ACSH, Paul Thacker, and His 'Thacker of Trolls'

By ACSH Staff — Mar 09, 2021
Usually, our strategy to handle unfair attacks is to ignore them. But occasionally, the assaults are so egregious that they deserve a full-throated rebuttal. This is one of those times.
Credit: Public Domain/Wikipedia

By Josh Bloom, PhD; Alex Berezow, PhD; Chuck Dinerstein, MD, MBA; and Thom Golab

ACSH was founded in 1978 by a group of scientists, including a Nobel Prize winner named Norman Borlaug, who were fed up with the misinformation being spread in the media in regard to important scientific and health topics, particularly nutrition, toxicology, and chemistry. In other words, ACSH was fighting “fake news” long before the term was invented.

Whenever you speak the truth, this automatically creates enemies. While people say that they want the truth, when confronted with something that goes against their own beliefs or self-interest, they often (metaphorically) shoot the messenger. Today, the most widely used weapons are defamation, character assassination, intimidation, and the ruining of careers. We’re told that this is simply part of the job of being a “public figure,” but we all know it shouldn’t be. Nobody should be treated this way.

Usually, our strategy to handle unfair attacks is to ignore them. But occasionally, the assaults are so egregious that they deserve a full-throated rebuttal. This is one of those times.

Smear Merchant Paul Thacker Targets ACSH

Journalist Paul Thacker has turned what could have been a healthy fervor for rooting out conflicts-of-interest in science and medicine into an X-Files-like pursuit of bizarre conspiracy theories. In his latest article (which we refuse to link to), he aims his defamation machine at ACSH, particularly at our Vice President of Scientific Communications. He has long displayed a strange obsession with microbiologist Dr. Alex Berezow.

Like any good propagandist, Thacker mixes a little bit of truth into a sea of lies, innuendo, and fallacious ad hominem and guilt-by-association attacks. There are far too many for us to address each individually, so we will answer the most blatant lies and distortions. For instance, Thacker writes:

“Berezow has defended climate science denier Freeman Dyson”

Freeman Dyson, a true polymath and easily one of the smartest scientists ever to have lived, has been viciously tarred as a “climate science denier” by extremists. The reality is that Dyson accepted man-caused global warming; he just didn’t believe the computer models that predicted doomsday. That doesn’t make him a climate denier.

“attacked New York Times reporter Eric Lipton as a ‘science birther’”

Eric Lipton told a deeply misleading story about Dr. Kevin Folta, an academic researcher in plant biotechnology, and publicly defended a group of anti-vaccine activists. We could issue many different labels for Mr. Lipton. “Science birther” is as good as any.

“denigrated the research that links fracking with cancer”

Fracking itself does not cause cancer. The question is whether some of the chemicals used in the process increase the risk.

A 2015 report (p. ES-23) by the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that it did not find “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” Also, there are about 700 different chemicals used in fracking, so if it really is true that fracking is linked to cancer, then scientists should identify which of the chemicals is responsible and remove those. Performed properly, the available science suggests that fracking can be done safely.

“Berezow again dismissed fracking dangers in 2017 by labeling critics ‘Putin puppets.’”

The Director of National Intelligence reports that RT (the Russian propaganda TV channel) “runs anti-fracking programming, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health” likely because of “potential challenges to Gazprom's profitability.” In other words, RT repeats Russian propaganda in an effort to boost its own natural gas industry at the expense of America’s. Anti-fracking activists are unwittingly doing Putin’s work for him.

“called laws to limit sodas and prevent obesity ‘junk science.’”

That’s because evidence shows that while soda taxes reduce soda consumption, no study has demonstrated that the tax reduces obesity. The data are really clear. At best, a soda tax might lead to a “reduction in weight of 0.5 pounds per household member after roughly three years.”

“Berezow dismissed pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha as ‘something of an ideologue’ after health experts praised her for uncovering the crisis in Flint, Michigan”

Dr. Berezow praised her too. He wrote that the lead level in Flint’s water supply “was dangerous and unacceptable, so Dr. Hanna-Attisha performed a public service.” However, Dr. Berezow criticized her for catastrophizing the event as the “most important... public health disaster of this young century.” Data from the University of Michigan on lead levels in children in Flint show that is simply untrue.

Source: HF Gómez et al., Journal of Pediatrics, 2018. (Original image altered with red arrow and text.)

She told Thacker that our analysis constituted “classic science denial for ulterior motives.” But what exactly would that ulterior motive be? A secret desire to poison children with lead?

“decades after ACSH began hiding its company financing, Mother Jones obtained a treasure trove of the group’s internal documents that showed a reliance on corporate dollars”

Thacker then spends several paragraphs claiming that ACSH’s prior industry funding makes us nothing more than corporate shills. This accusation has been lobbed at ACSH since its founding in 1978, when ACSH purposefully rejected all corporate funding. Yet, we were called corporate shills anyway, so the board at the time decided to accept corporate funding. Today, we no longer solicit corporate funds, though as a non-profit in today’s financially difficult times, we accept corporate funding only if it comes with “no strings attached.” In FY 2020, our total funding from corporations and trade organizations amounted to less than 5% of the budget. Additionally, we have implemented a firewall that separates our scientific analysis from our fundraising activities.

Thacker goes on:

“In 1997, ACSH published ‘Global climate change and human health,’ a report downplaying mainstream science on climate change”

That is simply a lie. The 1997 report made no conclusion one way or the other. Instead, it stated (p. 7), “Regardless of whether human-induced climate change will occur, we need policies for coping with infectious diseases and severe weather impacts of natural origin.” In other words, the report anticipated things like COVID, whether or not climate change was responsible.

Thacker then fabricates another conspiracy theory involving Dezenhall, a PR firm:

"Ties to Dezenhall Resources may explain why Berezow and his ACSH colleague Josh Bloom pushed back in 2017 against policies to restrict opioid prescribing at the industry-friendly opinion page of STAT news, and criticized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines to limit opioid prescriptions in the Wall Street Journal."

No. ACSH hasn’t interacted with Dezenhall in nearly a decade. In reality, Dr. Bloom has spent more than five years exposing shoddy data and outright lies by the CDC that led to its “2016 Opioid Prescribing Advice” document, which has been an unmitigated public health disaster by any measure.

If one can be judged by his bedfellows, it is all too revealing that Thacker finds himself in alignment with Andrew Kolodny, a self-appointed addiction expert who said that chronic pain patients are PR pawns for Big Pharma. Kolodny’s misdirected war on a class of legal and essential medications has created millions of “pain refugees” who are unable to obtain the drugs they need to lead something resembling a normal life.

Thacker then moves on to yet another conspiracy:

“documents made public in a court case show that Monsanto began funding ACSH in 2015 to attack the World Health Organization’s (WHO) cancer agency”

The World Health Organization’s cancer group is called IARC. They have classified bacon, cell phone radiation, and even working night shifts as possibly carcinogenic. We believe their conclusions are faulty and that they make no attempt to quantify the risk, something also noted by Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health. For instance, IARC ridiculously puts bacon and smoking in the same cancer risk category.

A Thacker of Trolls

Paul Thacker is an equal opportunity miscreant. He serially harasses both scientists and even children on social media. Once, his obsession led him to harass a 12-year-old middle school student on Twitter because Thacker didn’t like his pro-science teacher. It’s no wonder that a former colleague called him a “sadistic troll.” Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel, another of his targets, wrote, “Every field has trolls who cherry-pick and mislead in order to discredit people who disagree with them.”

A flock of geese. A murder of crows. And a Thacker of trolls. It’s how nature organizes itself, at least on the Internet.

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