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Are All Grifters the Same?
A closer look at Peter McCullough and Steve Kirsch.
Editor’s note: This post is apparently too long for email, but it is mostly pictures (which fits perfectly with my writing style), so don’t be afraid!
Before the end of last year, I wrote a piece called Who are the Grifters? and touched on the major areas where modern-day con artists are “flourishing” in American society: Health, politics, and religion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it got super long and I could only focus on a few examples within each topic.
While I was researching the public health grifters, I was particularly fascinated by Peter McCullough (I refuse to call him a doctor for the reasons outlined below) and Steve Kirsch, another anti-vaccine advocate. In my previous piece, I mentioned McCullough, but ended up leaving Kirsch out, partly because I wasn’t sure if Kirsch was a grifter, or just really dumb. I ended up falling somewhere in between: While I do think McCullough is a tried and true grifter, I concluded that Kirsch doesn’t really meet the definition 100%. Some of his activities may fall into grifting, but I ultimately think some undiagnosed mental disorder (narcissism or something like it) or just general brain worms simply keep him from admitting he’s wrong.
This pushes him further into the rabbit hole and away from normal, mainstream life (Kirsch has had to resign from two companies since he began his anti-vaccine crusade), which in turn forces him to grift in order to make money. So, I wanted to detail how I reached this conclusion, while also showing how demonstrably false both McCullough and Kirsch’s claims are, at least to a rational person. Think of this as, Who are the Grifters? Part II.
Way back when I used to try and debunk 9/11 or Sandy Hook conspiracy theories, I would do a relatively brief amount of research and often find myself surprised by how quickly some of the central claims fell apart.
Alex Jones claimed that the FBI said no one died at Sandy Hook? Big, if true. But two seconds of research showed that it wasn’t.
In the Flight 93 crash, there wasn’t a single “drop of blood” that was picked up from the crash site? Nope, and the coroner who was there - and spent days days picking up body parts - explicitly hit out at conspiracy theorists for selectively quoting him.
There are a lot tiny things like this that surround every conspiracy theory. J.F.K.’s “Magic Bullet” theory? Pretty easily debunked. I used to wonder how people could make such obvious mistakes, and (rudely) assumed that they were just dumb. I think that might be the case with some people, like Jason Bermas (linked to above), who is one of the forefathers of the 9/11 conspiracy theory; when you hear the guy talk, you just get the sense that he isn’t playing with a full deck.
But I used to think the same thing about people like Alex Jones, until I realized that Jones probably doesn’t believe everything he says (at least not all of it). Instead, he says wild and crazy things because it gets him attention, which helps him make money.
This is where Peter McCullough comes in: He is very much carving out a space where he can be the “alternative health” version of Alex Jones. I think he deserves a special mention because he obviously gets a lot of attention, but also because his claims are (similarly) so easy to disprove.
McCullough is just about everywhere nowadays, but he is actually the origin of a currently active claim: That athletes around the world are either collapsing or dying at an alarming rate, which is presumably linked to the COVID-19 vaccines (though he never explains how). Let’s look at McCullough’s claim in detail, which will also give readers some insight into how real-time fact-checking is done.
The athlete death allegation was recently tweeted out by Liz Wheeler, who was so nutty that even OAN had to fire her:
The tweet got more attention when Lord Elmo tweeted this:
The claim comes from a letter McCullough wrote to a medical journal, which Wheeler links to later in her thread. Off the bat, you have to say this is a neat trick by McCullough: By writing a letter to the editor of a medical journal, anti-vaccine advocates can say that it was “published” in a medical journal, when in reality, it did not go through the typical peer-review process that comes with actual publication.
McCullough’s letter is paywalled, but within it he provides the primary source for his claim: A blog called “Real Science” that keeps a list of all athlete deaths or sudden cardiac arrests that have happened since January of 2021. McCullough takes this list and compares it to a previous study done for the European Society of Cardiology on professional athlete deaths:
Here is what McCullough says:
From January 2021 to the time of writing, 1598 athletes suffered cardiac arrest, 1101 of which with deadly outcome (Editor’s note: This is where he cites to Real Science). Notably, in a 38-years timespan, 1101 athletes under the age of 35 died due to various heart-related conditions, 50% of whom had congenital anatomical heart disease and cardiomyopathies and 10% had atherosclerotic heart disease with early onset.
So, McCullough is taking the deaths listed on the Real Science blog and comparing them to a previous study of athletes under the age of 35 who died, and is basically saying, “Look, the athlete deaths we are having now are way above the historical norm, so it has to be the vaccines.” The blog itself attributes all of the listed deaths to the COVID vaccines, even though the vaccination status of each athlete is unknown.
Leave aside the fact that McCullough’s source is a random anti-vaccination blog; you can easily see how this argument would sound convincing to someone who is skeptical of the vaccines. So, the question then becomes: How good is McCullough’s source? The answer is that it’s not just pretty bad, but very bad.
The first major problem with the Real Science blog is that it does not actually track people who died or were debilitated by a heart attack. It includes people who had a cardiac event and ended up being fine:
Note that Leigh Holland-Keen not only survived, but is back training in the gym! OK, so that’s the first red flag and if you have a sharp eye, that screenshot should give you a peak at the second one. Do you see where it fails to list Tamari Key’s age? Yeah, that becomes a repeated problem.
The Real Science blog does not just track deaths associated with athletes under the age of 35; it tracks deaths from all ages, even ones that they cannot verify:
Throughout their report, they include tons of “athletes” who are anywhere from 50 to 65 who suffered heart attacks. One of the oldest I found was a 76 year-old referee. Needless to say, heart attacks become much more common as you get older:
So, those are two major red flags. Obviously, if you are McCullough, you don’t want to be comparing a study that looked at athlete deaths for people under 35 to a list on the Internet that includes 76 year-olds having heart attacks. But it gets worse. Sometimes they refer to people who were not athletes as such; look at this one:
Notice how they call Harper a “footballer,” but in reality, he was a chef who occasionally played football (like most other guys in England). He wasn’t actually an athlete. They did the same for Vince Fontaine, who was a musician that occasionally played hockey:
Notice that Fontaine is 62 years old, which means he is not actually a “young” athlete, as McCullough alleges. The ages do matter a lot, because the blog begins counting vaccinated deaths from January of 2021, but that is before most younger people would have been able to get vaccinated.
Here is a wild one: The list also includes the soccer player Pele, who was 81, and whose cause of death is related to colon cancer. I know what you’re thinking. “If this is a list of people who experienced ‘sudden’ cardiac arrest, why are they listing people who had cancer?”
Great question! We don’t actually have an answer. In fact, for a lot of the cases listed, there is no cause of death. Sometimes you see cases like Sharen Manning, who was 71, a second-degree black belt and a scuba diver. The cause of death is never mentioned, but family members asked people to donate to a cancer charity.
Pretty wild right? It gets worse. But let’s recap first. McCullough cites to a blog that details cardiac arrests in athletes and attributes it to the vaccines, but we know from looking at the list that many of the athletes:
Never actually experienced debilitating cardiac arrest.
Were either never athletes or were retired athletes.
Were older, some as old as 81, but many are in their 70s.
Died from causes other than cardiac arrest.
This is all bad enough on its own, but here is the ultimate kicker: The list also includes people who committed suicide:
Here is another:
Here is one that is particularly ghoulish:
They don’t stop there either; here is a drug overdose they attribute to the vaccine:
Leave aside the fact that the Real Science™ blog is filled with errors and unreliable information. There are any number of explanations for why something like that would happen: Maybe the person running it has some sort of mental defect. Maybe they have their own agenda. Maybe they’re a troll. Maybe it’s a 14-year old in Germany putting together a school project on gullible people.
There are a million different reasons to explain why it contains all of these obvious mistakes. But why do you think someone like McCullough would cite to it? Why do you think he would use such a source and compare it to a real, genuine study that looked at athlete deaths and used a controlled group (35 and under)? Why do you think he allowed himself to use a source that compared Pele’s death from cancer to a 25 year-old’s cardiac arrest? Why do you think the “most published physician” on the planet made such obvious mistakes? You can only reach one of three conclusions about McCullough:
He is stupid.
He is sloppy and bad at research.
He is purposefully trying to deceive his audience.
It is only one of these three explanations. Take your pick, but none of them bolster his reputation as a leading anti-vaccination expert. You probably already know what I think about McCullough, but in case you didn’t, you should go to his website and take a look around:
McCullough is actually pretty clever about keeping his website slightly out of the spotlight; he doesn’t even link to it in his Twitter bio (though he does link to his personal page, which features his supplements on it prominently). But he still keeps it in center stage, maybe only slightly illuminated. The only silver lining here is that McCullough is probably going to be stripped of his board certification at some point this year (hopefully his medical license too, but that’s a long shot).
It seems super obvious to me that McCullough is a grifter. He knows the vaccines are safe; he knows that they reduce the symptoms of COVID; and he knows COVID itself is killing an outsized number of unvaccinated people. He simply doesn’t care, because he wants people to buy his organic bee pollen at $40 a bag (I found one for $16). But it isn’t just him shamelessly lying and hocking his supplements. It’s the other stuff he does too.
During his appearance on Joe Rogan, McCullough cited to a challenge that Steve Kirsch, has put out to his followers: He has offered 1 million dollars to anyone who shows up to debate him on the COVID-19 vaccines. They do not have to win the debate; they do not even have to debate him for three hours over Zoom. All they have to do is show up. Kirsch says that no one has accepted his challenge, and McCullough said in his interview with Rogan that this was a serious indication that people have a hard time defending the vaccines.
Except that it’s 100% not true. Kirsch had a full, nearly five hour debate with physician Avi Bitterman, M.D. To date, Kirsch has not paid Dr. Bitterman the promised 1 million dollars. Maybe Kirsch forgot? Well, then he is pretty forgetful, because two other physicians have debated him, and they also have not received the money.
Instead of paying the money, Kirsch tried to get Dr. Bitterman fired from his job. Another physician accepted Kirsch’s offer, but Kirsch insisted that the debate be done in private and over Zoom. Even though they debated for two hours, Kirsch refuses to release the video. So much for “free speech.”
That aside, the debate between Dr. Bitterman and Kirsch is really worth watching, even if it is five hours long. I watched it, and while it is enjoyable to watch Kirsch squirm and be forced to admit he is wrong about virtually every claim he makes regarding the vaccines, it also highlights a difference between someone like McCullough and Kirsch.
While I still think Kirsch is a grifter, I think he is a different kind of grifter than McCullough. Kirsch started out pouring money into alternative treatment for COVID in April of 2020, after founding the COVID-19 Early Treatment Fund (CETF). Sounds noble, right? It was, at first. Kirsch recruited a ton of health experts to look into the effectiveness of drugs that were already on the marketplace in order to find a low-cost solution to COVID-19.
An obvious candidate was hydroxychloroquine, which - incredibly - I now know how to spell from memory. But CETF repeatedly tested the drug and found that it wasn’t effective in treating COVID-19 (which is in line with virtually every other study conducted). Instead of shrugging his shoulders and moving on, Kirsch publicly bashed his own Fund’s conclusions and refused to accept their findings. In fact, members of CETF stated publicly that Kirsch had privately pushed them to say that certain drugs were effective in treating COVID-19, when testing results had proved otherwise. One of CETF’s members said that Kirsch was trying to get them to falsify the results.
In May of 2021, it all became too much and every expert from CETF’s board resigned, saying that Kirsch’s interference and refusal to listen to reason were the major factors. If you watch Kirsch’s debate with Dr. Bitterman, I think you can start to see a pattern: Kirsch is just stubborn as all hell, and it is almost impossible for him to admit when he’s wrong. In fact, a primary reason that the debate is almost five hours is that Dr. Bitterman doggedly forces Kirsch to admit he clearly got something wrong, but it takes him almost an hour and a half to do it.
I think that illustrates the difference between someone like Kirsch and McCullough. If you read this long write-up on Kirsch, which has interviews with people who know him personally, they all basically say the same thing: He views himself as very intelligent, often the smartest guy in the room, and he can be relentless if he feels he has to prove that. I think the problem I have is that after reading all the things Kirsch has written and listening to him get embarrassed in a debate, it seems pretty obvious to me that Kirsch is actually kind of dumb, a la Jason Bermas. It is possible that all of us are suffering Elon Musk/Miles Bron disease, where we think that just because someone has made a lot of money, it must mean they’re smart. But Kirsch just doesn’t seem to be all that bright.
I am always hesitant to say this about someone, mostly because it isn’t nice, but also because it’s hard to argue that it’s 100% true. Steve Kirsch invented the optical Mouse that I am using right now; how is it possible that he’s just dumb? It’s truly a mystery, but it’s also a mystery to my wife how I am able to spout off random facts about James Garfield’s presidency and still struggle with putting the right amount of detergent in the laundry. I think the problem with people like Kirsch is that his lack of knowledge in one area has formed a symbiotic relationship (but bad) with his arrogance. He thinks he knows more than experts about the vaccines because…well, why shouldn’t he? He’s Steve Kirsch! On the other hand, I am getting closer and closer to the right amount of detergent in the laundry because someone far more capable is advising me, and I am accepting that advice (is it obvious I did the laundry today?).
Part of the reason I quickly conclude that an anti-vaxxer is either dumb or a grifter is because the evidence for the success of the vaccines is so readily available. The core of McCullough’s claim is easily debunked by anyone who knows how to look at data. He and Kirsch repeatedly claim that heart disease deaths have increased among the young since the vaccines were introduced. While it is true that heart disease has increased, they actually peaked in - you’ll never believe this - April of 2020, and have been trending downwards since early 2021.
So, maybe Kirsch and McCullough will say, “Fine, heart disease deaths are coming down, but all-cause excess deaths are way up!” Well, it depends on what you mean, since excess deaths decreased by 74% from 2021 to 2022:
Fine. Maybe you’d say it’s easy to look at all these big numbers and reach these conclusions, but it just seems like a higher rate of young people are dying. In reality, all-cause deaths for younger people are still below the levels we saw ten years ago:
Finally, if Kirsch and McCullough are right, and the vaccines are causing hundreds of thousands of excess deaths (over 200K, according to Kirsch), then you would expect to see a pattern play out across the country, where highly vaccinated states have super high excess deaths and less vaccinated states have fewer deaths. Instead, you see the opposite:
This syncs up with other data, which do show that there are higher levels of heart failure now than there were before the pandemic. But those levels are highest in the unvaccinated:
Do McCullough and Kirsch know about these data? Are they unable to do research? Are they lazy? Are they stupid? Are they just grifters? Sometimes it’s too complicated to answer, but I think one thing is clear: The COVID vaccines are safe, they were a true miracle and saved millions of people, and if you disagree with that, the facts don’t care about your feelings.
I had a whole thing written up about this point, but it distracted too much from the post. Anyway, in his Rogan interview, McCullough makes a wild claim and insinuates that a factory that manufactured hydroxychloroquine was destroyed because governments were trying to hide its effectiveness. While a factory that produced hydroxychloroquine did experience a fire in December of 2021, it had stopped production of it in August 2021. Just an example of a random lie McCullough blurts out.