The Most Harmful Anti-Experts: 2023 Edition
Once again we round up the people working hardest to spread misinformation.
It's no great secret that we're surrounded by misinformation and by the people who peddle it. An important part of learning to recognize it is calling it out. Today we're going to do just that; but instead of focusing on the misinformation itself, we're going to identify the leading anti-expert in each of ten scientific fields.
An anti-expert is someone best known as a leading expert in some field — however, their particular perspective in that field is a false one. For example, if we asked a group of geophysicists who are the top experts in their field, we'd get a certain list of names; but if we asked a group of Flat Earthers the same question, we'd get a very different list. Those names would be the anti-experts in that field.
So we're going to run through some scientific fields that are of particular popular note these days, and we're going to call out the anti-expert in each. Obviously a fair amount of subjectivity goes into assembling such a list, so you might well think I'm off-base on one or more of these, and you might think I missed someone better. And I may well have. But I do stand behind my assertion that each of these people I call out is at least one of the prominent anti-experts in the given field.
Since this Top 10 list represents 10 different subjects, they're not ordered numerically. For grins, I've elected to order them by the last letter in each anti-expert's first name. Because I can.
Nutrition: Pete Evans
Ask any person with alternative ideas about nutrition and food who is the world's best expert, and they'll probably answer — especially if they live in Australia — Pete Evans. Although he espouses and promotes most false conspiratorial beliefs, as a celebrity chef, he is best known for his advocacy of pseudoscientific dieting ideas, especially the paleo diet. His false claims have been harshly criticized by everyone from the Australian Medical Association to the Therapeutic Goods Administration, and he is the first person to twice be awarded the Bent Spoon Award by the Australian Skeptics, given annually to "the perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle."
Fortunately, Evans has had slightly less influence since most of his social media presence was taken down for repeated violations of misinformation and harm policies, and since his publisher and major retailers cut ties with him for his promotion of white supremacist iconography. Big surprise. Remember that when a person holds one strange or harmful perspective, they are more likely to hold others as well.
COVID-19: Joseph Mercola
Now obviously there are lots of real experts on COVID-19 for those of us who accept science, but for those of us who don't, who would they consider is the best expert? There are probably a number of candidates, but I'd land on Joe Mercola as the most influential and harmful.
Like several other names on this list, Mercola has been in these Skeptoid Top 10 lists before, a testament to his staying power. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Mercola (a lifelong anti-vaccine crusader) has sold fake cures on his website and suffered a stream of regulatory warnings and fines — which he appears to consider simply the cost of doing business. He's long been promoted aggressively by Dr. Oz, and as my best evidence that he should be considered the top anti-expert on this subject, he earned the #1 slot on the Center for Countering Digital Hate's "Disinformation Dozen" list.
Election Fraud: Dinesh D'Souza
Formerly best known as an advocate for Creationism, Dinesh D'Souza has spent the last decade reinventing himself as a political propaganda filmmaker. He has emerged as the nation's leading anti-expert on the allegedly data-supported finding that the 2020 US Presidential election was fraudulently stolen by an organized group of operatives opposed to former President Donald Trump, as depicted in his 2022 film 2000 Mules.
D'Souza's basic premise is that several dozen people present in Atlanta during the George Floyd protests in 2020 were also near ballot locations in the swing states that cost Trump the election: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, all this according to commercially purchased anonymous cell phone GPS data. Although nothing at all could be known about these people other than they were phone owners in those states at those times, D'Souza claims the only rational conclusion is that they were far-left activists paid to stuff ballot boxes with fake votes. Both his film and conclusion are mind-numbingly brain dead, and have been savaged by the press, by data scientists, by demographers, and by election experts. Yet it's enough to make him the leading expert on election science to his particular demographic.
Wellness: Gwyneth Paltrow
Staggeringly, she has made it onto virtually every one of these lists that Skeptoid has put out over the past 15 years. Why? It's because she is disproportionately influential, with her wellness and lifestyle company Goop having annual sales estimated at up to $100 million. Make no mistake, Paltrow still has a big impact — selling products that are nearly all completely worthless to people, mostly women, under the guise of "wellness" — an industry that it is, itself, nearly completely worthless.
Besides selling snake-oil products like detox kits, jade eggs supposedly charged with moonlight, and microbiome "superpowders", Goop is best known for regularly getting fined by the Federal Trade Commission for deceptive marketing practices. Basically, making false health claims for silly products that do nothing at all. One independent watchdog group found some 51 such false claims on Goop's website in 2017.
Astrophysics: Avi Loeb
Whenever astrophysics and UFOs come into the news, there is one go-to person the media is sure to grab every time: Avi Loeb, a Harvard theoretical physicist and astrophysicist. Surely you can't have more impressive-sounding credentials than that, which is why they go to him. For the media, always hungry for sensationalism, it's a bonus that Loeb seems to be all-in on alien visitation. Loeb first became a public figure when ‘Oumuamua, a long, thin asteroid, passed through the solar system in 2017. His outreach suggested that it was an artificial alien spacecraft, including an article in Scientific American, much to the dismay of virtually the entire astronomy community.
In 2021, Loeb founded The Galileo Project for the Systematic Scientific Search for Evidence of Extraterrestrial Technological Artifacts. As you can tell by its very name, the project's conclusion was already established in advance. People with fringe beliefs are found in all segments of society. It's important not to confuse correlation with causation: there is nothing in the astrophysics field that would cause an objective astrophysicist to conclude that aliens visit us.
Ancient Civilizations: Graham Hancock
British writer Graham Hancock has long been publishing his beliefs in ancient advanced civilizations, such as a high-tech version of Atlantis, that perished at the last Ice Age and passed on secret knowledge to actual ancient civilizations. Despite having no background at all in history, archaeology, or anthropology, and being contradicted by real science on virtually every point he's ever argued, he remains television's go-to expert on the subject; to the point that when Netflix wanted to make a 2022 docuseries on the topic, they essentially made it an infomercial for his proven-false beliefs titled Ancient Apocalypse. Not a great move for the public intellect, Netflix.
Climate: Bjørn Lomborg
A Danish political science professor turned climate science denier, Bjørn Lomborg is best known for his series of nonfiction books claiming that there's no reason to do anything about curbing climate change. His first, 2001's The Skeptical Environmentalist, got all sorts of attention and played a big role in kicking off the climate denial movement. After Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth raised the alarm that it would be necessary to limit warming, Lomborg quickly released his second book, Cool It, followed by a documentary movie of the same name that essentially challenged Gore's movie. Note the effect it has when a politician and a political professor argue about science — it persuades a lot of people that scientific debate exists, when in fact there isn't one at all. More of these movies should be made by scientists than by politicians.
Lomborg has been on the receiving end of complaints over scientific dishonesty for most of his career. In 2008, Denmark's Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation found that his book was indeed scientifically dishonest, deliberately misrepresenting the science — but that he himself was not guilty since he's not a scientist and it was thus an opinion piece. A 2010 book was published titled The Lomborg Deception, showing that an entire book is necessary just to lay out the depth of Lomborg's dishonesty and error. And he's just as busy today as he's ever been, spreading climate disinformation.
Aliens: Giorgio Tsoukalos
Probably nobody thinks that Giorgio Tsoukalos — the crazy-haired host of Ancient Aliens — is actually an expert on history or archaeology or — well anything, really. He certainly has no background of any kind in any related fields; the only other job he's had was working in promotions for bodybuilding. Besides the TV show, he's best known for the meme graphic "I'm not saying it's aliens, but it's aliens."
Now, there are real experts on aliens. They are called astrobiologists, and they know all there is that we know about the potential for alien life. But, name an astrobiologist. Most people can't. So when you ask who is the big expert on aliens, the name most people will come up with is Tsoukalos. Or, more likely, they'll know his crazy hair, since his name is a bit elusive. It is a sad commentary indeed when most people's go-to expert on an actual academic subject is a TV personality most closely associated with hair gel.
The Paranormal: Travis Taylor
One of the stars of HISTORY Channel's The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch, Travis Taylor has two Ph.Ds in engineering and is a legit aerospace engineer, and that's cool. He's also an amateur science fiction author, and that's cool too. And being a star of television's leading show about the paranormal means he likely has an interest in that, and that, too, is cool. But when a TV audience hungry for proof of the afterlife sees someone with legit STEM credentials as one of their most public advocates, that creates a problem. It legitimizes running around in the dark holding fancy electronics and jumping at every little noise as if that's scientific experimentation, which — with my apologies to fans of the show — it is not.
TV performers are lucky to land any job they're able to, so I don't fault Taylor for being on the show. Maybe he's a true believer, or maybe he's just willing to perform for the cameras and act like an inter-dimensional space ghost is responsible for every deceased cattle they come across on the ranch. But his legit credentials have undoubtedly made him America's #1 serious expert on the paranormal — and the result is that many people now think there's science behind space poltergeists.
Vaccination: Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Speaking of the "Disinformation Dozen" list, in the #2 position we find Robert F. Kennedy Jr., perhaps the most visible anti-vaccine and anti-science zealot on the planet. It's impossible to estimate how many deaths from vaccine-preventable disease Kennedy has been responsible for, but we can be sure it's not zero. He's made anti-vaccine movies, written anti-vaccine books, as well as adopted broad-spectrum conspiracy mongering.
His biography reads like a history of the anti-vaccine movement and of the conspiracy theories surrounding it. He even made a video through the anti-vaccine nonprofit Children's Health Defense, which he chairs, claiming that the COVID-19 vaccines are secretly a program to conduct medical experiments on Black people. If you already thought he was off the rails, he's probably a lot farther off than you knew.
So there you have our list of anti-experts for 2023. I really hope to not have to do another such list in 2024; I'd probably just end up depressed over how many of the names are the same. Perhaps calling them out for what they are will make some difference toward that end; but more likely it won't. In the meantime, the best thing we can do when we hear anyone claiming to be an expert but not exactly following the real science, is to always be skeptical.
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