Mar 13 2015

Yes, Dr. Lanka, Measles is Real

This is something I thought would probably never happen – a science denier, in this case German virologist Stefan Lanka, was ordered by a court to pay 100,000 Euros to German doctor David Barden for meeting his challenge to prove that the measles virus exists.

Lanka is clearly, in my opinion, a crank, which is a specific flavor of pseudoscientist who makes sophisticated arguments to support a hilariously wrong conclusion. There is some major malfunction in their scientific reasoning. Typically, in my experience, they have an oversized ego and think they know better than the rest of the scientific community. For some reason an extreme narrative gets stuck in their brain, and they spend their career marshaling evidence and arguments to support a nonsensical idea. I find cranks endlessly fascinating because I think they are extreme cases that reveal major weaknesses in the operation of the human brain.

One favorite tactic of cranks and deniers is to issue an open challenge to prove what they deny exists. I think this strategy is inspired by the Randi Million Dollar Challenge, which is a legitimate challenge for anyone to prove a paranormal phenomenon. Randi has a specific process spelled out, with concrete criteria for success.

Hoax challenges are pure publicity stunts – they sound grandiose but typically are framed in such a way that the one issuing the challenge can wiggle out of ever having to pay. They are rigged from the beginning, mainly by not spelling out what kind of evidence would meet the challenge.

I guess Lanka got a little sloppy. He issued a 100,000 Euro challenge to anyone who could prove the measles virus exists. That’s right – the measles virus. Lanka is an HIV denier from back in the 1990s (and still denying HIV). HIV denial is the claim that AIDS does not exist as a discrete medical illness, or at least is not caused by a specific virus, and in fact the human immunodeficiency virus does not really exist.

Many denialism beliefs deal with a scientific conclusion that is based, at least in part, on scientific inference. Evolution is a great example. While we now have seen evolution occur in the laboratory, major evolutionary changes take at least tens of thousands of years, so we are never going to see it directly. We have to infer that evolution occurred through multiple lines of evidence (genetics, the fossil record, etc.). This allows deniers to complain about the lack of direct evidence, as if that is the only kind of evidence that is truly scientific.

The existence of viruses is also largely determined through inference. Most viruses are too small to see even through a microscope, and they can’t be easily grown in a dish like bacteria. Viruses are identified through isolating antibodies to them, isolating viral proteins, demonstrating biochemical activity, demonstrating disease activity, and eventually taking electron micrographs of viral particles. Taken together this evidence can be absolutely definitive, but the denier can continue to argue that the evidence is all indirect or mistaken.

That is exactly what Lanka does with respect to HIV. I guess he realized at some point that other viruses also rest on the same kind of evidence as HIV and therefore they probably don’t exist either. Lanka apparently doubts the existence of Ebola. What has gotten him into trouble now, however, is that he doubts the existence of measles.

One additional issue faced by virus deniers is that viruses cause illness, and so they have to explain the illness that is apparently caused by the virus. When the scientists who are not medical doctors, like Lanka, are virus deniers they are prone to making incredibly naive statements about disease. Lanka blames Ebola deaths on vaccines, and AIDS deaths on the treatments given for HIV. Further, he believes that measles is a psychosomatic illness.

To any reasonable person with the slightest amount of medical training, measles is obviously not a psychosomatic illness. The disease has objective findings, such as fever and an obvious rash. The natural history of the illness is fairly specific, and can be very severe, leading to encephalitis and even death. It is clearly highly contagious, and spread can be reduced by vaccines. Psychosomatic illnesses tend to be vague, non-specific, and not fatal. Measles is objective, specific, and has the potential to be fatal. The notion that measles is psychosomatic is frankly absurd, making Lanka a crank supreme.

For medical conditions the ultimate test of the scientific inferences used to determine the cause of the illness is to treat the disease based upon those scientific conclusions. The theory of HIV, for example, led to a very specific treatment protocol, with anti-retroviral drugs. If HIV did not truly exist then this treatment should have no effect. In fact in the 1990s HIV deniers used the modest effect of existing treatments as evidence for their denial. However, in the last 20 years HAART, or highly active anti-retroviral therapy, has improved to the point that those diagnosed with HIV have a near normal life expectancy.

To push this point further, we’re not just talking about one line of evidence here. There have been thousands of studies based upon the premise that HIV is a virus that causes AIDS. Many aspects of the disease and its treatment have been explored. If the whole thing was a myth, and HIV didn’t exist, then researchers exploring HIV would be hitting their head against the wall. We would be seeing major problems with the HIV theory. Instead what is happening is that thousands of studies are building a consistent picture of the virus, how it works, and how to treat it. We are way past the point where there is any reasonable scientific skepticism about the existence of HIV.

The same is true of measles. When you are dealing with something too small to see directly, or a process that is very slow or occurred in the past, we rarely have a single smoking gun that by itself establishes the reality of the phenomenon. Instead, the science is built upon a large body of evidence, direct, indirect, and inferential. In the case of measles, perhaps the ultimate test was the measles vaccine, which clearly works. If measles were a myth, then a vaccine would have been frustratingly impossible to develop.

That a court has now demanded that Lanka pay Barden the reward for meeting his challenge is an interesting twist. Barden pulled together published scientific evidence that together proves beyond a reasonable scientific doubt that measles is real. Lanka, of course, denied the evidence. That is what he does. You will never meet his burden of evidence to prove the thing that he denies, which is what makes such challenges from deniers a hoax.

However, Barden went to the courts to settle their dispute. The court, unlike Lanka, has apparently applied a reasonable standard for scientific proof and determined that Barden did indeed meet the burden of proof to demonstrate that measles is real. Lanka, of course, will appeal, and there is always the possibility that he will wiggle out of the judgment on legal grounds (rather than the merits of the case).

As an aside, this is one risk of legally tangling with cranks. If they win the case on legal technicalities, they will generally claim they won on the merits, and will use the judgement as vindication of their pseudoscience. People who base their career on bending reality will bend reality.


Measles is real. Lanka is a crank. A German court has now ruled essentially that these two conclusions are true, and Lanka has to now put his money where his mouth is. This won’t change anything, but it is nice to see justice from time to time. Perhaps it will make the cranks a bit more gun shy before issuing hoax challenges in the future.

16 responses so far

16 Responses to “Yes, Dr. Lanka, Measles is Real”

  1. joshguthon 13 Mar 2015 at 8:41 am

    Dr. Novella – I notice that your articles have centered around the law more often since the commencement of your lawsuit. Am I crazy or has the experience given you a new appreciation for the law (obviously the options are binary)? As a lawyer, I’m not complaining and enjoyed the read.

  2. tmac57on 13 Mar 2015 at 9:59 am

    The guy is a virologist that denies the existence of viruses? Wouldn’t that be like a molecular biologist denying the existence of molecules?

  3. Synseion 13 Mar 2015 at 10:11 am

    What kind of evidence against his claim would he have accepted as valid? Something like a crocoduck, something that is not predicted or claimed by the actual theory? Was there an agreement between both parties about what would constitute evidence?
    Some other crank got deliberately injected with HIV infected blood to prove his point, but he died of something else soon after that, and him not getting aids would statistically not be evidence for hiv/aids denial.

  4. John Danleyon 13 Mar 2015 at 10:16 am

    I knew it! Children who contracted pneumonia after seeing those pesky papules were “suffering” from mass psychogenic illness. And to think, Maurice Hilleman would have gotten away with it all if it hadn’t been for you rotten kids. Damn you airborne hysteria!

  5. arnieon 13 Mar 2015 at 11:45 am

    A virologist denying the existence of measles virus (and other viruses apparently)! Plus, he even harbors the fixed belief that no scientist can supply adequate evidence to prove in court that the measles virus exists. Hmmm… Smacks of a very over-determined choice of life career. I have to wonder if you’re writing about a man with a deeply rooted, crystallized and perhaps encapsulated delusional system suggesting a more specific psychiatric diagnosis than “crank”. Although, absent an examination or other corroborating evidence, I guess “crank” will have to do. Otherwise, the anti-defamation police might come knocking here in this no-SLAPP-law state of Connecticut and said virologist might attempt to recover his recently lost money in another way.

  6. Skepdirkon 13 Mar 2015 at 12:32 pm

    Dr. Lanka seems to be aware, that indirect / inferred evidence would be provided easily, so to increase the difficulty to meet his challenge, he explicitly required to determine the *diameter* of the measels virus:

    “WANTED – Der Durchmesser


    Das Preisgeld wird ausgezahlt, wenn eine wissenschaftliche Publikation vorgelegt wird, in der die Existenz des Masern-Virus nicht nur behauptet, sondern auch bewiesen und darin u.a. dessen Durchmesser bestimmt ist. ”

    This translates to “the price will be paid when a scientific publication is provided, in which the existence of the measels virus is not only claimed, but also proven, and, besides other properties, its diameter is determined.”

    So I would assume that science *does know* the size of the measels virus, at least :-)

  7. wolpertingeron 13 Mar 2015 at 4:10 pm

    Calling him virologist might be a bit of a stretch, to my knowledge he hasn’t published anything in 20 years…and all of that was related it to his diploma (he worked on many books such as “Vaccination and AIDS: the new holocaust”, though)

  8. Waydudeon 13 Mar 2015 at 6:16 pm

    “crank, which is a specific flavor of pseudoscientist who makes sophisticated arguments to support a hilariously wrong conclusion. ”

    “Crank” is slang for a low purity, crystallized Methamphetamine that is administered in a powder form.

    Trying to sow some connection between the two, but the joke center of my brain needs coffee.

  9. Boodaon 13 Mar 2015 at 6:28 pm

    I was skeptical about climate change due to greenhouse gases. I wanted more evidence.

    More evidence was provided.

    I have enough adult humility to admit I was wrong. Nobody has to drag me kicking and screaming to court. And if I were to be so confident as to put my money where my mouth is, well, my general rule for gambling is don’t bet money I can’t afford to lose.

    HIV and measles KILL people. To be a stubborn child and not admit that while people’s lives are at risk is despicable. Call it a crank or whatever you want, it’s a position I just cannot respect, because I’ve been wrong. Yes, it feels terrible, but I take comfort in knowing that I am no longer wrong.

  10. Paulzon 13 Mar 2015 at 8:57 pm

    “Calling him virologist might be a bit of a stretch, to my knowledge he hasn’t published anything in 20 years…and all of that was related it to his diploma (he worked on many books such as “Vaccination and AIDS: the new holocaust”, though)”

    Well, Wolper, I guess it depends on how we define things. Someone is a “veteran” if they engaged in combat at any point in the past, but is “scientist” something you must maintain?

    Frankly, I think so – one’s skills can degrade, and so can one’s capacity for rational discourse, and he doesn’t have the excuse of mental deterioration as far as I’m aware!

  11. ccbowerson 13 Mar 2015 at 11:08 pm

    Many viruses, including measles, can be cultured in tissue. It is uncommon mostly for practical reasons… it often takes too long, such that the information comes after it would be useful. This often makes it quite expensive. Other methods for detecting viruses such as looking for antibodies or PCR to look for specific DNA or RNA sequences are faster and more convenient.

    It is amazing to me that a person who can deny something for which there is such incredible evidence (we have made many effective vaccines for measles, and the virus can be actually replicated in culture, etc) can even function as a person in society. Yet cranks like this can be quite successful in their own world. Ego is one thing, but they also have to be completely impervious to any level of congnitive dissonance. They must have incredible abilities to compartmentalized. Perhaps that is the trade off, I’m not as good at the comparmentalization thing.

  12. debatamenuson 15 Mar 2015 at 12:24 pm

    This article was an interesting read and I might even acknowledge that Dr Lanka was indeed a crank, but rather in the sense that hitherto he CRANKED up a system of beliefs and dogma that is fast becoming revealed as flawed and, in many cases, incorrect, such as the medical profession generally. Dr Lanka can obviously see the corrupt practices of the medical cabal first hand and was subsequently eager to set up a challenge to air his disapproval of the system. When we speak of viruses, which undoubtedly DO EXIST, and at nanoscopic(10 to power 9) rather than the measurable microscopic level. I wonder if Dr Lanka was ever considering the nanotechnology in all of this when considering his ex-stream ‘no germ’ claim. The article says that viruses are largely determined by inference because they are too small to be seen. Well, they would be if they were nanoscopic and the viruses created in laboratories now are definitely of the nanoscopic variety. Why was none of this mentioned in the article? Instead, the article’s writer decided to indulge in character assassination without knowing about what sort of evidence Dr Lanka may have had up his sleeve. What I am saying is that Dr Lanka was perhaps denying the culpability of natural, or nature’s own, breed of virus and instead latching onto the nasty domain of virus creation technology,which is classified information and therefore will be denied by the courts.

  13. Rikki-Tikki-Tavion 15 Mar 2015 at 1:33 pm

    Dr. Barden is a member of the German skeptics society GWUP. He will be giving a talk at the GWUP’s next annual conference, the SkepKon 2015 in Frankfurt. Everything is in German, though.

  14. Bill Openthalton 16 Mar 2015 at 8:36 am

    I had a gander at Lanka’s web site, and the man is a crank not only in matters viral. He waxes lyrical about Ice X (which only exists at pressures higher than 70hPa) as the energy source of life. As he says (I’m translating from German):

    The Chinese call this type of energy ‘Qi’, the Indians call it ‘Prana’, the Germans call it ‘Dense Water’, and modern physics calls it ‘ice X’ (Eisform Nr. 10). This type of water is fat-soluble and at the same time the core building substance of life. The brain and nervous system serve to conduct and distribute this type of energy.

    He’s also promoting a company that sells ‘Information-free water’. Because as you’d have guessed by now, he has also discovered why homeopathy works.

    My mind is still boggling.

  15. nazani14on 19 Mar 2015 at 5:16 pm

    ” an extreme narrative gets stuck in their brain” I’d like to read a lot more on this topic, as I encounter so many people who can seem totally rational, and then one day they confide in me that they believe in chemtrails or that the Jews run everything. In the early days of pyschology, I suppose this kind of behavior would have been called an idee fixe or a monomania. I don’t think that this is necessarily a physical problem with the brain, it seems that if you move in some social circles you have to believe in the NWO, just as if you went to a certain high school where all the cool girls were Beliebers, you’d be expected to be a fan.

  16. tmac57on 19 Mar 2015 at 6:22 pm

    nazani14- I think that you have a point, as it seems that some of these belief systems are attached to certain social or cultural groups.
    I have seen reasonable people drift in to conspiracy thinking or other sketchy beliefs due to being exposed to a work or social group that harbors questionable ideas that go unchecked by critical analysis.
    The peer pressure to fit in by agreeing with or at least going along (keeping your mouth shut), is often strong since you might not want to be ostracized or feel like the odd person out.
    If you don’t think for yourself, the tendency toward group-think can drive you toward ideas that you might not have taken up on your own.

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