Extraordinary claims

Research, a word we hear so often these days. But what is it? Fundamentally it simply means a systematic investigation using appropriate methods. When my students present their research, they follow a specific set of procedures and documentation and it is my job to ensure they learn these methods.

Research is not simply information. It is not scrolling through Facebook while sitting comfortably somewhere. Reading a number of sources and pieces, such as this one, is merely reading information. Granted, information that is based on research, but information nonetheless.

So whenever I hear “I did my research”, I ask precisely what someone means. “I did my research and your archaeological site is definitely where an alien spaceship landed”. To begin with, I will ask about the excavations you conducted, and without fail the research consists of reading fringe blogs and books.

The same applies to claims about vaccines. Which laboratory did you work in? Who was the team leader? What methods and materials did you use? Inevitably, the response will be similar: “Well, I read this and this doctor said…”. That is not research.

I have spent countless hours reading scientific papers on vaccines but that is not research either, simply a reflection of how I choose to spend my time.

The good news is, you do not need to do “research” on a number of matters. But you do need to choose your information sources carefully. Scientific papers on vaccines are a good starting point because they are the result of rigorous work and peer review.

Admittedly, these are not universally accessible, but there are other avenues and the links in this piece are all open access. Information is frequently translated into more accessible language by science journalists and recognised health organisations (e.g. the World Health Organisation). But to do this you need to have the most rudimentary of skills to discern truth from falsehood.

The situation is compounded by how social media works. You may think that the information you are receiving is coming from a trusted source. After all, it has been widely shared and even has a little notice saying a post is about Covid, right? Wrong. Facebook works on an algorithm, a set of rules used in calculations and computer operations, essentially an orderly set of operations with a chain of precise instructions.

These need to be followed in an orderly manner – think of following a complex recipe for some fancy French dessert. Computer algorithms have many uses and they are not inherently bad, but they are made and manipulated by humans. I could deliberately change certain details, leading to a different outcome for your fancy dessert.

This is how it works with Facebook and other platforms – you see things that validate your existing worldview because the platform is programmed to show you more of the same. It reinforces your existing beliefs and behaviours.

And while Facebook claims to have experts tackling claims, the reality is much more stark. Remember, Facebook is a powerful company with huge financial reserves but they choose to spend their money on lobbyists and more algorithms rather than actual experts. The result is the virus of misinformation which, like the claims discussed last time, have very real consequences.

We might roll our eyes and laugh at that one friend who shrieks about vaccine ingredients while booking their eleventh Botox appointment, but in reality, this is not funny. A friend shared this very thoughtful article (in Italian) which argues that people are more afraid of the vaccine than the virus.

I don’t know whether this is the case for all anti-vaxxers, and I suspect that the reasons are not always so benign, but the outcome is terrifying.

For example, a shockingly large number of people in Mississippi opted to take an anti-parasitic called Ivermectin to treat COVID. That it happened in a State that has the second-lowest COVID-vaccination rate is no accident – neither is the predictable outcome that a number of people wound up at the poison control centre.

But it gets worse. Ivermectin is a legitimate drug used to treat some parasitic infestations. It is widely used in the veterinary world. The key here, as with everything, is dosage and side effects. More concerning is the complete lack of evidence that a drug used to treat parasites is effective at treating a viral infection.

Worse, it was cynically and deliberately peddled as a cure while pretending it had scientific legitimacy. The so-called research was published as a pre-print.

A pre-print is useless. Well, it’s helpful if you want to run your ideas past your colleagues, but it holds no scientific value because it has not been vetted or peer-reviewed. Indeed, a meta-analysis of trials so far strongly shows that these so-called studies have serious methodological flaws.

And that’s the difference: you can write anything in a pre-print, it is not subject to rigorous analyses. If you think these claims fall under ‘freedom of speech’, you need to take a look at the horrifying consequences here.

Yet, despite the weight of evidence against the use of Ivermectin, the outrage continues – aided and abetted by social media platforms and their algorithms. You could argue that people cling to the improbable in search of a cure – but they had a very solid and reliable prevention method at their disposal, and it was free.

Instead, they chose to purchase a dangerous drug. I guarantee you that they would not be able to name a single ingredient in Ivermectin or any of the available vaccines. Perhaps, the ones who rang the poison control centre are more afraid of the vaccine than the virus, but we have only reached this point because there is a dark, concerted effort to spread ignorance and misinformation.


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