(Mad) Science, Media Coverage and Misinformation
July 26, 2023
Earlier this year, former FOX News host Tucker Carlson took to the air to announce the shocking claim that there has been a significant surge in sudden cardiac deaths among athletes following the implementation of the COVID-19 vaccine. The problem with this nationally announced data? It came from a source that claims to publish “real science”. Real in this context seemingly refers to science that is outside of the peer review process.
The news report cited a “study” which, upon further investigation, is revealed to be a letter to the editor published in the Scandinavian Journal of Immunology, itself referring to a “truth-seeking” science website that publishes all information anonymously, and without any review process.
At no point did the news itself or the resultant social media explosion of emotionally charged diatribes claiming a cover-up of vaccine injuries mention the dubious source. Instead, the news hit on key points that disguise the announcement as a scientifically valid fact. Firstly, they cited the authors of the letter to the editor, cardiologist Peter McCullough and researcher Panagis Polykretis, rather than the source study, to add a sense of credibility that they have qualified professionals involved. Secondly, they referenced figures. In this case, they claimed that before the COVID-19 vaccine, only 29 cardiac arrests occurred in athletes in European sports leagues per year. Post-vaccine, they claimed that this figure increased to 1,598.
For many individuals, this is enough to convince them that the news is correct. Studies have shown direct links between negative media attention – and in particular, the exposure to conspiracy theories – and vaccine coverage rates. Due to this, the real-world impact of media outlets chasing news stories without adequate research is that many people will opt to forego life-saving medical interventions.
The key issue that we face as scientific communicators is that the majority of people will take the news at face value. Few individuals immediately take up arms and flock to PubMed to check the claims against published data. Though the claim is a bold one, the data simply do not back it up. In order to reach this conclusion, however, a little digging is required.
On to the data
The original source material, an article published on a website called Goodsciencing is riddled with flaws. They reference a published study analysing the rate of sudden cardiac death in athletes in Europe below the age of 35. It is from here that the comparative figures are drawn. The study notes 1,101 reports of sudden cardiac deaths over a 38-year period, or an average of 29 per year.
The conclusions of the referenced study, published in 2006, already begin to dismantle many of the arguments made by both the Goodsciencing article, and across news and social media following the announcement. They find that, contrary to current media claims, while athletes are in peak physical health and so are the last people one would expect to suffer cardiac issues, the actual rate of sudden death due to cardiac conditions in athletes is roughly 2.5 times that of the general population. The cause of this is typically undiagnosed congenital heart conditions, combined with intense exercise putting pressure on the cardiac system.
The rates of sudden cardiac events are, however, relatively low compared to the claims of the Goodsciencing article, stating that more than 1,500 athletes are dying per year as a result of the COVID-19 vaccination. Do their own data support this claim? No, for a multitude of reasons.
Far from using medical data, the study simply compiles news reports. As a direct comparison between the former study and current data, it would be expected that, at the very least, they would limit their investigation to the same three specific and straightforward inclusion criteria. The person must be from Europe, under age 35, and a member of a sports league. However, none of these criteria are taken into account.
Multiple individuals included in the study were above the age of 70, the oldest being a former professional basketball player who died at the age of 86. Being a professional athlete was also seemingly overlooked, as many included in the list were not athletes, but just individuals who happened to be swimming at the time of death, or enjoyed jogging. The scope of the Goodsciencing article also expanded to cover deaths across the globe, rather than just in Europe – an inclusion decision that would naturally inflate figures.
Most questionable of all, though, is the manner of death of some of the individuals. All have been noted as being “vaccine-related”, however, looking through the data, this claim strains credulity. Car crashes are featured in some entries (often with a speculative “did the vaccine cause a cardiac arrest while driving” note). Among one of the more shocking entries, a suicide by gunshot to the head was listed as a vaccine-related incident, with a description reading “Was he vaxxed and if so, did he know his career was over?”
The “study”, with only a glancing amount of further inspection, reveals itself to be speculative at best, and factually incorrect at worst, with an expansion of the selection criteria ensuring that figures appear worse than the comparison study. Many of the entries included clearly have no relation to vaccination and often involve examples of children who were quite clearly not professional European athletes. This is exploitative of tragic circumstances and is being reported in national news as if it is scientific fact. Many across social media were convinced of these false claims.
Concerningly, this is not the only instance of such disinformation being highly publicized.
Myocarditis: a political talking point
Last month social media was ablaze with discussions of myocarditis. While this has been a talking point since shortly after vaccination against COVID-19 began, this was one of the few occasions where those who were discussing issues with the vaccines cited legitimate peer-reviewed studies.
The study, published in JAMA Network highlights data found through passive surveillance reporting in the US from December 2020 to August 2021. The results show that among the young male group that had received an mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine, rates of myocarditis had increased substantially compared to 2017-2019 medical claims data. This increase was most notable in the 16-17 age bracket, at 105.9 per million doses of the BNT162b2 vaccine.
This has been reported in the media, as well as widely used across social media, to push a figure citing a 13,200% increase in myocarditis cases among children. This figure is a shocking one, and ideal ammunition for anti-vaccination groups to appeal to emotion, and sway individuals who are unlikely to look into the data further and simply take the high percentage figure at face value. Issues arise with the narrative upon further inspection.
A significant flaw in the way this is being reported is that myocarditis cases from COVID-19 infections are being overlooked. References from within this same study point out CDC data showing a rate of myocarditis incidence of 0.146% among patients (of all age groups) diagnosed with COVID-19 during an inpatient or hospital-based outpatient encounter. As a comparative figure, this would equate to 1,460 per million cases of COVID-19, far higher than the rate of myocarditis resulting from vaccination. Despite the selectivity of the data, this talking point has been used as an argument against vaccination during press conferences with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and by 2024 presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Anti-vaccine sentiment and disinformation are now firmly on the public stage
The significance of such well-known political figures highlighting this information is that disinformation and anti-vaccine sentiment is now a commonly discussed point both politically and by the media.
Kennedy, to this day, still espouses the views held by discredited academic Andrew Wakefield, claiming that the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine is the cause of autism in a now-retracted publication. Such claims thrive on the logic that correlation equals causation, coupled with the emotive argument that children are in danger.
One of the primary arguments of the anti-vaccine movement is that autism typically presents symptoms following vaccinations. This correlation is predestined, as many vaccines will have already been given before the typical timeframe in which autistic behaviors will become apparent. No evidence has been presented to indicate that vaccines play a role in causing autism outside of this correlation.
Many of these conspiracy theories are based entirely on similar correlations. Correlation does not, however, equal causation. One data scientist sought to prove the fallacy in this point with a notably absurd correlation; that deaths by pool drownings in the U.S. are correlated with the number of films Nicolas Cage has starred in that year.
While the comparison is comical, the impact of medical disinformation cannot be underestimated. The Wakefield paper, despite being retracted, continues to have an impact. MMR vaccine coverage rates fell across many countries following the media coverage of the study. Across the US and Europe, this resulted in outbreaks of measles. This even led to the WHO retracting the measles-eradication status of Albania, Czechia, Greece, and the United Kingdom.
The pandemic has seen similar disinformation, though the channels by which it is being spread are significantly more far-reaching. Professor Scott Ratzan described the COVID-19 pandemic as the first pandemic to effectively be live-streamed on digital platforms and social media. This has underlined newly evolving challenges in health communication. A core premise of this is that health literacy among the general public is now entangled with media literacy, requiring social media users to be able to navigate a minefield of disinformation. As the pandemic showed, the loudest voices on social media were often not the ones stating the facts.
In order for science to be properly conveyed to the public, efforts must be made to ensure that voices of disinformation are not the only ones reaching audiences. One study found that over two-thirds of vaccine-related videos on YouTube that were analyzed for content accuracy in May 2019 presented unreliable safety and efficacy information. Such content is likely to reach a far broader audience than the results of many studies that will only ever be seen on PubMed, or in highly specialized scientific media outlets.
Surveys from the Wellcome Trust have shown that during the course of the pandemic, overall trust in scientists increased. This was primarily attributed to the fact that the pandemic “thrust scientists into the spotlight”. The key message here is that engagement with the public is a critical factor in increasing trust in science. As scientific communicators, we must make an effort to engage with the public through as many means as possible. Failure to do so, and limiting engagement to groups that are already aware of the science, results in a situation where we are preaching to the choir.
It is easy to dismiss those with low trust or those holding anti-scientific views as conspiracy theorists and science deniers. However, surveys indicate these groups often have poor scientific literacy, and so, are the most vulnerable to disinformation. Studies have shown that open dialogues using accurate data conveyed in a digestible format via outlets and social media that will reach these audiences could have a great deal of impact. Vaccine acceptance rates could be increased, leading to far more effective vaccination campaigns. Improved knowledge may lead to increased symptom awareness, and therefore earlier diagnosis for many conditions, leading to better disease prognoses.
Reaching out to groups vulnerable to disinformation cannot be overlooked as a public health strategy, and as scientific communicators, we must lead the way.