“It’s not a hoax! It’s not a hoax!” Dr. Moses Turkle Bility, assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, told me over Zoom. And I believe him.
When I stumbled upon his latest paper, which was published in a legitimate journal and which argued that a jade-nephrite amulet may prevent COVID-19, I tweeted my incredulity about it. I was inundated with responses from people who were similarly appalled and who were calling for the university and the journal to comment. How had this gotten published?
It didn’t help that the paper made use of words like “serpentinization” and “biogenic molecules”, and that it spun disciplines such as geophysics, public health, and quantum physics into an elaborate, gonzo-sounding theory. “People have made provocative hypotheses before and everyone has been OK with it,” Dr. Bility told me.
This paper seemingly reopens the door to an old question: how unorthodox can your ideas be and still get published in the scientific literature?
An exercise in not being jaded
Dr. Bility’s “COVID amulet” paper (which never tested said amulet but simply inferred it might work based on Bility’s larger theory) is not the first time he has written about this topic. His Academia profile makes available several manuscripts that were never published in journals but that were meant to elicit feedback. One of these early papers proposes a theory of everything, the Holy Grail in physics that seeks to reconcile the invisible world of quantum mechanics with Einstein’s gravity. Given Bility’s academic credentials in molecular biology, I asked him where he had learned physics. “I self-learn. There’s books, there’s papers. I took the time to read them. There’s no law in nature that says because you’re a biologist, you can’t read a physics book and try to understand it.” He did not tell people about his readings, afraid he would be called crazy or told that it wasn’t his place to be an intellectual.
Bility tells me he wears a mask, practices social distancing and does not believe the germ theory of disease is completely wrong. But he has spotted anomalies that he thinks his wild hypothesis explains.
His theory around COVID can be summarized, to the best of my ability, as follows. Bility suggests that when the magnetic field of our planet weakens, the amount of water that is found on land masses (like lakes) increases and this leads to more iron oxide being made in certain rocks. These iron oxides have their own magnetic field which now interacts with the iron in our bodies more readily. This interaction affects a property of the electrons in our atoms, and this can allegedly cause DNA sequences in our own genomes to turn into fully functional viruses that make us sick. Are you still with me? Because in his recent work, Bility has fingered this hypothetical magnetic boogeyman as the culprit behind not just COVID-19, but Zika outbreaks, vaping-related lung illness, Ebola cases in Africa, a polio-like illness called acute flaccid myelitis, and even the opioid epidemic. And according to him, Stonehenge may have been a man-made magnetic field generator designed for public health.
As for the infamous jade-nephrite amulets of the sort worn by people over 5,500 years ago, they might interact with iron oxide’s magnetic fields and thus deflect them away from the body, he told me. I asked him if he was wearing an amulet. “Right now, no. I’ve chosen not to wear it because #1, what I do, I try to reduce my iron intake. Second, I don’t know how to pick the right amulet. I would have to go to someone who truly understands this.”
It’s fair to say that Bility’s big thesis has issues.
Rocking the boat to make sense of anomalies
Dr. Bility, in trying to single-handedly weave together an all-encompassing, multidisciplinary tapestry, makes a number of mistakes. His paper opens with the much-lambasted sentence, “Thoracic organs, namely, the lungs and kidneys....” Our kidneys are not in the thorax; they are located lower, in the abdomen. In fact, “thoracic kidney” is a rare condition. Jade is also so weakly magnetized, it’s not going to help in any way even if the rest of the theory were true. Bility also claims that the germ theory of disease dictates that, since people regularly fly all over the world, outbreaks of respiratory viruses should spread globally almost simultaneously. The fact that they don’t signals to him that there is something faulty with this much beloved theory. This is misguided, as the germ theory of disease makes no such prediction, but this kind of thinking can compel an anomaly hunter to declare himself the leader of a scientific revolution.
In my conversation with Bility, he name-dropped Kuhn. Thomas Kuhn was a philosopher of science best known for proposing that scientific research eventually hits too many snags which creates a crisis that is resolved by changing the dominant model in that discipline, a revolutionary process that became known as a “paradigm shift”: Darwin’s theory of evolution, Einstein’s relativity, big ideas that shake the foundations of a discipline. Dr. Naomi Oreskes, the Henry Charles Lea Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, told me that you don’t get a paradigm shift just because you want it. “You get one when the scientific community deems it necessary, because the existing paradigm has confronted an anomaly that cannot be otherwise resolved despite multiple attempts.” The germ theory of disease has limits, but neither of us are aware of any evidence that it has failed so badly, a crisis is on our doorstep and a new way of thinking must take its place. Science, as it turns out, tends not to move in giant, revolutionary steps but in small increments, like bricks being added to a wall. Kuhn himself would go on to disparage the fans of his who were trying to “start a revolution.”
Moreover, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, but Bility does not see it that way. “There is no such thing as that. What that statement is trying to say is that we should put up high barriers to anyone who wants to challenge the preexisting paradigm.” Hence his go-to defence when his paper gets criticized online: people don’t expect a Black scientist such as himself to revolutionize a field. The fact that he is reviving an ancient folkloric way of thinking (i.e. amulets to ward off disease) also rubs people the wrong way, he claims. “I’m challenging some widely held beliefs in science: the belief that Indigenous people are inferior and that they do not make any rational decision.” To invoke racism unprovoked, as he did during my conversation with him and during an email exchange with Retraction Watch, simply obscures the facts on the ground: there are lots of genuine problems with his paper that have nothing to do with race.
Should this paper even have been published?
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary peer review
I reached out to a number of academics to get their opinion on whether or not unorthodox ideas deserve to be published. Unanimously, the response was yes. “The harm of being too narrow-minded,” Dr. Oreskes told me, “is likely in my mind to be greater than the harm of being overly inclusive.” They also all agreed that if you’re going to make a bold claim that turns a well-established scientific theory on its head, you better bring your A game. “If an idea contradicts commonly held views about the way the world works,” the director of McGill’s Biomedical Ethics Unit, Dr. Jonathan Kimmelman, wrote to me, “standards of evidence should be much more demanding.” Basically, extraordinary claims do require extraordinary evidence, and be prepared to be criticized. “Claiming that a paper is ‘unorthodox’ is not a license to misrepresent science in support of an unproven theory,” said Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta. “Publishing something that gets stuff wrong and misrepresents science can be a waste of resources and can confuse the academic literature. And, of course, it can be used to legitimize pseudoscience.”
Ultimately, a journal’s editor and the couple of scientists acting as peer reviewers are the gatekeepers of this process. “This work was peer reviewed,” Dr. Bility reminded me. “Believe me, it took four months. Some reviewers were very tough. They made the paper better.”
Peer review is a faulty system. We have seen some howlers pass through peer review in the past, in part because reviewers don’t always take the time to go through the paper in detail. Peer review gets squeezed in between filing grant applications, supervising students, sitting on committees, and writing papers. Reviewers may also lack the expertise to identify mistakes. And when a paper reads like a cross-genre novel, featuring deep dives into the Earth’s magnetic field, ancient human cultures, and epidemiology, a multidisciplinary team of reviewers is needed to properly vet that paper. This is why comments from scientists after a paper is published can be so useful, and Bility’s paper has not escaped from this process. Readers of the paper took issue with poor referencing, illogical jumps, and significant confusion over what doctors see in the lungs of many COVID patients. In short, the paper is a headache-inducing mess.
The bottom line is that academics should be free to throw radical ideas at the wall and see what sticks, but these bold assertions cannot simply be accepted in the name of open-mindedness. They need to be backed by extraordinary work, and peer review needs to be beefed up accordingly to prevent bad papers from ending up in the literature. As I’m revising this article before sending it in, I have just learned that Bility’s paper is being retracted. He plans to resubmit it as its sole author and to remove mentions of jade amulets and ancient Chinese medicine.
So if a friend of yours starts to wear a jade amulet to ward off the coronavirus and they tell you it’s backed by science, you’ll know there’s no need to turn green with envy.
- A now-retracted scientific paper tried to argue that magnetic field changes may be causing a number of diseases including COVID-19 and that wearing a jade amulet may offer protection, although there is no good reason to believe any of this
- Scientific articles that make bold claims should be submitted for publication, but they should also be deeply scrutinized and the evidence they present needs to be outstanding