Friday, June 3, 2022

#2542: Alex Berenson

Generally known as the pandemic’s wrongest man, Alex Berenson has managed to become one of the most cited and influential anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists and COVID-19 denialists operating in the US today. Berenson used to be a reporter for The New York Times as well as a novelist, although his latest fiction book, the hilariously deranged 2019 fantasy screed Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence, somehow ended up being marketed as having anything to do with reality; it most certainly does not. At present, Berenson is a mainstay feature of articles, who has fortunately taken upon themselves the arduous task of trying to clean up some of the toxic waste of delusional, pseudoscientific nonsense Berenson vomits all over the internet.


COVID denial

During the coronavirus pandemic, Berenson made frequent appearances in right-wing media to spread false claims about the disease and the vaccines (despite, of course, having absolutely no background or competence in any remotely relevant subject matter). Much of his efforts during the earlier stages of the pandemic were devoted to asserting that the seriousness of COVID-19 was overblown and attacking face masks, but he shifted his focus to conspiracy theories and disinformation about the effectiveness and safety of the vaccines once they started being rolled out.


In particular, his early 2020 rants focused on expressing his belief that COVID-19 posed little risk and warning of alleged mainstream media alarmism and how the latter was used as a cover for government overreach. Predictably, Berenson falsely asserted that masks were a useless measure to curb the transmission of COVID – indeed, Berenson has been shown to be one of the core anchors in the anti-mask disinformation networks in the US, and probably internationally. In May 2020, Fox News even announced that Berenson would get to host a TV show called ‘COVID Contrarian’ on its online platform Fox Nation; by July, however, the number of COVID deaths made even Fox uncomfortable, and they removed the announcement from their website.


Throughout 2021 and early 2022, Berenson carefully “mischaracterized just about every detail regarding the vaccines in a concerted effort to get people to avoid them, having in the effort “proved himself the Secretariat of being wrong”. For instance:


-       he blamed the vaccines for causing spikes in severe illness, by pointing to data that actually demonstrate their safety and effectiveness.

-       he asserted that in country after country, “cases rise after vaccination campaigns begin,” in obvious contradiction with available evidence at the time, citing studies that showed absolutely no such thing. It is emphatically not the only time Berenson has misunderstood and distorted studies to promote antivaccine conspiracy theories.

-       In particular, he accused vaccine manufacturers of foul play by failing to include “suspected but unconfirmed” COVID-19 cases in their final efficacy conclusions, with reference to cases of suspected COVID that were tested negative. (In fairness, Berenson presumably didn’t actually try to lie here; he misunderstood the reports because he is stupid, arrogant and completely incompetent at reading such reports.)

-       he blamed the vaccines for suppressing our immune systems, by misrepresenting normal immune-system behavior; Berenson argued that “the first dose of the mRNA vaccine temporarily suppresses the immune system” and “transiently suppress lymphocytes,” which to anyone who knows how vaccines and immune systems work is close to a world record of silly – the closest analogy is claiming that workouts are dangerous because they ruin your muscles, except that muscles do indeed tear at the gym whereas lymphocytes aren’t destroyed by vaccines.

-       he suggested that countries such as Israel suffered from their early vaccine rollout, in direct contradiction with the facts, easily available at the time, showing that deaths and hospitalizations among vaccinated groups in Israel plummeted. (Berenson linked to a news article in Hebrew that didn’t remotely say anything resembling what he claimed it said; most of his followers presumably don’t read Hebrew.)

-       he promoted the conspiracy theory that a Danish soccer star who suffered cardiac arrest during a game had received the COVID vaccine just prior to collapsing, which was completely false, of course, but you probably know how antivaxx disinformation works by now. It was, needless to say, not the only Berenson has cited unfounded rumors to promote antivaxx nonsense.

-       he implied that for most non-seniors, the side effects of the vaccines are worse than having COVID-19 itself, in direct contradiction with the fact that the pandemic already by April 2021 had killed tens of thousands of people under 50 and the vaccines not conclusively killed anybody.


And of course, if anything makes its rounds in antivaxx circles, you can be more or less sure that Berenson will pick it up and use it to spread antivaccine disinformation, such as a Salk Institute study on spike proteins that he cited, even though obviously didn’t read or at least didn’t remotely understand. (The alleged deadliness of spike proteins has been a mainstay in antivaxx circles, despite the utter nonsense and lack of scientific support for the claims – studies that say the opposite of what you claim they say aren’t scientific support for your claim) In 2021, Berenson also tweeted that COVID-19 vaccinations had led to 50 times more adverse effects than flu vaccines based on comparing absolute numbers of vaccines given – and still getting it wrong.


In July 2021, Berenson spoke at CPAC, prompting loud cheers from the crowd when he boasted thatthe government was hoping that they could sort of sucker 90 percent of the population into getting vaccinated, and it isn’t happening.” Yes, it’s worth a moment of reflection. In August, 2021, he was permanently suspended from Twitter for repeated violations of its policy on COVID-19 misinformation.


In January, 2022, Berenson appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show (but of course) repeating his claim that existing mRNA vaccines are “dangerous and ineffective” against COVID-19 and demanding that they be withdrawn from the market immediately. (Carlson, who has a famously proven track record of COVID misinformation himself, of course left Berenson’s assertions unchallenged.)


Cannabis conspiracy theories

Berenson’s 2019 screed Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence is an alarmist piece of conspiracyranting characterized by numerous false assertions based on misrepresenting research, inferring causation from correlation (and directly contradicting the research he cites in the process), cherry picking and selection bias, relying mostly on (distorted) anecdotes to back its points. The book garnered consistent criticism from those who actually have any idea what they are talking about, like these people. (You can watch what is more or less the documentary version of Berenson’s book here). Since Berenson was not a household name at time, some commentators even wondered whether the whole book was a trollingeffort. It wasn’t, of course. But it does display Berenson’s combination of utter lack of integrity with incompetence in the service of FUD tactics aimed at the scientifically illiterate but paranoid, on which he would capitalize in the upcoming pandemic. Despite the claim having been shown to be false, Berenson continues to claim that “cannabis causes psychosis causes violence”.


The whole pot legalization movement is, according to Berenson, really a conspiracy that has managed to get the media onboard (“it’s a lot of the elite media that’s bought into this”, said Berenson on Fox; note the insertion of ‘elite’). And who’s really behind it all? Why, Soros, of course: “The number one group that’s encouraged legalization over the last 20 years is the Drug Policy Alliance, which is a well-funded group – actually, George Soros is its largest backer.” At least he understands his audience.


Diagnosis: Berenson knows very little and is generally incompetent at fact gathering, but we admit that he is something of an expert at sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt among scientifically illiterate and paranoid groups already prone to view anything they see through the lens of politics. It’s relatively easy, given sufficient confidence and the sort of staggering lack of integrity Berenson evinces, and it has made him one of the most influential sources of disinformation in the world today.


Hat-tip: Derek Thomspon @TheAtlantic

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