Baking an apple pie: How anyone can debunk disinformation surrounding the covid-19 vaccines

Vaccines cause autism. The covid-19 mRNA vaccine will change my DNA. Vaccinations could lead to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Getting covid-19 is no worse than the flu. I tested positive for covid-19 months ago, so I don’t need to be vaccinated anymore.

The above are some of the common misconceptions about (covid-19) vaccines. I cannot stress enough that NONE OF THEM are true. What do I mean by ‘true’? By ‘true’, I refer to scientific truth. That means that my sources for this claim meet the kind of rigorous systematic testing criteria that also enabled us to have airbags in our cars, to develop advanced MRI scanners, and to put satellites in orbit around this planet. And they work, so why should this be any different?

You probably cannot begin to rightly apprehend just how tempting it is to call ‘stupid’ those who believe just such crazy pseudo-scientific nonsense and the conspiracy theories surrounding the covid-19 vaccin development. Especially considering how such Luddites so very often contradict themselves, making use of most of the technological conveniences modern life has to offer, yet bashing just the kind of scientific research that has made all that technology possible to begin with… Indeed, it would be all too easy to call such people ignorant fools. But I am not going to do that. Instead I think it would be far better to try and convince with arguments how I think what I think.

To begin with, we live in the era of information, all kinds of information. An overload of information even. I understand that. Thanks to the internet, anyone can write anything, anytime. From Einstein’s theory of relativity, to just about any random crackpot’s nutty theory about the merits of inserting ripe blueberries in your ears before you go to sleep. It is all available to anyone and everyone, anytime. And even in science, there is the occasional bit of nonsense published. Sometimes deliberately. And sometimes even scientists are duped. Therefore people who have never enjoyed the benefit of training in the scientific method—as I have—may understandably have great difficulty in knowing what to believe. I understand that. So instead of going off on a rant and calling such ‘citizen scientists’ idiots, I am going to explain—as plainly as I can—a simple first way to discriminate between abject non-sense and ‘truth’ in a scientific sense.  It is my sincerest hope that any reader will use this information to their benefit, and (as a bonus) you get to impress people by knowing a lot about any subject you find really interesting, including which researchers are leaders in that field. How awesome is that?

The first step in any scientific endeavour begins with a question. That question typically does not fall from the sky, but is very often rooted in some kind of observation. For example, you may observe that a particular species of bird migrates annually. And that they find their migration route without fail every year. You may then wonder: How do these birds navigate to the same location every year?

The process involved in trying to find answers to such questions is a lot like a recipe: a set of instructions you can follow that will in the end result in a tasty apple pie. Because you will scarcely have been the first individual to observe that some birds migrate, for the same reason every academic student—no matter the discipline—at some point in their eduction will begin with a review of current literature on a particular well-defined subject. 

The first step then is to search for a general principle. All birds are animals. So what is known generally about migration in animals? In order to know that, it would be a good starting point to find out which scientists are knowledgable on the subject of animal migration. That means looking at  the research output on animal migration, typically in the form of publications in scientific magazines. But what to look for? How do you find out who’s hot, and who’s not? Answering this sub-question is a lot like asking: What are the best apple pie recipes out there? 

So how does one identify the best apple pie recipe? Naturally you try to find the one everyone’s using, the one that’s mentioned most, published in the finest cook books. So it goes with science as well. There is a metric for that kind of thing called the ‘citation index‘, which tells you how many great ‘recipes’ a publisher of scientific research publishes. And for any specific article you can also see how many times other researchers have cited it. So when you find the most cited article on bird migration, published in a highly ranked scientific magazine, then you can be pretty sure you’ve found a good one. That would be analogous to finding one of the best apple pie recipes from the best publisher of cook books. But what’s the catch? Are these fine cookbooks and recipes all free?

Of course not. You’ll often need cash to buy the best cook books, with apple pie recipes from the Marco Pierre White’s of this world—you know, with a little Knorr bouillon. Regarding scientific journals this is referred to as a ‘pay wall’. But there are ways around that. An increasing number of  publications are open access these days, and if they’re not you could try sci-hub, or (better still) simply email the author kindly requesting a copy. Having written all that, I also realise that not everyone can understand scientific articles, even if they could access them. In fact, that is the only point the ‘apple pie’ recipe falls short. Because while almost anyone can bake a pie, you’ll need more than a kitchen to understand a scientific publication.

But even if you have difficulty deciphering the scientific jargon used in scientific publications, there are other heuristics you can use. You can more than likely trust statements that are supported by multiple scientific experts in a particular field. Like in a television interview, for example. This is especially true during the corona crisis. Because our understanding of this novel pathogen is still incomplete, and treatment strategies are still woefully inadequate, getting a covid-19 vaccine is absolutely vital in our effort to recover from this pandemic. The scientists know that too, and that’s why you see and hear them more often on TV and radio these days.

So if you’re currently not planning to get vaccinated, then read the solid scientific publications for yourself, be critical as all good scientists are, and then re-evaluate your position on the covid-19 vaccines. If the matter is too complicated, then at least just find out who the experts are and listen to them. The good information really is all out there. Just be honest, be intellectually curious, and see if you still feel the same way after properly educating yourself—or after reading what experts have to say on the matter. I hope it will change your mind, and that you’ll decide to get vaccinated. And after all that long hard reading, definitely don’t forget to reward yourself with a nice warm apple pie… but, uhm… not like in that movie though… or maybe… if that’s your thing… okay, awkward… :P

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