Last winter, China censored doctors who shared “dangerous” misinformation about the novel coronavirus on social media. Now America’s self-anointed virus experts and social media giants are also silencing doctors with contrary views to end the scientific debate.
We see this up close.
A Wall Street Journal was attached this week “We will have herd immunity by April” by Johns Hopkins surgeon Marty Makary (February 19) with the label “Missing Context. Independent fact checkers say this information could mislead people. According to Facebook, “Once we get a fact-checking review, we’ll take action by making sure fewer people see this misinformation.”
The Facebook label points to a third-party Health Feedback website, a member of a vaccine project run by the World Health Organization and a member of the non-profit Science Feedback, which reviews scientific claims in the media. Another member of Science Feedback reviews climate-related articles in mostly conservative media.
“The Wall Street Journal’s misleading statement makes the unsubstantiated claim that the US will have herd immunity by April 2021,” said Health Feedback’s fact-checking. “Three scientists analyzed the article and assessed its scientific credibility as very low overall.” This is a counter-opinion masquerading as a fact-checking.
Dr. Makary did not present his opinion as a statement of fact. Based on studies and other evidence, he argued that by spring, Americans would have sufficient immunity to vaccinations and natural infections to greatly reduce the spread of the virus. He was essentially making a projection, much like the epidemiologists at Imperial College and the University of Washington do.
But the progressive health cleric doesn’t like his projection fearing that it could lead to fewer virus restrictions. The horror! Health Feedback’s fact checkers inconsistent with the Dr. Makary’s evidence and their interpretation agree. Fine. Scientists disagree all along. Much of the conventional health knowledge about the risk of red meat, sodium, and cardiovascular disease is still hotly debated.
The same applies to Covid-19. There is still much we do not understand about the virus and its transmission and immunity. But Facebook’s fact checker “Kirschbaum”, to borrow their word, study to support their own opinions, which they present as facts. So let’s check out Facebook’s fact checkers.
A Kent State epidemiologist quarreled with Dr. Makary’s claim that “when [reinfections] occur, the cases are mild. “Your evidence? A single case report in the Rhode Island Medical Journal listing a handful of severe reinfections worldwide since April. However, the same study found that there are” few reports of reinfections in COVID-19 patients. “
A study by the New England Journal of Medicine last month identified only two asymptomatic possible reinfections in more than a thousand UK health workers with anti-spike antibodies from previous infections. Another study published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that antibodies from previous infections conferred a level of protection that appears to be “comparable” to mRNA vaccines in clinical trials.
Another fact checker says Dr. Makary miscalculated the proportion of Americans who were likely infected. We will never know this number for sure because most people with no symptoms or mild symptoms will not be tested. Antibody testing can help extrapolate infection, but antibodies wane over time and more quickly in mild and asymptomatic cases. So you can underestimate infections.
A study in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found that 2% of American blood donors had antibodies by mid-December 2019. At the beginning of spring, only one in eleven cases was tested. The ratio dropped to around 1 in 4 in the fall when the tests expanded. Dr. Makary applied what is known as a “time-weighted case capture average of 1 in 6.5”.
A disease ecologist at the University of Santa Cruz says he should have used 1 in 4, which would have extrapolated a lower estimate of infections. This is an arbitrary number and would underestimate the number of infections in spring. She also claims that Dr. Makary quoted the “infectious mortality rate” of 0.23% is incorrect and that it is around 0.6%.
Infectious Mortality Rates (IFR) are modeled and vary based on population demographics and the degree to which societies protect the elderly. Stanford epidemiologist John Ioannidis found that the median IFR estimate at 51 locations worldwide was 0.27%, but many estimates were from the spring when treatments were few. The infection death rate has likely decreased since then.
A study recently published in the journal Science estimated the death rate from infections in Manaus, Brazil, to be around 0.23%. Speaking of which, a Harvard epidemiologist criticizes Dr. Makary cited Manaus as an example of “herd immunity”. Epidemiologists estimated that 52.5% of Manaus were infected by June, while hospital admissions fell and remained low for seven months despite looser government restrictions.
The Washington Post in August pointed to Manaus as a possible example of herd immunity in practice. But hospital stays inexplicably skyrocketed in December. A recently published Lancet paper offers several hypotheses for this increase, including new virus variants that evade antibodies and defective models. These hypotheses deserve exploration.
However, Facebook’s Harvard epidemiologist concludes that Manaus “should be more than enough to demonstrate the dangers of trusting” herd immunity “to protect against infection”. It’s always a red flag when a scientist announces that a single piece of ambiguous evidence is enough to demonstrate something. These Facebook fact checkers don’t act like scientists.
Scientists often disagree on how to interpret evidence. In the debate, ideas are tested and arguments are refined. But Facebook’s fact checkers present their opinions as facts, trying to silence other scholars whose views are questioning their own.
We have rejected the proposals of Congress to change the protection under Section 230, which protects Internet platforms from liability. But social media giants are increasingly adding false fact-checking and removing articles flagged by left-wing users with no explanation. In short, they act like publishers when it comes to reviewing and stigmatizing the content of reputable publishers. The legal privileges that allow these companies to dominate public discourse need to be discussed and possibly revised.
Can the right-wing populist mood be banished from American life through the brutal violence of social media censorship? Images: AP / AFP / Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly
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