May 27 2021

Red Flags of a Crank Study

The pandemic has brought into sharp focus the potential danger of misinformation. There are times when we need to act collectively as a society to accomplish certain goals. This is particularly challenging in a society that is organized around a principle of individualism – a principle I endorse and value. Liberty is a precious right to be jealously defended. But it is not the only right, or principle of value. So at times we have to delicately balance various competing interests. I like my freedom, but I also really like not catching a deadly disease, or spreading it to my family.

In a perfect world (one we definitely do not live in) there would be no need for restrictive or draconian measures. All that would be necessary was distributing information – hey, if you want to protect yourself and others, wear a mask, socially distance, wash your hands, and get vaccinated. If you’re really interested, here are the facts, the published studies, the expert analysis, to back up these recommendations. Here are the error bars and level of uncertainty, the risk vs benefit analysis, and comparison to other options.

This approach is necessary, and works to a degree, but it is insufficient. There are two main shortcomings of the information approach. First, people are only semi-rational beings, not Vulcans. We are susceptible to tribalism, motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and a host of cognitive biases, faulty heuristics, and logical fallacies. Our intuitions about balancing risk and benefit are also flawed, and we have a hard time dealing with very large numbers. Just peruse the comments to any blog post on this site that is even slightly controversial and you will find copious examples of every type of flawed thinking.

The second flaw in the pure information approach is that, in many countries, we have a vibrant open information ecosystem. This results in a massive amount of misinformation, often far greater than accurate or reliable information. A lot of this is background noise, but far worse there is deliberate, dedicated, designed, and curated misinformation – misinformation with a purpose. There is misinformation for political, ideological, marketing, branding, and other interests. There is misinformation that deliberately blurs the lines between news and entertainment, between science and marketing, and between facts and propaganda. Some of it is designed to do nothing but undermine the public trust in facts and truth, to make them more receptive to other misinformation.

There is no easy answer to this misinformation death spiral we find ourselves in. All I can do here, on my own humble platform, is fight it with more information. Mostly I try to promote critical thinking, scientific literacy, and media savvy so people can navigate the information tsunami for themselves.

Toward that end, I was asked to review a piece of information going around social media. This appears to be a study raising concerns about the safety of the mRNA vaccines. But on close inspection this study has a lot of red flags for crankery. No one red flag is definitive, of course, but each adds to a concerning pattern. And of course, what ultimately matters is the scientific details. But if you don’t have the background knowledge to evaluate this, you can still find reasons to be skeptical.

First, let’s take a look at the author, JB Classen. Classen appears to be an anti-vaccine advocate. He has published previously attempting to link vaccines to diabetes. In fact, he states this unproven association as a fact in the opening of his paper, and links to only his own previous study for support. Again, this does not make him wrong, but also means he does not deserve the assumption of being an objective scientist.

He is also the only author on this study, and he gives his affiliation as his own company. A lack of collaborators or academic affiliation is another red flag. Relying on self-reference is also a red flag. This gives all the appearance of a lone crank, not someone engaging with the scientific community.

The journal in which his study was published is also considered to be a predatory journal.

The paper itself makes a lot of bold anti-vaccine claims without justification. The conclusion also seems to rather bold given the scant evidence presented. He is alleging possible harm from the vaccines based on speculation.

Once again, none of these factors and even all of them do not mean necessarily that he is wrong, they are red flags that should give a discerning person pause. At the very least I would not assume the study is legitimate, and a quick Google search to see what actual experts have to say would be warranted.

David Gorski already wrote about this paper on SBM three months ago. You can read this for the technical details. Here’s the very short version: Classen’s main line of evidence is that he found sequences in the spike protein DNA used in the vaccines that are associated with possible protein changes implicated in prion disease. Prion disease results from conformational changes in protein folding that can induce similar changes in those proteins, ultimately leading to degeneration and disease. Sounds scary, especially if you do not have a solid background in the relevant sciences.

However, the number and type of sequences he found in the spike protein DNA is no different than if you examined any random stretch of DNA. It’s just background noise. The rest of his paper is essentially pure speculation, for which he provides no evidence.

This paper was published in January, and it has already been thoroughly debunked. But it still lives on social media, and is being presented by anti-vaxxers. It is contributing to the misinformation about the vaccines, spreading unsubstantiated and unjustified fear.

This type of scientific crankery spread as misinformation makes it more difficult, not easier, for the public to make informed decisions. As a practical matter it reduces their liberty, the same way a con artist can deprive someone of liberty by fooling them into making bad decisions.

We also should not fall into the trap of blaming the victim or claiming there are no victims since people are making free choices. As in many things, there is a balance here. People do need to take personal responsibility for their decisions, to stay well-informed, and to be critical. But we can’t expect everyone to have vast expertise on a wide range of topics, enough to fend off dedicated and effective campaigns of deception. It’s simply unrealistic, an excuse to have free reign to exploit people.

That is what the war on expertise, the undermining of the very concept of reliable knowledge and consensus of opinion, is all about. Create an atmosphere where nothing is demonstrably true, then the powers that be can manufacture whatever reality they want. That is a recipe for tyranny – government, corporate, ideological, religious, whatever.

Right now we are all paying the price for the tyranny of ignorance.

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