LAST WEEK I was in Chicago, IL in all-day meetings with community leaders discussing, among other things, the science of early treatment of COVID19 and the state of the vaccine studies. Chicago is a fair distance from my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA. I had seen an email from a Jon Greenburg requesting information about an article he was writing – he wanted a source for the “21%” I had cited – long ago – in a presser in Harrisburg, PA. I replied quickly that I would not be able to get back to him. Unbeknownst to him, and to me, my email reply had bounced back.
The video snippet that had gone viral – late – and while the message was passionate and accurately reflected Moderna’s reported percentage of patients reporting serious adverse events, the viralness place it out of synch with the newer data.
After the all-day meetings in Chicago, and dropping someone off at the airport, I finally had a moment to call Jon.
I immediately found Jon to be an exceptionally aimiable person. In fact, I’d say we hit it off. We both laughed off my misdirected email reply, and while he assured me that while he verified the source of the 21% number, that his article nevertheless had run, and that it was “out there”. I told him that I have other issues with the more data reported by Pfizer and Moderna, to be published soon that I would send along given his interest. [Jon, buddy, if you are reading, your title “Video shared on Facebook inflates risk of Moderna vaccine 40-fold” is misleading. The video accurately represented the risk as it was represented by Moderna at the time of the press conference. Ironically, FB should label your article “Partly Wrong” or “Out of Context”). For the readers’ edification, Jon works for Politifact, a project of the Poynter Institute- and a signatory of principles that include “A Committment to Open and Honest Corrections”.
I had no problem with the misunderstanding, so Jon and I got to talking, and I ended up inviting him to come on to my podcast, “Unbreaking Science”, to discuss the business of “Fact Checking” in the age of social media. After initially saying perhaps other people working with Politifact might be better suited to the invite, because they were more experienced with “vaccines”, Jon sent me his supervisor’s email address, and I sent the invite. I await a reply from his supervisor. It’s the holidays, so I’ll wait a few days more. But I think it would make a great discussion. Because I have a few questions that Fact-Checkers need to consider. Here’s a warm-up list:
Who Fact-Checks the Fact-Checkers? Social media websites such a Facebook now rely on fact checkers to pin labels on posts as “out of context” or “partly wrong” or “misinformation”. I give kudos to Facebook for at least allowing posts to continue to appear after being fuzzed out. In a open society, however, people have a right to be wrong. I was not wrong about the 21% that I had reported in Harrisburg, and serious questions remain regarding the rushed vaccine safety studies (such as how was Moderna allowed to proceed to larger human trials with 21% SAE, for one).
Who Pays the Fact-Checkers? Social media sites that use Fact-Checkers should not pay for the service because it makes “finding misinformation” a commodity, and in a capitalist society, the actual value of the commity will decrease when its quality plummets while its price will nevertheless be increased. Plus, I find the policing of other peoples’ perception of reality somewhat creepy work that can be inherently biased against whatever narrative the herd mentality adopts. Truth is not determined by consensus (see: Fallacy of Consensus, or Argumentum ad populum), nor can Truth ever be determined by decree. I’ll admit, there is blatent misinformation, such as Fauci moving the goalpost on vaccine uptake required to reach herd immunity, but you’re not going to find fact-checkers fact-checking the establishment. A valid question is: Why not? Remember, it is the politicization of public health by those creating the pharmacomedicofascist state we all now live in that I decried in my speech in Harrisburg. These entities, via campaign finance reform, have been allowed to dump unlimited amounts of money into the coffers of the Democratic party. As a result, Democratic party politics is now the same as – or at least my perception of – party politics of the Republican party from the 1980s and 1990s – top-down decrees. You’re not allowed to vote your conscience, and you’re not allowed to vote per your constituents’ views. Those who would push vaccination rates for every vaccine to 100% – knowing some people will be hurt, or killed, have blatantly rewarded new legislation with job creation (six jobs in Albany, NY). THAT is a quid pro quo. THAT was the main point of my speech in Harrisburg: I condemned the politicization of our health, of public health, and of medicine. So it’s interesting that a Political fact-checking website weighed in on the video but focused on the 21%, which was, at the time, an accurately reported fact.
Who Fact-Checks the Fact-Checkers? What will happen when two self-nominated “Fact-Checker” websites disagree of a topic? How will social media sites pick which Fact-Checkers are correct? I don’t have answers to that, because the currency of Fact-Checkers is often opinion, not fact, and I think most people are beginning to realize that warning labels on posted content now serve as a beacon that says “oh, this will be interesting” – and the entire enterprise backfires.
What Happens when the Fact-Checkers Get it Wrong? Social media sites use “Fact Checkers” at their own peril. Freedom-loving people who were born in the US want to die – of old age – in a free and open society where reality it “out there”, the substance of the universe, not something dictated by people they don’t know, they didn’t elect, and who may well themselves have an agenda to sway perception. That means that social media sites that use “Fact Checkers” will lose entire segments of the population, leaving behind a siloized echo chamber in which a particular herd mentality can live, unfettered by the intrusive inconvenience of dissenting minority views. Such homogenization of social media forums convert them from “the public square” to “selected speech zones”, impoverished of alternative viewpoints. It’s not just boring: it’s unsafe. Everyone involved should study the concept of the wisdom of the minority.
In Science, we use the process of Editor-in-Chief adjudicated peer review to guage the worthiness of a research study or research-centered papers, including viewpoints. Peer review is designed to attempt to increase the likelihood of objectivity. It’s imperfect in many ways, which I have addressed in one of my three bootcamp episodes of Unbreaking Science. But the merits of bona fide peer review include the selection and use of domain experts, blindedness, and repeated rounds, if necessary, of mediated considerations of suggested changes/responses to perceived flaws between the author and three reviewers. I participate in the peer-review process at least twice a month in many journals. I have served a peer-reviewer on three vaccine development studies in 2020 alone.
Social media websites are now using non-peer reviewed opinion pieces (something we in Science call “pedestrian comments” to put warning labels on peer-reviewed research! For example, re: my recent vaccinated vs. unvaccinated study with Dr. Paul Thomas, which also has gone viral, Facebook decided to use a website whose content is not peer-reviewed. In fact, the article they cited was written by the Editor of the website, who cited another non-peer-reviewed website, which publishes one person’s opinion. That person has never published anything peer-reviewed about vaccines. They have also never published a pedestrian comment critical of any vaccine. I rebut the so-called Fact-checkers’ bemoanment of what they think they think about our study in this episode of Unbreaking Science. They are really just repeating someone’s opinion. Mere repetition of someone’s opinion does convert opinion into truth.
Fact-Checking is Unscientific
Science is about being wrong. It requires stating bold hypotheses, and attempting to test them – i.e., to falsify them. Opinion, being subjective, is never falsifiable. So, fact-checkers should know this: when I’m wrong, I’ll be the first concede the point. That’s called learning. To do otherwise would be profoundly unscientific. If fact-checkers want survive this experiment with social as “a thing”, you should do the same. All “Fact-checker” websites should have a section of “Retracted Facts” in which they update their own errors. And they should report their own error rates. But they won’t. Because Fact-checkers deal in the currency of “truth” , and Truth cannot be retracted. When it comes to matters of Science, their science section will fill up with “Retracted Facts” to the point where most of their own claims about a topic are found to be falsified. Science never deals in truth. It approximates the truth (which is why p-values are never 0.0). While I will admit when I’m wrong and update my positions, my detractors, however, will never mention any such concessions; they will only point to any errors made along the way toward better understanding via my testing of hypothesis. This is a sign of agenda-driven dogma.
There is no place for dogma in an open society, and I, and millions of others, will continue to work to maintain the one we have until the day we die.
If you are a “Fact-Checker” and would like to join a panel discussion on the show “Unbreaking Science” to discuss these topics, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Show me I’m wrong.
VERDICT: Fact-checking is often represented as something more than mere opinion, when in reality, it can often merely be a set of alternative facts that can, themselves, be wrong. People are entitled to hear and read others’ opinions, but the level of evidence required to label your opinion, or you own opinion, as “Fact”, is much higher than that required to label it as “opinion”. Fact-checkers should label their output “Opinion” when it truly is mere opinion and Social Media websites should label it as.