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  • Scott Britton

Infodemic

Updated: Jul 23

The following fallacy was on my Facebook feed today:


TUBERCULOSIS

TB Spreads through the air when an infected person talks. Caughs or sneezes. According to CDC TB is a leading infectious disease claiming 1.5 million lives each year and infecting 23% of the population.

No mass hysteria

No stay at home orders

No shutdowns

No mandates

Now Ask Yourself Why?


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TB is actually a huge worldwide public health problem that doesn't get nearly enough attention. Here are some facts about TB: Most cases (90%) are latent so most people having healthy immune systems fight off the disease pretty well. By contrast, 20% of COVID-19 cases end up hospitalized. Adaptive immune response essentially builds a wall around the infected cells with tuberculosis. Also, there is a vaccine available for people who worry about TB so that is a pretty significant difference between the two diseases. Additionally, being bacterial rather than viral TB can be addressed with antibiotics. As of yet, we do not have antivirals for coronaviruses. Don’t ask yourself, ask someone who knows more than you. Ask your doctor. Ask a person who works in public health. The infodemic is where information is not screened for accuracy by qualified sources. You simply do not know what you do not know. Don’t assume, ask someone who does know. TB is major killer in third world countries, and coupled with HIV in those countries millions of people are expected to die from completely treatable infectious diseases in the coming years.


Merriam Webster defines infodemic as "the far reaching spread of both accurate and inaccurate information". Our problem is the misuse of media, both social (as we see above) but also institutionalized media. Neither amplifier has sufficient built in checks and balances to tell accurate stories about the complicated and nuanced disciplines of science and medicine. Adaptive immune response, for example, is not something that can be figured out using our deductive reasoning alone apart from actual data. John Barry masterfully covered the history of scientific medicine in his book "The Great Influenza".


Essentially, for over fifteen centuries western medicine was stunted by mentally exercising the ideas of Hippocrates and Galen without questioning nor experimentation. Finally, a few disrupters ignited the scientific revolution and taught rational thinkers that only careful testing and observation can unlock the mysteries of biology. Yet even in the twenty first century, people are generally misled by unqualified and sometimes politicized information. The fact is most news outlets do not have anyone on staff with a degree in medicine or science to even have the context to know if a story is responsible or credible. So often the editorial staff goes with a what Seth Mnookin phrased as the "on one hand, and on the other hand paradigm"


Oprah Winfrey, for example, gave such an audience to the Jenny McCarthy, a so called "Vaccine Mom"; but Oprah did not check with the experts, and this was a controversy that had long been decided by rigorous peer reviewed studies in the global community of qualified working professionals. There were very large circles of people in the know, including virtually every pediatrician, obstetrician and certainly all of the people working at our county and state Departments of Health had the facts on the matter.

There has never been a rational causation shown between measles vaccine and autism in study after study performed. But no one was listening to the pediatricians and public health experts when Andrew Wakefield contrived falsehoods and slipped by the acquisition editor to get himself published in the Lancet. Although the watchman let him slip through the gate, peer review immediately disavowed all of Wakefield’s conclusions and published the retorted flagrant mistakes in his research methodology. Network news was not interested in getting the facts right at the time. Nor were the many talk shows that entertained audiences with Andrew Wakefield's showmanship. Even now after the predatory English doctor has lost his license to practice medicine, given his shenanigans (not to mention the malpractice on children, unnecessarily shoving tubes into their intestines risking perforation), many people still believe in and carry on the conspiracy theories spun by Wakefield.


Such is the power of media. And those who can afford it the least suffer the most. The autism community was set back a more than a decade. Instead of focusing on possibly finding the true environmental factors affecting autism, media induced panic caused society to waste resources on reaffirming earlier studies about vaccines. Opportunity loss was the detriment of sound research.


Every time we share a story that hasn’t been vetted through proper channels we contribute to the problem of misinforming others. The problem is compounded because people know exactly how to push our buttons. Just like Wakefield used commercial media, we can misuse social media in our own circles of influence to run with a compelling story without checking the facts. But make no mistake about this, some people die because they are misinformed. The epidemiology from people who have died from contracting measles from unvaccinated carriers is very well documented.


Today with an ongoing SARS-COV-19 pandemic news outlets continue to run with titillating stories rather than genuinely proofreading sources for the integrity of public health and our economy. That kind of journalism, performed by professionals and amateurs alike is really what is destroying our country. Social media presents a chance to go viral but with this opportunity comes the threat of misuse and individual responsibility that we all must learn to properly consider; if not, it is only a matter of time before our nation falls. There are plenty of physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists and coroners willing to tell us their true stories about treating COVID patients. Are you seeking those sources and listening to them?


Seth Mnookin did a great job of explaining this unfortunate trend in media ten years ago in his book "The Panic Virus". Every program that makes it into a slot for network television is market tested for ratings. This happens on social media too. Think about how Google knows exactly what we like to see. I searched for information about a certain motorcycle yesterday and today I am seeing adds from motorcycle dealers. We fall into the algorithm and when we perform a search we mostly see stories containing opinions that we agree with. Go figure. They tell us what we want to hear. Here is the problem. Every issue is not a "on one hand, and on the other hand thing". Some things have grave consequences.


Some things are already decided as fact. No individual can know everything. Scientists and public health workers talk to other scientists and read their papers all the time. We share information. So if you want to learn about public health, and there is good reason to do that, just look into the faces of your loved ones. You should talk to people who work for a living in the field. When it comes to public health in a time where things are politicized, It is best to avoid the brass and the PR people and talk to directly to nerds who actually work in the lab and/or process data. We live in the age of division of labor and specialization. We must not trust anything that is outside of our own expertise. Just because it seems logical does not make it true. You just might be a victim of the infodemic.






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