Skip to main content.

Blogging and Pseudoscience in "Contagion": Orac's View

Blogging and Pseudoscience in "Contagion": Orac's View

Picture of Barbara Feder Ostrov

Science and medicine blogger Orac (whose real identity is one of the worst-kept secrets in the health blogosphere) has graciously agreed to this repost of his provocative ScienceBlogs post on the role of alternative medicine blogging and pseudoscience in the pandemic movie "Contagion." Share your thoughts in the comments at the end of this post.  

Unfortunately, I don't get to see very many movies these days. My wife and I both lead very busy lives, and with periodic spasms of grant writing, plus several new administrative responsibilities, it's just hard. Last weekend, however, a movie that I'd rather like to see came out. Unfortunately, I haven't seen it yet; so I can't give you a definitive review, but the movie caught my interest because it shows at least one thing that I don't recall ever having seen in a movie before. The movie is Contagion.

It's not so much the storyline that interests me. After all, how many movies about horrific epidemics have there been since The Andromeda Strain? These sorts of movies all have a sameness about them that makes it really hard for any of them to distinguish themselves from the pack, and it's not uncommon for the science portrayed to be rather dubious.

Contagion looks as though it could well be different for three reasons. First, the portrayal of the science sounds as though it might be better than average for a movie of this sort. Second, the cast is excellent, and the story appears to be compelling. Third, and most unusual of all, there is a character in the movie played by Jude Law that is not the sort of character I've seen in a movie before:

There are a few obvious villains, notably a San Francisco blogger (Jude Law, snaggletoothed and embracing the designated creep role) with the unfortunate name of Alan Krumwiede, as in crumb-weedy. (Mr. Soderbergh also took aim at bloggers in "The Girlfriend Experience.") A self-proclaimed outsider -- "print media is dying," he yells at a skeptical (and pregnant) newspaper editor -- Krumwiede latches onto the pandemic early and before long is profiting from it on his blog (Truth Serum Now), where he pushes a holistic cure, forsythia, a yellow flowering plant used in traditional Chinese medicine. Mr. Soderbergh may like to play outside the cinematic mainstream now and then (as in "Bubble"), but there's no place for alternatives like blogging and complementary medicine in "Contagion," where the stakes are too catastrophically high.

Against the likes of Krumwiede are the heroes:

Except that they -- like the other good doctors, including Erin, seen wrangling one regional official who testily asks who's paying for the triage services provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other big-government groups -- are terra-firma rationalists. They're fighting a disease along with natural fear and unnatural fear mongers like Krumwiede, who, from his bloggy pulpit, dismisses science in the name of independence even as he sells out his readers.

I've often wondered how long it would take Hollywood to take notice of the dark underbelly of Internet health, namely the alt-med blogger. From my perch here on ScienceBlogs, having been a medical/skeptical blogger for nearly seven years now, it's easy for me to assume that everyone's come into contact with characters like Krumwiede online. You and I take for granted that such characters exist. We also know that they have a lot of influence, far more influence than they should. Indeed, one of the reasons I started blogging was because I realized that my previous efforts on that vast wasteland known as Usenet were seen by few people and heeded by even fewer. The other reason was that I started becoming aware of blogs supporting quackery, blogs that were widely read, and I wanted to do something to counter them, given that relatively few bloggers were doing so back then. Even though the number of bloggers countering such pseudoscience has grown remarkably since I first started, it's still a relatively small number of dedicated quackbusters compared to the much larger medical blogosphere and even compared to the skeptical blogosphere.

From what I've been able to gather of Krumwiede's character without actually having seen the movie yet, Law's portrayal of him hits all the high--or should I say low--notes. In the movie, Krumwiede claims that there is an all natural cure for the plague and that the government is covering it up. (It's a homeopathic medication based on the plant described above.) He's anti-vaccine to the core. He's an all-around conspiracy nut. He's also wildly popular in alt-med circles.

Gee, he sounds and awful lot like Mike Adams of In fact, I wonder whether the Krumwiede character is based on Mike Adams. Or maybe Joe Mercola. Or maybe he's an amalgam of Mike Adams, Joe Mercola, and the Age of Autism bloggers. Who knows? Until I see the movie, I don't, but maybe you do. Certainly Jude Law dove deep into the anti-vaccine blogosphere to research his part:

"A lot of the reason I wanted to be a part of this project was because the script was so strong, and obviously a strong script and a brilliant director like Steven, you feel, as an actor, confident that you're almost halfway there," says Law, who dove deep into the blogosphere to research his role.

"I don't want to list anyone in particular," he says, asked to cite a couple of influential bloggers. "I'd rather people see it and draw on their own imagination, but yeah, I certainly looked at an awful lot of blogs, and bloggers who have been interviewed and who have made a bit of a name for themselves, who have become personalities. ... I drew on a few and tried to create someone that seemed to fit that particular persona.

I vote Mike Adams. While anti-vaccine blogs like Age of Autism appear to be assiduously avoiding (for the most part) commenting on the movie, two months ago one of Mike Adams' surrogates on his blog, Ethan Huff, preemptively posted hilarious article that, given how un-self-aware writers tend to be, inadvertently proves the point of the movie in creating the character of Alan Krumwiede. The article's title? Hollywood begins mass brainwashing campaign to get people ready for the next bioengineered virus release. I kid you not. Get a load of this:

The entertainment industry is no stranger to government propaganda campaigns, and the latest Hollywood flicks are no exception. A quick look at the trailer for the upcoming release of the movie Contagion ( reveals what appears to be a massive brainwashing campaign designed to prepare the American psyche for the next intentional release of a bioengineered virus -- and it also conveniently and subtly programs viewers into accepting the idea that vaccines might be the solution to a major, devastating disease outbreak.

You really have to read the entire article to believe just how loony it is. Huff claims that the themes of major movie releases over the past several decades are predictive of what ends up taking place not too long afterwards, thus demonstrating "that Hollywood is deeply connected to the agendas of those that are now in control of various world governments, including the US government." He further argues that these movies are "psychological manipulation" designed to dull our minds, turning us into sheeple conditioned for upcoming disastrous events. And why would governments want to prepare us for disastrous events that they themselves will inflict upon us? It's never really explained. As examples, he cites a scene from the 1998 movie Armaggedon in which a taxi driver tells passengers that the damage to New York City from asteroid hits could be due to a terrorist bomb and a later scene in which the World Trade Center towers are shown as having sustained serious damage from asteroid hits. Huff even claims that the countdown clock in the movie stuck at the "9:11" position is a preconditioning effort for the actual event that would happen three years after the movie was released. I'm amazed that Huff didn't claim that the very invention of the "911" emergency number in the U.S. back in the 1960s happened because AT&T and Ma Bell knew that there would be a massive terrorist attack on the U.S. on 9/11 forty years later.

Huff's "restraint" about "911" aside, I've seen some rather astounding examples of conspiracy mongering before, but this one takes the cake. Not only would Michael Bay have had to be in on a massive conspiracy to bring down the World Trade Center towers on 9/11, but that conspiracy would have to be so huge that it encompasses virtually everything, including Hollywood, to the point that it would insinuate itself into a silly big budget action movie made more than three years before the terrorist attacks. One can only wonder if Huff thinks this summer's latest installment Transformers movie in which downtown Chicago is destroyed by giant robots from space battling each other is a warning designed to dull us into accepting the real destruction of downtown Chicago by giant robots from space.

After all, Transformers: Dark of the Moon was directed by--you guessed it!--Michael Bay.

Seriously, that's no sillier than the numerology--yes, numerology--that Huff starts throwing about hither, thither, and yon, like a warped Bible code on steroids, finding "911" or "9/11" in The Matrix, Pearl Harbor, and The Simpsons, concluding:

Based on the positioning of what appear to be 9/11 hints prior to the actual event, it appears that one of the next disastrous events on the agenda will be a deadly bio-warfare pandemic of some sort.

The movie Contagion, as well as numerous others in recent years including the 1995 movie Outbreak and the 2009 movie 2012, just to name a few, all seem to be pointing to the release of a deadly virus that will kill millions of people.


Perhaps it is all just one giant coincidence, and there really is no deliberate plan to release deadly, bioengineered viruses. But if mainstream news and entertainment media really is laced with psychological warnings about future events, it is important to take careful note of them now in order to be as prepared as possible.

As I've said many, many times. You just can't make stuff like this up. In fact, I can confidently say that, no matter how ridiculous or nasty the Alan Krumwiede character is, real life (or at least as close to real life as the blogosphere can get) is so much more bizarre. Fortunately, there is the message of Contagion to counter such craziness:

The skewering of such claims--both medical and political--gives the film much of its narrative thrust, and defines its strangely conservative message. ("If I could throw your computer in jail, I would," a federal agent tells the rogue blogger.) Unscrupulous proponents of alternative medicine threaten to bring the world to ruin, while the scientific establishment strives to beat back the virus with conventional means. In the end, the mainstream authorities are the ones who can save the day, through a series of tense board meetings, PowerPoint slides, cell phone calls, and purposeful walks down hallways (in biohazard suits or otherwise). Salvation turns out to be a matter of getting all the well-meaning technocrats at the CDC and the WHO on the same page, their experimental monkeys in a row, so the proper vaccine can be invented, outsourced, and distributed in a manner that's both rational and just. Trust in Western medicine, the movie says. Do what the government doctors tell you. And above all else: Ignore those health-nut bloggers!

Which is one of the main messages of this blog, and I've pursued it with gusto for nearly seven years. It's good to see a similar message mirrored in a source that will reach far more people than I could ever hope to, even if people will have a hard time believing that bloggers like Mike Adams and his minions actually exist.



Picture of Kate  Benson

I'm not much of a movie goer, I went to see the movie partly because I'm familiar with Dr. Ian Lipkin who served as the viral expert for the movie. And they did get the viral part right - I was nodding right along. But, I do have to admit that by half way through the movie I was ready to throw a spitball at the Alan Krumwiede character. Mr. Law did his homework very well. Unfortunately when medicine doesn't provide the answers people want and need it leaves a vacuum for less than scrupulous people.

Leave A Comment


U.S. children and teens have struggled with increasing rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal behavior for much of the past decade. Join us as we explore the systemic causes and policy failures that have accelerated the crisis and its inequitable impact, as well as promising community-driven approaches and evidence-based practices. The webinar will provide fresh ideas for reporting on the mental health of youth and investigating the systems and services. Sign-up here!

The USC Center for Health Journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is seeking two Engagement Editors and a social media consultant to join its team. Learn more about the positions and apply.


Follow Us



CHJ Icon