What is Shivambu?

An anti-vaccine doctor I trained with, Dr. Kelly Brogan, recently interviewed a man who claims he cured his cancer by drinking his own urine, a practice called Shivambu. Literally everything about this is sad and disgusting. Though she’s retired from the practice of medicine and is now a full-time guru/online marketer, such balderdash is standard fare for Dr. Brogan and her ilk. However, the point of this article is not to debunk Shivambu, but rather to explain why it may be worth someone’s time to do so.

Obviously, few people reading this article believe that drinking urine cures cancer, and those who believe such folly are unlikely to have their mind changed by it. So other than maybe convincing a few people that Shivambu is nonsense, why bother writing about it?

Several intelligent people have argued that sites like Science Based Medicine are essentially a waste of time (here and here). These critics feel that skeptics do little other than “bashing people outside your tribe, who ignore you.” They claim skeptics are simply “preaching to the converted”, and so accomplish nothing beyond making themselves feel superior. They feel that alternative medicine may be worth discussing only after mainstream medicine has fixed all its flaws and world peace is declared.

I don’t claim to speak on anyone’s behalf, but I think that when skeptics discuss something like Shivambu, their main aim often isn’t to debunk that specific nonsense. Rather, I think most skeptics have several larger goals in mind, and discussions of topics like Shivambu are merely a template for them to make their main points.

The lessons of skepticism part 1: People are seriously hurt and killed by alternative medicine all the time

Having said this, one reason to debunk Shivambu is to debunk Shivambu. Critics of skepticism often portray alternative medicine as ridiculous, but ultimately harmless. “What’s the harm if someone believes crystals ward off disease?” they ask.

While many alternative treatments are harmless, many others are not. People can be harmed directly by alternative therapies or because they used them in lieu of evidence-based treatments. For example, one study found that “After a median of 5 years, patients with breast or colorectal cancer were nearly five times as likely to die if they had used an alternative therapy as their initial treatment than if they had received conventional treatment.” As the pandemic has demonstrated, people are seriously hurt and killed by medical misinformation all the time. Just because war kills more people, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to save lives in other ways, a flawed line of thought dubbed the fallacy of relative privation.

It’s good when doctors warn people about the dangers of bogus treatments. It’s good when doctors educate people about the benefits of evidence-based treatments. It’s astonishing that this is controversial.

The lessons of skepticism part 2: Some people are persuadable if they are given accurate information in a clear and thorough manner

Additionally, critics of skepticism often infantilize anyone who uses alternative medicine, scornfully treating them all as unreachable naïfs. One such podcasting oncologist said, “You can’t waste all your time arguing with people who do not accept evidence and rationality as a precondition to debate. You’re wasting your time…They’re (skeptics) are not actually successful in converting the minds of different people… You can spend your life arguing with them on all these issues, but you’re not going to achieve any traction.”

This bold claim was made without any evidence, and as tends to be the case with such claims, it is wrong. We can’t reach everyone, but some people are persuadable if they are presented with accurate information in a clear and thorough manner. Even though few Shivambu devotees would have their mind changed by an article here, some might! For example, there are multiple accounts of people deciding to vaccinate their children after learning the facts. It’s a big deal when people are steered away from quackery and towards evidence-based treatments. I am certain that Science Based Medicine has done just that. My friend Amanda said the following in response to this podcaster:

Any defense of skepticism could legitimately end here, and I imagine the long-time writers here would say stories like Amanda’s alone are worth all of their effort.

Beyond this, doctors routinely treat people who use alternative medicine and are wary of evidence-based treatments. Very few of them are as far down the rabbit-hole as Dr. Brogan, and many are open to facts. Doctors need to be able to relate to their patients and help them make wise decisions. We can do this only if we make some minimal effort to understand where they are coming from, especially during a pandemic where millions of people are refusing to be vaccinated. I am very familiar with anti-vaccine disinformation, and I’ve familiarized myself with techniques to help people who are skeptical about vaccines. Hopefully, I’ve helped my patients reject the myths they encounter online, some of them inspired by contrarian doctors I’ve discussed here before. Doctors who thought that learning about alternative medicine was beneath them are likely not as prepared to do this.

I fully agree that skeptics have to be thoughtful in how they discuss these issues. Exposing and mocking Dr. Brogan is appropriate. People need to know that doctors who actually care for patients view her as an object of ridicule. However mocking someone who is genuinely confused about alternative medicine isn’t going to help anyone. As Dr. Steve Novella wrote recently, “ordinary people who believe, use, and even spread false medical beliefs are victims. They do not deserve our condemnation, but our sympathy.” Given that some prominent doctors have spread misinformation, repeatedly minimizing the virus and hyping every vaccine side-effect, it’s not a surprise that many people are legitimately confused about whether or not the vaccine is beneficial for young people (it is). I also agree that skeptics need to be wary of amplifying pseudoscience that would have gone unnoticed otherwise. The best way to refute a lot of nonsense is to ignore it and let it quietly die on its own.

However, I wonder where people like Amanda would be if Dr. Brogan and other members of the Disinformation Dozen had their deluge of disinformation greeted with complete silence by the medical community. If ethical doctors said nothing, the countless grifters, frauds, and quacks would have the internet to themselves, completely unopposed by rational voices.

While this may not be the desired goal of skepticism’s critics, it is the obvious end point to their position. Either they don’t recognize this or don’t care about it. This too is astonishing.

The lessons of skepticism part 3: Skepticism is an allegiance to a method of inquiry rather than any answer

Ideally, a true skeptic would not start out trying to debunk Shivambu. Rather, a true skeptic would realize her preconceived notions could be wrong, even about something that seems as absurd as Shivambu. After all, stool transplants are now the standard of care for treatment-resistant C. difficile infections. As such, our true skeptic would first acknowledge her biases, and she would do her best to investigate Shivambu with an open mind. She’d examine the all the evidence, and she’d report her findings as fairly as possible. If new evidence emerges that contradicts her initial conclusions, she would acknowledge it and adjust her opinion accordingly.

Skepticism then is fundamentally about allegiance to a method of inquiry, not to any final answer. For example, my first article here argued that children should be vaccinated against COVID-19. My second article reported that incidental COVID-19 hospitalizations were common in children, and I’ve since discussed evidence that the pediatric death toll may be inflated, as well as vaccine-related myocarditis. Though the virus remains much more dangerous than the vaccine, these subsequent articles all weakened the case to vaccinate children. However that’s what the evidence showed, and so without any hesitation, I reported it as thoroughly and honestly as possible. I’ve done my best not to overstate the harms of the virus or understate flaws with the vaccine. As an all-around scold, I’ve called out people several times for overstating the harms of COVID-19 to children. I’ve written about my own errors (here and here). My loyalty is to a process, not a result

Because of this, I’ve defended people (here and here) who were not in my “tribe,” and I’ve argued with people who are in my “tribe”. I’m glad they argued back. Of course, skeptics bash quacks like Dr. Brogan, but they also disagree with each other all the time. For example, Dr. Gorski recently called out Richard Dawkins for embracing the lab leak theory based on a shoddy documentary. To the extent I have a “tribe,” it consists of people who are not afraid to thoughtfully call me out when they think I am wrong.

In contrast, pseudoscience vendors like Dr. Brogan start with the answer they want, and work backwards to find the “evidence.” She readily admits this, saying, “It’s time to decide what you believe. And make no mistake, it’s about belief, not about facts, not about science as the final objective.” Anyone and anything that threatens her desired beliefs is wished away as a conspiracy or ignored entirely. Because she defines what is true as what she wants to be true, not only will she never admit error, she essentially feels she’s incapable of being wrong to begin with. There’s literally no evidence or study that would lead Dr. Brogan to change her mind about Shivambu, vaccines, or basically anything at all. That’s a problem, but not one that is unique to Dr. Brogan.

The lessons of skepticism part 4: By understanding the flaws in alternative medicine we can identify flawed medical practices elsewhere

Having learned to evaluate the claims of alternative medicine, the skeptics’ next hope is that they can identify and avoid flawed medical practices elsewhere. Someone who can spot the defects in acupuncture studies published in prestigious medical journals will be prepared to spot defects in wide swaths of medicine. Skepticism’s methods work not just for critical appraisals of Shivambu, but also for problematic drug approvals, useless medical procedures, cancer screening, and flawed research methodologies. Skeptics discuss these topics often, despite what their uninformed critics may claim.

I think my exposure to skepticism, mainly reading Science Based Medicine, helped me be a more thoughtful doctor. For example, at the start of the pandemic, I had one demand when the medicine service asked me to run a COVID-19 team: I would not practice alternative medicine. As I wrote previously,

I also made sure that no patient on my team received any experimental treatments (such as hydroxychloroquine). Doing “nothing” is often very difficult for doctors, but is preferable to giving out unproven treatments unless patients are clearly dying or in a clinical trial.

Though they would have denied it, many doctors were practicing alternative medicine at that time. I understand why. COVID-19 was a horrifying new disease and we were desperate save lives. However, I recognized that doctors who used unproven treatments like hydroxychloroquine were no different than alternative medicine practitioners, and I wanted no part of that. Learning about the flaws in practices like Shivambu helped me make better choices for my patients – at least I hope so – and I suspect fewer doctors would have used dubious treatments early in the pandemic if they had a better understanding of alternative medicine.

The lessons of skepticism part 5: There is no such thing as a harmless alternative treatment

Another core goal of skepticism is to show that while any individual practice in alternative medicine may be harmless, the overall practice of science-denial is not harmless at all. There is a significant price to be paid when a large percentage of the population lacks the basic scientific knowledge and critical thinking skills needed to evaluate the claims of alternative medicine. The same distorted thinking that allows people to believe in Shivambu often leads them to reject evidence-based treatments such as vaccines, something called crank magnetism. The anti-vaccine movement cannot be disentangled from the seemingly benign treatments in alternative medicine. Believing in “harmless” things is harmless until it leads tens of millions of people to reject vaccines and embrace quack therapies in the middle of a raging pandemic.

As such, skeptics would argue that there’s really no such thing as a “harmless” alternative treatment. Anything that weakens people’s ability to think critically about medicine and health is dangerous. Indeed, wellness influencers who promoted crystal-healing and “clean-eating” in 2019 are comparing vaccines to the Holocaust today, an unholy union of noxious beliefs termed conspirituality.

Skeptics are not surprised by any of this, and many sounded the alarm prior to the pandemic. In a conversation from 2019, Dr. Mark Hoofnagle said, “Science communicators have been warning about the dangers of conspiracy theorists for decades now. AGW, antivax, evolution denial – all the same. Here we are. This is what it looks like when conspiracy theorists take over. They are the worst people.” I agreed and added that “the biggest danger to my kids isn’t the measles, but the thought process that leads people to reject the vaccine in the first place.” Little did we know.

In contrast, our pollyannaish podcasting oncologist actually thought not long ago that children’s “risk of covid will decline precipitously” after “all adults are vaccinated“. Only someone with a complete ignorance of the depths of anti-vaccine sentiment in the US would believe that adult vaccination rates would be high enough to obviate the need to vaccinate children. I was under no such illusions, even before the Delta (let alone omicron) variant arrived.

Rachel Moran, who studies medical misinformation, explained the scope of the problem well when she said,

Medical misinformation doesn’t just result in people making bad personal and community health choices, but it also divides communities and families, leaving an emotional toll. Misinformation narratives have real sticking power and impact people’s ability to make safe health choices.

She’s absolutely right. While there are complicated and varied reasons behind vaccine-refusal, at the end of the day, 1,000 Americans are dying daily because they declined a safe and effective vaccine against a deadly virus. Science denial is a leading cause of death right now, and children have died because their parents declined to have them vaccinated against COVID-19. Skepticism’s detractors survey this carnage and are mostly perturbed that someone might use an hour of their free time to debunk Shivambu.

Prior to the pandemic, several doctors mocked skeptics who discussed topics such as Shivambu. They felt it was a waste of time and easy to do, likening it to dunking on a 7-foot hoop. They felt that warning about bogus cancer cures took time away from more urgent, challenging tasks, such as dunking on bad studies on coffee, Dr. Oz and skeptics, I guess.

I fully agree with skepticism’s critics about one thing however; in one sense, it’s extremely easy to debunk Shivambu. A doctor whose priority is to flaunt his research prowess would not tackle this topic. It takes no special abilities to quickly discover the unsurprising fact that there is no evidence drinking one’s own urine cures cancer. I am certain my teenagers could do this.

However, I do not think my children would be able to communicate about Shivambu in a thoughtful manner to a newly diagnosed cancer patient who had stumbled on to Dr. Brogan’s interview. That’s an entirely different skill set. Moreover, my children would not be able to think deeply about the broader implications of Shivambu. They would not be curious as to why some smart people believe drinking urine cures cancer. They would not be able to place Shivambu into the wider context of the rampant science-denial and institutional mistrust in the world today. They would not be able to link Shivambu to 1,000 people dying everyday of a vaccine-preventable disease, to violence in the anti-vaccine movement, or to an anti-vaccine doctor being arrested for her role in the January 6th insurrection. They wouldn’t be able to see it as a symptom of the dangerous world of alternative facts that has enveloped much our culture, including doctors I’ve discussed before. They wouldn’t grasp that a fantasy world where drinking urine cures cancer is also a world where COVID-19 is a hoax that is cured by ivermectin and there’s no reason to get vaccinated.

It’s good that there are doctors who can see these connections and who care enough to push back against the misinformation that creates such delusions.

The lessons of skepticism part 6: We are all in danger of becoming 7-foot hoops

The skeptic’s final goal is to examine the cognitive flaws and distorted thinking that leads smart people to believe that drinking urine can cure cancer. Dr. Brogan went to MIT where she studied systems neuroscience. She then attended Cornell medical school and graduated NYU residency with me. She’s many things, but she’s not stupid, even though she’s come to believe really stupid things. The skeptic’s aim is therefore not to just understand what is wrong with Shivambu, but also to understand what is wrong with Dr. Brogan. And since we all have cognitive biases and blind spots, we need to understand what is wrong with Dr. Brogan to avoid becoming like Dr. Brogan.

Were skepticism’s detractors to read an article debunking Shivambu, they’d merely see it as an article debunking Shivambu and nothing else. I think these concrete-minded critics missed the larger points skeptics were trying to make, and as a result, they missed out on what skepticism has to offer. Put another way, people who think they’re above learning about 7-foot hoops are in danger of becoming 7-foot hoops.

However, skepticism teaches us that we are all in danger of becoming 7-foot hoops. Unfortunately, it’s easy to find examples of smart people who’ve suffered this fate. Just think about Dr. Oz or Dr. Joseph Ladapo. Pseudoscientific treatments are routinely offered by highly-educated doctors at prestigious medical centers, a sad phenomenon dubbed “quackademic medicine“. Doctors who were widely-admired vaccine advocates prior to the pandemic have since repeatedly minimized the virus and mocked those who, rightly, warned about its dangers, calling them prophets of “doom and fear”. Even brilliant Nobel Prize laureates have claimed that vitamin C was a magic cure-all, that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, that Black people are less intelligent, that COVID-19 vaccines create new variants, and that COVID-19 was much less dangerous than it was made out to be. Like I said, really smart people can believe really stupid (and horrible) things.

Perhaps because they know they are smart, intelligent people may erroneously feel they are less vulnerable to biased thinking than everyone else. This is itself a bias, one that skeptics are keenly aware of. Almost all skeptics enjoy optical illusions and magic. They love learning how easily we can be fooled, and how we are often completely unaware of it. Dr. Novella called awareness of these vulnerabilities neuropsychological humility and defined it thusly:

Being a functional skeptic requires knowledge of all the various ways in which we deceive ourselves, the limits and flaws in human perception and memory, the inherent biases and fallacies in cognition, and the methods that can help mitigate all these flaws and biases.

Given that no one is immune from biased thinking, we all need to be open to the possibility that we could be wrong. Psychologist Adam Grant shared two wise thoughts on this theme recently.

The hallmark of an open mind is not letting your ideas become your identity. If you define yourself by your opinions, questioning them is a threat to your integrity. If you see yourself as a curious person or a lifelong learner, changing your mind is a moment of growth

It takes humility to consider information that contradicts your opinions. You’re willing to concede that you might be wrong. It takes curiosity to actively seek evidence that challenges your views. You’re eager to find out if you might be wrong.

He’s right. Just because I sanctimoniously boasted that “My loyalty is to a process, not a result” doesn’t mean I’m actually good at that process. I know I’ve fallen short at times.

We all need to be humble and listen to our well-meaning critics. Oftentimes only they can show us our errors. It’s a serious mistake to insulate yourself in an echo chamber of sycophants, dreaming you are persecuted whenever you are contradicted. Oddly enough, Dr. Brogan was on to something – it is very easy to let your beliefs replace facts and science, especially when these beliefs lead to financial rewards, TV appearances, and social media adulation. We all need to be continuously on guard against this.

Richard Feynman famously said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” This is the most important lesson skepticism has to offer.

Contrarian doctors and Dr. Brogan part 1

Sadly, several contrarian doctors haven’t grasped skepticism’s lessons, and so they seem to have fallen into the same cognitive traps as Dr. Brogan. They have an almost petulant need to be different, no matter the evidence. One Twitter commentator wryly called this “obligate contrarianism: The need to be contradictory no matter what the mainstream stance is”.

They are hostile to criticism, claiming that anyone who challenges them is trying to “quiet” them. They conflate criticisms of their ideas with personal attacks, and so instead of engaging with those who disagree with them, they ask to be left alone. They brush off all who disagree with them with unsubstantiated accusations of “tribalism” and “groupthink.” They rarely, if ever, admit error, and most tolerate only fawning lickspittles on social media. They mock people who fear or warn of the virus, implying that life is passing them by or that they are addicted to doom and being on TV. Many have repeatedly declared the pandemic over, though they continue to talk about it constantly. They have a shared sense of grievance, believing they are the real victims of this pandemic because YouTube removed some of their videos – and boy do some of them make a lot of videos. At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist myself, several have connections to shady right-wing think tanks.

Like Dr. Brogan, several contrarians started the pandemic with the belief that COVID-19’s harms were greatly exaggerated (here and here), and they’ve spent the past 20 months floundering to justify this initial, flawed premise. One contrarian has peddled identical conspiracy theories as Dr. Brogan, claiming that death certificates have been unreliable this pandemic (in direct contradiction to the evidence), and the COVID-19 death toll is inflated. He wants you to believe many people died with COVID-19, not from COVID-19 and that healthcare workers have perverse financial incentives to put COVID-19 on death certificates. Even worse than this, he repeatedly claimed, again in direct contradiction to the evidence, that doctors killed patients by intubating them too quickly. All this to avoid saying, “I underestimated COVID-19”.

He is not alone. Another noted early in the summer that “cases are FALLING PRECIPITOUSLY” and that for children, “COVID and MIS-C is plummeting with adult vaccination“. He used these numbers to justify his belief that children should not be vaccinated against COVID-19. When cases were at their nadir, he wrote a lengthy piece criticizing the CDC for using outdated numbers when modeling the benefits of the vaccine for adolescents. He called this a “noble lie”. However, when pediatric cases and hospitalizations spiked to their highest levels soon thereafter, he then said that hospitals “admit less sick patients” to for financial gain. Rather than admit that he too had underestimated the virus, he claimed the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 is an “inaccurate” metric and is instead merely a “fear monger tactic”. Beyond this, he fantasized that public health measures to contain a virus could one day lead to totalitarianism.

Dr. Brogan wouldn’t object to any of this. She believes the entire pandemic is a fear monger tactic for profit, and that totalitarianism has already arrived, saying COVID-19 was planned for the “entrapment of citizens worldwide.” Their combined message is: Don’t believe news reports of overwhelmed hospitals. Don’t believe what doctors in the trenches are saying. They are out to deceive and scare you for profit. Only I will tell you the truth. Purchase a subscription to my newsletter/online course or pay my speaking fees to gain access to my unique insights.

Contrarian doctors and Dr. Brogan part 2

Nowhere is the overlap between contrarian doctors and Dr. Brogan more complete, however, than their shared stance on the risk of COVID-19 to children and whether or not they should be protected against it. There’s no question these contrarian doctors have more in common with her than with the American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC, and almost every practicing pediatrician in this regard. That says a lot considering Dr. Brogan is a germ-theory denier who does not believe HIV causes AIDS, that SARS-CoV-2 causes COVID-19, or that we are experiencing “a real medical pandemic“.

However, these contrarians and Dr. Brogan all agree that COVID-19 poses minimal-to-no threat to young people and measures to protect them against the virus will likely do more harm than good. They felt this spring that children should not get the COVID-19 vaccine. Once adolescents started getting vaccinated, they felt that “the US should suspend all vaccination in children under 18“. They agreed that “the downsides of masking young students are real“. They agreed that “Children should return to their normal lives this summer and in the upcoming school year, without masks and regardless of their vaccination status“. It’s no surprise that their ideas get favorably shared (here and here) by anti-vaccine cranks like RFK Jr., who posted an article by some of these doctors arguing against the Emergency Use Authorization of the COVID-19 vaccine for most children. Thank goodness no one with real power took that idea seriously.

Highly credentialed doctors from Stanford and Harvard penned Broganesque articles such as “The Ill-Advised Push to Vaccinate the Young“. This article opened by saying:

The idea that everyone must be vaccinated against COVID-19 is as misguided as the anti-vax idea that no one should. The former is more dangerous for public health.

That’s right. These doctors believe the idea of nobody getting vaccinated is better for public health than the idea of everybody getting vaccinated. In the middle of the worst pandemic since 1918, these doctors feel that vaccine-advocates are a greater menace to public health than anti-vaxxers. I’m curious to know what they think the folks at Voices for Vaccines might do that would lead to over 1,000 Americans dying every day for months at a time. That’s the toll of the anti-vaccine movement at present. What great evil do they think Karen Ernst is capable of? She’s always seemed nice to me.

This article also claimed that mandating the vaccine for young people “threatens not only public health but also the future of science“. Elsewhere, one of the authors even spread the absurd myth that vaccine mandates will actually spread the virus. These histrionic, preposterous statements seem plagiarized from the most deranged anti-vaccine websites. Not surprisingly, Dr. Brogan also opposes ‘public health measures imposed in violation of bodily sovereignty (for example, mandated vaccination in exchange for “privileges” which may actually be inalienable rights)’.

Contrarian doctors and Dr. Brogan part 3

By the time this article was published, hundreds of American children had already died of COVID-19 and many thousands more had been hospitalized. Though I agree that the virus poses an “extremely low” mortality risk for children, millions more children contracted the virus after this article was published, and so hundreds more children died, including some without underlying conditions. Young adults suffered even more. According to the CDC’s Covid Data Tracker, just under 6,000 Americans younger than 29 years have died of COVID-19 thus far, including over 1,000 children. All of these young people died from the virus, not the vaccine.

Tens of thousands more children and young adults have been hospitalized. Though they thankfully survived, many were very sick, needing ICU-level care and mechanical ventilation. Some pediatric COVID-19 survivors suffered strokes or encephalitis. Others needed lung transplants or amputations. Their lives will never be the same. 5,973 children have had MIS-C thus far, though this may be a substantial undercount. In one study, 80% of children with MIS-C went to the ICU and 20% needed mechanical ventilation. 52 children have died of MIS-C. Nearly all these tragedies occurred in unvaccinated people, many after the vaccine was widely available. Thankfully, these tragedies remain very rare. Almost all young people with COVID-19 will be fine.

Fortunately, the vaccine has proven highly effective in keeping adolescents alive and out of the hospital. Hospitals were deluged with children suffering from COVID-19, not side effects from the vaccine. One study found that “Hospitalization rates were 10 times higher among unvaccinated than among fully vaccinated adolescents”. Another study of adolescents showed the efficacy of the vaccine in this age group. It found:

Among 179 COVID-19 case-patients, six (3%) were vaccinated and 173 (97%) were unvaccinated. Overall, 77 (43%) case-patients were admitted to an intensive care unit, and 29 (16%) critically ill case-patients received life support during hospitalization, including invasive mechanical ventilation, vasoactive infusions, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation; two of these 29 critically ill patients (7%) died. All 77 case-patients admitted to the intensive care unit, all 29 critically ill case-patients, and both deaths occurred among unvaccinated case-patients.

There’s good news about vaccine-safety as well. Over 7 million doses have been given to children ages 5-11 years, including over 2 million second-doses, and there have been only 8 verified reports of myocarditis so far with 6 more cases under investigation.

In addition to this, evidence continues to accumulate that almost all young people with vaccine-myocarditis have a “mild” course and recover well. Dr. Dongngan T. Truong, who authored a large case series on the topic said “most cases of suspected COVID-19 vaccine-related myocarditis in people younger than 21 are mild and resolve quickly”, though he acknowledged “we are awaiting further studies to better understand the long-term outcomes of patients who have had COVID-19 vaccination-related myocarditis”. The Pfizer vaccine seems safer than the Moderna vaccine for young men, as does using a longer interval between the two vaccine doses. With this knowledge, it’s possible to take a low-risk event and make it even lower. I am aware of literally just one death of a young person (a 22-year-old) in the entire world from the mRNA vaccines. There’s no question that the vaccine is safer than the virus for young people.

Neither Dr. Brogan nor these contrarian doctors want you to know or even believe any of this. Since they only report information that bolsters their preconceived notions, they will never mention most of these facts. If you encounter accurate information elsewhere about pediatric hospitals being overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases, they’ll claim they the numbers are a “fear monger tactic”. If you believe the numbers, they’ll claim that COVID-19 can’t be that bad for kids because it’s worse elderly people (true, but irrelevant), that more children die of suicide (true, but irrelevant), that the flu is worse (false), and that it’s only children with leukemia who are dying (false and repellent). Others have “wondered” whether incompetent pediatricians were misdiagnosing RSV as COVID-19 (they weren’t). Several doctors simply spread wrong blatantly wrong numbers, always minimizing COVID-19’s impact on children, of course. I’ve even seen some contrarians claim that hundreds of dead children from COVID-19 can’t be that bad, because after all, there are 74 million kids in the USA.

What is so different about COVID-19 that makes it so easy for these doctors to brush off the deaths of children? Though almost all children with COVID-19 do well, enough of them have contracted the virus to make it a leading cause of pediatric deaths this year. These tragedies can now be prevented with a vaccine. Imagine if we could prevent suicides, accidents, and drownings with a vaccine. We’d do it, right? However, beyond magically isolating themselves from older people, these doctors don’t want most children to do anything to prevent COVID-19 – no masks, no vaccines, no testing, nothing. Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics keeps adding 2-3 deaths per day to its grim tally.

Imagine the outrage there’d be if a doctor tried to diminish the tragedies of pediatric cancer the way pediatric COVID-19 deaths are routinely minimized. Imagine if after the next school shooting some doctor pointed out that 99.999% of children won’t die this way, so we shouldn’t do anything to try to prevent these tragedies. Maybe more people need to read about the individual children who have died of COVID-19 (Skylar Herbert, Tagan White, Kimora Lynum, Wyatt Gibson, Zyrin Foots). These were real lives, cut tragically short, not just numbers in a CDC dataset. Their deaths shouldn’t be diminished just because their grandparents were statistically more likely to die. Again, what makes 1,000 pediatric COVID-19 deaths so uniquely tolerable, especially considering the only unique thing about them is they can be now prevented with a vaccine?

Though they claim to be “pro-vaccine“, it seems these contrarians will do anything to avoid acknowledging an obvious truth: COVID-19 can be a devastating, even fatal, disease for a very small percentage of young people, and the vaccine can prevent these tragic outcomes. In contrast, they are extremely eager to discuss vaccine side effects. One doctor even repeatedly mentioned post-vaccination fevers as a reason not to vaccinate children. Just a few short months ago, doctors were arguing in a still unpublished pre-print that the vaccine could cause more harm than the virus for adolescent boys. It’s likely that the number of times they’ve collectively mentioned vaccine-related myocarditis (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here) exceeds the number of children currently hospitalized with the condition. However, since vaccine-related myocarditis almost always has a very favorable clinical course, they are generally only willing to discuss the frequency at which this condition occurs. One doctor even used the death of that single 22-year-old to argue the vaccine could kill as many children as the virus. Studies showing the vaccine’s significant benefits for adolescents are, of course, completely unmentionable.

Because their loyalty is to a result, not a process, these doctors have consistently refused to enumerate the harms of the virus and the benefits of the vaccine. As a result, their writing on COVID-19 and children is uniformly uninformative and devoid of nuance, especially compared to the work of doctors familiar with skepticism and critical thinking. After the Delta variant hospitalized many thousands of children and killed hundreds of them, some contrarians belatedly altered their blanket opposition to vaccinating children, though they did so without acknowledging their previous stance and what role this vocal opposition might have had in creating significant vaccine-hesitancy in parents. However, as with Dr. Brogan, there’s literally no evidence or study that would lead these doctors to conclude it was a mistake to have left tens of millions of young people vulnerable to COVID-19.

After all, if the deaths of thousands of young people, including 1,000 children, doesn’t give them pause, what possibly could?

Contrarian doctors and Dr. Brogan part 4

Though Dr. Brogan and these contrarians have little credibility in the medical community, like alternative treatments, they are not harmless. They have stellar credentials. They all have large audiences. People listen to what they say. They speak without a trace of doubt. They can easily speak in scientific jargon, misrepresenting information to make dangerous ideas sound reasonable to those who are ignorant of the facts.

Their conviction that it was preferable to leave young people vulnerable to COVID-19 convinced politicians like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to let the virus rip through young people in his state. Dr. Brogan has had more impact at the local level in that state as she influences anti-vaccine schools in Miami. Thanks in part to their combined efforts, children’s hospitals were overwhelmed at the end of this summer. Some children died, including healthy teens who were eligible to be vaccinated. Their ideology also seems to have influenced the UK’s response to vaccinating children, with disastrous consequences I discussed previously.

The doctors are all generally sheltered from the consequences of their words. Dr. Brogan has never cared for a patient hospitalized with COVID-19, and neither have most contrarians. They’ll likely never see a young person gasping for air, regretting their decision not to get vaccinated. The pandemic exists entirely on a computer screen for most of them. Despite this, they remain defiantly proud of their efforts, calling Florida a “success“. It’s frightening to contemplate, but their influence may grow significantly if the political winds blow their way.

I was friendly with Dr. Brogan during her time at NYU. It wasn’t until after she graduated that she decided to reject “facts” and “science as the final objective”. I similarly admired some of these contrarian doctors before the pandemic. Like Dr. Brogan, they aren’t stupid. It’s certainly sad they’ve come to share many of her beliefs on COVID-19 and children. COVID-19 will fade into the background one day, and these contrarians will be remembered only for their poor predictions, vaccine fear mongering, and relentless minimization of virus that was benign for most young people, but because it was encouraged to spread so widely, managed to kill thousands of them and injure many thousands more.

Who knows? Maybe they could have avoided this sad fate if only they hadn’t thought it was beneath them to debunk Shivambu.



  • Dr. Jonathan Howard is a neurologist and psychiatrist who has been interested in vaccines since long before COVID-19. He is the author of "We Want Them Infected: How the failed quest for herd immunity led doctors to embrace the anti-vaccine movement and blinded Americans to the threat of COVID."

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Posted by Jonathan Howard

Dr. Jonathan Howard is a neurologist and psychiatrist who has been interested in vaccines since long before COVID-19. He is the author of "We Want Them Infected: How the failed quest for herd immunity led doctors to embrace the anti-vaccine movement and blinded Americans to the threat of COVID."