It seems dealing with misinformation and its deadly effects is becoming a part of doctors day to day life, damaging patients who delay or miss out on effective treatments due to suspicion and lack of trust. This not only applies to vaccines, the most life saving of interventions, but also reduces access to the what is misleadingly termed ‘conventional’ care with the best outcomes. People are suffering.
When it comes to vaccines, at least until the 1990’s this was a fringe activity, but the huge publicity surrounding Wakefield’s fraudulent claims that vaccines were causing autism has metastasised into a mainstream American movement which is now spreading around the world. Even at the very moment Wakefield was struck off he had moved to the US to maximise his celebrity status, fitting like a glove into the growing anti-vaccination industry, and in financial terms, doing very well for himself. Vaccination programmes have thus become far more difficult, reducing trust in science more generally and causing harm.
Of course, the effect on the public is further magnified by populist politicians using misinformation for their own ends and, as ever is at its most intense in the US. Polarisation it seems, has been hard-wired into American life, its most extreme manifestation is that a significant number of Americans now feel such hate for other Americans they believe there will be, for example, a second American civil war. Given the saturation with weapons and loss of trust in elections, this is far from impossible.
Then there is the lucrative conspiracy publicists. Alex Jones (of InfoWars) bizarre and hideous persecution of the families of victims of various mass shootings which a million of his followers presumably believe, along with the notion that the US Government is adding chemicals to the water to turn people gay are extreme examples of mind damage affecting large numbers of people.
This polarisation affects medicine too. The pandemic has seen the emergence of small but very vocal right leaning medical organisations and individuals seeking to create a backlash against those who can be said to practice medicine that is based on the best evidence available with the best outcomes. It’s essentially populist medicine, offering simply solutions to complex problems, forever seeing enemies, peddling dubious treatments and of course making money.
The mantra of “taking back control”, so appallingly effective in Brexit, is a feature of many anti-medicine website and like the Brexit promises, often a pack of lies.
They seek to make you believe your health or illness is entirely your responsibility and not much to do external factors such as breathing in poor air, eating cheap unhealthy food, poverty, inequality, stress, poor work experience, unhappiness, anxiety regarding the future, spiralling rents, poor housing, terrible living environments and so on.
In the case of the pandemic, this has morphed from critical analysis of vaccines and antivirals, to belief that they are intentionally harming people while advocating for ineffective ‘alternative’ treatments. For me, there is no such thing as ‘alternative’ medicine, there is only medicine that works and that which doesn’t.
Right wing Trumpian thinking is that everything is a matter of choice when they are not. No, it’s all your fault – if only you lived a healthy life and (monetising fear) bought all the right supplements, then all will be well.
There is a belief also that doctors should be free to prescribe what they like to who they like and they sanctify the private doctor patient relationship which they feel is compromised by any government oversight. Again, freedom without responsibility and a license for quackery.
Of course, there is a grain of truth in all this, personal health choices matter, but behind these lie the more complex lives people live in ever more fragile social and economic frameworks. That grain of truth levers a mountain of lies which forever makes those gullible enough to believe it feel persecuted by conventional medicine, backed up by the bad boys of Big Pharma, Big Government and a monetised American health system.
Sure, the medical system is far from immune from corruption, criticism and the need for change. Drug companies behaviour and profits can be appalling and scandals litter their history, yet many of their products are life saving and have transformed peoples lives for the better. We should not forget that the big drug companies began their corporate lives early in the twentieth century by finding treatments for TB, the scourge of generations not so very long ago.
They are not weapons or landmine manufacturers, or climate destroying vehicle manufacturers, yet come into far more stick than those purveyors of suffering. The result of this it that around the globe health workers, who are doing a great job considering staffing problems, administrative disasters and occasional organisational failures, now have to spend time trying to undo what I have referred to in the past as internet driven mind damage.
One important aspect of this is the widespread dissemination of ideas based on poor studies which are then amplified by our interconnected world, a phenomena which I was recently informed, has a name:
The Woozle effect
One aspect of the viral like spreading of misinformation, an academically gifted friend pointed out, has a name: The Woozle effect – also known as evidence by citation, or a woozle. This is when a weak or unsupported study or claim is widely cited, giving it an unearned patina of respectability and common wisdom
In pictorial terms so well demonstrated by Poo and Piglet below endlessly following their own footsteps in the snow in the belief they are tracking something important and with each circuit amplifying the original mistake.
Keep up piglet! There are more and more of them!!
According to Wikipaedia: “frequent citation of such publications lacking evidence can mislead individuals, groups, and the public: the result can become urban myths and factoids. The Woozle effect is not limited to the public; it affects scholars in academia too, especially when replication studies are not performed and no one notices that a key claim was never well-supported in its original publication, yet new research is built off its assumptions.”
WWW – World Wide Woozles
There are a multitude of recent examples. One is a paper suggesting that billions of lives are at risk from covid vaccines. The authors are familiar: an IT scientist, a ‘naturopath’, a microbiologist and a cardiologist, all of whom I recognise from their regular appearance in numerous anti-vaccination outlets. The highly dubious article has been shared 45,000 times on social media, which is about 44,500 more than would have come across it in the paper form from the rather obscure Food and Chemical Toxicology journal, whose 4 person peer review team the article slipped through. The excellent “Retraction Watch” team asked for it to be retracted, but no luck, the editors arguing that as it is ‘only opinion’. In reality, its a Woozle.
In some quarters it has become accepted wisdom and quoted by the Typhoid Marys’ of the misinformation world, Tucker Carlson and the notorious Joe Mercola. Without care, the woozle effect is something we are all vulnerable to. Let’s look at another example which could hardly offer a more dramatic example…..
Woozle at large
There have been multiple claims of ‘shocking’ levels of miscarriage rates after vaccination based on preliminary findings from drug company and other trials. Shouted from the rooftops is the scary ‘fact’ that 87% of pregnant vaccinated women go on to have miscarriage. When I originally heard this I had to check out the sources. If it were true gynaecology wards would have been facing an avalanche of miscarriages and headlines made – they weren’t. So how did such a dramatic Woozle come about?
Pfizers study of 270 women who became pregnant after vaccination was reported 12 weeks into the vaccination campaign. In other words, of the 32 women who had so far completed their pregnancy when the trial reported, 28 had suffered a miscarriage as the others continued their pregnancy. That is a pretty normal rate of miscarriage (28 out of 270) given that when reported, the women were at least three months into their pregnancy after which miscarriage thankfully becomes less common. What various anti vaccination sites reported was the rate of 28 out of 32, that is 87.5% which would be astonishing if it were true. Another study was misinterpreted with identical errors, yet the Woozle effect continues.
Does vaccination cause miscarriage? No. Have there been unvaccinated women who have become ill with COVID19, lost their babies and lost their lives due to vaccine hesitancy – Yes, Im afraid so.
I do wonder how long the authorities in the US will continue to licence doctors who advise against vaccination using Woozles which can reasonably be called lies. Perhaps moves are finally in place to remove the stamp of medical authority from those who will cause death and misery by jumping on the anti vaccine bandwagon. However even these can backfire as those so disciplined can then claim the lucrative mantle of the martyr using words like ‘hit’ or ‘attack’ to describe any criticism and declare they are in a ‘battle’ or ‘war’ when subject to professional discipline.
Others are claims that COVID vaccines cause hepatitis C (no they don’t) and that they are the cause of the excess childhood hepatitis seen in the UK. They are not. Do mRNA vaccines cause illness of their own? This paper is reassuring despite the worst efforts of some mendacious American doctors to create fear and anxiety.
A recent self amplifying Woozle is that medical mistakes are the third leading cause of death in the US – they are not!
In the US it seems, the right have done a pretty good job at milking the first internet pandemic to push an anti government agenda so popular with what so often seems to me to be simple minded Americans who seem to rail at the notion of being told what to do. More widely, and most recently in Italy, the far right seems to be growing on the backs of the understandably disillusioned and marginalised millions. Real echoes there of the growth of European Fascism just two generations ago.
American Republicans seem to have gone bonkers. If insanity is being anti public health measures, against reproductive health for women, and pro gun. This is fuelled by far right conservative doctors playing social media like fashion stars.
Much of the anti vaccination propaganda is based on the vaccine side effect reporting system called VAERS. This collects side effects which are compulsory for healthcare workers to report and voluntary for anyone else. It has a function in picking up rare and unexpected effects but is actually worse than useless when it comes to working out what the side effects of vaccines really are. Simply put, there have not been hundreds of thousands of deaths after vaccination.
Grand Woozler in chief, Joe Mercola leads the anti vaccine sector. He plays the VAERS data card regularly and claims that events after vaccination are all due to vaccination and takes no account of what would happen on any day, for example:
“That [reported events] includes 134,245 urgent care visits, 174,371 hospitalizations and 30,479 deaths, and due to widespread underreporting, you have to multiply those numbers by underreporting factor of 41 (or more) to get an idea of the true impact. If you do the math, you will quickly discover that the COVID jabs have been the No. 1 cause of death the past two years, far exceeding heart attacks and cancers that were unrelated to the jab”
This is a double Woozle. He uses everything reported as ASSOCIATED with having the jab as if the vaccination was the cause, and then multiplies the reports by 40 (I kid you not) to get to his bizarre conclusion that vaccination is the number 1 killer in the US. What is worse, is that so many people believe him.
Another Woozle claims claims that natural immunity is better than that from a vaccine, referencing a study in Qatar, but as usual, misrepresenting the results entirely and another Woozle is created. Immunity following infection may be better in some people of course, but carries a whole host of risks that vaccines don’t.
Mercola is more of a marketing expert than a medical one and when faced with inevitable and justified criticism, plays the self-aggrandising hyperbolic victim card so well used by Trump and is currently suing YouTube, Google and Elizabeth Warren who dare to criticise him.
“I’ve been a target of both the POTUS and the global cabal including Elizabeth Warren, CNN, New York Times, YouTube, Twitter and Google – but despite the threats and censorship, I’ll never stop standing up for your rights and freedoms – here’s to our 25-year milestone”
In my opinion, thats about 24 years too long.
Freedom – from responsibility
Freedom of speech, in particular the ability to spout hateful nonsense feeds into the understandable lack of trust with the powers that be and turns it on the ‘medical establishment’. This costs lives.
Lisa-Maria Kellaway was a wonderful Austrian GP, dedicated to her patients and vocal on social media about the pandemic and the benefits of vaccination. The hate mail and threats she received from mind damaged armchair warriors, together with the lack of support from the authorities led her to depression. Eventually she took her own life. A sad example of how anti-vaccination misinformation and social media combine so harmfully.
She is not alone, the harassment that scientists have to put up with in the US is frightening, as described here by Peter Horetz who in this paper reports:
“A band of ultraconservative members of the US Congress and other public officials with far-right leanings are waging organized and seemingly well-coordinated attacks against prominent US biological scientists. In parallel, conservative news outlets repeatedly and purposefully promote disinformation designed to portray key American scientists as enemies. As a consequence, many of us receive threats via email and on social media, while some are stalked at home, to create an unprecedented culture of anti-science intimidation.”
The Woozle factories fuelling right wing medicine, the resulting mind damaging misinformation, and the distrust and hate generated are sadly not going away any time soon.
Watch out for the Woozle!!
Thanks for reading this far. If you have any comments or questions, do leave them in the box below and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.