‘Fake’ news, wrong experts, confusing comparisons

Press release


“Fake news” is getting a lot of attention at present. Anyone following COVID-19 articles will have probably seen at least one piece of information flagged by “checkers” as “fake.” Thus, it was not surprising to see the following in a recent government email:

Spotting fake news

A lot of what people see or read online is true, but sometimes it is deliberately published to misinform or deceive readers. When it has been published this way, it is known as fake news.

The article includes a link to a Netsafe page which recommends a number of government-approved sources of information, and two fact checker sites.

While it is generally accepted that the internet houses much non-factual information, there seems to be a push at present to bifurcate that information into “fact” and “fake.” It’s interesting to note that the creators of information deemed to be “fact” use science as their main tool for promoting this bifurcation.

Misusing science

In a recent interview, Carl Heneghan, Director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, Oxford University stated: “there is a real separation between an evidence-based decision and the opaque term that ‘we are being led by the science.’ The science is a mechanism…” he explains, “but, it isn’t the evidence.”

“Science is a mechanism,” refers to the idea that science is about applying experimentation and observation to those things about which we are uncertain. Its job is to lay the foundation for the development of theories, not facts. And, when we toss an existing theory into the bin because it isn’t supported by emerging data, that is a victory for science. Thus, true science requires us to keep an open mind… on an ongoing basis.

Thus, we can say it is a fact that Neil Fergusson predicted that COVID-19 would have an infection fatality rate (IFR) of 1%, thereby launching a global crisis. It is also a fact that Professor John Ioannids of Stanford later suggested that an IFR of 0.24% would be more accurate, based on newly gathered seroprevalence data. Finally, it is a fact that the CDC weighed in and suggested an IFR of 0.65%, which it got from averaging the values of a number of academic papers.

And while it is true that each of these people/organisations made such statements, none of the values they have proposed is a “fact.” These are theories from scientists trying their best to work with imperfect data and theoretical models.

“Fact” checkers?

Since the scientific process is about gathering evidence which forms the foundation for theories, not “facts,” what are we to make of the censoring and discrediting of some COVID-19 evidence and the promotion of other such evidence? Who is deciding which evidence is “fact”?

Looking at the aforementioned Netsafe bulletin, we see that the first government-approved fact-checker is AFP Fact Check. On the company’s homepage they link to an article stating:

“Multiple Facebook posts shared tens of thousands of times claim the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, has infected far fewer people than the H1N1 virus, or swine flu… The claim is misleading; in April 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) said that COVID-19 is “10 times more deadly than swine flu”; health experts say COVID-19 has a higher death rate than swine flu…”

A discerning reader’s first concern might be, “how can we compare one disease’s infection rates to another’s death rates?” Secondly, this argument for the scientific “facts” uses statements from April, which were based on predictions derived from the scant data of the time. This despite Heneghan saying in July that “none of the [early] predictions have been right.”

The article then goes on to cite a vaccinologist from the University of Auckland who says, “The mortality rate of Swine Flu was around 1/100, the mortality rate for COVID-19 reported infections is around 2-3 per 100.”

One may wonder why a vaccinologist was consulted to decide the “facts” about COVID-19 mortality rates compared to swine flu rates. The branch of science that deals with such issues is epidemiology. According, to Heneghan—an epidemiologist—at least as far the UK goes, there has been “massive confusion” about the COVID-19 death numbers, due to overreporting in some settings and in the media, as well as lack of standardisation of reporting across countries.

In other words, not even epidemiologists know “the facts” of COVID-19 virulence or mortality rates at present. And as far as that goes, scientists from this discipline aren’t particularly certain of the rate of mortality of the swine flu, with the CDC estimating the number of deaths in the first year to be between 150,000 and 575,000.

Heneghan does, however, point out that 80% of swine flu deaths occurred in those under the age of 65. COVID-19, on the other hand, is fatal predominantly in those 65 and over. Thus, if we bring “life years lost” rather than “lives lost” into the picture as we calculate virulence—which Heneghan suggests we should do in order to get a better sense of “excess deaths in the population”—then the theory that “COVID-19” is less virulent than swine flu appears to have some evidence to back it up. By doing a bit more work, we avoid a reduction trap, and are then less likely to judge someone else’s science-based theory as “misinformation.”

Arbiters of truth?

Is it perhaps just AFP who is guilty of giving preference to certain (older) data while dismissing other evidence? Given that US watchdog, Children’s Health Defense (CHD), has launched a lawsuit against Facebook and three fact checkers it funds for “censoring truthful public health posts,” it would seem not. CHD has had a number of their posts blocked, including videos about legal proceedings and peer-reviewed, scientific articles.

Despite these actions, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg says, “we don’t want to be the arbiters of truth.” Unfortunately, neither Facebook, its fact checkers, nor much of the tech industry has met this goal in recent days, as they label some evidence-based theories “misinformation” and others “reliable.” Roger Teich, lead attorney for Children’s Health Defense states, “the fundamental principal of the first amendment is to let the information get out there and let the people decide for themselves. That’s also the scientific method.”

Of course the circulation of myriad scientific theories can leave us feeling insecure. Henghan says, “This has been a period where there’s been lots of issues with the production of evidence and its interpretation. What people have found very difficult… to deal with [is] uncertainty.” However, uncertainty abounds today. This includes, amongst other things, uncertainty about COVID-19, and uncertainty about whether the “fact checkers” can be trusted to come to the same conclusions about the virus we ourselves might, given all the evidence available.


Steve Hart is a writer and podcaster.