Apr 15 2021

Paul Thacker Trolling Skeptics on Vaccines

As the COVID vaccine rollout continues at a feverish pace, the occurrence of rare but serious blood clots associated with two adenovirus vaccines, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, is an important story, and should be covered with care and thoughtfulness. I have followed this story on Science Based Medicine here, here, and here. There is a lot of nuance to this issue, and it presents a clear dilemma. The ultimate goal is to optimally balance risk vs benefit while we are in the middle of a surging pandemic and while information is preliminary. This means we don’t panic, we consider all options, and we investigate thoroughly and transparently. There is a real debate to be had about how best to react to these rare cases, and as a  science communicator I have tried to present the issues as reasonably as possible.

But we no longer live in an age where most people get most of their science news from edited science journalists. Most get their news online, from a range of sources, some good, some bad, some acting in bad faith or filtered through an intense ideological filter, and many just trolling. There are even “pseudojournalists” out there, reporting outside any kind of serious review. One such pseudojournalist is Paul Thacker, who recently decided he had to criticize the reporting of “skeptics” on the COVID vaccine blood clotting issue.

For background, Thacker was fired from the journal Environmental Science & Technology for showing an anti-industry bias. Bias is a bad thing in journalism, the core principle of which is objectivity. I have no idea if Thacker honestly believes what he writes or if he can’t resist trolling, but it doesn’t really matter. He has espoused anti-GMO views to the point of harassing GMO scientists, leading Keith Kloor to call him a “sadistic troll”. Thacker has also promoted 5g conspiracy theories.

He also, apparently, doesn’t like “skeptics” because he sees us as science cheerleaders, while he is trying to expose the corruption within the institutions of science. Ultimately this is a simplistic false dichotomy, which is evident in his writing now about the AstraZeneca vaccine. All nuance is gone, and rather he simply engages in a hit piece against skeptics. His piece is full of emotional and absolute terms, and devoid of anything resembling fairness or balance. For example, he writes:

Neither Gorski nor Novella publish much of anything on vaccines in peer-reviewed academic journals, choosing instead to harangue actual experts from the safety of their skeptic website.

What does any of this actually mean? The regular contributors to SBM all have medical or legal backgrounds, but we are science journalists. It is odd, to say the least, to criticize a journalist for not publishing in the peer-reviewed literature on the topics about which they report. This is the type of gratuitous character assassination that Thacker is now infamous for. Instead of engaging meaningfully with our actual arguments, he just attacks our character and motives. I would be happy to engage with his arguments, if he actually put any forward, but I can’t find them. Instead he nitpicks and tries to impugn our motives. He wrote:

“The countries who have suspended use of the vaccine have been highly criticized for their decision, given that it is not supported by the science,” wrote Novella, on March 17, only a few short days after the EMA began investigating. “This is the background noise that experts monitoring the safety of the vaccines, or any medical intervention, have to deal with.”

Yes, this was at the very beginning of this news story, and I wrote about it then because it was all over the news and much of the reporting lacked sufficient scientific background. Also, everything I said in that quote, and that article, was completely true. You will notice he was unable to actually counter what I said. He characterized my piece as “dismissing safety concerns” but I did nothing of the sort. Despite his characterization that we “harangue experts” I quoted experts throughout the piece. That is what a good science journalist does – fairly report the consensus of experts and put the story into context. As a skeptic, I further put stories into a context of critical thinking, cognitive biases, and pathological science.

Thacker also completely ignored my follow up piece, even though he was writing a full week after I published it. This is an evolving science story, and I updated what the experts were saying. For example, I wrote:

Amidst this uncertainty, however, the EMA has signaled it will officially report today or tomorrow that they are now ready to conclude that there is a link between the AstraZeneca vaccine and an increased risk of CVST in people under 55.

I guess that would not fit cleanly into his anti-skeptic narrative, so best to just ignore it. Context here is also critical – context which I explicitly provided in my articles covering this topic. If we were not in the middle of a pandemic, then reacting to early reports of rare but serious side effects is justification for pausing the use of a drug or vaccine while further investigation can be done. And of course, we support full and transparent investigation. But during COVID it is undeniable that pausing an important vaccine will cost thousands of lives, or more. This has to be considered in the regulatory calculus, and that is the basis of the criticism of reacting too quickly to these early reports. Even though the consensus is now moving in the direction that these two adenovirus vaccines (to be clear, there have been no reports of serious side effects from the two mRNA vaccines which make up 95% of the vaccines given in the US) can cause a rare autoimmune reaction leading to low platelets and serious blood clots, mostly in women under 50, the benefits of the vaccines far outweigh this risk, and simply suspending them will cost thousands of lives to COVID. It is an unfortunate situation, and presents a genuine dilemma to regulators, but it means that it is simply not true that pausing these vaccines is the cautious thing to do. Most countries, btw, are moving toward restricting the vaccine to populations at low risk for this side effect, which is a reasonable compromise.

Thacker concludes with the statement that science skeptics will not keep you well-informed. He is lumping us all together as if we are a monolithic group, which is hilariously not true. This is why I have restricted my response here to Science-Based Medicine. His conclusion, however, is not justified by the evidence. My reporting on this topic has been quite thorough and balanced, relying heavily on a rapidly evolving expert consensus. Anyone can also judge for themselves SBMs long history of holding scientists and the institutions of science accountable. His reporting, meanwhile, I think speaks for itself.

In the end Thacker is falling for a false dichotomy – he thinks the world is divided between science cheerleaders (which he decries) and science exposers. This is not true – you can do both. There is much to celebrate in science, and simultaneously much to criticize. I guess this confuses Thacker, who seems to need a simplistic narrative to guide him.

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