Bad Cards #1: The “South China Morning Post ‘96” Disease Impact

Many of the pieces of evidence that students frequently read in debates are unquestionably terrible. Often, the desire to bolster an impact’s magnitude and raise it to extinction-level leads debaters to rely on evidence with a host of problems including but not limited to:

  • evidence used to advance arguments outside its intended context;
  • evidence citing unqualified, (functionally) anonymous, or even nefarious authors;
  • evidence culled from (typically internet or tabloid) sources that are at best unedited and at worst contemptible;
  • evidence advancing hyperbolic arguments supported by vitriolic and/or over-the-top language;
  • evidence so old that it no longer makes sense given subsequent events or changes in the topic it discusses; and
  • evidence which must be liberally interpreted in order for it to be used to support the desired conclusion.

The “Bad Cards” series is an attempt to highlight some of the most egregious examples of poor-quality evidence that is nonetheless commonplace in high school policy debates. It is not the author’s intention to “scold” or “shame” those who have read these pieces of evidence in the past or who will do so in the future. Instead, it is an attempt to influence the way that evidence is selected for inclusion in debate arguments by arming opposing students with the tools they need to defeat bad cards.

OVERVIEW

Probably the most popular piece of terminal impact evidence for disease scenarios, the South China Morning Post ‘96 card is used to support the claim that diseases will culminate in human extinction. The problem is that the article being cited was the result of a newspaper writer being duped by a con man who defrauded investors in his (fictitious) AIDS vaccine project.

THE CARD

Disease causes extinction.

South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), 1996 [“Leading the way to a cure for AIDS,” South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), Byline Kavita Daswani, January 4, Available Online via Lexis-Nexis]

Despite the importance of the discovery of the “facilitating” cell, it is not what Dr Ben-Abraham wants to talk about. There is a much more pressing medical crisis at hand – one he believes the world must be alerted to: the possibility of a virus deadlier than HIV.

If this makes Dr Ben-Abraham sound like a prophet of doom, then he makes no apology for it. AIDS, the Ebola outbreak which killed more than 100 people in Africa last year, the flu epidemic that has now affected 200,000 in the former Soviet Union – they are all, according to Dr Ben-Abraham, the “tip of the iceberg”.

Two decades of intensive study and research in the field of virology have convinced him of one thing: in place of natural and man-made disasters or nuclear warfare, humanity could face extinction because of a single virus, deadlier than HIV.

“An airborne virus is a lively, complex and dangerous organism,” he said. “It can come from a rare animal or from anywhere and can mutate constantly. If there is no cure, it affects one person and then there is a chain reaction and it is unstoppable. It is a tragedy waiting to happen.”

That may sound like a far-fetched plot for a Hollywood film, but Dr Ben-Abraham said history has already proven his theory. Fifteen years ago, few could have predicted the impact of AIDS on the world. Ebola has had sporadic outbreaks over the past 20 years and the only way the deadly virus – which turns internal organs into liquid – could be contained was because it was killed before it had a chance to spread. Imagine, he says, if it was closer to home: an outbreak of that scale in London, New York or Hong Kong. It could happen anytime in the next 20 years – theoretically, it could happen tomorrow.

The shock of the AIDS epidemic has prompted virus experts to admit “that something new is indeed happening and that the threat of a deadly viral outbreak is imminent”, said Joshua Lederberg of the Rockefeller University in New York, at a recent conference. He added that the problem was “very serious and is getting worse”.

Dr Ben-Abraham said: “Nature isn’t benign. The survival of the human species is not a preordained evolutionary programme. Abundant sources of genetic variation exist for viruses to learn how to mutate and evade the immune system.”

He cites the 1968 Hong Kong flu outbreak as an example of how viruses have outsmarted human intelligence. And as new “mega-cities” are being developed in the Third World and rainforests are destroyed, disease-carrying animals and insects are forced into areas of human habitation. “This raises the very real possibility that lethal, mysterious viruses would, for the first time, infect humanity at a large scale and imperil the survival of the human race,” he said.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH IT

Beyond the hyperbolic language and questionable logic used to support the claim that a new disease will wipe out humanity, the most pressing problem with this piece of evidence is the “expert” being cited. The article praises Dr. Avi Ben-Abraham for his incredible accomplishments and gushes at his unrivaled intelligence. In fact, debaters often cite this evidence as quoting “one of the 100 greatest minds in history”.

Perhaps that is why, when Dr Ben-Abraham was called “one of the 100 greatest minds in history” by super-IQ society Mensa, nobody was surprised. The Israeli -born doctor, now an American citizen, is listed in The Guinness Book of Records as the youngest person to become a doctor of medicine and surgery: he was 17 when he was granted his medical degree at the University of Perugia in Italy.

The son of a mathematician and teacher, Dr Ben-Abraham learned to read and write at two, mastered Einstein’s theory of relativity at seven, took part in open heart surgery at 16 and was nominated for a Nobel prize at 23. His IQ is so high that it cannot even be measured and a sperm bank for geniuses even offered him US$1 million (about HK$7.7 million) to inseminate highly intelligent women. He declined.

The 38-year-old doctor has been hounded by the media for two decades. Newspapers throughout Europe and his home country labelled him “a monster of intelligence”, a “super genius”. He was designated by the equivalent of Time magazine in Israel as “Man of the Year” when he was only 18. When it became public knowledge that he was treating Pope John Paul I and was intimate with the powers-that-be at the Vatican, the Kremlin and the White House, the glare of the media spotlight intensified. He turned down requests for TV interviews from 60 Minutes and 48 Hours and declined lucrative offers to serialise his story for international publications. He has wanted to lead a quiet life, to deliver lectures, speak at symposiums – and most of all dedicate himself to discovering cures for humanity’s most appalling illnesses.

It turns out that this back story is almost wholly fabricated. The over-the-top biography probably should have tipped off readers, but Ben-Abraham was quite a talented con man. It wasn’t until 2001 that the truth about his background and his scientific credentials came to light thanks to an investigation by a Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Tribune reporter. To make a long story short, Ben-Abraham had duped the South China Morning Post reporter as well as many Hong Kong investors (and eventually, many high school debaters and coaches).

Here are some cards to support an indictment of Ben-Abraham:

1. His medical degree is illegitimate; he didn’t even graduate from high school.

John M. Crewdson, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, then senior correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, 2001 [“Ben-Abraham fooled authorities into giving him medical degree,” Chicago Tribune, July 31st, Available Online via EBSCOhost Newspaper Source]

Of this there is no doubt: Avi Ben-Abraham does have a degree in medicine and surgery from the University of Perugia. But more than 100 interviews and hundreds of pages of documents obtained by the Tribune paint a picture of a young Israeli boy who, despite his record as an indifferent student and his apparent failure to even graduate from high school, managed to convince a powerful Italian professor that he was a genius-and then to fool Italian authorities into believing that he had fulfilled the academic requirements for becoming a doctor at the age of 18.

2. Ben-Abraham is a con man — his credentials are fabricated.

John M. Crewdson, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, then senior correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, 2001 [“Avi Ben-Abraham quickly became toast of Hong Kong,” Chicago Tribune, July 31st, Available Online via EBSCOhost Newspaper Source]

Based on more than 100 interviews and hundreds of pages of documents obtained by the Chicago Tribune, little about Avi Ben-Abraham’s life is as it appears. The real story of Avi Ben-Abraham is one of an indifferent student, rejected by Israeli universities, who found his way to Italy and obtained a questionable medical degree at the age of 18, then used that rare distinction to build a globe-spanning network of relationships that included presidents, prime ministers, European royalty and Hong Kong billionaires.

Ben-Abraham declined to be interviewed by the Tribune. But his legend withers under scrutiny. A Guinness spokesman said Ben-Abraham’s entry “somehow slipped through the net” and was dropped after only three years. Mensa says it has never compiled a list of “the 100 greatest minds in history.” Authorities in Rome say it appears that Ben-Abraham’s medical degree was obtained through “a false presentation of documents.”

3. Their evidence is based on an interview in which Ben-Abraham was promoting his AIDS vaccine — this was a scam intended to defraud investors.

John M. Crewdson, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, then senior correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, 2001 [“Avi Ben-Abraham quickly became toast of Hong Kong,” Chicago Tribune, July 31st, Available Online via EBSCOhost Newspaper Source]

Ben-Abraham had an important message for the super-wealthy Hong Kong investors who quickly befriended him and took him into their homes: the company he headed, Toronto-based Structured Biologicals, had developed an AIDS vaccine that was ready to begin human testing within the year.

All Ben-Abraham needed was $20 million to finance the vaccine trials.

“He had this great story about saving the world from AIDS,” recalled one Hong Kong acquaintance. “And of course everybody said, ‘Hey, that’s a great concept.’ He walks around the with Guinness Book of World Records and says ‘This is me and I did this and I did that,’ and everybody says ‘Wow, that’s great.’ So he said, ‘Put some money into this company, and it’s got a fantastic technology that can save the world.’ And these people said, `That’s a great idea.’”

There was no AIDS vaccine, and never would be. But Avi Ben-Abraham left Hong Kong with $4 million from investors that included Asian casino magnate Stanley Ho, and Michael Kadoorie, whose company owns the Peninsula Hotel chain, both of whom are among the world’s wealthiest men.

HOW TO ANSWER THIS EVIDENCE IN DEBATES

It is probably unnecessary to read evidence to support a frontline indictment of this card. If the opposing team challenges the veracity of the indicts, evidence can be read in the subsequent speech. One way of phrasing the argument is as follows: 

(___)

Disregard their South China Morning Post evidence—

It quotes a con man who duped a reporter into believing his dog-and-pony show about an AIDS vaccine — this was just part of a larger scheme to fleece innocent investors out of millions. Ben-Abraham is a fraud — he conned his way into a medical degree and did not graduate from high school — his hyperbolic claims about disease impacts are self-interested and not credible.

This is the first in a series of articles highlighting popular but poor-quality pieces of debate evidence. If you’d like to recommend a card for inclusion in this series, please leave a comment or contact the author.

7 thoughts on “Bad Cards #1: The “South China Morning Post ‘96” Disease Impact

  1. A Miles

    Maybe as part of the series you should suggest an alternative card to read.
    I think another card that should be added to this series is Beardon. Although there are much better impact cards, people insist on reading this one. The problem with it is (as many people know) it says
    “beginning about 2007, on our present energy course we will have reached an 80% probability of this “final destruction of civilization.”
    “The 2003 date appears to be the critical “point of no return” for the survival of civilization as we have known it”
    He thinks that the only solution to this scenario is zero-point energy, which most agree is a joke. Also, his PHD was bought at Trinity College and University, “a British institution with no building, campus, faculty, or president, and run from a post office box.”

  2. kendall

    Deutsch ’02 is something I’d like to see an analysis on because it was read so much on the Africa topic.

  3. DMarks

    Yes! Way to carry the banner…maybe this card will finally die.

    An alternative is to question credibility in CX, and then reference in the speech: “Disregard South China Morning Post – that’s CX.” If contested in CX, you can read the evidence there, saving time for your speech. The other team will be hard pressed to defend the author in CX, so there’s no need to waste time in the speech with all the (true) warrants. It’s also effective there since you can point out that he also thinks the Vatican cloned Jesus and he failed med school.

    I’d like to see an indict of the Chalko “warming causes the earth to implode” card if you get a chance.

  4. Michael Antonucci

    @Marks

    1. The Smith article here: http://www.discovery.org/a/5911 gives the best rundown on Chalko, although it may suffer from some bias problems of its own.

    2. I agree with the CX tactic. When it’s an actual slam dunk on a terrible author, it makes the rest of the C-X really fall into place (as well as saving speech time.) A fantastic example of this in practice is here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DZ1rAEMDKpE&feature=PlayList&p=EFF85A216EB84ABE&index=0

  5. Michael Antonucci

    I think this is a great idea, but it seems to have sort of fallen off the map. I don’t think this particular topic is great for a blog format. People really read blogs top down and ignore most threading and tagging; they aren’t really great knowledge repositories. Even if it’s technically possible, the readership doesn’t work that way.

    Is there a less bloggy part of the site, like where it hosts Michigan stuff or whatever?

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