The Biggest Junk Science of 2020
The startling spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has affected everyone and everything, junk science included.
Each December, RealClearScience recalls the the most egregious examples of fraud, woo, fake treatments, and all other kinds of BS in the world of science over the preceding year. In 2020, every story with the distinct dishonor of making our list is linked to the coronavirus pandemic. Our roundup features perpetrators of misinformation, purveyors of ineffective and even dangerous "treatments", and crazed conspiracy theorists. By their actions, they worsened the pandemic, contributing to the death, suffering, and hardship it fomented.
8. University of Pittsburgh Professor Says Jade Amulets Can Prevent COVID-19. On October 8th, a paper with a very long-winded title was published to the journal Science of the Total Environment. "Can Traditional Chinese Medicine provide insights into controlling the COVID-19 pandemic: Serpentinization-induced lithospheric long-wavelength magnetic anomalies in Proterozoic bedrocks in a weakened geomagnetic field mediate the aberrant transformation of biogenic molecules in COVID-19 via magnetic catalysis" was authored by Dr. Moses Turkle Bility, an Assistant Professor in Infectious Diseases and Microbiology at the University of Pittsburgh.
This sort of jargony gobbledegook coupled with a nod to Traditional Chinese Medicine is typically reserved for promoters of pseudoscience, not an infectious disease expert at a prestigious university. Skeptical onlookers like Drs. Steven Novella and Ivan Oransky thought this might be some sort of prank, but alas, Dr. Bility was quite serious. He really thinks that COVID-19 is related to magnetic fields, and that jade amulets can potentially prevent the disease. Experts dismissed the notion as nonsensical, but when Dr. Bility was politely challenged about his claims, he was immediately defensive and claimed racism was at the root of others' objections.
"I not surprised that this article has elicited angry responses. Clearly the idea that a black scientist can provide a paradigm shifting idea offends a lot of individuals... You neither understand quantum physics nor spin chemistry; you are making a hasting (sic) decision based on your knowledge of the classical theories that dominate the biological sciences," he wrote to Oransky.
Bility's article has since been "temporarily removed" from the journal.
7. Megachurch Owners Claim to Have Air Filtration System That Kills 99.9% of COVID. Representatives of the 3000-seat Dream City Church in Phoenix, Arizona were no doubt ecstatic to announce that a new air filtration system had been installed in their auditorium that purifies the area of almost all COVID in ten minutes. Unfortunately, their exuberant claims presented a false sense of security to their parishioners. Experts quickly reacted with skepticism, insisting that a purification system will do nothing to prevent people who come in sick from passing it to others in the building. The Arizona Attorney General subsequently sent the church, as well as the company that makes the filters, warnings to stop their misleading assertions.
6. MyPillow CEO Touts a Toxic Substance From a Poisonous Plant as a COVID-19 "Miracle Cure". This summer, MyPillow founder and CEO Mike Lindell took a financial stake in the company Phoenix Biotechnology and touted its signature drug, containing the toxic, plant-based substance oleandrin, to President Trump during an oval office meeting. He went on to call it a "miracle cure" during a CNN interview. At the same time, the FDA was reviewing a submission from Phoenix Biotechnology to permit oleandrin in dietary supplements. The incident raised concern that the White House would exert political influence over the FDA to approve the compound.
Luckily, that didn't happen. The FDA correctly rejected oleandrin's use, as there is no good evidence to support its effectiveness against any condition. At the same time, the scientific literature points to serious concerns about its safety.
Writing at Science-Based Medicine, Dr. David Gorski was appalled at the incident. "To take a raw plant-based powerful poison, and promote based upon a single pre-print in-vitro study is scientifically absurd and morally horrible. To do so in the middle of a pandemic is nothing short of malfeasance."
5. President Trump Openly Muses About Injecting Disinfectants to Kill the Coronavirus. In April, with limited information available, people were understandably panicked about the spread of SARS-CoV-2, and potentially grasping for any method of warding it off. So it didn't help, when, during a press conference, President Donald Trump wondered aloud to Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response co-ordinator, whether injecting disinfectants was a good idea.
"And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning?" He remarked. "So it'd be interesting to check that."
Numerous agencies and disinfectant manufacturers were quick to respond that drinking household cleaners is never a good idea and risks poisoning and death. Nevertheless, a CDC survey of 502 adults conducted a month later found that, of the respondents, "19% said they had used bleach on food, 18% said they had applied household cleaners to their skin, 10% said they had misted themselves with disinfectant sprays, 6% had inhaled vapors from the cleaners, and 4% had drunk or gargled diluted bleach solutions, soapy water, or other disinfectants."
4. Thousands Are Sickened and Killed in Iran After Ingesting Methanol to Fight Off the Coronavirus. Rightly dubious of their government, millions of Iranians unfortunately turned to unsubstantiated or downright dangerous methods of preventing and treating COVID-19. One of those methods, ingesting methanol, has been particularly deadly. "In some provinces, the case-fatality rate of methanol poisoning was higher than that from COVID-19," an international team of health experts warned. Over 5,000 people were poisoned and 500 more were confirmed dead from methanol toxicity between February and April.
Commonly used for industrial purposes, methanol is essentially the evil cousin of drinking alcohol, ethanol. Because methanol breaks down into toxic formaldehyde inside the body, drinking just two to eight ounces of methanol can kill an adult.
3. A False Link Between COVID-19 and 5G Goes Viral. Fifth Generation Wireless Cellular networks have been erroneously linked to all sorts of health risks, so it makes sense that soon after the coronavirus ascended content began sprouting up across the Internet insisting that 5G was to blame. The misinformation was quickly debunked, but not before reaching millions of people and prompting arsonists to set dozens of cell towers ablaze across the globe.
2. The Conspiracy-Laden Documentary "Plandemic" Explodes on Social Media. In May, a brief documentary interview with disgraced former biochemistry research scientist Judy Mikovits went viral before being removed by Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter for spreading blatant misinformation about COVID-19. As Stephanie Pappas reported for Live Science, "Among the unfounded claims in the video is that masks 'activate' the virus, that beaches have healing powers and that a vaccine against COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, will kill millions."
Mikovits also made numerous unfounded accusations against Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and insisted that the coronavirus was released from a laboratory at the fault of U.S. and Chinese officials.
Plandemic was universally excoriated by scientists and health experts.
1. With the President's Ringing Endorsement, Hydroxychloroquine Is Touted as a "Game-Changer" and Used Worldwide to Treat COVID-19. It Turned Out to Be Ineffective and Maybe Even Harmful. Back in March, President Trump seized on a hyped, yet suspect study as well as questionable media reports to tout the malara drug hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19. Experts were instinctively dubious, but that didn't stop states from stockpiling the drug, doctors from prescribing it to sick patients, and the FDA from approving its emergency use.
By summer, when randomized controlled trials were performed, no benefit was found, and there were actually signs the drug could increase mortality. The World Health Organization officially abandoned hydroxychloroquine in June, but many prominent people and entities still promoted it. When another "nail-in-the-coffin" study came out in October, drug discovery expert Derek Lowe did not hold back from lambasting the drug's use as a COVID-19 treatment.
"I’m not in a mood to be subtle. Hydroxychloroquine treatment for coronavirus does not work. It is not beneficial, and in fact appears to be actively harmful. As far as I’m concerned, administering it to infected patients now constitutes medical malpractice... None of the countries or regions where HCQ was enthusiastically adopted, with or without the addition of zinc, azithromycin or what have you have seen discernible benefits. It. Does. Not. Work. Give it up."