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Sunday, January 31, 2021

There is no such thing as an infodemic

Fair consideration of the skeptics' point of view is what makes the difference between knowledge and propaganda

W hy are some people skeptical about Covid-19? Or, for that matter, vaccines? It's a question that the Covid panic has brought to public attention. At last count, there are 160 articles in the scientific literature discussing a so-called “infodemic.” Some are reasonable, like the one in Clinical and Experimental Medicine that recommends doing better research and more well-designed studies.[1] Others, like one titled “Anti-science kills”[2] that showed up this week in PLoS Biology, are utterly bonkers.

In the PLoS Biology article, the author rants about former President Trump, hydroxychloroquine, anti-vaxxers, and the Great Barrington Declaration, and accuses them of causing tens of thousands of deaths. The author writes:

Thus, anti-science disinformation that advocates shunning masks could inflict a mass casualty event in the US. Its occurrence should not surprise us. Instead, our tragic loss of American lives would reflect the handiwork of an evolving anti-science movement that aggressively accelerated in the last 5 years beginning in California and Texas.

The article contains a gigantic text box, taken from a book titled Stalin and the Scientists, describing T.D. Lysenko and the ideological repression of science in the Soviet Union. The author thinks it is still going on. He writes: “Russian ‘weaponized health communication’ works through computer bots and trolls to create international discord about vaccines . . . . Increasingly, these activities are being tied closely to both the Kremlin and Russian President, Vladimir Putin.” He claims that there is an expanding “anti-science confederacy” orchestrated by Fox News and a group of evil geniuses that call themselves ”Republicans.”

An example of false SARS-CoV-2 information

One vaccine skeptic claimed last week that Pfizer's mRNA vaccine was dangerous because the mRNA would be expressed in “every cell of the body.” If true, that would indeed be dangerous: it would invoke a massive T-cell response. But it is not true.

Since Pfizer injects 30 micrograms of mRNA per dose, it is theoretically almost possible to inject enough mRNA to get the equivalent of one molecule in each cell. It can be calculated using the partial specific volume of RNA[3], the internal volume of a nanoparticle, and the molecular weight of the SARS-CoV-2 S RNA. (This is left as an exercise for the reader.) But empirically, it doesn't happen. Lipid nanoparticles for vaccines are typically around 200 nanometers in diameter [4], and they are found to remain at the site of injection.[5,6] If they didn't, they would go into the bloodstream and be destroyed, and the vaccine would not work.

Reuters posted a “fact check” which used the volume of a nanoparticle to “debunk” a similar conspiracy theory that says vaccines could contain some sort of RFID tag. To make it easier to debunk, they changed the theory to claim it says that a little computer or robot could fit inside a nano­particle. Their argument is that the nanoparticle contains mRNA, not a computer, so therefore there cannot be a computer in there. VERDICT: False.

In case it is not obvious, it is not possible to prove a point by re-stating your premise. The Reuters fact-check does not even qualify as an argument.

Is it any wonder that people, finding only dishonest fact checks, basic facts concealed behind paywalls, and name-calling, censorship, and insults instead of engagement, will assume that something fishy is going on?

Perhaps the editors don't realize they're channeling the paranoid General Jack D. Ripper in Doctor Strangelove:

Your Commie has no regard for human life, not even his own. And for this reason, men, I want to impress upon you the need for extreme watchfulness. The enemy may come individually, or he may come in strength. He may even come in the uniform of our own troops. But however he comes, we must stop him.

But it is no joke. We must take care when we complain about politicization of science that we do not politicize it ourselves. Dissident and even outrageous opinions are easy to find on the Internet. But it is beyond bonkers to claim, as the author does, that “disinformation” has killed tens of thousands of people. The author is demonstrating the truth of the maxim that we become what we hate.

Why do dissident opinions gain adherents? Why do some people claim that we're in a “contrived public health emergency”? The reason is that people hate being deceived. When they see public health officials using PCR technology inappropriately to inflate the case counts, misclassifying deaths to inflate our fear of the virus, and revising the diagnostic criteria to reduce the number of cases two hours after their preferred candidate in the US presidential elections is inaugurated, people recognize it as politics, not science. They ask: If it's true, why is it necessary to lie about it?

It is the same reaction that scientists and medical professionals have when they encounter incorrect information on the Internet. So we hear disparaging terms like “anti-vaxxer” and “anti-science” designed to reclassify dissenting opinions as “dangerous disinformation.” But trying to suppress these ideas will not work. It will turn ‘conspiracy theories’ into genuine conspiracies. It will prove to the skeptics that science is an ideology of the elites, that it is intolerant of contradiction, and that it jealously guards its narrative by force because it cannot prevail on the merit of its evidence. It will convince people that public health professionals have such a low opinion of the masses that they think people must be protected like children from “dangerous” facts and ideas.

Knowledge does not flow from the barrel of a gun. Adopting an censorious, authoritarian approach to knowledge merely converts knowledge into propaganda. When knowledge is politicized, it produces skeptics who believe everything the speaker says is a lie.

If you suppress dissenting opinions, your own opinions become worthless. If, for example, a journal published articles claiming that wearing face masks reduces transmission of Covid, but rejected any articles claiming that they do not, then the articles saying they reduce transmission would have no information content and thus no value. Fair consideration of the skeptics' point of view, no matter how bizarre their ideas may sound, is what makes the difference between knowledge and propaganda.

If you're going to criticize the politicization of science, doing it by politicizing science yourself belies your claim that you're opposed to it. In this authoritarian age, scientists must let the chips fall where they may and resist the urge to make consequentialist arguments. It is the most basic principle in science: if you want people to believe you, tell them the truth.

1. Tentolouris A, Ntanasis-Stathopoulos I, Vlachakis PK, Tsilimigras DI, Gavriatopoulou M, Dimopoulos MA (2021). COVID-19: time to flatten the infodemic curve. Clin Exp Med. 2021 Jan 8:1–5. doi: 10.1007/s10238-020-00680-x. PMID: 33417084; PMCID: PMC7790724.

2. Hotez PJ (2021). Anti-science kills: From Soviet embrace of pseudoscience to accelerated attacks on US biomedicine. PLoS Biol. Jan 28. 19(1):e3001068. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3001068. PMID: 33507935.

3. Voss NR, Gerstein M (2005). Calculation of standard atomic volumes for RNA and comparison with proteins: RNA is packed more tightly. J Mol Biol. 346(2), 477–492. doi: 10.1016/j.jmb.2004.11.072. PMID: 15670598.

4. Reichmuth AM, Oberli MA, Jaklenec A, Langer R, Blankschtein D. (2016). mRNA vaccine delivery using lipid nanoparticles. Ther Deliv. 7(5), 319–34. doi: 10.4155/tde-2016-0006. Erratum in: Ther Deliv. 2016 Jun;7(6):411. PMID: 27075952; PMCID: PMC5439223.

5. Henriksen-Lacey M, Bramwell VW, Christensen D, Agger EM, Andersen P, Perrie Y (2010). Liposomes based on dimethyldioctadecylammonium promote a depot effect and enhance immunogenicity of soluble antigen. J Control Release. 2010 142(2), 180–186. doi: 10.1016/j.jconrel.2009.10.022. PMID: 19874860.

6. Henriksen-Lacey M, Christensen D, Bramwell VW, Lindenstrøm T, Agger EM, Andersen P, Perrie Y (2011). Comparison of the depot effect and immunogenicity of liposomes based on dimethyldioctadecylammonium (DDA), 3β-[N-(N',N'-Dimethylaminoethane)carbomyl] cholesterol (DC-Chol), and 1,2-Dioleoyl-3-trimethylammonium propane (DOTAP): prolonged liposome retention mediates stronger Th1 responses. Mol Pharm. 8(1), 153–161. doi: 10.1021/mp100208f. PMID: 21117621.

jan 31 2021, 4:41 am. text box added 7:03 am

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