The crazy covid/geomagneticism/serpentinization paper is finally retracted

Remember that crazy paper by Bility et al. that I highlighted on October 30? He and his coauthors proposed that the symptoms of COVID weren’t really caused by the virus, but by some kind of interaction between the Earth’s magnetic field and iron oxides in the body? Their “evidence” was simply that a colony of rats that got sick in their lab showed some changes in their lungs that looked like “silicate/glasslike structures in the lungs and kidneys”. (The connection of the virus itself to these anomalies is unclear.)

The last straw, besides the lack of any experimental evidence beyond observation of changes in sick rats that were, to the authors, suggestive, was the proposal that further study might involve putting jade amulets on rats and seeing if they had preventive effects.

The scientific community reacted with predictable skepticism, and, indeed, outrage. Not all hypotheses are worthy of being entertained, and this was one of them. Elsevier, the publisher of the journal, at first dug in its heels, refusing to retract the paper from Science of the Total Environment. But now, according to New Scientist, the pushback has gotten so strong, and the scientific objections so numerous, that they’ve finally retracted the paper. Click on the first screenshot below, which also has a link to the second one, where the paper has disappeared to be replaced by a retraction notice:

Here are a few of the scientific objections:

“A paper like this gets out there, it’s published in some supposedly peer-reviewed journal—it makes the rest of the field look stupid,” says Joe Kirschvink, a Caltech geobiologist whose research areas include sensing of magnetic fields by humans and other animals. “And that’s a harmful thing.”

Kirschvink says the paper contains multiple basic errors. For example, while very strong magnetic fields can indeed influence chemical reactions, the long-wavelength anomalies that are central to the study’s thesis are “three or four orders of magnitude off” from what would be required for such effects, he says. “This results section is a salad of different ideas taken out of context.”

The study also suggests, without experimental evidence, that jade amulets might protect wearers by countering the effects of the long-wavelength anomalies, an idea Bility says he based on records of practices by ancient people in China and elsewhere during a period when geomagnetic conditions were similar to what they are now. Kirschvink says the study’s description of jade’s magnetic properties is incorrect, and that in jade, “the paramagnetic minerals are so weakly magnetized, they’re not going to do anything in these fields.”

Kirschvink says he’s heard from fellow geomagnetics researchers who “are upset that their data is being used in a nonsensical way” in the paper.

The study has also attracted derision on Twitter and PubPeer. Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine extracellular vesicle researcher Kenneth Witwer was among those who criticized the paper on PubPeer, writing in part, “Almost all symptoms were restricted to Room Number 1 of two adjacent rooms in Pittsburgh, suggesting that some agent such as an undetected pathogen was responsible for symptoms. Effects of the earth’s magnetic field would presumably be similar in side-by-side rooms at the same facility.”

The retraction notice:

 

But this isn’t over yet. Bility, who can’t seem to let go of this hypothesis, plans to resubmit a revised paper:

Bility says that in light of the blowback his work has received, he regrets including his coauthors on the paper, and he takes full responsibility for its ideas. His intention, he says, was not to undermine public health officials, but to propose a hypothesis for further discussion and investigation, and he plans to resubmit the paper as a sole author and without mentions of jade amulets or traditional Chinese medicine.

Both Witwer and Kirschvink say the paper’s publication represents a failure of peer review. According to Damià Barceló, the editor at Science of the Total Environment who handled the submission, it had two reviewers, a hydrogeologist and an epidemiologist-toxicologist. In an email to The Scientist yesterday, he wrote that he expects the retraction will take hours or days to appear in Elsevier’s system, and that the resubmitted paper will need to be sent for peer review again before a final decision is made about its acceptance.

Anybody betting that a. there will be a revised paper? Or b. that if there is one, it’ll be accepted? My bet is that Bility will never live this down: he’ll always be the “jade amulets on rats” guy, and shame on the reviewers and editor for publishing this travesty in the first place. It had absolutely no earmarks of serious science.

Finally, although initially people said this paper was just a quirk in the career of a serious scientist, a glance at Bility’s Academia.edu list of publications and manuscripts shows some other dubious work, including this one:

There are also some physics-like papers, including one proposing a “theory of everything.”

h/t: Ginger K

18 thoughts on “The crazy covid/geomagneticism/serpentinization paper is finally retracted

  1. Not all hypotheses are worthy of being entertained, and this was one of them.

    Oh, IMO science is big enough to include scientists entertaining and even testing crazy ideas. However a good rule of thumb might be: the crazier the idea, the more you should discuss it informally with your colleagues and test it before you publish on it.

    [Bility’s] intention, he says, was not to undermine public health officials, but to propose a hypothesis for further discussion and investigation

    Well, he got himself some discussion, that’s for sure. Let’s see if he pays attention to what his peers have to say. I’m skeptical v.2 will really take their criticisms into account, but hey, who knows. If (illustrative example) it spurs him to find the local lab reasons for the rat’s condition, that might be of some community interest.

  2. The side benefit of this paper was learning about some pretty interesting individual ideas — I think “magnetic catalysis” was one I was blown away by.

    I wonder if it takes particular such concepts and ideas that, in some way, sound cool on their own, for a pseudoscientific paper to be “composed” from them. I mean at some level, there was work going on — though of desperation. Desperation about what, though, is unclear.

    1. Interesting in principle yes, but the area hasn’t been very productive. An easy [too easy?] guess is that it doesn’t happen in biology. E.g. bacteria use magnetite grains for sensing magnetic fields, not catalysis.

  3. Bility needs to conduct a randomised controlled trial in which some rats wear jade amulets when exposed to Covid-19. If he has significant findings to report they might be worth peer review.

  4. For the randomized, double-blind test of the efficacy of jade amulets on rats, what kind of amulets would be used as placebo?
    Jadeite? Saponite? Or just plastic beads painted green?

    Before these rigorous assays are reported,
    we may hope that Dr. Bility finds a position as Science Advisor to President-Eject Trump.

  5. I don’t see how Billity construes he hasn’t proposed “a hypothesis for further discussion and investigation” and that it hasn’t been rejected during that process.

    Kirschvink says the paper contains multiple basic errors. For example, while very strong magnetic fields can indeed influence chemical reactions, the long-wavelength anomalies that are central to the study’s thesis are “three or four orders of magnitude off” from what would be required for such effects, he says. “This results section is a salad of different ideas taken out of context.”

    I note (with a grin, naturally) that my comment at the time seems to be along those lines:

    … I have not seen much activity on spin chemistry – the area is “dilute” [ https://www3.nd.edu/~pkamat/wikirad/pdf/spinchem.pdf ].

    Likely because the effects are below the thermal effects (~ 10^-4 kJ/mole in an NMR field vs 2.5 kJ/mole) and they have to be amplified through spin sensitive pathways [ibid].

    The U.E. Steiner and T. Ulrich. Magnetic Field Effects in Chemical Kinetics and Related Phenomena, Chem. Rev. 1989, 89, p, 51-147 reference is claiming to see 0.15 % yield differences in NMR fields, or 7 T. The Earth magnetic field is ~ 50 uT.

    Now I need a biochemist to tell me if low yield differences has biological significance. But I’m guessing not from what I can read so far.

  6. HA!
    I’ve got to hand it to you, professor: you don’t mind stripping off your shirt, saying “Hold my beer” and getting down and dirty in the mud wrestling with these morons.

    So we don’t have to!

    It is to your credit you’ll tangle with with the worst of them: creationists, pan-whatsit-again (I don’t follow that one closely), now this rat jade amulet guy etc. and show them up for the intellectual grifters they are.

    Keep up the good work,

    D.A., NYC
    https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2020/06/10/photos-of-readers-93/

  7. “Bility says that in light of the blowback his work has received, he regrets including his coauthors on the paper, and he takes full responsibility for its ideas.”

    Some questions:

    1) Did he include the coauthors without asking permission?

    2) If he got permission, did the coauthors read the article before it was submitted?

    3) How common it is to “reward” a colleague by expanding his/her CV by giving “credit” without real or with minimum contribution?

    4) A single author in a submitted paper is more likely to be written off as an lonely eccentric. But isn’t the inclusion of non-participating extra names for the sake of credibility a form of fraud?

    1. 3) From my very limited experience, pretty common. For instance, a lot of professors will put their names on the papers of their students without having participated in any of the students’ work. I believe Jerry has even complained about this practice in past posts, but I could be wrong about that and will apologize to PCC if I’m putting incorrect words in his mouth.

      However when it comes to the folks who helped you do the research, I personally would be somewhat liberal with authorship. If someone helped me do my experiment, and they want to be on the list, they’re on it. I think most academics interpret a long author list correctly as the first and last couple names being key, with the others being interpreted as contributors. Which is just fine; it’s important to acknowledge the folks who helped you do the work, even if their contribution was a few hours out of hundreds.

      I would never put someone’s name on my paper without getting their explicit consent though. Everyone gets notified the paper is going out, everyone gets a chance to say ‘take my name off it’ or ‘I disagree with this bit, change it’ (with the lead author, of course, having the authority to say ‘no’). If Bility is removing names now, I wonder, like you, whether the co-authors even knew they were on it.

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