably not relevant—at least not directly relevant—to some of the specific issues of the safety of COVID-19 vaccines about which Mr. Kirsch is fear mongering, many of them are. That means that one more study done by investigators friendly to Mr. Kirsch’s nonsense is not going to change the overwhelming scientific consensus after billions of doses that the currently available vaccines are safe and effective.
Although there are still some other amusing ideas from Mr. Kirsch, I’ll finish with this one:
Convince some prominent narrative supporters to switch sides, e.g., imagine if Sanjay Gupta told the truth about the vaccines and then was fired from CNN. Or a prominent writer for the New York Times to blow the whistle. These acts of courage will start to wake people up.
“Changing sides” is not necessarily an indicator of scientific correctness. Lots of doctors who are now antivaccine “changed sides,” maybe even most of them. They love to use their previous support of vaccines as “evidence” that they are not now antivaccine and that it was the evidence, and only the evidence, that led them to “switch sides.” It wasn’t. People change beliefs for any number of reasons, and when they switch from a science-based belief to a conspiracy theory-based belief system like the antivax belief system promoted by Mr. Kirsch, it is almost never because of good scientific evidence.
The bottom line, unfortunately, is that Mr. Kirsch, a tech bro entrepreneur and millionaire, is a full-on antivax conspiracy theorist. It also amuses me how someone as wealthy as Mr. Kirsch is complains about being “silenced” when he is, in fact, very “loud” in terms of his reach using a free service to promote his misinformation. If Substack ever shut him down, Mr. Kirsch could well afford to hire someone to set up a website where he could publish to his heart’s content, although at his own cost for website maintenance and bandwidth. He doesn’t, though. Instead, he uses a free website (which, granted, does take a 10% cut of the revenue from blogs that charge for content), much as many of us used Blogger 16 years ago and many use free WordPress sites today, even as he complains about other free sites enforcing their terms of service to deplatform others like him who promote disinformation.
Truly, like most cranks, Mr. Kirsch is devoid of self-awareness.