Governments and key institutions have had to implement decisive responses to the danger posed by the coronavirus pandemic. Imposed change will increase the likelihood that alternative explanations take hold. In a proportion of the general population there may be strong scepticism, fear of being misled, and false conspiracy theories.
The objectives of this survey were to estimate the prevalence of conspiracy thinking about the pandemic and test associations with reduced adherence to government guidelines. The survey was conducted in May 2020 as a non-probability online survey with 2501 adults in England, quota sampled to match the population for age, gender, income, and region.
Approximately 50% of this population showed little evidence of conspiracy thinking, 25% showed a degree of endorsement, 15% showed a consistent pattern of endorsement, and 10% had very high levels of endorsement. Higher levels of coronavirus conspiracy thinking were associated with less adherence to all government guidelines and less willingness to take diagnostic or antibody tests or to be vaccinated. Such ideas were also associated with
- general vaccination conspiracy beliefs,
- climate change conspiracy belief,
- a conspiracy mentality, and distrust in institutions and professions.
Holding coronavirus conspiracy beliefs was also associated with being more likely to share opinions.
The authors concluded that, in England, there is appreciable endorsement of conspiracy beliefs about coronavirus. Such ideas do not appear confined to the fringes. The conspiracy beliefs connect to other forms of mistrust and are associated with less compliance with government guidelines and greater unwillingness to take up future tests and treatment.
The authors also state that the coronavirus conspiracy ideas ascribe malevolent intent to individuals, groups, and organisations based on what are likely to be long-standing prejudices. For instance, almost half of participants endorsed to some degree the idea that ‘Coronavirus is a bioweapon developed by China to destroy the West’ and around one-fifth endorsed to some degree that ‘Jews have created the virus to collapse the economy for financial gain’.
The survey did not include questions about so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). This is a great shame, in my view. We know from previous research that people who adhere to conspiracy theories feel strongly that SCAM is being suppressed via some sinister complot by the establishment. Moreover, we know that SCAM enthusiasts tend to believe in vaccination conspiracy theories. One might therefore expect that proponents of SCAM are also prone to conspiracy beliefs about coronavirus.
When reading some of the comments on this blog, I have little doubt that this is, in fact, the case.
The spread of misinformation has accompanied the coronavirus pandemic, including topics such as immune boosting to prevent COVID-19. This study explores how immune boosting is portrayed on the internet during the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers compiled a dataset of 227 webpages from Google searches in Canada and the USA using the phrase ‘boost immunity’ AND ‘coronavirus’ on 1 April 2020. They coded webpages for typology and portrayal of immune boosting and supplements. They recorded mentions of microbiome, whether the webpage was selling or advertising an immune boosting product or service, and suggested strategies for boosting immunity.
No significant differences were found between webpages that appeared in the searches in Canada and the USA. The most common types of webpages were from:
- news (40.5%),
- commercial (24.7%) websites.
The concept of immune boosting was portrayed as beneficial for avoiding COVID-19 in 85.5% of webpages and supplements were portrayed as beneficial in 40% of the webpages, but commercial sites were more likely to have these portrayals. The top immune boosting strategies were:
- vitamin C (34.8%),
- diet (34.4%),
- sleep (34.4%),
- exercise (30.8%),
- zinc (26.9%).
Less than 10% of the webpages provide any critique of the concept of immune boosting.
The authors concluded that pairing evidence-based advice for maintaining one’s health (eg, healthy diet, exercise, sleep) with the phrase immune boosting and strategies lacking in evidence may inadvertently help to legitimise the concept, making it a powerful marketing tool. Results demonstrate how the spread of misinformation is complex and often more subtle than blatant fraudulent claims.
The authors did not search for evidence to check whether any of the named interventions have any influence on the immune system. As reported previously, this review did just that. Its authors aimed to evaluate evidence from clinical trials that studied nutrition-based interventions for viral diseases (with special emphasis on respiratory infections). Studies were considered eligible if they were controlled trials in humans, measuring immunological parameters, on viral and respiratory infections. Clinical trials on vitamins, minerals, nutraceuticals and probiotics were included.
A total 43 studies met the inclusion criteria:
- vitamins: 13;
- minerals: 8;
- nutraceuticals: 18
- probiotics: 4
Among vitamins, A and D showed a potential benefit, especially in deficient populations. Among trace elements, selenium and zinc have also shown favourable immune-modulatory effects in viral respiratory infections. Several nutraceuticals and probiotics may also have some role in enhancing immune functions. Micronutrients may be beneficial in nutritionally depleted elderly population.
There were 15 studies with a high score for methodological quality. Here is what their results showed:
- No significant difference in incidence of winter-time upper respiratory tract infection in children with high versus low dose vitamin D.
- Significantly less acute respiratory infections in elderly individuals with vitamin D versus placebo.
- Higher TGFbeta plasma level in response to influenza vaccination but no improved antibody response in elderly, vitamin D-deficient individuals with vitamin D versus placebo.
- No effect on lower respiratory tract infections; however, a protective effect was noted on upper respiratory tract infections in elderly individuals with vitamin E versus placebo.
- Neither daily multivitamin + mineral supplementation at physiological dose nor 200 mg of vitamin E showed a favourable effect on incidence and severity of acute respiratory tract infections in well-nourished, non- institutionalized elderly individuals.
- Better improvement in the clinical status, respiratory rate and oxygen saturation in children suffering from pneumonia with zinc sulphate versus placebo.
- Selenium-yeast increased Tctx-antibody-dependent cellular cytotoxicity cell counts in blood before flu vaccination + dose-dependent increase in T cell proliferation, IL-8 and IL-10 secretion after in vivo flu challenge in healthy volunteers.
- Frequency and duration of acute respiratory infections during the first two months was unaffected in healthy elderly with ginseng versus placebo.
- Broccoli sprout homogenate favourably affected immunological variables in healthy volunteers.
- The incidence of illness was not reduced, however significantly fewer symptoms were reported and the proliferation index of gd-T cells in culture was almost five times higher after 10 weeks of cranberry polyphenol supplements versus placebo.
- Higher antibody titres against all 3 strains contained in the seasonal influenza virus vaccine than the placebo in healthy elderly individuals with a sea-weed extract versus placebo.
- Non-inferiority was demonstrated for Echinacea compared to oseltamivir in early treatment of clinically diagnosed and virologically confirmed influenza virus infections.
- Significant reduction of cold duration and severity in air travellers with elderberry supplement versus placebo.
- Increased NK cell activity with probiotics versus placebo in tube-fed elderly patients.
- Titres against the influenza B strain increased significantly more with probiotics compared to placebo in healthy elderly individuals.
‘Infodemics’ are outbreaks of false information including rumours, stigma, and conspiracy theories. All of these have been common during the COVID-19 pandemic. The detection, assessment, and response to rumours, stigma, and conspiracy theories in real time are a challenge.
An international team of researchers followed and examined COVID-19-related rumours, stigma, and conspiracy theories circulating on online platforms, including fact-checking agency websites, Facebook, Twitter, and online newspapers, and their impacts on public health. Information was extracted between December 31, 2019 and April 5, 2020, and descriptively analysed. The team performed a content analysis of the news articles to compare and contrast data collected from other sources.
The researchers identified 2,311 reports of rumours, stigma, and conspiracy theories in 25 languages from 87 countries. Claims were related to:
- illness, transmission and mortality (24%),
- control measures (21%),
- treatment and cure (19%),
- cause of disease including the origin (15%),
- violence (1%),
- and miscellaneous (20%).
Of the 2,276 reports for which text ratings were available, 1,856 claims were false (82%).
The authors concluded that misinformation fuelled by rumours, stigma, and conspiracy theories can have potentially serious implications on the individual and community if prioritized over evidence-based guidelines. Health agencies must track misinformation associated with the COVID-19 in real time, and engage local communities and government stakeholders to debunk misinformation.
These findings are as perplexing as they are frightening. On this blog, we have since the beginning of the pandemic focussed on the SCAM for COVID-19. We have seen that this health crisis provided an occasion for almost any quackery on the planet:
- supplement salesmen,
- essential oil salesmen.
They all crept out of the woodwork. Their methods may differ, but their aim seems to be the same: to make a fast buck regardless of how many people their activities might kill.
You have probably guessed it: I am not a fan of Donald Trump (he made several previous appearances on this blog, see here, here here and here). There are many things that I dislike about him, and his attitude towards vaccination is but one of them. Researchers from Australia and from my own University (!) have conducted two studies on this subject which I find extraordinary and important. Here is their abstract:
Donald Trump is the first U.S. President to be on the record as having anti-vaccination attitudes. Given his enormous reach and influence, it is worthwhile examining the extent to which allegiance to Trump is associated with the public’s perceptions of vaccine safety and efficacy. In both Study 1 (N = 518) and Study 2 (N = 316), Trump voters were significantly more concerned about vaccines than other Americans. This tendency was reduced to non-significance after controlling for conspiracist ideation (i.e., general willingness to believe conspiracy theories) and, to a lesser degree, political conservatism. In Study 2, participants were later exposed to real Trump tweets that either focused on his anti-vaccination views, or focused on golf (the control condition). Compared to when the same respondents were sampled a week earlier, there was a significant increase in vaccine concern, but only among Trump voters who were exposed to the anti-vaccination tweets. The effects were exclusively negative: there was no evidence that anti-vaccination Trump tweets polarized liberal voters into becoming more pro-vaccination. In line with the social identity model of leadership, Study 2 indicates that some leaders do not simply represent the attitudes and opinions of the group, but can also change group members’ opinions.
I find this paper so important and excellent that I take the liberty of quoting from the authors’ discussion:
Both studies showed that people who voted for Trump in the 2016 Presidential election were more concerned about vaccines than other voters. When it came to general concern about vaccines, this “Trump effect” was entirely accounted for by the fact that Trump voters are not only more politically conservative than other Americans but also (and independently) more predisposed to believe conspiracy theories. In fact, the tendency for Trump voters to have greater concerns about the MMR vaccine in particular was not explained so much by their political conservatism as it was by their conspiracist ideation.
Study 1 illustrates that Trump voters are particularly prone to anti-vaccination attitudes. Study 2 further demonstrates that these attitudes are not static: it shows that a revered, prototypical ingroup member can actively exacerbate this propensity to endorse factually unfounded beliefs.
One overarching debate about the influence of political leaders is the extent to which they shape supporters’ views, or merely reflect them. Study 2 makes clear that the “Trump effect” is not merely a case of Trump holding a mirror to people’s pre-existing views: his messages have the power to change attitudes. As such, future research needs to
take seriously the impact of Trump as a change-agent, one that is impeding the broader campaign to increase vaccination uptake and to eliminate infectious diseases.
So, the ‘Trump-Effect’ on vaccination attitudes is strongly negative. This leads me to suspect that the ‘Trump-Effect’ on many other issues is just as profoundly detrimental. For the sake not just of public health, let us hope that the US public will dismiss their dangerous president when they go to the ballot in just a few weeks time.
My new book has just been published. Allow me to try and whet your appetite by showing you the book’s introduction:
“There is no alternative medicine. There is only scientifically proven, evidence-based medicine supported by solid data or unproven medicine, for which scientific evidence is lacking.” These words of Fontanarosa and Lundberg were published 22 years ago. Today, they are as relevant as ever, particularly to the type of healthcare I often call ‘so-called alternative medicine’ (SCAM), and they certainly are relevant to chiropractic.
Invented more than 120 years ago by the magnetic healer DD Palmer, chiropractic has had a colourful history. It has now grown into one of the most popular of all SCAMs. Its general acceptance might give the impression that chiropractic, the art of adjusting by hand all subluxations of the three hundred articulations of the human skeletal frame, is solidly based on evidence. It is therefore easy to forget that a plethora of fundamental questions about chiropractic remain unanswered.
I wrote this book because I feel that the amount of misinformation on chiropractic is scandalous and demands a critical evaluation of the evidence. The book deals with many questions that consumers often ask:
- How well-established is chiropractic?
- What treatments do chiropractors use?
- What conditions do they treat?
- What claims do they make?
- Are their assumptions reasonable?
- Are chiropractic spinal manipulations effective?
- Are these manipulations safe?
- Do chiropractors behave professionally and ethically?
Am I up to this task, and can you trust my assessments? These are justified questions; let me try to answer them by giving you a brief summary of my professional background.
I grew up in Germany where SCAM is hugely popular. I studied medicine and, as a young doctor, was enthusiastic about SCAM. After several years in basic research, I returned to clinical medicine, became professor of rehabilitation medicine first in Hanover, Germany, and then in Vienna, Austria. In 1993, I was appointed as Chair in Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter. In this capacity, I built up a multidisciplinary team of scientists conducting research into all sorts of SCAM with one focus on chiropractic. I retired in 2012 and am now an emeritus professor. I have published many peer-reviewed articles on the subject, and I have no conflicts of interest. If my long career has taught me anything, it is this: in the best interest of consumers and patients, we must insist on sound evidence; not opinion, not wishful thinking; evidence.
In critically assessing the issues related to chiropractic, I am guided by the most reliable and up-to-date scientific evidence. The conclusions I reach often suggest that chiropractic is not what it is often cracked up to be. Hundreds of books have been published that disagree. If you are in doubt who to trust, the promoter or the critic of chiropractic, I suggest you ask yourself a simple question: who is more likely to provide impartial information, the chiropractor who makes a living by his trade, or the academic who has researched the subject for the last 30 years?
This book offers an easy to understand, concise and dependable evaluation of chiropractic. It enables you to make up your own mind. I want you to take therapeutic decisions that are reasonable and based on solid evidence. My book should empower you to do just that.
When chiropractors try to play medical doctors, their patients are in danger. When they try to play epidemiologists, we might all be in danger. Already in April 2020, the Australian ‘Patrons of Chiropractic Science’ issued a press release on COVID 19 stating:
Good function of the body’s joints, particularly within the spine, may improve neurological function, which is important for an effective natural immune system. Treatment by a qualified and experienced chiropractor offers one of the most effective methods to improve and maintain good spinal joint function. The chiropractic profession attends to many patients, and like all other health workers, the profession truly cares for the welfare of every individual.
Now they have gone further. Their press release of 18/8/2020 states amongst other things:
- Approximately 1.5% of those infected with SARS-CoV-2 may die; all people with a compromised immune system, that being the aged or those suffering a co-morbidity;
- 98.5% of those infected with the COVID-19 virus suffer either no symptoms, mild symptoms or treatable symptoms no worse than seasonal influenza;
- COVID-19 positive test numbers are largely irrelevant, as 98.5% of those testing positive will simply develop natural immunity and recover as the virus moves through the population. Recent studies by the UK based Centre for Evidence Based Medicine confirms increased COVID testing is the primary reason for increased case numbers, which have little relationship to mortality. The focus on case numbers is again designed to engender public fear and compliance;
Patrons of Chiropractic Science demands that the Victorian Government and its senior health officials cease distorting facts, stop blaming Victorian non-compliance for the increased positive testing numbers, and assume full responsibility for the aged care deaths and the current economic damage.
Simple facts: it is critical and more effective to isolate and protect the high-risk groups, effectively quarantine return travellers, but cease the illogical isolation of the vast majority of the population who are not at risk as the virus naturally circulates, and allow them to recommence working to save many businesses and initiate economic recovery.
Implying that regular chiropractic manipulations improve immunity or protect people from the corona virus is bad enough. But the new press release is worse:
- It is not true that only people with impaired immune systems, of old age, or affected by other diseases die of COVID 19.
- It is not true that all of the 98.5% who do not die have treatable symptoms not worse than a flu; an undefined percentage of the survivors suffer from very severe and sometimes long-lasting conditions.
- It is not true that 98.5% of those testing positive will simply develop natural immunity and recover; many will not recover completely, and the question whether mildly affected individuals develop immunity and for how long is as yet unanswered.
- It is not true that COVID testing results are unrelated to mortality; the figures need, of course, careful interpretation; the percentage of positive tests per number of tests done, for instance, should be independent of the frequency of testing.
- It is not true that the vast majority of the population are not at risk, if the virus were to circulate naturally.
All this looks to me as though the ‘Patrons of Chiropractic Science’ are in urgent need of learning some science. Meanwhile, it would be most helpful, if they could keep quiet.
For many years, ‘HOMEOPATHY‘ (the ‘flag-ship’ journal of homeopathy which started its life in 1911 as THE BRITISH JOURNAL OF HOMOEOPATHY) was edited by Peter Fisher. When Peter fired me from its editorial board, it arguably lost its only expert who was critical of homeopathy. Then the journal was transferred from Elsevier to Thieme. When Peter tragically died, the journal lost its editor who, despite everything, had at least tried to keep the most dangerous loons within the homeopathy cult at bay.
Now, under the new editor, this seems no longer possible. The current issue of HOMEOPATHY holds several papers about the role of homeopathy in the present pandemic:
This article provides a view of homeopathic clinical practice in the New York City area in the first few months of 2020 as the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic began to evolve in the United States. Key symptoms used to generate a short list of potentially curative remedies are given, and the pandemic syndrome is viewed as appearing in stages or as having various clinical manifestations each with its own main remedy. The severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is briefly described, as are the preliminary presenting signs and symptoms of COVID-19 infection. Several clinical examples are given, some with positive laboratory confirmation.
Successful homeopathic prescriptions are based on careful individualization of symptoms, either for an individual patient or collectively in the case of epidemic outbreaks. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic was initially represented as a severe acute respiratory illness, with eventual dramatic complications. However, over time it revealed to be a complex systemic disease with manifestations derived from viral-induced inflammation and hypercoagulability, thus liable to affect any body organ or system. As a result, clinical presentation is variable, in addition to variations associated with several individual and collective risk factors. Given the extreme variability of pathology and clinical manifestations, a single, or a few, universal homeopathic preventive Do not split medicine(s) do not seem feasible. Yet homeopathy may have a relevant role to play, inasmuch as the vast majority of patients only exhibit the mild form of disease and are indicated to self-care at home, without standard monitoring, follow-up, or treatment. For future pandemics, homeopathy agencies should prepare by establishing rapid-response teams and efficacious lines of communication.
During the COVID-19 epidemic in Italy, hospital outpatient clinics progressively decreased their activities; in March 2020 they were closed except for emergencies. During this period, the activities of the public Homeopathy Outpatient Clinic of Lucca aimed at guaranteeing therapeutic continuity to patients by means of telephone or video consultations, and searching for homeopathic medicines that best responded to early COVID-19 symptoms. In March 2020, the Complementary Medicine Working Group participated in the organization of a mission of COVID-19 Chinese experts for the online training of professionals working in the Tuscan Healthcare System. The medical staff of the Lucca Clinic also cooperated in telephone health surveillance of infected patients at home, seroprevalence investigations using the capillary blood rapid test, and the implementation of the CLIFICOL (Clinical Files Collection) project.
Why is this a regrettable development?
In my mind, there is little doubt that homeopathy has no role to play in the current pandemic. To state or imply otherwise is not just false but dangerous. It endangers the lives of millions.
Others might see it differently and argue that it is not a bad thing at all. By coming out on the side of the loons within homeopathy, the ‘flag-ship’ journal of homeopathy has done a favour to rational healthcare: it has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that HOMEOPATHY (both the journal and the cult) cannot be taken seriously and can therefore be safely discarded to the waste-basket of medical history.
Steiner with his wife (right) and Ita Wegman, his lover (left).
Anthroposophic medicine was founded by Steiner and Ita Wegman in the early 20th century. Currently, it is being promoted as an extension of conventional medicine. Proponents claim that “its unique understanding of the interplay among physiological, soul and spiritual processes in healing and illness serves to bridge allopathy with naturopathy, homeopathy, functional/nutritional medicine and other healing systems.” Its value has repeatedly been questioned, and clinical research in this area is often less than rigorous.
Anthroposophic education was developed in the Waldorf school that was founded by Steiner in 1919 to serve the children of employees of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. Pupils of Waldorf or Steiner schools, as they are also frequently called, are encouraged to develop independent thinking and creativity, social responsibility, respect, and compassion.
Waldorf schools implicitly infuse spiritual and mystic concepts into their curriculum. Like some other alternative healthcare practitioners – for instance, doctors promoting integrative medicine, chiropractors, homeopaths and naturopaths – some doctors of anthroposophic medicine take a stance against childhood immunizations. In a 2011 paper, I summarised the evidence which showed that in the UK, the Netherlands, Austria and Germany, Waldorf schools have been at the centre of measles outbreaks due to their stance regarding immunisations.
More recently, a study evaluated trends in rates of personal belief exemptions (PBEs) to immunization requirements for private kindergartens in California that practice alternative educational methods. The investigators used California Department of Public Health data on kindergarten PBE rates from 2000 to 2014 to compare annual average increases in PBE rates between schools.
Alternative schools had an average PBE rate of 8.7%, compared with 2.1% among public schools. Waldorf schools had the highest average PBE rate of 45.1%, which was 19 times higher than in public schools (incidence rate ratio = 19.1; 95% confidence interval = 16.4, 22.2). Montessori and holistic schools had the highest average annual increases in PBE rates, slightly higher than Waldorf schools (Montessori: 8.8%; holistic: 7.1%; Waldorf: 3.6%).
The authors concluded that Waldorf schools had exceptionally high average PBE rates, and Montessori and holistic schools had higher annual increases in PBE rates. Children in these schools may be at higher risk for spreading vaccine-preventable diseases if trends are not reversed.
As the world is hoping for the arrival of an effective vaccine against the corona virus, these figures should concern us.
Anyone who has followed the comments’ section of this blog knows that science communicators don’t always have it easy. In fact, they have to endure regular attacks. Now, this phenomenon has (as far as I know, for the first time) been investigated systematically.
The objective in this survey was to establish a taxonomy of common negative experiences encountered by those communicating medical science, and suggest guidelines so that they may be circumvented. A total of 142 prominent medical science communicators (defined as having >1000 Twitter followers and experience communicating medical science on social and traditional media platforms) were invited to take part in the survey. One hundred and one responses could be analysed.
The results show that:
- 92% of the participants has experienced abusive behaviour (91.9%), including persistent harassment (69.3%) and physical violence and intimidation (5.9%).
- 39% had received vexatious complaints to their employers, professional bodies or legal intimidation.
- 62% reported negative mental health sequelae due to public outreach, including depression, anxiety and stress.
- 20% had been obligated to seek police advice or legal counsel due to actions associated with their outreach work.
- the majority targeted with vexatious complaints felt supported by their employer/professional body and 32% reported neutral, poor or non-existent support.
Here is a selection of the responses from the participants:
- Accusations—including by one Senator—that [we are] uncaring, dismissive, neglectful, arrogant, or paid by pharma companies when advocating for vaccines. (Misrepresentation)
- I find my expertise is questioned—this often seems to be when men find it difficult to accept women with intelligence and qualifications. Sexist insults are a typical go-to response. (Discreditation)
- The worst one that hurt me professionally and personally was that activists gathered my emails using [Freedom of Information Requests] and handed chosen packets of them with a story to different reporters. (Misrepresentation/Discreditation/Dubious Amplification)
- Persistent negative comments on twitter; usually it doesn’t last long but it can feel very intense while it’s happening! (Intimidation)
- I have been served with a SLAPP lawsuit in order to silence my outreach work. Frequently receive harassing emails, malicious comments made on blog. (Malicious Complaints)
- Social media co-ordinated intimidation, implied threats of legal action (for defamation). Mocking, undermining, condescension and attacks for being an industry shill, although. I am just a patient advocate. Being called a liar, that I never had cancer, that I deserved cancer due to my attitude, that I have been mutilated by conventional medical treatment, and that I am no longer a woman (having had mastectomy for cancer). That my cancer will return and I deserve that. (Dubious Amplification/Misrepresentation/Discreditation)
- I have had anti-vaccine organizations and individuals attempt to prevent my public appearances and have been the subject of numerous online smear campaigns accusing me of being ‘a shill for Big Pharma’ etc. (Discreditation/Dubious Amplification)
- Those who attack me very frequently try to do it by targeting me at my job, sending bogus complaints to my bosses and the university. From my observation, that is the go-to attack, the first thing these groups do. (Malicious Complaints)
- I had to contact the police, who visited the person who was harassing me. I also involved social services. We bought a CCTV to monitor our front door after a strange envelope was hand delivered. The person involved has targeted several people before and continues to target individuals who advocate vaccination. (Intimidation)
- Abuse and accusations of corruption are the most common adverse reaction I get. Sometimes a particular group petition one’s employer and try to create trouble for them. I have been lucky in the past when this happened to have had supportive universities who appreciate my outreach work. I have in the past had slightly unhinged individuals writing rambling, implicitly threatening letters to my office which ultimately required police intervention. (Discreditation/Malicious Complaints/Intimidation)
- The worst are gendered insults (being called a cunt, etc.) and rape/death threats. I have had one empty legal threat that was widely publicized. (Intimidation/Malicious Complaints)
- Regular threats to sue for defamation. (Malicious Complaints)
- Attempts to get me fired, public records act requests for emails, verbal attacks on my children. (Malicious Complaints, Intimidation)
- One of the most unpleasant things is that certain people or groupings will use very underhanded tactics to respond to perceived criticism. If they can’t refute the science, it isn’t uncommon for them to go after you personally, alleging all manner of things to anyone who’ll listen; that you’re incompetent, or unethical, or perverted. It seems they throw things wildly to see what sticks, but it can be extraordinarily unpleasant to endure. (Dubious Amplification/Discreditation)
- My main concern has been obsessed individuals who declare their enmity and seem to be unconstrained by civil norms. (Intimidation)
- Homeopathy advocates looked up my LinkedIn profile and called my employer to complain about my comments on the radio. My employer did not support me and I ended up having to stop the activity I had been planning. (Misrepresentation/Malicious Complaints)
- Being threatened with physical violence. (Intimidation)
- A delusional supporter of [an individual] I wrote about accused me and my lawyer of stalking him and killing his in-laws. He sent accusing emails to the faculty of my school and all the police departments in my state. [They] also accused me of being a terrorist and complained about me to the FBIs Terrorism Joint Task Force. That gave me many nervous, sleepless nights. (Discreditation/Malicious Complaints)
- Death threats received, employer unhelpful, sorted myself. (Intimidation)
- I haven’t experienced many negative encounters because I would say I am only lightly involved in public engagement. However the reason I don’t become more heavily involved in this area is fear of this kind of abuse and vexatious complaints to my employer or regulatory body. (Malicious Complaints)
The authors concluded as follows: The question of how we best communicate health science in the modern era is an area where more research is urgently required, especially on the role of social media, and optimum ways physicians, researchers and other public-facing figures can promote good medical science and mitigate falsehoods. The suggestions herein ought to be taken as a starting point, with discussion evolving as improved evidence materialises. There are wider problems implicit in all this that those communicating science cannot tackle in isolation; social media regulation particularly is a serious issue, both in regard to the spreading of misinformation/disinformation, and with respect to procedures preventing the potential weaponisation of social media platforms. Social media platforms must ultimately be made answerable to regulatory oversight, just as every other important aspect of life is; claims of innocence are unconvincing when their business model is so clearly dependent on advertising engagement at the cost of lives. The problem of poor reporting and false balance in conventional media outlets also must be considered, and there is significant scope for scientists and doctors to contribute to policy in these areas. There is ample evidence that physicians and scientists have an important role to play in combatting health disinformation, as has recently been argued by one of the authors in relation to vaccination for British Medical Journal opinion. But equally, it is crucial that those engaging in this vital work have the requisite support from their institutions, so that deleterious consequences of laudable outreach work might be circumvented. It is increasingly clear that disinformation about medicine and illness has become ubiquitous, with severe consequences for both our collective health and public understanding of medical science. Scientists and physicians must be at the vanguard of the pushback against these dangerous falsehoods—our societal well-being depends on it.
This is an important paper, in my view. It is well worth reading in full.
I know many scientists who will no longer engage in science communication (other than publishing their papers and attending conferences) because they had one or two bad experiences. I certainly had hundreds of bad (some very bad) experiences, but I have taken the opposite decision.
Thus I started this blog, authored several books aimed at the consumer, give public lectures, etc. I have done this for many years despite the lack of support from my university and sometimes despite the opposite of support from my peers.
Why do I work tirelessly trying to inform consumers about so-called alternative medicine (SCAM)?
Because, in view of the plethora of (often dangerous) misinformation, it is hugely important to get the word out to the men and women in the street. I pity the ones who regularly allege that I do all this because of the money I earn from such activity (on the whole, it costs me money). In fact, I do what I do because I hope it might
- stimulate rational thought,
- help people to make wise therapeutic decisions,
- make a small contribution to public health,
- and perhaps occasionally even save a life.
And the threats which I continue to receive merely indicate that I might be doing this job well, and prove how important the task really is.
The Society of Homeopaths (SoH) is the UK’s professional organisation of ‘lay-homeopaths’, therapists who treat patients without having studied medicine. They prefer the term ‘professional homeopathy’, but there is little professional about them, it seems. The SoH has a long track record of endangering public health by promoting anti-vaxx nonsense.
A few months ago, it was reported that Linda Wicks, chair of the Society of Homeopaths (S0H), has shared a series of petitions claiming that childhood immunisations are unsafe. Mrs Wicks also posted a petition supporting Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced former doctor who falsely linked the MMR vaccine to autism claiming that the scientific establishment’s rejection of his flawed research was ‘the greatest lie ever told’.
In 2018, I pointed out that the SoH was violating its own code of ethics. At the time, two new members were appointed to the Society’s Public Affairs (PAC) and Professional Standards (PSC) committees, and both were promoting the deeply anti-vaxx CEASE therapy.
Today, THE TELEGRAPH reports that Sue Pilkington, the SoH’s ‘Head of Standards’, has been promoting anti-vaxx propaganda online. On April 14, she posted anti-vaxx content made by the ‘Children’s Health Defense’ – an organisation accused by NBC News last year as being one of the largest global creators of spreading misinformation’. The page advised that any new vaccine could trigger “lethal” immune reactions.
In a separate post on Facebook, Pilkington shared a post that describes vaccines as “poison” – alongside medical advice declaring that no child should be vaccinated, if any member of their family has a skin disorder. Pilkington also tried to contact Health Secretary Matt Hancock, attempting to share with him a video of content from an American comedian claiming that it’s ‘realistic’ for vaccines to cause autism.
As though this were not enough nonsense, Pilkington also promotes homeopathy as a solution to the current epidemic. On her homeopathy business website, she has section on coronavirus which states the following: “The current primary homeopathic remedy advised for Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) symptoms is Gelsemium with a possible following remedy of Eupatorium Perforatum, Bryonia or Belladonna depending on how the symptoms progress”. Other homeopathic remedies are in common use for people with influenza and pneumonia, according to Pilkington, these do not “prevent viruses” but may “reduce the severity and length of illness”. She also claims that homeopathy has a “great track record of success in epidemics” – referencing both the Spanish influenza pandemic and the bird flu pandemic.
“In our opinion, the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) has a simple choice to make: remove the SoH and their uninformed vaccination paranoia from the register, or continue to allow homeopaths to make these dangerous claims with the tacit approval of the PSA.” said Michael Marshall, projector director of the Good Thinking Society.
A government health spokesperson was quoted in today’s TELEGRAPH article stating this: “Vaccine misinformation in any form – book, film, website or otherwise – is completely unacceptable.” The spokesperson added that NICE does not recommend homeopathy for the treatment of any health condition and noted that vaccines “save lives and are a foundation of public health.”