Category: The Rootclaim Challenge

Rootclaim accepts $500,000 challenge on COVID vaccine safety & efficacy

Have mRNA vaccines killed more people than they have saved?

That’s what American entrepreneur Steve Kirsch claims in his list of Covid-19 challenges. Today, Rootclaim has officially accepted his challenge in the amount of $500,000.

After reviewing all challenges we decided to accept challenge no. 6: “The Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines have killed more people than they have saved from dying from COVID“. This addresses two of the most pressing and hotly debated issues of the pandemic: vaccine efficacy and vaccine safety. Advancing public discourse on these issues will likely save lives, and improve preparedness for future pandemics. 

After analyzing the available evidence, we conclude that despite several shortcomings, mRNA vaccines have saved many more lives than they cost.

While we challenge Kirsch on this specific item, we actually agree with a number of his other claims, including some that run counter to mainstream opinion. As Kirsch pointed out in his post, we agree with item 9 (“Lab origin is more likely”) and even offer our own challenge on the subject. Before examining vaccines, we studied the benefit of masks (items 7 and 10 in Kirsch’s list) and were surprised to find it is far from clear they are indeed effective, given the many factors involved in their practical use, such as most people wearing them poorly, virus transmission through the eyes, virus adaptation, and considerations of herd immunity. We are also generally in agreement on the importance of drug repurposing in COVID (related to challenge no. 8).

We have great admiration for Kirsch’s willingness to take a personal risk on his public claims. This is in sharp contrast to the many public figures constantly making overconfident statements on matters of great importance, without taking any risk. This is something we repeatedly encounter in our work. Some examples:

These examples demonstrate the low value of claims made when nothing is at risk: public discourse is awash with baseless, overconfident claims that carry no repercussions for their claimants if they turn out to be false. We believe that adding ‘skin in the game’ can dramatically reduce this problem, and therefore offer our own public debate challenge, which coincidentally happened to be very similar to Kirsch’s. So far no one has applied.

We therefore greatly appreciate Kirsch’s courage and leadership here. We see it as our responsibility to accept a challenge when we think the claim is wrong, and of course, take the loss if we fail.

It should be emphasized that regardless of who wins in this particular case, this is a victory for public discourse. First, by offering a reliable resolution to the important question of vaccine efficacy and safety, and more importantly, by setting a standard for settling controversies: an impartial, judged debate where both sides take a significant risk on the outcome. Hopefully, in the future, people making confident assertions on issues of importance without taking a risk will be ignored as background noise.

Update: As we were applying, we noticed Kirsch has recently added a note to his challenge page, terminating the bets due to no one applying. Since we were already in private discussions with Kirsch on the terms before this update, we would be very surprised to find this would apply to us. 

$100,000 Debate Challenge: Chemical Attack in Syria

Among the many atrocities of the Syrian Civil War, the one that stood out was the use of chemical weapons, and particularly the nerve agent sarin. 

While there is general agreement that there were multiple sarin attacks, most of the Western population has accepted that the attacks were carried out by the Syrian government. This assumption is so entrenched that objections to it are widely considered to be “conspiracy theories”.

Rootclaim, however, examined the evidence using a probabilistic analysis, and the calculated conclusion revealed that it is much more likely that opposition forces were at fault

Most of Rootclaim’s conclusions on other issues later became the consensus opinion, despite some initial pushback. Since this has yet to happen with regard to the sarin attacks in Syria, we decided to issue an open $20,000 challenge to debate anyone on this matter. This challenge has gone unanswered since April 2018, and we are now presenting it here in more detail, and increasing the bounty to $100,000. By doing so we hope to demonstrate the superiority of reasoning methods that integrate honest consideration of multiple hypotheses, unbiased analysis of evidence, and probabilistic inference.

Update: In June 2021, a video of opposition fighters launching rockets was matched to a field within opposition controlled territory, and that field has been shown to be at the intersection of seven rocket trajectories calculated from images of the impact sites. With this additional evidence we now consider the issue closed, demonstrating again the superiority of Rootclaim’s methods. While the $100,000 challenge is still available, we don’t expect anyone to apply. 

The challenge

Win a debate with a Rootclaim team member about the sarin attacks in Syria and take home $100,000. See our Rootclaim Challenge page for additional topics.

The debate

Who carried out the sarin attacks during the Syrian civil war?

  • Rootclaim will argue that opposition forces were responsible.
  • Will anyone defend the commonly accepted hypothesis that the Syrian government was responsible? 

This is the conclusion reached by the US government, Britain, France, and the joint investigation by the United Nations and OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons).

Do you have another hypothesis (e.g. Russia did it, or that some attacks were by the Syrian government while others were by the opposition)? Write to us and we’ll consider it.

The stakes: $100,000 each

This is the first in a series of Rootclaim Challenges, modeled after projects such as James Randi’s million dollar challenge, offered to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal powers in a lab setting (all attempts failed). To deter repeated submissions with the intention of winning by luck, we require the challenger to risk the same amount. Applicants who can’t afford to risk $100,000 are encouraged to pool funds together or even crowdfund it. We are willing to reduce the stakes as low as $10,000 for applicants already involved in public debate on the issue.

The motivation here is not to make money, but to elevate the level of public discourse (read about how challenges like this may help people reevaluate their positions, something that never happens in a heated online exchange).

Format

Both sides will first agree on two judges with strong analytical skills, relevant experience, no previous endorsement of either side, no relevant political biases, and who declare they will examine both hypotheses equally.

Choosing judges will be done publicly on Twitter, so evasion attempts by either side, such as offering biased judges, are exposed. As an example of our honest approach to this process, in a past discussion, when Nassim Taleb offered Glenn Greenwald as a judge, we agreed to bend the rules and accept him, even though he previously said there is “overwhelming” evidence the government is responsible (contrary to Rootclaim’s conclusion) – because we think he is capable of changing his mind when presented with evidence.

Each side will have 8 hours in total to present its case, including time to respond to the other side’s claims, as part of a two-day event.

The debate will be based on all currently available evidence. The goal here is not to trip up or trap the opponent, but to determine which hypothesis is better supported by the evidence. If you have new evidence, or evidence we overlooked, it should first be shared, so we can update the analysis, and if it doesn’t significantly change the conclusion, the challenge can be accepted. We are not claiming to have better evidence, but rather aim to demonstrate the superiority of probabilistic reasoning over human reasoning, when evaluating the same evidence.

Each judge has to declare which of the two hypotheses is more likely. If both agree, the prize pool, minus the debate expenses, is paid to the winner. Otherwise, it is split.

We are flexible – feel free to contact us with offers.

Who declined so far?

The following people have been sent a tweet offering to participate in the challenge but declined or failed to respond. All of them have publicly expressed very high confidence that the Syrian government is responsible.

  1. Eliot Higgins – Founder of Bellingcat.
  2. Brian Whitaker – Journalist and former Middle East editor of The Guardian.
  3. Chris York – Senior editor of Huffington Post UK.
  4. Josie Ensor – Middle East correspondent for The Telegraph.
  5. Scott Lucas – Editor of EA WorldView and Professor at University of Birmingham.
  6. Richard Hall – Middle East correspondent for The Independent.
  7. Julie Leranz – Senior adviser at The Israel Project and a director at The Human Security Centre.
  8. Kristyan Benedict – Amnesty International UK Campaigns Manager.
  9. Dan Kaszeta – Security and CBRN specialist and writer for Bellingcat.
  10. Tobias Schneider – Research fellow at Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi).
  11. Gregory Koblentz – Director of Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University.
  12. Numerous other individuals who were very active on social media discussing this issue.

Have you notified anyone of the challenge and they declined it? Let us know and we’ll add them to the list.

Treating Covid-19 with Vitamin D $100,000 Challenge

A study from October 2020, the first randomized controlled trial of its kind, showed that high doses of vitamin D (in the form of calcifediol) reduce the severity of Covid-19 in hospitalized patients. The researchers reported a 30-fold(!) reduction in intensive care admissions of Covid-19 patients. At Rootclaim, we analyzed these findings and concluded that even under conservative assumptions accounting for limitations in the study, the effect is still significant and likely around 5-fold. We further demonstrated that since the risks of treatment are low, this treatment protocol should be immediately implemented. Since we published our analysis, additional studies have supported this conclusion.

See Rootclaim’s complete analysis

Many health professionals, government officials, and other decision makers worldwide have seen the studies, but they have yet to update treatment guidelines. This delay may be due to the following:

  • Not many have the background in statistics and probability required to assess the data, and distinguish it from the dozens of false claims about COVID treatments.
  • They’re affected by omission bias – they default to the “safe” alternative of inaction, waiting for more data, rather than choosing action. It’s easier to later defend inaction than face criticism for acting too soon.
  • Their incentives are completely misaligned with the public. The damage to the public from using vitamin D when it isn’t effective is negligible, but the damage caused by inaction in the case that vitamin D is effective is enormous. To the decision maker in a personal capacity, the damage is similar in either case – one wrong decision on their record.
  • When it comes to low-risk, low-cost treatments, decision-makers hedging their bets on inaction leads to avoidable deaths. 

In this particular case the reasons to act now are clear:

  • Similar treatments have been performed for decades, and the risks are known to be low, especially in this setting, when patients can be monitored at the hospital.
  • The benefits of the treatment, on the other hand, are potentially enormous, effectively reducing Covid-19 severity to that of the seasonal flu.

While caution is often the correct path when dealing with public health, this is a case where decisions should be made swiftly, using the best available models. At Rootclaim, we develop such models so when our analysis exposed the implications of the new findings, we decided to promote the adoption of the proposed treatment. We hope that this unique challenge will allow the information to reach more decision makers, and save the millions of lives that will likely be lost while waiting for further studies.

The Challenge

Rootclaim is willing to bet $100,000 that vitamin D is effective in reducing the severity of Covid-19.

This is the second in a series of Rootclaim Challenges and is intended to show that the reluctance to implement a vitamin D protocol today is irrational. A decision maker who is not pushing to adopt the proposed protocol is effectively claiming that the probability that this protocol is better than existing treatments is low. But that also implies that taking the bet would be very profitable. Therefore, any professional not accepting this challenge is implicitly admitting that their decision not to promote the treatment is wrong.

UPDATE (Nov 2022): Since this challenge was published, in the early stages of the pandemic, multiple studies have been done on the subject, with the overwhelming majority finding vitamin D effective.
Over time, the virus has significantly changed its methods, and the population has changed due to vaccines and immunity. Therefore the analysis of vitamin D’s efficacy on the original virus and population is no longer relevant today and should be updated.

Since the pandemic is no longer a major risk, this update is not a priority for Rootclaim. Nevertheless, if you wish to debate the original analysis, please contact us to set the exact criteria.

Procedure

  • The challenger needs to show that they can commit $100,000. We are open to discussing lower or higher amounts, and the funds can be pooled from multiple sources.
  • Both sides will agree on an arbitrator who will review the evidence. 
  • The challenger needs to declare that they do not have access to any relevant non-public information. This is to protect from abuse in case of unpublished research (there is still a small chance that further research will discover the treatment is ineffective).
  • For the same reason, we may update these terms or withdraw the offer, as new information emerges. Of course, once a bet is made it is final and cannot be withdrawn.

If you’re not willing to risk your own money betting against vitamin D, why are you willing to risk someone else’s life?

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