Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
Preprints continue to feed right-wing misinformation, provide a scientific veneer to white supremacist conspiracy theories, and mislead the public more often than we’d like to believe. It was all on display again this weekend via Zenodo and Bill Maher.
Preprints have been gradually improving as some additional safeguards and nuances have developed as a defense mechanism. But some stalwarts still defend allowing the public to discover and read scientifically-rejected preprints, while others behave as if their only responsibility is to keep the servers running. And the perpetual, open storage of old, abandoned, invalidated, and refuted preprints only keeps us from moving forward, since opportunists can find ways to reap benefits, sow chaos, or stroke their egos by resuscitating old nonsense.
One of the more galling stories from last year about preprints came in September and October, when a Chinese researcher and conspiracy theorist — paid by non-profits funded by Steve Bannon and a notorious Chinese billionaire — posted two preprints on the CERN-affiliated server Zenodo spinning the fable that SARS-CoV-2 was a bioweapon developed by the Chinese military and unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Notified of this, Zenodo refused to remove them, claiming it is merely a repository, and by custom does not have a peer-review mechanism — or apparently any responsibility whatsoever.
On Friday, a US pathologist — Steven Quay — posted a preprint on Zenodo alleging that his Bayesian analysis demonstrates conclusively that SARS-CoV-2 originated in a laboratory and not via a natural reservoir or vector. And on Saturday, two evolutionary biologists with racism- and paranoia-tinged backgrounds appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher to push the same conspiracy theory — which first made its way into scientific publishing via those two preprints on Zenodo in September and October.
Quay cites a Twitter group (#DRASTIC) having a role in his thinking. #DRASTIC has been promulgating Covid-19 conspiracy theories, including one that went mainstream very recently when Steve Hilton, host of the Fox News show The Next Revolution, told another Fox News host, Maria Bartiromo, that he believed Anthony Fauci — Director of the NIAID and Chief Medical Advisor to the President — is responsible for the origination of the coronavirus. This is a version of the “Covid came from a lab” conspiracy theory, and it is common in Russian and Chinese propaganda.
Quay seems to have cultivated a friendly relationship with the Fox News affiliate in Houston (Fox 26), appearing at least twice — once to promote his company’s idea of developing a nasal spray treatment for Covid-19, and another promoting the idea that a salt spray on masks could kill Covid-19 immediately. Fox News remains the primary portal between right-wing fantasyland and mainstream America.
Along with his preprint alleging proof that Covid-19 came from a lab, Quay posted a 5-minute video on Zenodo, in which he “introduces” viewers to what he claims is a Bayesian analysis demonstrating the laboratory origins of SARS-CoV-2. In the video, Quay makes huge leaps of logic to claim a 99.8% likelihood for laboratory origin — greater than the 98.8% likelihood he says more established experts have given to the virus having a natural origin.
Quay pushed a press release of his preprint via PR Newswire, where he boasts about all of his papers, patents, and citations. He seems to have discovered PR Newswire in June 2020. As you read across his press releases, you can see how carefully he tracks citations to his works — 9,800 citations claimed last June; 9,900 claimed in August; and, 10,000 claimed in January 2021. He also claims to have published 60 more papers between June 2020 and January 2021.
Quay uses a PR firm called Dunn Pellier Media, which specializes in promoting “wellness experts, multinational companies, exercise programs, applications, start ups, celebrities, athletes, chefs, fitness influencers product lines and more.” Here’s Quay’s company — Atossa — in the midst of Dunn Pellier’s client listing:
While Quay’s preprint went right up on Zenodo, not every platform has been as welcoming of his works. Amazon removed — and later restored — content written by Quay last year. In June 2020, he published a Kindle book, “Your COVID-19 Survival Manual: A Physician’s Guide to Keep You and Your Family Healthy During the Pandemic and Beyond” on Amazon. The book was unceremoniously removed five days later, as Quay complained in another PR Newswire press release. It was restored on August 30, 2020, and in October 2020, Quay issued another press release boasting about providing 50 copies of his book to the White House. The book is published by Ensisheim Partners LLC, a pass-through entity owned by Quay and his wife. Revenues from some of his patents also flow through to this LLC. According to Dun & Bradstreet, Ensisheim Partners LLC is part of the Drug Wholesalers Industry, has four total employees, and generates $379,983 in sales.
As noted above, Quay’s main company, Atossa Therapeutics, is attempting to develop a nasal spray treatment for Covid-19. In a small trial of 32 patients, they claim to have demonstrated that the spray didn’t bother anyone much. They are also developing a breast cancer treatment.
To the preprint itself now. At least one irregularity — the stated likelihood of his claim being true — is immediately evident between the video and the preprint. Beyond peer-review, a good copyeditor could have caught that. When it comes to authorship, Quay is the sole author, but a lawyer named H. Lawrence Remmel, “provided input on the adenovirus vaccine as a dual target vaccine.” Remmel is listed Atossa’s web site as the company’s Director.
The preprint reads like an argument, not a study, with the outcome established from the start and “evidence” assembled accordingly. It’s 193 pages of assertions, shadings, and rhetoric, from what I can tell.
When it comes to publication mechanics, the Zenodo preprint server generates numerous DOIs per preprint. We’ve seen this on other platforms, as well. On Zenodo, Quay’s preprint generates three DOIs (not to mention another three for the video), even though the two “versions” were posted on the same day:
Now, Quay’s preprint hasn’t achieved the social media virality of the other Zenodo conspiracy preprints, but that may be because social media has tightened up. Or, perhaps times have changed — vaccines are coming, and people don’t care as much about conspiracies about the disease’s origins. Coincidentally, experts from the WHO are currently in Wuhan for the first time to examine the marketplace that may have been the source of the outbreak.
But who needs social media when you’ve got premium cable?
Which brings us to Real Time with Bill Maher this week, where two other “experts” with questionable credentials and no real data claimed in an interview that the SARS-CoV-2 virus came from a lab. The husband and wife team of evolutionary biologists — Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying — found a credulous target in Maher. Weinstein is part of a group known as “the intellectual dark web,” and Heyer has a martyrdom complex, calling herself on her web site “Author. Evolutionary Biologist. Professor in Exile.” These two might also ring a bell as the professors who quit their jobs at Evergreen College in 2017 after fussing about a day honoring minorities. They received a settlement of $500,000 for their troubles. Afterwards, Weinstein discussed the events on Fox News and wrote a related op-ed for the Wall Street Journal — both Rupert Murdoch properties known for pumping misinformation out via their opinion functions.
In the full interview with Maher, you can more clearly see how conspiratorial thinkers operate, and how credulous interviewers fail to do their jobs. Maher is a disgrace here, frankly. In the edited version below from YouTube, the two seem to allude to Quay’s work, estimating a greater than 90% likelihood the virus originated in a lab, and explaining their view with a bunch of raised eyebrows and hand-waving:
In the midst of all this, we have to remember a main path this “made in a lab” hypothesis followed to enter the realm of scientific discourse — two preprints on Zenodo by an author funded by non-profits themselves funded by Steve Bannon and the Chinese billionaire whose yacht he was on when he was arrested in August.
This all seems like a continuation of the same conspiracy theory we saw in September, once again dressed up in the garb of scientific inquiry, hosted on a server that shades it into the realm of legitimacy, and promoted heavily by grifters and hucksters.
Just imagine if the first two preprints from the Bannon crew had had no place to go, or were removed quickly. Imagine if Zenodo staff had planned to keep such things away from their platform. Imagine if there were peer review required before things were put out publicly and persistently, with DOIs and citability. Imagine.
Instead, because they won’t delete misinformation, Zenodo’s in the soup again, giving conspiracy thinkers — who are finding more and more receptive mainstream outlets now — a fresh entry in the scientific space to make people worry about vaccines, distrust science, and become more paranoid.
Thanks, Zenodo. Thanks for doing nothing.
(HT to RP for the pointer.)
UPDATE — February 17, 2021 — Zenodo has placed a warning on the Quay preprint, as well as others, after pressure from this newsletter, the Washington Post, and a group at Harvard studying “cloaked science.” Full article here.