Rebecca Kneale Gould: In matters of life and death, reading the sources is critical

This commentary is by Rebecca Kneale Gould of Monkton, associate professor of environmental studies at Middlebury College.

Two recent commentaries in VTDigger attempt to raise suspicions about vaccination, the No. 1 priority for our leaders managing the Covid crisis in Vermont. 

Such commentaries demand further scrutiny, particularly because their authors — one hopes, unintentionally — seriously miscast scientific research. Midway through writing this response, I discovered that Digger had wisely come to a similar conclusion about one of them, pulling Aimee Stephenson’s contribution because it failed to meet its editorial standards. Stephenson’s errors are still worth addressing, however, because they reveal a broader, concerning trend. 

In “What’s the link between GMOs and the Covid vaccines?” Stephenson raises the specter (common in many disinformation campaigns) of Covid vaccines somehow messing with our DNA. She writes: “We have been assured by the vaccine makers there is no possible way mRNA vaccines can impact our human genes/DNA, but a recent study by MIT and Harvard scientists demonstrates the opposite. This study showed how segments of RNA from the coronavirus itself are most likely becoming a permanent fixture in human DNA. It sure makes you wonder, doesn’t it?” 

This statement does make me wonder, but not in the way Stephenson might hope. It makes me wonder: “What does the study actually say?” Even a short glance at the article in question shows that the research clearly does not “demonstrate the opposite” about the role of mRNA in vaccines. The study does not concern itself with vaccines in the slightest! The study is about the workings of the virus itself (and has received a significant scientific rejoinder). 

Like climate skeptics, vaccine skeptics tend to implement a classic strategy of asking misleading questions rather than examining data. Stephenson “wonders” aloud about vaccines while citing an article that has nothing to do with vaccines at all.

Stephenson’s published musings were preceded by those of Jeff Euber, who asks, “Why aren’t we treating COVID-19 more aggressively?” Euber’s other agenda, however, is again to raise suspicions about the value of vaccinations. Euber claims that numerous studies “suggest both the safety and efficacy of medications such as HCQ and ivermectin when used early, in appropriate doses, and in combination with other drugs.” 

In the days following the publication of Euber’s commentary, however, we have seen poisonings resulting from the use of ivermectin, with the state of Mississippi reporting that two-thirds of the calls to its poison center were linked to ivermectin intake. This uptick in poisoning has led the FDA to reclarify its earlier position: A drug that we Vermonters may have on our barnyard supply shelves should not be ingested by humans.

Back in February 2021, the National Institutes of Health had already examined a plethora of studies of ivermectin’s efficacy, concluding that antiviral effects, if any, would require administration of doses up to 100 times higher than those approved for use in humans and, moreover, that these studies had “incomplete information and significant methodological limitations.”

In other words, Euber tells us one story and the NIH tells us another, more complete, one. Moreover, in citing his “hundreds of studies,” Euber refers his readers to a “.com” website, seemingly not associated with any hospital or research institution, that aggregates available data. The site does not tell us much at all — no names, no institutional affiliations — about who is doing this aggregating. Some studies on this site may be good ones, others not so much. It would take a lot of digging for an average citizen to know. 

I do not object to the hope that we find ways to treat Covid-19 aggressively. We all long for swift progress in this regard. I also recognize the good intentions behind those who wish to raise questions about treatments and vaccines. Asking questions is good. 

What I do object to, however, is a broad tendency among those who are asking questions to cloud the conversation, often neglecting to balance their own claims with reliable sources that paint a more complete and more accurate picture. These tendencies mislead the public, fueling false hopes and distracting us from proven methods of treatment and prevention. 

A gold standard of research, writing and writing about research is not simply to cite one’s sources correctly. It is to portray the essence of others’ research faithfully when putting it into one’s own words and to place that research into a broader scholarly context. 

Twisting research findings to serve one’s own personal or political agendas may be commonplace these days, but it is not good scholarship. And in the midst of global pandemic where over 4 million lives have been lost, neither is it good citizenship. 

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