The Plague and Quackery Right & Left

Earlier this week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced the revocation of its emergency use authorization for chloroquine and hydroxychlorine (HCQ).[1] The FDA had originally granted the emergency use authorization for HCQ, on March 28, 2020, but its continued review found that the drug was “unlikely to be effective at treating COVID-19” and the potential risks of HCQ use outweigh any potential benefits. The Agency action was in line with the evolving standard of care for COVID-19, and the available evidence from clinical trials. The medical community applauded, but the Trump Administration, which had been stockpiling HCQ, labeled the revocation as “a Deep State blindside by bureaucrats who hate the administration they work for more than they’re concerned about saving American lives.”[2]

For weeks, Donald John Trump, the short-fingered vulgarian, the Orange Man, the loser of the 2016 popular vote, the Narcissist-in-Chief of the United States, has been hawking the anti-malarial medication HCQ as a potential therapy for COVID-19. Trump’s first public endorsement of HCQ came on March 19, 2020, after its use had been thoroughly scientifically vetted for a few days by talking heads at Fox News.[3] Foxy Laura Ingraham interviewed lawyer Gregory Rigano, author of one of the HCQ papers, who announced to Laura that HCQ can “just get rid of [the virus] completely.”

On April 24, the FDA “issued an alert warning doctors against prescribing the drug for COVID-19 outside of hospitals and research settings because of the risks of serious side effects and death.” Although Trump may be stupid, he is strong and resolute. On May 18, 2020, the nominal President of the United States, announced that he is taking hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), an anti-malaria medication that he had been hyping for months as a potential treatment for COVID-19.[4] When pressed for why he was taking HCQ for prophylaxis, Trump explained his basis:

“Here we go. Are you ready? Here’s my evidence. I get a lot of positive calls about it.”

Although Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx have clearly explained that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that HCQ was efficacious in treating COVID-19, and no evidence that HCQ was preventative, Agent Orange followed the playbook he inherited early in life from Roy Cohen: never apologize, never acknowledge you have been wrong, just change the conversation.[5]

Trump’s embrace of HCQ was peculiar in the face of his usual disregard for prophylactics. Of course, Agent Orange’s advocacy for HCQ arose in the context of another lie: virus denial. Trump acolyte Rush Limbaugh has asseverated that the viral agent behind COVID-19 is

“‘the common cold’ that’s being ‘weaponized’ against Trump.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Now, I want to tell you the truth about the coronavirus. … Yeah, I’m dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.”[6]

In the United Kingdom, men who have contributed greatly to an activity and who have gained national and international respect are knighted by the Queen and become Knight Commanders of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. In the United States, the President awards the National Medal of Freedom. During this year’s state-of-the-union address, Trump, while ignoring warnings of the COVID-19 pandemic, awarded the Medal to master trash-talker Rush Limbaugh. Remarkably, the toxicity of Agent Orange is manifested in support for both virus denial and for a bogus therapy.

Evidence is never really necessary for opinion, as Trump has taught us. For his endorsement of HCQ, Trump has, however, the opinion of “experts,” at the Association of American Physicians & Surgeons (AAPS). The AAPS has been stridently championing the cause of HCQ with what can be called only scientific propaganda,[7] including the debunked study by Didier Raoult, which has drawn a statement of concern from the scientific group, International Society of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy (ISAC), which publishes the journal in which Raoult’s results appeared.[8] The AAPS also relied upon claims made Vladimir Zelenko about 1,554 patients, for which he had “published no data, described no study design, and reported no analysis.” And since no quackfest would be complete without hard evidence from Mehmet Cengiz Öz, commonly known as Dr. Oz, the AAPS has dutifully reported that Oz had two patients to whom he gave HCQ, and both survived.

The HCQ issue is not the AAPS’s first quack rodeo. Those who follow the organization will sense déjà vu.[9] A sampler of AAPS’ scientific contributions to public policy debates include:

Abortion and Breast Cancer. The AAPS, on shoddy evidence, jumped on the issue whether abortion causes breast cancer, in 2002, to equate abortion for a teenager as “child abuse,” because the procedure will cause a “30% risk of breast cancer in her lifetime.” The AAPS ignored better and fairly definitive evidence of no association.

Vaccination and Austim. The AAPS has unrepentantly engaged in anti-vaccination propaganda. While acknowledging the scientific consensus against the claim that vaccines cause autism, the group raised hyperbolic doubts and threw itself in with conspiracy theorists to oppose mandatory vaccination.[10] When a measles outbreak occurred in Florida, in 2015, the AAPS issued a news release that “linked” autism with the measles vaccine.

HIV and AIDS. Despite the careful and well-documented conclusion of the National Academy of Science, in 1988, that AIDS was caused by a virus, HIV, the AAPS remains unconvinced. As recently as 2015, the AAPS, through its Executive Director Jane Orient, has questioned the connection and the standard-of-care treatment for HIV infection.

Barak Obama and Hypnotic Induction. In 2008, the AAPS website published an article that condemned Obama’s use of covert hypnotic techniques, which the group traced to Milton H. Erickson’s so-called neurolinguistic programming. The AAPS cited to “An Examination of Obama’s Use of Hidden Hypnosis Techniques in His Speeches,” a 67-page, unpublished, unsigned manuscript, on a right-wing conspiracy website, which no longer seems to have this masterpiece. Fortunately, the “proof” is still available online.

If the AAPS appears to trade in all manner of scientific quackery with a distinctive Republican flavor, then you will not be surprised that its General Counsel is Andrew Schafly, son of the late Phyllis Schafly (1924-2016). Mom was the Grand Dame of the know-nothing Republican party after she helped kill off the Nelson Rockefeller wing of the G.O.P.

Under Andrew Schafly’s deft legal guidance, the AAPS sued the FDA,[11] on June 2, 2020 to end “its arbitrary interference with the use of hydroxychloroquine.”[12] Schafly proudly cited his support for HCQ, which President Trump and other world leaders have taken as a prophylaxis against COVID-19.

The June 2nd AAPS Press Release generously cites and quotes Andrew Schafly’s pronouncements that

“that if everyone [sic] was allowed to take hydroxychloroquine, there would be no need for any social distancing or restrictions on mass gatherings”

and

“Entrenched, politically biased officials at the FDA should not be allowed to interfere with Americans’ right to access medication donated to the federal government for public use. … By preventing Americans’ use of HCQ as a prophylaxis, the FDA is infringing on First Amendment rights to attend religious services or participate in political events such as political conventions, town halls, and rallies in an important election year.”[13]

The litigious Mr. Schafly claims that “[t]here is no legal or factual basis for the FDA to limit use of HCQ,” and that the agency’s restrictions on HCQ are indefensible. The FDA was unmoved and proceeded yesterday to remove its emergency use authorization for HCQ.

We really did not need a plague to learn that Don Trumpolino and his acolytes were liars and buffoons. Still, the plague was, like so many other events, a great Rorschach epistemic test about care for the truth. In the 1980s, I thought that the toxicity of Agent Orange was exaggerated, but now that the theocons have dropped this weaponized Russian Agent Orange on the White House, I see that I was wrong. The entire country is suffering post-trumpatic stress disorder. We have all stepped in Tweety Turd. But why does truth have to be the first casualty?

The plague has, however, revealed the tenuous connection many United States citizens have with the truth. For anyone who has toiled in the American litigation stables, fragility of respect for truth is a given. Kurt Andersen’s book Fantasyland shows how exceptional Americans are when it comes to cults, conspiracies, fanaticism, fantasies, superstitions, and the like.[14] Andersen makes the point that more cults and new religions are spawned in the USA than in Europe or any else. No surprise then, when Andrew Wakefield was run out of the U.K., he found a warm embrace in the USA from RFK Jr. and Jenny McCarthy. Maybe the truth, small t, never had a chance in the United States, the land of Truth, big T, with its conspiracies and unbounded credulity.

Is American exceptionalism just another instance of the American public’s credulity? I would like to believe that our exceptionalism is real and tied to our great principles and the implicit promise that someday the promise of those principles will be kept.[15] Today, American exceptionalism looks more like an excuse to avoid our own Vergangenheitsbewältigung over slavery and genocide. We have an entrenched minority who adore the Confederacy and its pantheon of losers, traitors, and racists.

Even so, there are traps of untruthfulness on the left, as we see in the New Woke Times’ reinventing history to make slavery into an abuse of capitalism, when in fact slavery was the ultimate alienation of human beings from their labor through force, feudalism, and religion. Apologists for Southern chattel slavery criticized Northern “free labor” capitalism, but woke scholarship finds this inconvenient. Today, facts seem disposable on the left as well, with much needed calls for racial justice and police reform, larded down with virtue signaling and hand-waving excuse mongering for looting and failure to insist that all people stop resisting arrest. These are tough times for the truth.


[1]  FDA Press Release, “Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Revokes Emergency Use Authorization for Chloroquine and Hydroxychloroquine” (June 15, 2020); Molly Walker, “HCQ No Longer Approved Even a Little for COVID-19 – Study after study showed no benefit, and now the FDA has had enough,” MedPage Today (June 15, 2020).

[2]  Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “A Mad Scramble to Stock Millions of Malaria Pills, Likely for Nothing,” N.Y. Times (June 16, 2020) (quoting Trump’s Trade Advisor Peter Navarro). Curiously, the Administration has ignored the emerging potentially good news about the efficacy of dexamethasone in treating seriously ill COVID-19 patients, as shown in a randomized clinical trial, which is not yet peer reviewed and published. Benjamin Mueller & Roni Caryn Rabin, “Common Drug Reduces Coronavirus Deaths, Scientists Report,” N.Y. Times (June 16, 2020).

[3]  Philip Bump, “The rise and fall of Trump’s obsession with hydroxychloroquine – Forty days of promotion, hype – and eventual retreat,” Wash. Post (April 24, 2020).

[4]  “Remarks by President Trump in a Roundtable with Restaurant Executives and Industry Leaders” (May 18, 2020).

[5]   Andrew Solender, “All The Times Trump Has Promoted HydroxychloroquineForbes (May 22, 2020).

[6]   Allyson Chiu, “Rush Limbaugh on coronavirus: ‘The common cold’ that’s being ‘weaponized’ against Trump,” Wash. Post (Feb. 25, 2020); See alsoThe corona virus is the common cold”; “Rush Limbaugh: coronavirus a ‘common cold’ being ‘weaponised’ against Trump,” The Guardian (Feb. 25, 2020). See generally Anthony Bardon, “Science Denial,” chap. 2, in The Truth About Denial: Bias and Self-Deception in Science, Politics, and Religion (2019) (exploring the role of cognitive dissonance, motivated reasoning, and confirmation bias, in science denialism).

[7]   “Hydroxychloroquine Has about 90 Percent Chance of Helping COVID-19 Patients,” AAPS (April 28, 2020).

[8]   The ISAC reported that Raoult’s work “does not meet the Society’s expected standard,” and that the ISAC was concerned “regarding the content, the ethical approval of the trial and the process that this paper underwent.”

[9]  David Gorski, “The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons: Ideology trumps science-based medicine,” Science-Based Med. (June 23, 2008).

[10]   AAPS, “Statement on Federal Vaccine Mandates” (Feb. 26, 2019).

[11]   The AAPS complaint is available at its website: http://aapsonline.org/judicial/aaps-v-fda-hcq-6-2-2020.pdf

[12]   “AAPS Sues the FDA to End Its Arbitrary Restrictions on Hydroxychloroquine,” AAPS (June 2, 2020).

[13]    Id.

[14]  Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire – A 500-Year History (2017).

[15]  See, e.g., People v. Ruggles, 8 Johns. R. 290 (N.Y. 1811) (Kent, C.J.) (holding that common law of crime prohibited blasphemy but only for blasphemy against Chancellor Kent’s own religious superstitions).

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