On "Science," "Data," and Bullshit
Updated: Mar 21
How I learned to stop relying on pandemic "experts" and start thinking for myself
Those of you who follow this blog know that I'm often inspired to write based on my encounters with friends and family who, to put it mildly, no longer see the world the same way I do. In fact, these days many of them seem to be living in a completely different reality. Recently, an exchange with one of my friends-from-an-alternate reality provided another source of inspiration.
For the past six months, Ken (a fellow Princeton alum) has chastised me for my vaccine hesitancy because he insists my position, which I shamelessly voice on social media, is "anti-science." I'm sure many of you have had similar experiences and know what I'm talking about. In Ken's mind, questioning the "official" narrative on anything COVID-related has become synonymous with a Dark Ages mentality, like doubting the existence of gravity or believing the earth is flat. As far as he's concerned, anyone who doesn't blindly accept the "data" and "science" propounded by selected "experts" is a knuckledragger who’s hostile to intellectualism.
But here's what's really crazy: Ken and others like him attribute this anti-science mindset exclusively, or at least primarily, to Donald Trump. They live in a reality that allows them to imagine that if the Annoyer-in-Chief had never taken office, everyone in America would trust "the science" implicitly. They honestly believe that no reasonable person should have any reservations whatsoever about getting jabbed with a vaccine that was tested for nearly twenty years on animals without success, yet somehow became "safe and effective" when refined at warp speed and injected in humans -- for the first time -- a little more than a year ago.
Because work and holiday planning have kept me so busy lately, I've refrained from getting into the weeds with him on this topic. But a few days ago Ken took our exchange to another level. "This is life and death stuff," he wrote. "Why would you go out of your way to spread bad info that could literally kill people?”
That was the final straw.
Ken's shaming-on-steroids forced me to pull focus on this topic, call upon my research, and offer a common sense analysis of his accusations. I've pasted my response below; take it for what it's worth. If you're getting shamed for similar reasons and my thoughts resonate with you, please feel free to share. There's no pride of ownership here. Like many of you, I'm just trying to do my part to help awaken as many minds as possible.
First off, I take issue with your assumption that anyone who is vaccine hesitant is "anti-science" and that Donald Trump is responsible for that hesitance. For reasons I'll get into below, I think this is an overly simplistic analysis of dissenting perspectives. While I agree that “experts" were more respected and trusted in the pre-Trump era, I think they've lost much of that respect and trust not due to Trump, but because they've damaged their own credibility.
I could spend many paragraphs reminding you that this loss of respect and trust isn't limited to scientific "experts," and that it didn't begin with this pandemic. When people who are supposedly smarter than we are tell us (1) the economy is "booming" (even as we're struggling to pay our bills and maintain our standard of living); (2) we need to invade a foreign country to neutralize weapons of mass destruction (that don't, in fact, exist); and (3) a candidate is a shoo-in to win the presidency by a large margin (yet actually ends up losing the election), anyone with common sense can see there's a credibility problem.
I could also remind you that throughout this pandemic, Fauci, Walensky & Co have contradicted themselves and provided guidance on "the science" that has often led to confusion and fueled doubts. Anyone paying attention can see that we're being led by technocrats who spend more time spinning expectations and moving goalposts (for masking, herd immunity, vaccine efficacy, etc.) than doing anything that puts us closer to ending this pandemic and bringing us back to "normal."
But I'm not going to waste my time re-hashing what I'm sure you already know. So let's talk about the other reasons why it's nonsensical to make Trump the poster child for vaccine hesitancy and expert fatigue, the reasons you probably aren't aware of or haven't given much thought to.
Let's start with the obvious: how can you possibly accuse Trump of being anti-science when the COVID-19 vaccine was developed at "warp speed" at his insistence? In fact, the man takes bizarre credit for its creation and never makes a public appearance without bragging about how "fantastic" the vaccine is! If he doesn't trust "the science," why would he constantly shill the product that experts have given us?
For the record, my thoughts on this subject — and most others — now transcend politics. I couldn't care less what Trump or any other politician has to say about the virus or the vaccine. I believe whether they realize it or not, whether they will admit to it or not, Republicans AND Democrats are getting played (and playing us) in this pandemic. Why? Because they’re both working for the same deep pockets: Big Pharma. Do you realize that the pharmaceutical industry spends TWICE as much as any other business sector -- $306 million in 2020 alone -- to lobby members of Congress? Do you honestly think that kind of money won't influence what a politician says, thinks, or does? Sure, a few Republicans and governors of red states may oppose vaccine mandates, but notice that the party leadership adheres to the "safe and effective" narrative and firmly supports mandates. They know where their bread is buttered. They know who they really serve.
But there are other reasons to believe that Trump isn't the primary driver for vaccine hesitancy. Consider the fact that black and brown people are among the most reluctant to get vaccinated. Have these historically Democratic voters somehow fallen under the spell of America's Biggest Racist? Are you accusing all of us of being part of the ignorant tribe that loathes science? Or is it more likely that we are simply less trusting of institutions that haven’t done a damn thing to keep us from getting screwed for decades?
Moreover, we now know that the most vaccine hesitant group is not Trump supporters or people of color; that honor belongs to Americans with PhDs:
"[R]esearchers also found that within the first five months of 2021 the largest decrease in skepticism about getting the vaccine was among the least educated - those with a high school education or less. By May, reluctance to get vaccinated held constant in the most educated group - those with PhDs.
'Those with PhDs were the only education groups without a decrease in hesitancy,' the paper read. Researchers concluded that the most educated people in our society are not only the most hesitant about getting vaccinated but are also the least likely to change their minds about it."
Remove your "Orange Man Bad" hat for a moment and honestly consider this question: have the most highly educated people in the country suddenly chosen to abandon “data” and “science,” or is it more likely that these detail-oriented Americans are looking deeper and seeing something that others aren’t?
I hope you get my point. I think we need to look beyond Trump when trying to understand why so many Americans are vaccine hesitant.
Before I go on, I want you to know that I do understand where you're coming from because I used to share your mindset about “science” and “data.” I took AP biology, chemistry and physics and was pre-med as a college freshman; I'm no stranger to the scientific method. So ask yourself: is it more likely that (a) someone with my background has chosen to rely on what You Tubers and high school drop outs opine about immunology or (b) my perspective has been influenced by reasoned and intelligent discovery? (As a side note on the subject of drop outs: I find it ironic that we're urged to condemn non-experts at large while being encouraged to trust Bill Gates — a man who dropped out of college and has NO medical background — as he plots the future for global public health. Why should anyone care if Gates thinks the pandemic will be manageable" by summer? (Oh, my bad. I forgot that if you’re a billionaire, you can be an “expert” on anything).
So what changed my perspective on "science" and "data"? Why do I refuse to blindly follow the guidance of pandemic experts? Because I now realize that “science” and “data” are no longer what I once believed them to be. They are being manipulated.
Let's talk about what kickstarted my discovery. In 2008, we learned that Pfizer, the company gifted with the only FDA-"approved" COVID-19 vaccine (I could spend many more paragraphs on the illusion of Pfizer's approval, but that's another discussion) did the unthinkable: it cut corners and distorted data during clinical trials for another pharmaceutical drug:
“The drug maker Pfizer earlier this decade manipulated the publication of scientific studies to bolster the use of its epilepsy drug Neurontin for other disorders, while suppressing research that did not support those uses, according to experts who reviewed thousands of company documents for plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the company.
Pfizer’s tactics included delaying the publication of studies that had found no evidence the drug worked for some other disorders, “spinning” negative data to place it in a more positive light, and bundling negative findings with positive studies to neutralize the results, according to written reports by the experts, who analyzed the documents at the request of the plaintiffs’ lawyers.
One of the experts who reviewed the documents, Dr. Kay Dickersin of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, concluded that the Pfizer documents spell out “a publication strategy meant to convince physicians of Neurontin’s effectiveness and misrepresent or suppress negative findings.”
Keep in mind, this isn't fake news; this was reported in The New York Times. And while it would be tempting to assume this was a one-off instance of bad behavior, that assumption would be naive. Because in the past few weeks, we’ve also learned this:
"[F]or researchers who were testing Pfizer’s [COVID-19] vaccine at several sites in Texas during that autumn, speed may have come at the cost of data integrity and patient safety. A regional director who was employed at the research organisation Ventavia Research Group has told The BMJ that the company falsified data, unblinded patients, employed inadequately trained vaccinators, and was slow to follow up on adverse events reported in Pfizer’s pivotal phase III trial. Staff who conducted quality control checks were overwhelmed by the volume of problems they were finding. After repeatedly notifying Ventavia of these problems, the regional director, Brook Jackson, emailed a complaint to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Ventavia fired her later the same day.
Two former Ventavia employees spoke to The BMJ anonymously for fear of reprisal and loss of job prospects in the tightly knit research community. Both confirmed broad aspects of Jackson’s complaint. One said that she had worked on over four dozen clinical trials in her career, including many large trials, but had never experienced such a “helter skelter” work environment as with Ventavia on Pfizer’s trial.
'I’ve never had to do what they were asking me to do, ever,' she told The BMJ. 'It just seemed like something a little different from normal—the things that were allowed and expected.'
After Jackson left the company problems persisted at Ventavia, this employee said. In several cases Ventavia lacked enough employees to swab all trial participants who reported covid-like symptoms, to test for infection. Laboratory confirmed symptomatic covid-19 was the trial’s primary endpoint, the employee noted. (An FDA review memorandum released in August this year states that across the full trial swabs were not taken from 477 people with suspected cases of symptomatic covid-19.)
'I don’t think it was good clean data,' the employee said of the data Ventavia generated for the Pfizer trial. 'It’s a crazy mess.'
'There’s just a complete lack of oversight of contract research organisations and independent clinical research facilities,' says Jill Fisher, professor of social medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and author of Medical Research for Hire: The Political Economy of Pharmaceutical Clinical Trials."
Again, we're not talking about disinformation or tripe peddled on a right-wing news outlet; the source is the British Medical Journal, one of the most reputable scientific publications in the world.
What we're learning is that pharmaceutical companies can and do cut corners during trials, which can lead to bad data and unreliable results. That's a big problem, but the bigger problem is that it seems we can no longer rely on the FDA to identify and resolve these issues. Over the past decade, the agency charged with ensuring the safety of Americans has developed a disturbing pattern of looking the other way.
For example, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf supported approval of the epilepsy drug eteplirsen in 2016, despite data indicating that the medication was of "very poor quality" because Sarepta Therapeutics had failed to provide "substantial evidence that the drug actually increased dystrophin levels."
“Accelerated approval of eteplirsen was not just a bad decision. It was the intellectual precedent needed for further erosion of FDA standards. We can even draw a line from the eteplirsen decision to recent controversies. In the last year, we witnessed the aducanumab (Aduhelm) decision for Alzheimer's disease. Here again, the FDA granted accelerated approval for a drug with no evidence people live longer or better, but on the basis of improving a disputed, uncertain biomarker...[T]he aducanumab decision was, once again, against the advice of an advisory panel vote.”
Incidentally, FDA Commissioner Califf left the agency in 2017 after less than a year of service, but Biden just appointed him to head the FDA again last month. This is a man who has spent a significant portion of his career consulting for for Merck Sharp & Dohme, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, and Eli Lilly. In fact, his ties to the drug industry run so deep that he lost his first bid for FDA Commissioner in 2009 because he was "was widely seen as too linked to industry." So why is Califf heading the FDA now? The White House actually vetted and abandoned several other candidates after concerns that some were too cozy with the pharmaceutical industry. Ultimately, the Biden administration "might have concluded that they could not find a suitable candidate with no industry ties." Wrap your head around what this means: we can't find anyone to run the agency that safeguards our health and safety unless we look to people with deep ties to Big Pharma -- and Califf was the least tainted of the lot.
Here's where I'm going with this: I think reasonable minds should now at least consider the possibility that the scientific method we've been taught to embrace and respect is being influenced, without our knowledge or awareness, by money and hidden interests. Like so many other things in a world we hardly recognize, relying on "the science" may no longer mean what we think it does.
John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, recently wrote an excellent article about how the pandemic has changed the norms of scientific methodology by demonizing the skepticism upon which scientific inquiry has always been based:
“Yet during the pandemic, requesting better evidence on effectiveness and adverse events was often considered anathema. This dismissive, authoritarian approach “in defense of science” may sadly have enhanced vaccine hesitancy and the anti-vax movement, wasting a unique opportunity that was created by the fantastic rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines.
Other potentially conflicted entities became the new societal regulators, rather than the ones being regulated. Big Tech companies, which gained trillions of dollars in cumulative market value from the virtual transformation of human life during lockdown, developed powerful censorship machineries that skewed the information available to users on their platforms. Consultants who made millions of dollars from corporate and government consultation were given prestigious positions, power, and public praise, while unconflicted scientists who worked pro bono but dared to question dominant narratives were smeared as being conflicted. Organized skepticism was seen as a threat to public health. There was a clash between two schools of thought, authoritarian public health versus science—and science lost.
Honest, continuous questioning and exploration of alternative paths are indispensable for good science. In the authoritarian (as opposed to participatory) version of public health, these activities were seen as treason and desertion.”
(I sincerely doubt Ioannidis is a Trumper, but I’m open to being proven wrong on this point).
So what does this all mean? I think it means there's an uncomfortably high chance that some of the data we've relied upon during this pandemic (how much, we don't know) may not have been based on "the science," but on something far less compelling: bullshit.
Are we talking about a conspiracy? I’m sure that’s what most people will assume, and for all I know there could be something nefarious afoot. But I think it’s worth considering the possibility that something far more mundane could be happening: epic groupthink.
Imagine that you work at a company where everyone shares the same politics and votes the same way. When an election rolls around, management doesn't need to gather senior executives in an office and tell them to encourage their direct reports to vote for the same candidate. It's simply not necessary. When it's clear that everyone around you, especially at the top of the food chain, thinks and believes the same thing, human instinct is to simply go along with the program and not fight it. Because people are hard wired to want to fit in with those around them, especially if their career and reputation are at stake. In many cases, groupthink is relatively harmless, but if it happens on a massive level and people we trust are making decisions based on what others think -- because they don't want to go against the grain or be out of step with those around them -- the consequences could be extremely serious, and even dangerous.
Just to be clear, I don't want to believe any of this; it's simply what's staring me (and every inquiring mind with common sense) in the face now. I am not interested in enabling delusion or any political agenda; I am demanding that leaders in the scientific community return to the transparency and open inquiry that have sustained its research for centuries. We have inexplicably abandoned these principles during this pandemic, and it’s beyond shameful; it's criminal. History will judge the people responsible for this abject moral failure. I think much will be revealed, sooner than later, that will shock those who blindly trusted what they were told and believed in "the science" without asking any questions. I also think those who breached their fiduciary duties to Americans will ultimately be held accountable, and I suspect they know this, which is why we're seeing unprecedented efforts to silence and suppress all dissenting thoughts.
As you can see, this is a subject I take VERY seriously and to which I have given considerable thought. I’m hoping this gives you a better understanding of why I can no longer trust what any expert tells me without questioning and analyzing the information. That doesn't mean I embrace contrarian views for the hell of it; I conduct diligent research and weigh as much evidence as I can get my hands on. I listen to all perspectives and constantly do a "gut check" to see what I may be missing. This may be an occupational hazard of being a lawyer, but I think it's a quality that's serving me well in these strange times.
Lastly, I'm not trying to talk you out of getting boosted; its your body, and it's your choice. I'm just trying to help you understand the perspective of those who have chosen not to get jabbed. I'm asking you to consider the possibility that we may not be dangerous heathens, but rather intellectually curious people who see red flags that you have not allowed yourself to see. I am simply encouraging you to do what we were both taught and trained to do at one of the country’s finest educational institutions:
Keep an open mind.
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