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Jun 03, 2023Jun 03, 2023

It's hard not to get frustrated with social media when you're firmly grounded in reality.

Not your preferred reality, where everything that could possibly upset you is hidden from sight, but actual reality, where the full spectrum is out there to please you, challenge your beliefs, and anger you when necessary.

Social media's tendency to amplify the reality-challenged is one reason I usually do a social-media fast on Saturdays to clear my head. That doesn't mean I don't slip every once in a while (such as when I was worried about friends who hadn't yet checked in after the tornado that hit central Arkansas), or spend way too long on a Friday night heading down a research rabbit hole because of something I saw on social media.

Yes, I research. And often just for fun. I'm weird.

This past Friday night, it started with a Quora question in my email: "Why did Joe Biden finally fire Anthony Fauci? Was it the failed vaccines or the Wuhan leak of his lab?"

Oy. Where to start on this one ...

First of all, Fauci, 82, retired at the end of the last year; he wasn't fired. He began his long career at the National Institutes of Health in 1968 as a clinical associate at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) after completing his internship and residency as a medical doctor at Cornell Medical Center. He was appointed chief of the NIAID Laboratory of Immunoregulation in 1980, and four years later became the director of NIAID. As such, he advised every president since Ronald Reagan on public health matters. Over the years, he's led research into HIV/AIDS, Zika and Ebola, as well as developed effective therapies for formerly fatal inflammatory and immune-system diseases.

I'd say he's more than earned his retirement. Plus, the vaccines weren't failed, and the Wuhan lab wasn't "his." And remember, we still don't know everything about the virus' origins, thanks to China's hostility toward sharing information.

In the course of reading responses to the Quora question, I happened upon an answer that began with "Kary Mullis thinks [F]auci is a complete and total douchebag." Aside from the redundancy and the unimaginative insult, this particular response, citing multiple claims of things that didn't happen, read like that of someone who lived in an alternate universe.

Into the rabbit hole I went.

Mullis died in August 2019, before covid-19 hit, so his comments about Fauci had absolutely nothing to do with covid; they were instead about HIV and AIDS. Thousands needlessly died because of people (like South African President Thabo Mbeki) who paid attention to Mullis' claim that poverty, not HIV, was the cause of AIDS.

Social-media users point to Mullis as having invented PCR (hence credible) and saying that PCR tests couldn't be used for medical diagnosis (as they have been with covid). But they were actually quoting John Lauritsen, the author of a 1996 article about HIV and AIDs, and removing the context clarifying how PCR identifies substances, according to a Reuters fact check.

Mullis won the Nobel in 1993 for his PCR work in the mid-1980s (a good argument can be made that at least two other names should have been added to the citation because it was a parallel team that proved his hypothesis), but by that time, he had long since quit the company for which PCR was developed. Coby McDonald of California magazine reported in December 2019 that Mullis quit in 1986, "moved to La Jolla, took up surfing, and largely turned his back on science."

Colleagues had described him as difficult to work with and his work as sloppy (he had little knowledge of molecular biology, which was what the work entailed), and he was constantly causing drama of one sort or another. To top all that off, he had been manufacturing and taking psychedelic drugs since at least his college days at Berkeley (so, good chemist, terrible biologist).

In 1995, he was brought on as an expert witness for the O.J. Simpson defense team, but by that time his eccentricities were well-known. "He'd become a vociferous critic of widely accepted scientific ideas" such as HIV causing AIDS, reported McDonald, and additionally claimed that mainstream scientists were corrupt and spread paranoia to attract funding for their research. When prosecutors signaled that they would cite his contrarian views and his drug use to undermine his credibility, as well as take measures to ensure he wasn't high when he testified, the defense chose not to risk putting him on the stand.

Hey, I didn't even get into his claims of a glowing talking raccoon or the alien abduction that supposedly followed. But yeah, this guy's credibility was pretty much shot, at least since 1985 and the raccoon story.

The lesson here is that credibility of the source and context matter. Facts and the scientific method mean something, and while we might not like something we find out, we're not about to construct an alternate reality to avoid it.

Reality bites, but we have to get back to sharing the same one if we want the American experiment to survive much longer.

Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Email her at [email protected]. Read her blog at

Print Headline: Reality bites

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