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Four Little Words Are a Cause of Misinformation

GELFAND’S WORLD - "Four little words -- 'do your own research' -- are hurting the U.S. pandemic response CNN's chief media correspondent Brian Stelter said on 'Reliable Sources' Sunday."  

I tend to agree with the comment, but I think it might be useful to discuss what "research" actually is, and what it isn't. 

Let's start with what it isn't. The people who are vaccine-hesitant are as good a place to start as any, but the general principles will apply broadly. 

"So I went on the internet and did my research." We used to hear that a lot from people who were trying to explain why they were refusing to allow their children to be vaccinated for once-common childhood diseases such as measles and mumps. Others have gone on the internet and "done their research" to convince themselves that global warming does not exist, or that it isn't caused by human activities. And others play with the notion that the world really isn't round, although some of them just seem to be playing with us. 

Allow me to open with a rather sharp statement: Almost all of the time when one of these people talks about going on the internet and researching some topic, they are not really talking about research at all. They are generally looking for opinionated sources and authoritative-sounding websites. In brief, they are looking for a site that recites a conclusion, but without actually presenting the underlying evidence and the (sometimes quite complicated) logic and calculations that lead to a believable conclusion. Often, such sites don't go over the evidence so much as they refer to other people who, they claim, are credible sources themselves. 

I once heard a fairly well known anti-evolutionist who presented his arguments in a rapid-fire speech that later became known by the term "Gish Gallup." The arguments consisted of illogical tropes that had and continue to be rebutted again and again. But there was another approach he added, which was simply to mention other people who, he claimed, had themselves made some argument or claim. In Gish's speech, the implication was that these were credible sources, but at no point did he actually go into the arguments in detail. In the study of argument, this is referred to as argument by authority. My feeling is that argument by authority isn't always a bad thing (see me discussion below), but you have to know which authority to believe. 

A lot of the sources that appear on Google follow the same sort of pattern. They don't present experimental data or do the mathematical analysis that would be required to draw a legitimate conclusion. They sometimes present data, but the sort of data which does not prove anything. Right now, the most famous example is something called VAERS, which is a government site where you can recite anything that happened after a vaccination, whether it is getting a cold, or having a heart attack, or somebody you know dying in an automobile accident. 

It is true that thousands of people die after getting the Covid vaccine, because thousands of people die over the course of weeks and months whether or not they had the vaccine. The one has nothing to do with the other. (On the other hand, if 10 people out of a million have an anaphylactic reaction within 30 minutes of the shot, that is a legitimate concern, and it will be reported in the medical literature.) 

When you find sources on Google that follow illogical lines of argument, you are not doing research in any real sense of the term. You are merely finding somebody's opinion. People believe (or disbelieve) such online sources based on their personal needs, or sensibilities, or religious upbringing, or -- probably most often -- because they have been directed to such sources by a friend or an internet contact. 

But, to repeat myself, this is not to do "research" in any true sense of the word. It's just looking up somebody who supports your underlying prejudices, or -- for at least some people -- looking for leadership over a topic for which they, themselves, have no knowledge or competence. 

What does it mean to "do research?" 

Curiously enough, it's sufficient to define research in the way we explain it to hopeful science fair contestants. The basic, underlying concept can be understood by a sixth grader. I want to point out that you don't have to do the sorts of things that go into a science project just to decide whether or not to get the Covid vaccine. These are quite different things, but the subject here is "research" because people like Aaron Rogers claim to have engaged in that practice. 

At the science fair level, research consists of doing competent experiments in order to support or disprove some hypothesis, and in so doing, to add something new to the world's knowledge. In order to figure out whether your hypothesis is likely to be true, you need to choose or design some experimental method and then carry it out. Then, from the collection of measurements you have made, you see whether the amassed data support or oppose your initial hypothesis. 

Does some kind of plant grow better in this soil or that? You might try growing a dozen of each plant in the two kinds of soil and measure how high they grow, and how much each plant weighs after a few weeks. You might do something along the same lines on the growth of fish, trying different fish foods. 

At a more complicated level, you might try analyzing genetic data from one of the public data libraries with respect to whether some particular illness or condition is correlated with a particular DNA sequence. (I know this last approach seems awfully advanced for a high school student, but as a science fair judge I have actually seen quite a few such projects, and I can tell you that close questioning of the students generally showed that they understood what they were doing.) 

So in a strict sense, the word "research" refers to investigation of the unknown. 

There is one more requirement for the science fair student or for the sincere amateur who wants to "research" some topic on the internet or in the medical library. You have to get an idea of what the credible sources are, and then you have to read them. If some math is required, you need to learn how to understand it. 

In other words, you can "research" some topic in the sense of looking it up, but you have to be honest with yourself about doing the whole job. How do you know that your sources are legitimate and credible? That is another question, but you can start with review papers in professional, peer-reviewed journals. And by the way, one of the best ways of finding such sources is to ask a professional scientist for a list of such papers. 

What about when doctors and scientists want to figure out whether the new vaccine is (a) effective and (b) pretty safe or (c) extremely safe? There are two overall phases in such questioning. Here they are: 

1) Doing the experiment 

2) Looking at the results and arguing about them 

I'm going to suggest here that the first part of the process (I'll call it phase 1) is fairly straightforward and that there are lots of competent people who know how to do it. 

But then I'm going to argue that the second part of the process (phase 2) is hard unless you are one of the people who is competent to do phase (1), and nearly impossible for almost all of the rest of us. Then I'm going to try to suggest your best approach to getting the right answer (should I or should I not get the Covid vaccine?) without being an expert in vaccine design and testing. 

Let me start with some personal anecdotal information. I would say that I am pretty expert in mRNA biology. I have the peer reviewed publications to support that claim. I have a pretty decent understanding of cell biology and some basic level knowledge of overall physiology. So what does all of this add up to in terms of me knowing whether or not the Covid-19 vaccines are effective or safe? 

I would suggest that the answer is this: basically nothing. 

Having knowledge of the structure of the poly(A) extension on the three-prime end of mRNA does not tell me that a particular piece of synthetic mRNA injected into your arm is either harmless or harmful. That's a different kind of knowledge gained in a different sort of way. 

So how do you know whether the vaccine is safe or unsafe? The answer is really pretty much what you already knew: You try injecting it into animals (looking for anything odd or damaging) and then you try injecting it into human volunteers. 

Then you wait. After you have waited long enough, you will have a pretty good idea that the vaccine is safe. Now you should understand that not every trial drug turns out to be either safe or effective. There are lots of clinical trials in which people start to come down with harmful side effects. The tests are then halted and, in general, that is the end of that trial drug. This, by the way, is one reason that pharmaceutical companies complain about the costs of developing new drugs -- they have to write off all the R&D on compounds that go part way in the development pathway and then die. 

There is one more issue that a lot of vaccine-hesitant people have been bringing up. The argument goes like this: We know that there have been over seven billion doses of the various vaccines injected into humans. Of those doses, very few injections have resulted in anything bad. We've seen a few cases of heart inflammation (myocarditis) -- mostly in young males and mostly resolving within a few weeks -- and there are some allergic reactions up to the level of anaphylaxis. Most of these are also resolved fairly quickly. You can read an early report which looked at the results of the first four million doses of the Moderna vaccine given in this country, and the result was that there were 2.5 cases of anaphylaxis out of each million injections. All of the people who showed this response and could be tracked down were found to have survived and were doing fine. 

So that's how you do the research. You have to look for bad reactions in people who received the vaccine. What we know -- from a huge number of injections -- is that the short term effects are almost entirely safe and benign. It's true that a couple of people out of a million will have an allergic reaction. The researchers found that for the most part, these were people who had suffered allergic reactions to medications previously. 

But what about the long term effects? That's what the vaccine hesitant are talking about: "We don't know what the long term effects are." 

Fair enough. It is not impossible that something unprecedented will happen, based on some as yet unknown biological phenomenon. Is there any way to estimate what the odds are of something like that happening? 

I would argue something like the following: To the extent that current vaccines are anything like previous medications, we have some information to go on. Are there any medications that were used at one time and then found to have some long term effect? 

Unfortunately the answer is yes. Fortunately the answer is that such effects are also rare. Some readers may recall the story of diethylstilbestrol (DES) which leads to a low but non-zero increased risk in daughters of women who were prescribed that drug during pregnancy. 

The manufacturers of Covid vaccines would of course argue the logical point that DES is a powerful hormone that was used at a time when the long term effects were not only unknown, they had barely been considered. Compared to what we know about the ingredients of the current vaccines, there is all the difference in the world. 

But the best way to estimate the likelihood of any long term side effects is to be an expert on the long term effects of anything and everything that has been used previously and which resembles what is being used currently. 

And that's why "doing your research" on something you don't really know anything about is so difficult. There are really just two ways about it. The first is to spend half a lifetime on learning the subject. The second is to know who to trust and ask her. 

And that's pretty much it. 

Looking for advice or even asking advice is not doing research. It's just putting your faith in somebody else's opinion. Whether that opinion is merited or not depends on a lot of things. 

The ladder of trust 

Here's one more thing to consider. In this whole world, there are a few people who are at the top of the ladder in physics or in vaccine design or in designing space exploration vehicles. They would be the first to tell you that they don't know everything, that they have doubts sometimes, and that they can't guarantee that everything they try will work. Actually they do say these things -- try reading Richard Feynman for some idea of the limits to human knowledge and how a brilliant person attacks them. 

There were people that Feynman taught, and mathematicians he went to for advice. There is a current generation of physicists who have their own ladder of expertise and respect. 

It's similar in the vaccine design field. There are many people who are experts in infectious disease medicine. There are people who are experts in the mathematical analysis of how well vaccines are working. There are experts in the immune system and there are experts in allergies. 

Now here's the thing -- those world leaders give talks and train new generations. Sometimes there are several leaders who don't agree on everything, but probably agree on the basics in their respective fields. Out of all these interactions (by people who do experiments and analyze data on a daily basis) the scientific community develops some pretty good estimates of how things work. 

So the bottom line comes down to this: There is a new disease going around the world that had already killed 400,000 Americans when the vaccine was finally released for public use. At this point, the death toll in the U.S. has grown to about three-quarters of a million people. I don't see how anybody could claim that this is a trivial thing. 

So knowing that number of 400,000 dead when the vaccine first became available, it was an obvious calculation. Roughly speaking, getting the vaccine is around a thousand times more safe than not getting it, because the chance of dying from Covid after getting the vaccine is pretty low, whereas the chance of getting Covid (eventually it will be just about everybody who isn't vaccinated) and the chance of dying from Covid (maybe one in a thousand?) are way different. 

And as for the chances of long term bad effects from getting the vaccine, you can ask the experts and they will be asking the experts they answer to, and the answer you get will be that your odds are pretty good. We haven't seen much in the way of long term effects even going back to early editions of the polio vaccine, themselves known to have sometimes contained Simian Virus 40 in addition to polio. 

So you can point out that there may be a one in ten million chance that the vaccine will have some effect on you years from now. But it is a chump's bet. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])