- Misinformation about the pandemic still dominates the online world. .
- Bad quality information can be harmful to health rather like poor quality food or unhealthy air.
- This post looks at how to spot low quality information on line and how to protect the mind from thought pollution
I recently read of an organiser of open air cinema events being attacked, albeit online, for trying to work out ways of re-opening outdoor events. Understandably, I felt sympathy for him, but also for those who felt that threatening the cinema owner was in any way a useful or positive thing to do. Anger at the bum deal youngsters are getting right now, indeed have been getting for some time, is understandable, but to translate that anger into hatred of people trying to be helpful is a sign of something having gone seriously wrong. The world is worrying enough without added layers of anxiety about illusions. So I thought I would have another look at the largely online world of misinformation which plays a bit part in generating such bizarre views and behaviour.
Why? Thoughts and beliefs increasingly arise because of what we experience online, as opposed to experiences we more traditionally classify as real. Human experience in front of a screen is very different to that experienced by direct human contact with all its variety and nuance. Thoughts and beliefs flowing from some of the junk on line causes emotions and moods which can have damaging impacts; for me some of the belief systems generated can be a form of mind damage. It also made me think about how I process my own information to come to what I hope is a reasoned view.
This is not entirely new. Pandemics cause panic and vaccinations have always led to dissent. It is a leap to make personal decisions based on what is best for the wider community and take actions which, like quarantine, seem alien – to suffer for the sake of others. As I have said before, anti-science has been given rocket boosters by the advent of computing.
Anti vaccination matters – around the world people have lost their lives due to lack of vaccination, and some because they declined its protection. These will dwarf the smaller numbers of people damaged by vaccination. Because nothing is completely straightforward when it comes to pandemic management as well as decisions about personal health, good information is important – really important!
Antique anti-vaxx pamphlet.
No, cowpox immunisation does not lead to cows growing out of your arms!!
The Sars-Cov2 pandemic is novel in that it is the first to be observed during the digital age with its unprecedented levels of easily accessible data. Physical viruses soon transform into digital viruses. This can be manipulated to suit opinions which can masquerade as fact and then be magnified, shared and spread by online machinery. We humans have always had the capability of looking at the same thing and coming to different conclusions. Take different versions of God for example, or how some people don’t ‘believe’ in climate change. Even clear cut statements from witnesses of crimes or accidents are best taken as soon as possible before the perceptions are falsely altered by the witnesses individual way of seeing things.
With the online world, we can increasingly choose what we want to see, what validates our own view and what we feel comfortable with. With Facebook and the rest offering consumers only what they ‘Like’ to see, opinions can be driven further in the direction of preference and away from reality on the ground. So how do I sort the wheat from the chaff and create my own fact checking filters?
So how to spot bad information?
Well some stuff is easy to identify as junk. There is a new idea that of “reverse contagion”, where those vaccinated are said to shed viruses from sweat glands and infect others as a global depopulation plan. This notion is so shot with holes that only the most deluded will see it as plausible. There is lots of self evident nonsense out there, yet the proponent of the notion got 350,000 hits on You Tube! Some of those viewers will evidently have thoughts which if presented to me in my clinic in association with anxiety or fear would make me consider the diagnosis of psychosis.
Viruses spread online too!
What is more tricky are well presented posts from people who seem credible, who speak well and in a reasoned way about the science of the pandemic. These can be convincing even when patently false. For example, I came across a superficially compelling video by “expert” who felt that the vaccination programme would itself create more variants and could potentially be a threat to humanity. The video was widely shared on You Tube with 200,000 hits yet expertly and easily debunked by the Alliance for Natural Health.
They described a format for sorting out the online wheat from the chaff which pretty much summed up my approach. I have adapted their guide on how I arrive at a reasonable conclusion when coming across some of the sensational stuff one could otherwise fall for
- The language. When posts start with comments like “The Truth the Doctors would never tell you”, my bullshit alert starts to hum. Veracity is already on the line. For me, the more sensational the headline, the more care is needed. Dramatic convincing headlines stick in the mind long after the detail is forgotten, and of course some readers don’t venture beyond the bullet points to explore the devil in the detail. Be sceptical!
- The Source. Is the source credible? Peer reviewed journals are the gold standard for me. Their editors not only examine the publication for accuracy, but are also responsible for its content and offer useful editorial analysis and the chance for feedback and complaint. Many magazines and newspapers are biased by their owners opinion filtering through to the editors and the need to satisfy their traditional reader base. That is easy to discern and worth defining. Online publications and websites can be wonderful or truly dreadful. They try to hide their own biases from the reader despite, on deeper examination, having their own lenses and filters through which they see the world. They too develop a following to which they have to pander.
- The messenger. Then to the author – are they subject to observer bias which colours their interpretation of events and thus seek to colour yours? It is well worth having a look at who they are and where they are coming from. Ecosia and Wikipedia can really help here, but it needs doing.
- Motivation. What is behind the message and why now. What to the publishers actually want and what are the ethics behind the information. What do they want you to think and feel?
- Vested interests. Does the messenger, or associated organisations or businesses, have anything to gain by encouraging the dissemination of the message far and wide? For instance, sales of supplements, books or subscriptions.
- Scientific credibility of arguments. How does the science stack up against the available body of evidence in the particular area of controversy? Frustratingly, this involves checking, even reading the references and sources – this can often reveal inbuilt bias. Claims need checking by examining them from other viewpoints and sources. Long lists of references make a publication look well researched, but it really does depend on what they are. Quality is the key.
How about an example…..
Mercola is a huge website with a team dedicated to daily output. I get a daily alert as I find their slant on food interesting but they have some bizarre, and in my opinion dangerous views on the pandemic. For example, they recently posted seemingly convincingly on a phenomenon called Antibody dependent Enhancement (ADE) and how those who have been vaccinated might be more at risk from the new variants. So let’s apply the above criteria and see how we go.
- Language – the headlines poses the question: “Will Vaccinated People Be More Vulnerable to Variants?” So the article starts with a leading question and sub-headings become more leading as time goes by. Journalists are taught that the most impact comes from the headlines, sub-headings and the summary. Mercola uses these ideas to influence your opinion before the reader makes a more exacting analysis and many readers, of course, don’t go beyond the bullet points.
- The Source – The sources of the information are very selective and often involve interviews with individuals who support the established view. So analysis of any article involves looking at where the information is coming from. Todays post on ADE is another example of dogma driven misinformation with some very selected and indeed misrepresented sources. I’ll come to that in minute.
- Messenger – Mercola is a well read anti-vaxx website with a consistent party line which sees every aspect of the the pandemic as a conspiracy. He offers a daily dose of hyped up scepticism on just about all things COVID and has a long history of opposition to vaccination. He got it terrible wrong with HIV too. So the site has a ‘policy’ on vaccination, and readers must take this into account.
- Motivation. Like similar websites and speakers, Mercola has to satisfy his customers. It is clear from any reading of the comments that his readers have a certain angle on things. While I warm to ‘alternative’ viewpoints, there is a theme that ‘natural health’ (whatever that is in this modern world), is the way to counter all sorts of illnesses and diseases. While I have no doubt that is many ways this is of course correct, there is little acknowledgement of the root causes of disease: poverty, poor living environments, poor education, overwork, stress and of course, political policies.
- Vested Interest. Mercola’s website is ultimately a platform for the sale of supplements, vitamins, minerals and a whole host of Mercola linked products, including a forthcoming book on the “Truth” about the COVID pandemic. If he suddenly announced that the vaccines are not as bad as he thought, there would be loss of disappointed and angry customers. Sales of all the supplements he claims to be effective against COVID19 would be affected. To sell his wares, he needs to induce fear and anger in his readers.
- Scientific Credibility. Many websites like Mercola do not do any actual research; they are at best, analysts and as such (ideally) need to look at a wide range of sources to come to a balanced opinion. Despite having a list of “references” at the end which given the appearance of credibility, many are from selected media outlets with defined views and need to be taken with a big pinch of salt. Pre-print papers too can be wonderful, but have not been subject to much oversight. Mercola is very selective in his sources, for example, his frequent use of the “Defender” website as a source, despite it being the outlet from Robert Kennedy, a prominent anti-vaxx lawyer. Some of the better references are taken out of context, selectively quoted and even misrepresented. Finding this out involves time and effort, but is well worth doing.
So where does this leave us with ADE, a phenomenon common with Dengue fever when the second infection is worst than the first. It has been a highlighted as a concern with COVID19 and vaccines despite the bulk of evidence suggesting it is not. After 140,000,000 known infections and 800,000,000 vaccinations if ADE were a significant problem, it would have come to light.
ADE happens when ‘weak’ antibodies stick to a virus, deliver it to an immune cell without neutralising it.
It then replicates inside the cell and causes a more severe illness. Some have highlighted this to create fear about COVID19 vaccines, though there is no evidence for it taking place
Then there are the millions, literally millions of COVID linked publications which can be chosen to support a view. Mercola chooses a study from Israel which they claim shows how vaccinated people are more susceptible to the South African Variant. Lets have a closer look:
Mercola’s sub headline claims “Vaccinated People More Susceptible to South African Variant“. What the authors of the referenced paper actually said was rather different. Their small study noticed that there was a small increase in positive tests for the B1351 variant shorty after vaccination – What they said was: “This may imply that there is a short window of susceptibility to B.1.351 infection limited to the immediate two weeks after the second dose – but we cannot be confident that this is indeed the case,” The numbers were so small as to be meaningless and there are also the confounders; the vaccinated group might well have increased their exposure by getting out and about more than those not vaccinated.
He lists 33 sources, 7 of which are from news outlets, many of the others simply are explanations of terms and some don’t seem as relevant to the point to which they are linked as they might seem.
It will simply be impossible now for Mercola to step back and say, actually folks, the vaccine seems to work pretty well (they reduce symptomatic infection by 88%), they minimise your risk and the risk to others.
I was wrong. We can all go home.
No, there has to be another scandal, somewhere
This is where motivation come in. The day of publication of the article on ADE also happened to be Earth Day. I am a climate crisis ‘believer’, bit like Im a round earther. Right now I feel concern about the difficulties of growing food in climate change induced weird weather – late spring frost and drought in my case. To ‘honour’ the crisis, which continues to be the greatest threat to health for some time now, Mercola promises in reality to make it worse. To quote the website: “In honor of Dr. Mercola’s commitment to providing sustainably sourced products and packaging, we’re offering 20% off our entire site for today only. Celebrate Earth Day by stocking up on high-quality products that support your overall health, plus receive complimentary fast shipping worldwide” To suggest that shipping expensive food supplements all over the world is something that can help the environment is the surely the ultimate in disinformation. If anyone is unable to see this paradox, then they are not thinking clearly and are likely to be taken in.
Another example from the day I started this post. I read the clear cut statement: “Do the covid vaccines stop transmission? No.” in an article about natural immunity Again, it took a close look as the science to de-bunk this misleading statement: As I said, this does mean more effort, but it is worth it to not be infected by junk information and spread opinions that do not reflect reality on the ground.
This is a sample of what I come across in one morning reading. Unlike my early days of information surfing, which involved looking though shelves of book and journals critical reading is now very complex. Old style librarians were so useful to point me in the right direction and they still are, but online that filter is missing, so more care is needed.
Conclusion – looking after your mind
There are millions of pandemic posts and publications online, many of which are superficially convincing, but when looked at more closely start to fall apart. While we are all free to think what we like, as the Buddha said, right thought is important. If a thought is disturbing or raises important issues, then it is really important to ensure thinking is build on sound foundations.
I think this matters. When viewing the US Elections, I listened aghast at live reports of Trump voters wanting to prevent a Democrat victory as they believed a Biden administration would put them and their children in concentration camps – views based on what they had read. That is an extreme description of how misinformation can leave to what can only be described as mind damage, but there are more subtle ways of being misled and experiencing anxiety and fear based on thoughts which are about as real as fairies, elves or pixies.
The pandemic is important to understand. I believe it could lead to a better world, though this involves an appreciation of our role of our destruction of the natural world in creating the infection, how it is spread locally, the role of international travel in making it global, and the means by which we can reduce its impact. The lessons are important and apply to many of the current emergencies we face.
So let’s go to the cinema, see what effect it has, and if it works be reassured. It is a risk which can be studied and learned from to hopefully help with re-opening aspects of society which are important for our well-being as we try to recover and live in our complex and troubled world.
This post shows how information is sieved and how to get the irritating chaff out of the nutritious wheat. I hope it gives good food for healthy thinking.
Critical reading has never been more important.