One side effect of the coronavirus has been an explosion of lower-quality publications in the scientific literature. This has come in several forms, some more excusable than others. In the former category are the papers that were rushed out earlier this year, observational studies that sometimes investigated possible therapies as well. These were often done under great pressure of time and resources, so it’s understandable that they had many possible confounding variables and were also statistically underpowered. These were from the “some data beats no data” era of coronavirus clinical reports, and these papers have been superseded by larger, more well-controlled ones (as their authors surely fully expected). Some of those early observations have held up, and some of them haven’t.
The less excusable stuff has some subtypes of its own. There are the people who have thrown a colorful coronavirus tarp across their existing work to increase its chances of publication and/or funding, for one. This is an old and not particularly honorable scientific tradition, but no one’s surprised by it (and I hope that no one’s impressed, either). Beyond that, unfortunately, are people publishing stuff that would probably never appear at all if it didn’t have the currently fashionable lipstick and rouge applied to it.
You can find many examples of this at literature watchdog sites such as Retraction Watch and For Better Science. For example, here’s a paper on the mental health effect of the pandemic that’s so useful that the authors published it three times in nearly identical form. And there’s been a flood of deeply unimpressive work on Vitamin D, which will make it even harder to figure out if there’s anything worthwhile in the idea to start with. And Retraction Watch has been keeping a list of Covid-19-related retractions and expressions of concern, which will surely grow ever longer. Of course, there are plenty of papers out there (in this field and others) that haven’t been retracted but sure look as if they should be.For example, this thing, which just recently appeared in Science of the Total Environment, an Elsevier journal that I’d never heard of. That’s no particular distinction – Elsevier has a lot of journals that no one has ever heard of, and quite a few that people wish that they never had heard of, either. The title of the paper really says it all: “Can Traditional Chinese Medicine provide insights into controlling the COVID-19 pandemic: Serpentinization-induced lithospheric long-wavelength magnetic anomalies in Proterozoic bedrocks in a weakened geomagnetic field mediate the aberrant transformation of biogenic molecules in COVID-19 via magnetic catalysis“
That title is quite a ride. You have the unpromising TCM beginning, but then there’s a completely unexpected slide into geology, with a vertigo-inducing snapback at the end into biology via “magnetic catalysis”. Reading the paper itself does not resolve these feelings. It’s full of statements like “The discovery of the chiral-induced spin selectivity effect suggests that a resonant external magnetic field could alter the spin state of electrons in biogenic molecules and result in the magnetic catalysis of aberrant molecules and disease“, in which the verb “suggests” is doing an Olympic powerlift, and the weird and alarming “neither the SARS-CoV-2 infection nor the inflammatory reaction per se is the principal mediator of severe disease and mortality“. It’s the “serpentinization-induced resonant long-wavelength magnetic anomalies” that “induce the magnetic catalysis of iron oxides-silicate-like minerals (i.e., iron oxides, hyaline) from biogenic molecules and SARS-CoV-2 from endogenous viral elements in the genome“, you see. I realize that that last part might be hard to parse (I think they believe that viral particles are being produced endogenously?), but perhaps my house is built over the wrong kind of rock deposits or something. At any rate, one conclusion of the paper is that Nephrite-Jade amulets are appropriate personal protective measures against the pandemic, a recommendation is completely in line with best practices from the Neolithic Hemudu-Majiabang culture in China, and who should know better, I ask you.
I think this is a load of tripe, personally. Old, smelly, unsaleable tripe, the sort that George Orwell’s landlady was unsuccessfully trying to unload onto customers in The Road to Wigan Pier. I find the scientific rationales unconvincing and hand-waving, the attempt to dethrone the germ theory of disease quixotic at best, and the recommendation to wear jade amulets to protect from disease to be flat-out bizarre. Retraction Watch has some e-mail correspondence with the editors of the journal and the authors of the paper itself, and those don’t make me any happier, either.
Extraordinary claims, after all, need extraordinary evidence, and this paper just doesn’t bring anything close to what would be needed for its conclusions. For its premises. It features a lot of wild leaps between unrelated phenomena, while all the while claiming that all of these steps are perfectly reasonable and well-precedented. If you don’t know anything about biology, about geology, or about physics it probably sounds impressive. But its peer review and publication do no credit to anyone involved – not the editors, nor the journal, nor Elsevier, nor the authors, and definitely not the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, where it originated.