Nov 03 2020

Magic Amulets Do Not Prevent COVID

Retraction Watch has an interesting article about a very curious paper published in Science of the Total Environment. In fact, the paper and communication from the lead author are so bad I have to wonder if its a Sokal-like prank. If not, it is more evidence that the world has become so weird there are many things which are beyond satire. But let’s take this at face value. The title of the paper is: “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.”

Many scientific publications are extremely technical and require very long technical descriptions, but my “gratuitous jargon” alarm went off at this title. The paper itself is worse – I get the distinct impression it is using jargon not to be precise, but to impress and befuddle. But wading through the jargon, the claim here that has caught attention is this – “Nephrite-Jade amulets, a calcium-ferromagnesian silicate, may prevent COVID-19.” What? Wearing a jade amulet may prevent COVID-19? You are going to have to do better than dazzling with jargon to make that claim stick, or even to get it taken seriously. The fact that the authors reference Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) does not help either.

The co-founder of Retraction Watch, Ivan Oransky, wanted to get to the bottom of it also, so he wrote the following e-mail to the corresponding author, Moses Turkle Bility, PhD. Oransky wrote:

“Dr. Bility
I blog at Retraction Watch. Can you confirm that you co-authored this paper?”

That was it – a very simple query to confirm authorship. This is pretty standard in academia, just dotting all the i’s. This was Dr. Bility’s response:

Dear Dr. Ivan Oransky, yes, I published that article, and I kindly suggest you read the article and examine the evidence provided. I also suggest you read the history of science and how zealots have consistently attempted to block and ridicule novel ideas that challenge the predominant paradigm from individuals that are deem not intelligent enough. 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. I’ll be very candid with you; my skin color has no bearing on my intelligence. If you have legitimate concerns about the article and wish to discuss, I’ll address; however, I will not tolerate racism or intellectual intolerance targeted at me.

Whoa, where is that coming from? I suspect that Dr. Bility has already received some pushback prior to getting the very innocent query from Retraction Watch, but such a response is extremely telling. Bility immediately goes for the “small minded bigots can’t appreciate my paradigm-shifting brilliance” card. Sorry, Dr. Bility, but with that reaction you just branded yourself a crank and a pseudoscientist. Perhaps that’s not fair, but neither is this massively out-of-proportion response.

First – you don’t get to decide and declare that your own research is “paradigm shifting”. That is something the scientific community has to determine, and only in hindsight. Publishing one paper with, frankly, outrageous claims and then responding to pushback by claiming you are just too brilliant for all these plebes does not have a good look. Dr. Bility then back with up with unjustified accusations of racism. I am not denying that there is racial bias in science, nor am I challenging the experience of minority scientists. But Bility is not just playing the race card, he is bringing down the race sledgehammer, and seemingly with zero provocation. The next exchange is even better. Oransky replies:

“Thanks for your quick response, Dr. Bility. Can you please provide actual evidence that ” Nephrite-Jade amulets, a calcium-ferromagnesian silicate, may prevent COVID-19?” I would also be interested in your views on whether promoting non-evidence-based interventions during a pandemic is a good idea.”

This is exactly the kind of pushback that a published paper should be getting from the scientific community. You just made a bold claim – where is your evidence? Keep in mind, the purpose of publishing in the peer-reviewed literature is not to declare victory for your hypothesis, it’s to put it out there so that other scientists can try their hardest to rip it to shreds. If you don’t have the fortitude to handle this meat-grinder, then go into another profession. In fact, how a scientist responds to legitimate questions and criticism tells me a lot about their scientific integrity. This was basically an opportunity for Bility to give a cogent summary of his evidence and his scientific logic. Make your case. Instead, this was his response:

“Dear Dr. Oransky, please read and understand the article in its entirety, before you make a hasty decision. If I may speculate, you neither understand quantum physics nor spin chemistry; you are making a hasting decision based on your knowledge of the classical theories that dominate the biological sciences. Also, certainly you being a white male offers you the privilege to think that you have the right to determine who can propose ideas that challenges a dominant paradigm. Other cultures are not primitive, and people of color and indigenous people are not intellectually inferior. Before you jump to conclusions about this article, I suggest you understand quantum physics, and spin chemistry, and how it differs from classical theories, and then read my article.”

Yikes. Bility’s strategy here was to first insult the knowledge of the person questioning your research, then double down on your gratuitous accusation of racial bigotry. Wrap this in more “paradigm shifting” boasts, and talk about how you are overthrowing “classical” science. Then throw up “quantum physics” as a shield.¬†What is lacking in this response is any humility, any recognition that the claim being made is extreme, and any recognition that this is being tossed into the middle of a serious pandemic (the worst in a century). Again – the goal of publishing is to engage with the scientific community, not insult your colleagues, deflect questions, and just proclaim yourself a genius. That’s what cranks do.

But I did read the paper to get an idea of what we are talking about. It was hard to get through the abstract and introduction, there were so many problems. Here’s the first sentence:

Thoracic organs, namely, the lungs and kidneys in severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)-associated coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), exhibit silicate/glass-like (hyaline) and iron oxides-like deposits, which are like serpentinization-induced minerals.

The kidneys are not thoracic organs. They are abdominal, specifically retroperitoneal. This immediately jumped out at me, which makes me wonder not only about the expertise of the authors but also the reviewers. How the hell did that get past peer-review? This may seem nitpicky, but nitpicky is what peer-review is all about. In case you are wondering, this mistake is replicated consistently throughout the article. The next part is more to the point of the paper, however. One major premise (without which the entire chain of logic fails) is that COVID-19 lung and kidney pathology shows features that are “like” silicates and iron oxides. “Like” is a tricky term, especially in a scientific paper. How are they “like” these things? This can be very subjective. So I also read the references they use to justify this claim, and I find no mention at all of anything in these references that justifies the conclusion the lung or kidney pathology is “like” these minerals.

Another major premise of the paper is that the epidemiology of COVID-19, and past epidemics and population die-offs, correlates with magnetic minima. The notion that the world’s epidemiologists, who have been carefully following and modeling this pandemic, missed this pattern is pretty astonishing. If it were true, there would be a massive anomaly in the epidemiology of this pandemic. This isn’t impossible, but that is a steep hill to climb.

The more I dug into the paper the more I found extreme claims resting on very thin reeds, with references that don’t justify the claims, and with leaps of logic worthy of Deepak Chopra. In other words, this paper appears to be utter scientific crap. This explains why Dr. Bility had to defend the paper with obfuscation, deflection, and insults. This would all be merely amusing if the authors were not promoting magic amulets as a prevention for a serious pandemic. Even if you think there is some possibility of legitimacy to the claims in this terrible paper, Bility is doing exactly the opposite of what he should be doing if his goal is to convince anyone that he has a point. If you want to convince the scientific community that you are not a crank, don’t act like an epic crank.




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