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How to Identify a Charlatan

(This image was obtained from google images. Copywrite to whomever produced it)

I was on the twitter machine the other day when I came across some positive comments on the most recent Joe Rogan podcast with Robert F. Kennedy Jr (RFK). Apparently this guy is running for president and is being shut out by most major donors. He’s considered an outsider which are usually ripe with fringe opinions and enticing headlines. Personally, I knew nothing about him before the podcast. Some of the comments were glowing. People responded: “this is the only level headed candidate out there,” “Why is this person being silenced by the media,” “Finally a candidate for the people.” This drew me in. The JRE podcasts are pretty long, so I didn’t start listening right away. I needed some set aside time.

As the days went by a twitter spat sprung up between Joe Rogan and Dr. Peter Hotez. From what I could gather Hotez is a pediatrician and immunologist. He has been a strong proponents of childhood vaccination and advocate against misinformation. Dr. Hotez is the classic portly, bowtie wearing, beard sporting, academic pediatrician. An easy target for an MMA fighting, weed smoking, HGH injecting podcast host. Rogan offered to have him on his show for a debate, which to this day Hotez has refused. At this point I was all in.

I made it about 35 minutes and had to turn it off. My brain began to mutiny. I knew this RFK guy was likely a fraud because I deal with obscure conspiracy theories in day to day practice. They are often baseless or extrapolated from bad evidence. The fact that some people think this guy needs a bigger megaphone is concerning

I thought to myself, “I have to finish this podcast and refute these outrageous claims.” I turned it back on for 10 more minutes and had to turn it off. Then I had another thought; “Better to write on the topic of how to identify a charlatan.”

The following are 10 common characteristics that help me identify Charlatans:

1) All charlatans believe they have discovered something harmful no one else knows, or everyone chooses to ignore.

2) Their enemy is usually some massive entity with malicious intent, and it’s their duty to expose the “system.”

3) Their perceived impact on the cause is grossly inflated.

4) The harm associated with whatever issue they are campaigning against is grossly inflated.

5) Their sources are always the most credible people you can find, while counter research or expert opinion is easily discredited.

6) They grossly overestimate the negative impact of the solution to the original problem, of which they have greatly discounted.

7) They quickly grasp complicated topics outside their trained profession.

8) They spend almost all of their time talking, litigating, and complaining and virtually no time trying to solve whatever they have issue with, i.e. no skin in the game:

9) They are convinced YOU need THEM.

10) There’s no chance they are wrong.

If you’ve listened to the podcast already, I would encourage you to listen again with these characteristics in mind. If you haven’t, now you will be ready to identify these individuals in the future.

Now, I am going to make a few comments to support my characteristics based on the first 35-40 minutes of the podcast. First, the fact that some people believe RFK deserves a platform is evidence of how gullible my generation can be in our search for progress and fresh perspective.

Based on the interview RFK origins are as a litigator and environmentalist. He did some work to help the Hudson river’s ecosystem. He claims, before his work the Hudson River was the most toxic river in the United States. It could not sustain much life. After his work, the Hudson transformed into a river that supports the largest biomass of fish in the U.S. His humility is unmatched (#9). Clear evidence of an inflated sense of self-importance (#3). At one point he claims if it weren’t for his work with local fisherman, it would still be the toxic dump it was. I’m sure there is some truth to that, but there is probably more to the story. The EPA, City of New York, and even General Electric have spent the last 40 years trying to clean up the Hudson River.

He is a strong opponent of thimerosal, which is a vaccine additive used to reduce contamination in vaccine vials. He claims it is responsible for the cognitive deficits in many of our children due to the chemical component ethyl mercury. He focuses on the use of influenza vaccination during pregnancy. Influenza vaccines are commonly given to pregnant women to prevent influenza infection. He believes this in spite of robust longitudinal evidence that influenza vaccination during pregnancy is safe (#4). Thimerosal is not used in the single dose formulation of the influenza vaccine, which is the vaccine used in the U.S. When thimerosal is in vaccines it is less than 1 microgram of ethyl mercury, which is readily excreted. You consume more mercury when you eat a 4 oz filet of salmon or tuna, which most adults do once per week. If you decide to eat a lobster, you’re getting 20x that amount (reminder: lobsters are giant insects that eat dead stuff lying on the ocean floor).

He later extrapolates the deposition of ethyl mercury in the brain based on a study done in monkeys. Mind you the researcher studying these Monkey’s is one of the most “credible” in the world, and health experts at the CDC can’t give him a “clear” answer as to why mercury was found in these monkey brains (which could've gotten there from many different sources). Its unlikely they gave these monkeys annual 1 mcg doses of ethyl-mercury of the course of many years, controlled everything else, only to euthanize them and compare their brains to monkeys that didn't get 1 "extra" mcg of ethyl mercury per year in order to replicate the affect from a single vaccine. This guy is oblivious to his bind spots. (#7)

Prior to the use of antiseptic additives to vaccines there was significant problems with staphylococcal and streptococcal infections after injection. This led to several deaths in the 1930’s and 40’s until these chemicals were used to kill bacteria that happen to make it into these vials. Not to mention the affect the influenza virus (which can cross the placenta) would have on a growing fetus. Probably nothing. (#6) We know severe infections in mothers leads to several perinatal complications including spontaneous abortion and pre-mature delivery. Other viruses such as rubella and polio do freely cross the placenta resulting in severe fetal harm.

Finally, he gives his resume to support his credibility. He seems to be a lawyer that has been involved in several environmental lawsuits. This is evidence that he has experience diving deep into complex topics to build a case for his clients. Because of his history of legal research he is equipped to understand medical research. In his words “I’ve taught myself how to understand medical literature. How to review it and know if its done well.”

Four years of medical school, three years of residency, ten years of practice, thousands of medical papers read, and I can tell you 90% of it has no real world application. But don’t worry, this guy cracked the code to evidence-based medicine on his spare time (#7). Mind you, he has never had to apply a medical study to a patient in his life, and believes mercury found in the autopsies of lab monkey’s is evidence as to why our IQ scores are lower.

At no point during the interview does he recognize he is likely suffering from confirmation bias and the echo chamber he has insulated himself in. The thought that he could be wrong doesn’t cross his mind (#10). Nor has he decided to quit his job as a politician to start a lab focused on finding alternatives to thimerosal. (#8)

As a culture, we tend to have an affinity towards these individuals. They are charismatic. They present fresh perspectives. They are always alerting us towards some impending doom. Because of this they tend to get a lot done. If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice former President Donald Trump carries all of these badges on his sash of accomplishments.

As a society we should be more cautious with whom we allow to carry a megaphone.

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