Scientists have started sounding the alarm over a strange new theory circulating online about the novel coronavirus. Basically, it argues that the coronavirus may not really be all that novel. Instead, the thinking goes, it could be an ancient virus hidden in our DNA that does not directly make people sick—until shifts in Earth’s geomagnetic field create a cascade of effects that ultimately activate that latent genetic code and cause COVID-19.
The wildest part: Thanks to its own unique geomagnetic properties, the theory maintains, “nephrite-jade amulets, a calcium ferromagnesium silicate, may prevent COVID-19.” In other words, you may be able to wear a physical piece of armor to ward off the deadly illness.
Unlike the bogus far-right conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and other diseases that have percolated over the years, this idea did not emerge from some secretive digital fringe. Instead, it originated in a peer-reviewed article in Science of the Total Environment (SOTE), a reputable academic journal, thanks in part, its authors claim, to funding “through grants from the United States National Institutes of Health.” (The National Institutes of Health did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)
“If only a small sliver of people are allowed to think, when they miss something, everyone on the ship is going overboard. It’s just like a dictatorship.”
— Moses Bility
Its primary author, Moses Bility, is—or at least was—a respected assistant professor of infectious diseases and microbiology at the University of Pittsburgh. Suffice to say he has come under withering attack from others in his field and beyond over the article, and SOTE has temporarily withdrawn the paper—although the journal has not (yet) retracted it.
“I am not sure who peer-reviewed it, but this paper should not have passed,” Elisabeth Bik, a microbiologist and scientific integrity watchdog, told The Daily Beast.
She and other skeptical expert readers argue that the paper drastically mischaracterizes or misunderstands many of the diverse concepts and studies it draws upon, as well as many clinical observations on the nature of COVID-19.
It also contains some basic errors.
“For instance, right at the start, he talks about ‘thoracic organs, namely the lungs and kidneys,’” noted Jonathan Jarry, a former United States Armed Forces biological scientist and current science communicator for McGill University. “The kidneys are not thoracic organs. They’re in the abdomen.”
Bility, who is Black, believes his article got through peer review because his theory is sound, if provisional, and that he is the victim of a prejudiced digital mob that doesn’t understand his research or respect him. Every other scientist The Daily Beast canvassed for this story believes his paper got through because of flaws in the peer-review process that occasionally give an aura of academic rigor to pure nonsense.
They also believe that his paper’s contents could bolster conspiracy theories that deny the value of basic public health measures like mask wearing, as well as pseudoscience hucksters eager to move some jade. That its inclusion in a legitimate journal could lead people to doubt the rigor of every other academic article, ultimately eroding faith in science as a whole. And that any efforts to get it removed in the name of scientific integrity will convince conspiracy theorists that the establishment is trying to suppress uncomfortable truths and free thought.
“I expected people to be hesitant about this idea,” Bility told The Daily Beast. “It’s a new idea.”
“Nowhere in that article did I say, ‘Go buy jade.’”
— Moses Bility
What he did not expect was for his paper to be this controversial. He claims that some critics have called, in emails to his colleagues, for the university to take disciplinary action against him, or to fire him.
When asked if the University of Pittsburgh had received any complaints or concerns about Bility related to this paper, a representative did not address that question and instead told The Daily Beast, “The paper has been retracted… The University of Pittsburgh remains committed to supporting the academic freedom of all of our faculty members.” (The paper has not, in fact, been retracted.)
Bility has actually been openly developing the core ideas behind the paper—a grand new hypothesis meant to address perceived flaws in the germ theory of disease through the novel application of (his self-taught understandings of) fields like quantum physics—for years.
Another paper related to this overarching theory, posted at the start of 2020, claimed Stonehenge was potentially a “state-of-the-art Neolithic European public health complex” built to protect people from geomagnetic fluctuation-related illness and “megadeath.” Mike Pitts, a Stonehenge excavator and expert, told The Daily Beast that article “overstated or misinterpreted” most of the archaeological theories and evidence it hinged on. He also said it “contains one of the most nonsensical sentences I’ve ever read about Stonehenge—and I’ve suffered quite a few.”
The seeds of Bility’s COVID-19 paper originated last fall, he said, when his lab observed a strange lung illness in some of their rats, which he thought resembled the outbreak of a lung condition among people who used e-cigarettes and other vaporizers. He did not buy conventional explanations for the origin and end of that outbreak. So he posted a paper proposing that this vaping lung condition and the disease he saw in his rats were triggered by—and ebbed and flowed with—shifts in the geomagnetic field.
He also predicted that bigger shifts would lead to a spike of respiratory illness in the spring of 2020.
In March, as COVID-19 cases started taking off, Bility posted a first draft of his controversial paper online, arguing for a potential connection between vaping lung disease and the pandemic via his theory, and predicting (very accurately, he argues) when and where cases would spike.
He also claimed that Earth last witnessed a geomagnetic field change like this 6,000 years ago, and that around that time people started wearing a lot of jade amulets—and that given jade’s geomagnetic properties, they might have been protective then, and could be protective now.
No one raised their hackles then, the professor noted. Rather, he claimed, some readers told him to publish the paper in a journal. He also said that several experts he consulted were supportive of his ideas—but he wouldn’t name them because he didn’t “want them to be harassed.”
So, he submitted it to SOTE and went through around four months of back-and-forth peer review edits. The publication did not respond to a request for comment, but previously told the site Retraction Watch, which monitors journals and the review process, that the paper did, in fact, go through peer-review.
Bility acknowledges that his paper is big on assumptions and speculative connections, and light on hard evidence. But he argues that he doesn’t need to offer robust evidence to float a bold new hypothesis—just a plausible chain of logic that should prompt researchers to investigate the idea.
“We didn’t do anything wrong,” he told The Daily Beast. “There’s nothing wrong with having an opinion.”
The paper’s critics contend that big and bold new ideas are fine—but only if they provide extraordinary evidence for their extraordinary claims. Bility thinks that’s a foolish standard that means only elite researchers with lots of resources, not insightful outsiders, can innovate in science.
“If only a small sliver of people are allowed to think,” he insisted, “when they miss something, everyone on the ship is going overboard. It’s just like a dictatorship.”
Specifically, Bility has argued he’s taking flak for his paper mostly because people think that, as a young Black scientist, “you are not allowed to make predictions that we weren’t able to make… and if you do, we will put you in your place.” Citing anonymous and nebulous digital threats, “some of them racial,” he claimed that people want to make an example of him in order to dissuade others, especially people who “maybe see themselves in me,” from “thinking about the world at a deeper level.”
“Scientists by and large hate new ideas,” Bility argued.
Walter Scheirer, an academic who’s researched scientific integrity during pandemic, said this view misreads available evidence, as skeptical observers regularly tear apart questionable papers by scientists of all backgrounds and career levels. (Bility seems to find that view naïve: “Sure,” he said. “But the gradation, the intensity of the pushback is what’s different.”)
Eric Oliver, an expert on conspiracy thought, suggested that Bility’s theories resemble “magical thinking,” a steadfast belief in connections between ideas or events that don’t actually hold water, but that magical thinkers bolster by selectively interpreting and marshaling evidence.
Andrew Weiss, who researches what he calls “information pathologies,” argued that Bility’s actions and rhetoric show a clear preoccupation with confirming his hunches, without subjecting them to the same scrutiny he uses to question established theories. He also, critics note, tends to hide behind the complexity of his ideas to argue that individual critiques just don’t get where he’s coming from, to focus primarily on the least civil and most dismissive comments made about his paper, and to open talks with many critics by subtly accusing them of racial bias for even thinking to question his work.
“These should all be big red flags,” Weiss told The Daily Beast.
Bility said his focus on the outraged and mocking responses to his paper and the racial prejudices he believes animate them is not an attempt to avoid or deflect legitimate criticisms of his work. “It is very difficult to respond to critiques when you are being ridiculed, abused, and threatened,” he said. “Responding to those issues is more pressing than responding to a question or critique about isotype versus biological controls, or trying to explain the difference between a hypothesis based on magnetic resonance versus classical electromagnetism.”
He insists that his theory is not pseudoscience, as many of his critics contend, because it’s falsifiable and he’ll drop it if someone proves him wrong. He claims that he’s open to “legitimate critiques,” and has engaged with some privately. “The experience has been rewarding,” he noted. However, he said that he “will not respond to or tolerate” any critiques that are mixed in with ridicule for him or his ideas.
“Comments that I should ignore the public ridicule, abuse, and threats mixed with critiques is classic gaslighting,” he added.
Jarry argues that Bility is a smart and talented researcher. But he thinks he falls prey to illogical thinking when it comes to geomagnetic illness because he doesn’t believe that science moves ahead by incremental progress that builds gradually. Instead, Jarry suggested, Bility seems to believe that it’s “this series of revolutions,” usually pushed forward by bold outsiders who have brash, game-changing insights.
“And he wants to be one of those revolutionaries,” Jarry added.
Even when discussing his more conventional and respected research (on making the mice we use to study disease a little more human-like to improve the quality of researchers’ insights), Bility does seem to speak often in terms of shifting paradigms and revolutionizing science.
“What’s the problem with wanting to be a revolutionary?” he asked. “Who says that, ‘These people can try to develop a deeper insight, but you, you’re not allowed to?’”
What’s wrong, his critics contend, is wanting to overturn our core understandings of how diseases work so badly that you start falling prey to logical fallacies and looking at even your most honest and open critics as conservative zealots out to get you in the name of the status quo.
Academics argue that throwing around at-best weak ideas—and at-worst pseudoscience junk—like Bility’s wild hypothesis, especially in a scholarly journal, can have serious consequences.
Oliver said he could see ways 5G conspiracy believers could co-opt Bility’s ideas about geomagnetic fields into their screeds. Jarry suggested that pseudoscientific wellness gurus might be primed to jump on the idea of jade amulets as protection at the first sign of apparent academic validation. Scheirer worried that if the public sees weak research like this in legitimate journals, it will undermine their faith in science as a whole, including good research that feeds into public health recommendations.
And Joseph Uscinski, a conspiracy theory expert, noted that when pseudoscience papers do get published and then taken down upon review, it just leads conspiracy theorists to argue that the powers that be are suppressing their deep thinking about and insights on the world.
Which does not sound dissimilar to how Bility is reacting to pushback against his article.
Bility argued that all these fears are slippery slope nonsense. “Nowhere in that article did I say, ‘Go buy jade,’” he told The Daily Beast. He also hedged his ideas as possibilities, he stressed, rather than hard facts. And he wanted to make sure people know that he’s publicly endorsed practices like social distancing.
“Even if someone decided to wear jade, which millions already do, it does not preclude them from following public health measures, or taking vaccines when they become available,” he stressed. “Also, to the best of my knowledge, wearing jade, which humans have done for thousands of years, is not associated with any disease.”
Bility has said he doesn’t wear jade himself—in large part because he wouldn’t know how to pick the right one, because they’re not all created (geomagnetically) equal. Instead, he tries to limit his iron intake, because iron is the key vector by which geomagnetic shifts may, he believes, affect us.
But we’ve already seen clear examples of dubious papers that slipped through peer review having major effects on public health and policy in the coronavirus era, at times regardless of authorial intent.
Out of 39 now-retracted papers on the pandemic, one in The Lancet notably used murky data to make claims about hydroxychloroquine’s levels of lethality that led to a temporary freeze of trials of the drug. Another far wilder paper directly fueled, by means of magical thinking, the false idea that 5G waves create the virus. And those are just some of the articles egregiously flawed and highly visible enough to get pulled so far.
According to Retraction Watch co-founder Ivan Oransky, no one can say if anything went awry in the peer-review process for Bility’s article because the journal has not released its reviewers’ notes. All we know is that the journal got an epidemiologist and a hydrogeologist to look at it.
Still, journal watchdogs note that even at the best of times, overworked and under-compensated reviewers miss things. Sometimes very big things. And Jarry suspects that, because Bility draws sporadically on “so many disciplines—anthropology, epidemiology, geophysics, and more,” no two reviewers could have adequately scrutinized his jargony, dense claims.
Mass criticism led Bility to ask the journal’s editors to temporarily withdraw his paper on Nov. 2, which they did as of Nov. 5. This was not a retraction, though.
Bility initially planned to resubmit the article without any mention of jade amulets, or credits to his ostensible co-authors, a couple of University of Pittsburgh colleagues and students, mostly undergraduates connected to his lab. He told The Daily Beast that these individuals requested their removal because, like him, “they were threatened.” None of these co-authors responded when The Daily Beast reached out to get their comment and perspectives on this whole ordeal.
According to Bility, the journal has expressed openness to a resubmission in December. But Bility said he does not believe he can get a fair peer review this time around, as a digital mob has poisoned the academy against him.
He now plans to put the article away until “this dies down and there’s no more COVID-19.” Between now and then, he argued, “evidence is going to come out supporting the arguments we made.”
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