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Physicist David Robert Grimes Finds Conspiracies Everywhere
Eschewing the hard work of reporting, while lacking legitimate scientific expertise, Grimes offers up strong personal opinions.
Last week, the BBC and other media outlets reported that scientists had discovered the cause of rare side effects triggered by the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. A key vaccine component appears to attract a blood protein, which starts a chain reaction in the immune system that, in very rare occasions, can cause dangerous clots.
The BBC wrote:
These clots, known as vaccine-induced immune thrombotic thrombocytopenia, have been linked to 73 deaths out of nearly 50 million doses of AstraZeneca given in the UK.
"You could never have predicted it would have happened and the chances are vanishingly small, so we need to remember the bigger picture of the number of lives this vaccine has saved," said Prof Alan Parker of Cardiff University.
AstraZeneca said the vaccine is thought to have saved more than a million lives around the world and prevented 50 million cases of Covid.
A University of Oxford spokesperson said: "We continue to follow with interest any new developments and investigation into potential causes for these very rare side effects associated with the vaccine, whilst being reassured by real-world effectiveness data that the vaccine remains a highly effective tool for combating this pandemic."
The discovery of the rare side effects was an important step in understanding how the vaccines affected the human body—and something that researchers said could make them safer in the future.
But this might not have happened had researchers short-circuited the scientific process and listened to physicist David Robert Grimes. When reports first surfaced about these problems, Grimes rushed to dismiss the side effects in an opinion piece for the Irish Times
So is the vaccine safe? To answer that, we can look at the data from trials conducted on the vaccine before it was approved by the European Medicines Agency and other regulators. They showed an excellent safety profile and no evidence of induced blood clotting. And despite the current concerns, emerging data does not conclusively suggest any increase in clotting risk either.
According to his LinkedIn account, Grimes is an assistant professor at Dublin City University and a “freelance consultant on scientific and medical matters for media outlets, private companies, and charitable organisations.” Unfortunately, he has no training in epidemiology, so it’s not surprising that he missed blood clotting side effects in one of his many opinion pieces in which he studiously avoids interviewing subject matter authorities.
Despite this lack of subject expertise, physicist Grimes took to social media to question if the clotting side effects existed and to berate journalists who were required to interview actual experts to report on the matter.
Because what Grimes does excel at is wading into controversial scientific topics, for which he has little experience or publication record, and “debunking” contrary evidence and real experts as “conspiracy theorists.” In the last few years, several of these “debunker” types have staked claims of scientific expertise on the internet, so let’s take a look at David Grimes.
David Grimes wants you to shut up about pesticides and electromagnetic radiation
I first reported on Grimes last year in a short feature for De Telegraaf, one of the leading papers in Holland. In the story, I worked with journalist Jannes Van Roermund to report on some of the Internet’s loudest voices who had dismissed both the potential dangers of pesticides and electromagnetic radiation.
My co-author had collected a list of these people including David Grimes, Alex Berezow of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), and Hank Campbell, the former president of the ACSH. Founded in the late 1970s, the ACSH is one of the oldest corporate front groups in America. When the DisInformation Chronicle exposed the ACSH for its long history of ties to corporate interests and Alex Berezow’s mishandling of scientific information, the Council on Strategic Risks cut ties with him.
Great company Grimes keeps, no?
The experts whom we interviewed said the evidence was unclear if 5G posed a serious health risk. What was needed, they agreed, was more research and not flippant dismissal by people like Grimes who have no training and rush to write opinion pieces in popular media outlets.
Indeed, there is a long history of people blundering into areas with little or no training who then attempt to claim authority by denigrating experts who actually publish research. As the story in De Telegraph noted:
In the past, physicians who denounced the effects of smoking, or whistleblowers who published reports on the dangers of pesticides, have been attacked. Now dubious scientists are targeting researchers warning of the hazard of 5G high-speed Internet connection, say well-regarded academic experts.
"Although they do not enjoy any status in academia, they are able to influence the general public," says Professor Ton Hol, chairman of the Committee on Scientific Integrity of the universities in Utrecht and Tilburg.
5G critic Prof. Joel Moskowitz of the University of California-Berkeley can confirm. When the professor of public health wrote that the telecom industry, with its paid experts, always dismisses critical scientists as "fear mongers" in Scientific American, he immediately got a response. "Don't fall victim to scare mongering," researcher David Robert Grimes said in the same magazine. According to Grimes, Prof. Moskowitz lacks scientific evidence, and brain tumors have not increased significantly since people started using mobile phones.
David Grimes, who experts point out has never published cell phone radiation research, has ties with Sense About Science, an organization accused by The Intercept and The Guardian of expressing industry favorable views. However, Sense About Science says it does not promote specific technology: "We mainly want to stimulate critical thinking."
David Grimes, who worked previously at Oxford University, says that he has done a lot of research on cancer and therefore has a right to speak. He praises Sense About Science. "But I don't get paid by them."
Grimes isn't the only publicist who downplays the potential danger of 5G, and who previously defended pesticides. Alex Berezow, a director of the American Council of Science and Health (ACSH), also attacks Prof. Moskowitz, calling him "a conspiracy thinker and charlatan," who wears a tin foil hat. Bottom line: criticism of 5G is the work of lunatics.
But according to documents released in 2012 by a research group and the magazine Mother Jones, ACSH has been paid by a slew of multinationals.
Grimes posing as expert on clinical trials
I got another front-row seat to Grimes in action while researching and writing a story for The BMJ about a whistleblower named Brook Jackson who had worked on the clinical trial for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.
Jackson sent the BMJ dozens of internal documents, emails and secret recordings from Ventavia, a contractor working on Pfizer’s clinical trial. After I spent weeks reviewing this material and confirming it with other Ventavia employees, The BMJ peer reviewed the investigation and then published it.
In typical Grimes fashion, he sought to splash cold water on the evidence with a highly inflammatory letter that The BMJ rejected. One would think that—without reviewing any of the evidence, lacking experience in clinical trials, and having little knowledge of pharmaceutical regulations—Grimes would perceive editors rejecting his letter as proof he needed to slow down and think a little more carefully about what he was writing. But, no.
Instead, Grimes the physicist took to social media to complain to the debunking crowd that he was being ignored. In the process, he dismissed the internal documents provided to The BMJ as evidence of—you guessed it—“conspiracy theory.”
Can someone help this guy out? Maybe give him a series of belittling labels to use besides “conspiracy theorist” so that his audience doesn’t get bored? Maybe explain to Grimes that his physics degree didn’t prepare him to understand the regulation of biomedical clinical trials, and that he should give journalism a try and call up some real experts before expressing yet another strong opinion? Or that he should do some basic work and force himself to review documents like editors at The BMJ and I had to do?
Grimes on the pandemic’s origin: more “conspiracies” of course
Starting in early 2021, government officials in the Biden administration began demanding that China be more forthright in how the pandemic started. “To better understand this pandemic and prepare for the next one, China must make available its data from the earliest days of the outbreak,” said White House National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan in a February statement. Following this, several dozen scientists signed the first of many declarations calling for an independent investigation into the pandemic’s origin.
And in a Wall Street Journal investigation, reporters uncovered a classified report by a national laboratory had conducted into the pandemic’s origins that found a lab leak in Wuhan, China, plausible and worthy of further investigation:
People familiar with the study said that it was prepared by Lawrence Livermore’s “Z Division,” which is its intelligence arm. Lawrence Livermore has considerable expertise on biological issues. Its assessment drew on genomic analysis of the SARS-COV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19, they said.
True to character, Grimes rushed into the controversy, kicking aside experts in journalism, national intelligence and scientific research, to opine in the Guardian that it was all just another conspiracy.
In the process, he got some facts wrong.
In one example, Grimes wrote that Wuhan “has only a single virology lab” when it actually has two. “Wuhan has two labs where we know bats and humans interacted,” the Wall Street Journal reported in April. “One is the Institute of Virology, eight miles from the wet market; the other is the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, barely 300 yards from the market.”
In another example, Grimes asserted, “The failings of the lab-leak idea are many because it requires a host of unlikely caveats to explain the observed data.” But this October, US intelligence agencies reported that they are divided on whether the pandemic started naturally or from a lab leak. “All agencies assess that two hypotheses are plausible: natural exposure to an infected animal and a laboratory-associated incident.”
But those are just facts, and the assessments of intelligence agencies, matters that do not concern physicist Grimes when he’s trying to have an opinion. “Lab-leak narratives risk emboldening conspiracy theorists,” he wrote.
Oddly enough, some of the people Grimes dismisses as “conspiracy theorists” are virologists. Shortly after the pandemic began, Professor James Le Duc, who directs the Galveston National Laboratory, emailed colleagues in Wuhan that they needed to conduct a thorough investigation of the pandemic’s outbreak.
“I want to suggest that you conduct a thorough review of the laboratory activities associated with research on coronaviruses so that you are fully prepared to answer questions dealing with the origin of the virus,” Le Duc emailed a colleague at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
When Le Duc heard nothing back, he passed his concerns along to fellow virologist, David Franz, former commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases
Le Duc later emailed Phillip Russell, former president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, “I agree that it is certainly possible that a lab accident was the source of the epidemic and I also agree that we can't trust the Chinese government.”
I think Le Duc would also agree that is certainly possible we shouldn’t trust David Grimes and other debunkers who flood the internet with opinion. Instead, we need serious journalism and discussion by experts about how the pandemic started.
As Alison Young, an investigative reporter and journalism professor with decades of practice in reporting on lab accidents, bemoaned in an essay in USA Today, “Science, like journalism, is supposed to be about facts and about getting to the truth. But those who dare seek answers to reasonable questions about lab accidents and Wuhan are accused of peddling conspiracies.”
On today's Internet, more than ever, opinions are useless—reporting and real expertise are invaluable.