Rocket Science and Quackery

Leave a comment

August 10, 2020 by libroshombre

Reading Ned Rozell’s 2017 Alaska Science article, “How the Cold War Inspired the Poker Flat Rocket Range’s First Launches,” right after perusing Newsweek’s “What Scientific Tests Reveal Abut Dr. Immanuel’s Hydroxychloroquine Claims” article, left me considering the levels and qualities of scientific thinking.  On one hand there was that wild-eyed UAF team of researchers led by Neil Davis, including Larry Sweet, and Eldon Thompson, who by “scrounging materials, including old mining cars … steel beams from an old bridge over the Chatanika River, and a winch Sweet has seen in a Fairbanks backyard,” began constructing the Poker Flat range in mid-summer 1968.  They were launching rockets from it nine months later, but their process was thoughtful, precise, and academically rigorous, and their findings led to enormously valuable understanding of our planet’s atmosphere.

On the other hand, there’s Houston physician Dr. Stella Immanuel, who released a video last week of her speech on the U.S. Supreme Court steps saying, “”Nobody needs to get sick. This virus has a cure – it is called hydroxychloroquine, I have treated over 350 patients and not had one death.”   According to, both Facebook and Twitter, “have taken down the viral video in which she appears, saying it violates their policies about misinformation – but not before it was retweeted by Donald Trump and one of his sons.”  So, millions of tweetees now think hydroxychloroquine’s a sure cure.  In fact, Dr. Anthony Fauci, whose medical credentials and standing are profound, said last week that, “”We know that every single good study – and by good study I mean randomized control study in which the data are firm and believable – has shown that hydroxychloroquine is not effective in the treatment of COVID-19.”

The key word is “randomized.”  Hydroxychloroquine is one of 254 treatments and 172 vaccines being tested for battling covid-19, and studies are valid when a significant number of people are randomly selected for treatment, thus better representing the population as a whole.  Large “randomized clinical trials” have been conducted on hydroxychloroquine by the National Institute of Health in the U.S. and in the U.K. and both found that “while there is no harm, hydroxychloroquine was very unlikely to be beneficial to hospitalized patients with COVID-19.”

Immanuel, whose medical degree is from a school in Nigeria, based her theory on observations rather than controlled tests and said the NIH and U.K. findings are a conspiracy.  The BBC noted “She is also a pastor and the founder of Fire Power Ministries in Houston, a platform she has used to promote other conspiracies about the medical profession … Five years ago, she alleged that alien DNA was being used in medical treatments, and that scientists were cooking up a vaccine to prevent people from being religious.

In “Science By Press Release: When the Story Gets Ahead of the Science,” Dr. Sanjay Gupta, chief medical correspondent, wrote that so many theories and reports are flying about it’s critical to know their sources; is it from a paper published in a respected professional journal, a “pre-print paper” written by researchers “to get feedback from peers before they submit their study to a journal,” or is it a “press release”?  Gary Schwitzer, founder and publisher of, say press releases are intended “to make your institution, your client, your big-name researcher, your product, your drug company and its products, look as good as it can be, hoping that the press release will convince journalists to write about it.”

Scientists, like librarians, can be a mixed bag.  For example, former Librarian of Congress James Billington, a brilliant and persuasive historian, resigned under pressure in 2015 after “presid[ing] over a series of management and technology failures at the library that were documented in more than a dozen reports by government watchdog agencies.”  Dr. Immanuel has probably made sick people better in the course of her career, but I don’t trust her professional judgement.  Even blind hogs sometimes find acorns.

Instead, I’ll rely on our public library to provide solid, verifiable information.  That’s where I met Neil Davis, who died in 2018.  He reached thousands of Alaskans through his “Alaska Science Forum” newspaper columns about the natural wonders and oddities of our state.  Davis founded and wrote the column for many years, and now it’s in Ned Rozell’s capable hands.  As a Geophysical Institute colleague recalled of Davis, “To all of us he was truly a Renaissance Man: someone with the strength and wit to accomplish anything we could dream up.  He built houses, a rocket range, made auroras, and wrote books about it all.  He took us with him on the greatest journey of our lives.”  That’s a eulogy to strive for.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: