Commentary: The Biggest Junk Science of 2021

Doctor with protective gloves handling vaccine
by Ross Pomeroy


Just as it did last year, the most dangerous pandemic in a century spawned all sorts of junk science in 2021, running the gamut from pure quackery to ideology-fueled misinformation. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to spot junk science, especially when it’s disguised in techno-babble or parroted by governments, doctors, or other traditionally trusted sources. This sneakiness, combined with the unprecedented stress of a novel, highly-infectious disease, makes almost anyone prone to falling for BS.

To help identify junk science in the future, it’s useful to showcase junk science from the present and past. Here are six of the worst examples from this year:

6. Star NFL Quarterback Aaron Rodgers Was ‘Immunized’ Against COVID-19 With Homeopathy. Through much of the NFL season, Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers led reporters and fans to believe that he had been vaccinated against COVID-19. But when Rodgers was diagnosed with the illness in early November, it was revealed that he had not in fact been vaccinated, but rather had been ‘immunized’ with a homeopathic remedy. Homeopathy is a ridiculous, utterly disproven pseudoscience based on the magical notions that “like cures like” and that water can ‘remember’ the essence of a substance. Furthermore, according to practitioners, diluting a substance down to infinitesimal, often nonexistent amounts actually makes the homeopathic remedy stronger. In keeping with this fairytale logic, Rodgers likely imbibed a homeopathic potion (essentially just water) that before dilution may have had some sort of virus in it, and claimed that it raised his antibody levels, rendering him ‘immunized’. It’s utter nonsense.

5. Claims That Vaccines Make People Magnetic Go Viral. This past spring, safe, highly-effective vaccines against COVID-19 became widely available, triggering a cacophony of wild conspiracies. One of these claimed that Bill Gates and his cronies hid minuscule microchips in the vaccines in a nefarious bid to control humanity. Supposed proof of this accusation soon started circulating on social media. People were affixing silverware, coins and other metallic objects to their bodies. They had turned magnetic! One quack doctor even testified on behalf of this addled theory in front of the Ohio state legislature.

It’s bogus for a very simple reason. When two relatively flat surfaces interact, their atoms or molecules ever-so-slightly cling to each other, especially if moisture is present. This is called Van der Waals force. Thanks to Van der Waals, almost anyone, regardless of vaccination status can stick a coin or key to their forehead and watch it stay in place. Jiggle too much or look down, however, and the object will tumble to the ground.

4. Schools Spent Millions on Ineffective Ionization Technology to Prevent the Spread of Coronavirus. Flush with relief funds from the federal government, schools across the country spent tens of millions of dollars installing ionization technologies into their ventilation systems. Makers of the technology claim that ions dispersed into the air inactivate coronavirus particles, but there’s no peer-reviewed research to evince this claim in a real-world setting. Experts say that air ionizers will not prevent the spread of COVID-19 from someone spewing out aerosols via coughing or talking. Moreover, ionization technology has been known to emit ozone, a powerful oxidant that can acutely or chronically harm respiratory health.

3. Ivermectin Becomes the New COVID-19 ‘Miracle’ Drug. It didn’t start off as junk science… Preliminary studies in vitro suggested that the anti-parasitic medication ivermectin could reduce coronavirus infection yields in cultured cells. Then some uncontrolled, small studies out of India and South America suggested that the drug could fight COVID-19 in humans. On this hopeful data, public interest in ivermectin exploded, with popular provocateurs hyping the drug as the ultimate affordable remedy to COVID-19 that the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t want you to know about. Then the real science rolled in. Numerous randomized, placebo-controlled trials found that Ivermectin neither prevented nor treated COVID-19. Moreover, a good chunk of the previous positive studies were eventually found to be fraudulent. Still, the unfounded hype has continued. Make no mistake, it will eventually die down. Fantasy inevitably gives way to reality.

2. Brazil’s Government Promotes Unproven Drug Cocktail to Fight COVID-19. At least 616,000 Brazilians have died of COVID-19, giving the country the 11th worst death rate in the world. Brazil’s government, led by President Jair Bolsonaro, contributed to this calamity by making pseudoscientific treatments official policy. Rather than promote evidence-based treatments and encourage vaccinations, Bolsonaro and his government “spent millions of dollars to produce, purchase, and promote pills such as the lice medication ivermectin, the antimalarial chloroquine, and popular antibiotic azithromycin, as well as anticoagulants, painkillers, and a set of vitamins,” Brazilian journalists reported for Undark. This medley of drugs neither treated nor prevented COVID-19, but it may have endangered Brazilians by giving them a false sense of security. A study conducted by researchers in the country actually found that people prophylactically taking the government-backed drugs were more likely to contract COVID-19.

1. Vaccine Refusal Keeps the Pandemic Alive in the United States. There is no question now. After months of real-world tracking, the data is unequivocal. COVID-19 vaccines are undeniably safe and remarkably effective. Those who are eligible yet choose not to receive one are choosing to keep the threat of COVID alive in the U.S. They are choosing to allow hospitals to be stretched to the brink. They are choosing to endanger themselves and others. They are choosing to permit the coronavirus to continue to rack up an alarming death count – over 200,000 Americans since June 1st, more than 9 in 10 of them unvaccinated! The latest data finds that unvaccinated people are 5.8 times more likely to test positive for COVID-19 and 14 times more likely to die from it compared to fully vaccinated persons. Still, only 64.3% of eligible Americans are fully vaccinated as of December 10th. The novel coronavirus is not going away, but we have the incredible means to almost entirely defang it. Let’s overcome the division, the fear, and the rampant misinformation and choose to end COVID’s suffocating grasp by getting collectively vaccinated. Together.

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Ross Pomeroy contributes to RealClearScience.

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