How to Spot Fake Science News

In this Issue: Race for a Vaccine, CDC Controversy, Science Fact and Fiction, Public Health and the Election, and New York's Open Streets.

Hey all, greetings from New York City!

NYC right now feels like Paris crossed with post-Cold War Berlin. There’s an exciting energy in the air. It feels like a rebirth.

We’ve seen reports saying the city is dead; but really it's just changing. Some people have left the city. Most have stayed. Reports of a once-great city in ruins are greatly exaggerated.

Covid-19 infection rates have stayed low. New Yorkers are venturing out. They’re running in Hudson River Park, doing yoga on the piers. Performance artists are entertaining crowds in Washington Square Park. Musicians in the West Village are serenading people as they dine outdoors under the stars.

I listened to a podcast interview with Desus and Mero, aka the Bodega Boys:

“I’ve heard 'New York is dead' at least five times: after 9/11, after the transit strike. People are not leaving the city. New York is still here and it’s not going anywhere."

When will the Covid-19 pandemic end?

A new report from McKinsey lays out two possible end points:

“In the United States and most other developed economies, the epidemiological end point is most likely to be achieved in the third or fourth quarter of 2021, with the potential to transition to normalcy sooner, possibly in the first or second quarter of 2021.”

Everyone wants to know when a vaccine will be available and whether it’ll be safe and effective. Yet there are questions about political pressure on the scientific approval process.

The pandemic has spurred an unprecedented rate of scientific exploration. We’re seeing biotech companies announce results prematurely through press releases without allowing the process of peer review and vetting of the data to occur. This leads to unreliable news cycles that can easily be hijacked by political interests and erode the public trust in science.


How to spot fake science news

When I was a kid, I’d visit my father in his office at Yale Medical School. He was a cardiologist whose research helped shed light on the cellular mechanisms that cause heart disease.

My dad told me stories of the famous scientists who discovered vaccines that eradicated polio and smallpox. I was enchanted by science from a young age.

I went on to study chemistry at Harvard and did a research fellowship in molecular biology at Yale Medical School. I wanted to know “the mind of God,” to paraphrase Stephen Hawking. Yet I found the actual work of science boring. It was solitary, lonely. Being in a lab all day wasn’t for me.

Today, part of my job is to interview doctors and scientists about clinical studies.

It’s a fascinating job because the data and conclusions aren’t always obvious. The science is complex. You’re searching for the truth about a new treatment for depression or diabetes. Like a detective, you need to read between the lines and look for clues.

Sometimes you hear conflicting claims about the results of a clinical study. You need to push back and say, “What you’re saying doesn’t make sense.”

We’ve seen a lot of irresponsible science reporting during the pandemic. Consider the following claims:

  • There’s evidence of widespread in-flight transmission of Covid-19

  • English language speakers are more likely to transmit the virus

  • Dr. Fauci has a secret Covid vaccine he carries around with him, disguised as a bottle of Axe Body Spray (I made that one up :)

Each one of these claims is false or misleading. To understand why, we should recognize that science reporting suffers from two major shortcomings:

  1. Too many science journalists don't actually possess a well-rounded knowledge of science.

  2. They’re often biased, interpreting studies in a way that fits the writer’s political beliefs.

How can you tell if a science news story isn’t legitimate?

There are three levels for evaluating science news, in increasing order of effort and expertise:

Level 1

Check the source of the claim. Is it from a respected scientific journal? Or is it from the Daily Mail, or Fox News?

News aggregator RealClearScience put together this infographic. It shows “good” science sources in the upper left corner and “bad” ones on the lower right:

Level 2

Check the analysis. Does that article attempt to explain the study’s methodology? Have any experts weighed in on the study and its conclusions?

Today, anyone can go online and see the world’s top doctors and scientists discussing the latest scientific research studies. They’re on Twitter every day talking about vaccines, treatments, and how the science should guide policy decisions.

(See my article on how I curate my pandemic news feed.)

Twitter avatar for @EricTopolEric Topol @EricTopol
Overpowering the @CDCgov to reopen schools, w/ anti-science, @WhiteHouse @realDonaldTrump… Adds to: —MMWR manipulation —HHS hijacked patient data system —Don't test people w/o symptoms —Sidelining CDC, unable to present to public —@SWAtlasHoover control

Level 3

Read the actual study. This may be scary to those who don’t have scientific training. Here’s a quick primer on what to look for: Who conducted the study? Was it a respected institution — a major university or academic hospital — or a commercial group that may have a conflict of interest?

There are many things to examine. How large was the study group? How were the participants selected? How representative are they of the broader population? 

Was it a randomized, controlled trial? (An RCT is the gold standard for scientific research.) Do the results support the study’s conclusions? Are the data statistically significant? In other words, how confident should we be the results can be extrapolated to the broader population, vs. being a one-off sample that has limited predictive value?

Knowing how to interpret a clinical study is a kind of superpower. It’s like speaking directly with a scientist or doctor, bypassing the journalist or middleman. It’s always better to go directly to the primary source and draw your own conclusions.

Let’s examine 3 recent science news stories and see how they hold up under scrutiny.

The claim: Speaking English may spread more coronavirus than some other languages.

The hypothesis is that English speakers may be more likely to spread Covid-19 because the aspirated consonants at the end of words (P, K, T) generate respiratory droplets.

The article is based on a 2003 finding that many US tourists to China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan caught SARS, but no Japanese tourists did.

The reality

This one actually made me LOL. No, speaking English does not make you more likely to spread disease. The author’s claim is based on that one comparison from 2003. They present no data to support it.

Correlation is not causation: This is one of the most important concepts for critical scientific thinking. Just because two variables in a group of people are related, like height and eye color, it doesn’t follow that one causes the other.

Scientific literacy has never been more critical than in the Covid era. So many false or misleading studies are being shared on social media. You need to have a good BS detector.

The claim: There’s evidence of widespread in-flight transmission of Covid-19.

The authors studied a cluster of Covid-19 cases among passengers on a flight from London to Hanoi, Vietnam, on March 2. One coughing passenger. No mask. A 10-hour flight. 92% attack rate among passengers seated with six feet.

The authors conclude there’s a high risk of Covid transmission on long flights.

The reality

This was a preprint journal article, meaning it hasn’t gone through the peer review process. The flight was in March, before anyone wore masks. 16 out of 217 passengers got the virus; all of them were sitting next to the one coughing person. Some of them may have already been infected (there was barely any screening at the time). Since then all airlines have tripled the air recirculation rate and required masks.

To date, there’s been no documented evidence of a super-spreader event on a plane. Masks and HEPA air filtration work.

(For more, see my article on how to quantify the health risks of flying, published last week on Six Feet Apart.)

The claim: CDC removed language from its website saying Covid-19 aerosolizes.

CDC caused a controversy last week when it removed guidance on Covid-19 aerosol transmission. This screenshot from the CDC website shows was the guidance that was posted on Friday, then gone on Monday:

The reality

I had a WTF moment when I saw the CDC had removed the guidance on aerosols. Like seriously, WTF??

Scientists overwhelmingly agree that the coronavirus can be spread via aerosolized particles, the kind that linger in the air and can get through a cloth mask. Nearly all the transmission scenarios explained by droplets are ALSO explained by aerosols.

For a detailed explanation of all the evidence on aerosol transmission, see this chart from Dr. Eric Ding:

It’s clear that the CDC is under enormous political pressure and has not been able to push back against the White House, resulting in loss of its credibility.

I know it's not the fault of so many of the amazing scientists at CDC, who are doing important work. But I feel like I'm watching the erosion of every grain of trust people have in our public health institutions — the ones they rely on for honest scientific info.

This is one reason the upcoming election is so important. Trump’s failure to lead is prolonging the virus's circulation, destroying our economy, and killing people.

Brynne Kennedy for Congress

I think the confusion around the CDC and scientific data requires an active and informed response by our elected officials. I’m proud to support my friend Brynne Kennedy in her run for Congress in California's 4th district (greater Sacramento, Lake Tahoe and Yosemite). 


Brynne is a former entrepreneur and would be the first female tech Founder/CEO to serve in Congress.  Her opponent, Tom McClintock, is a far-right Republican and 40 year career politician, who denies climate change, mocks public health guidelines and was the only person from either party in California to vote against Covid aid and oversight.

Brynne will fight to protect healthcare coverage, reduce costs and use her innovation background to invest in research, telehealth, genomics, stem cells and fertility treatments. Brynne is supported by EMILY's List, Blue Dog Democrats, Planned Parenthood, Sierra Club, Kamala Harris, Andrew Yang and 35+ members of Congress including LA area Reps Ted Lieu, Karen Bass and Julia Brownley, and Former GOP Rep Gov candidate Meg Whitman.

For more information about Brynne and to contribute to her campaign, click here.

How can businesses prepare for a second wave?

On Wednesday, September 30, I’ll be moderating a panel on How to Prepare Your Organization for Covid-19: Winter 2020. With winter approaching, health experts fear a surge in new infections. What are business leaders doing to adapt and minimize the impact of Covid-19 on their organizations?

We'll discuss the new role of Health and Safety Officers and symptom monitoring, building access control, contact tracing, employee health records, testing, vaccinations, PPE and other related topics.

Click here for more information and to register.

Photo of the Week

I joined a bike tour in support of NYC Open Streets. The city announced its Open Streets program. turning dozens of city streets into pedestrian plazas, will be extended year-round.

It's great to see New Yorkers reclaim the public space that has been dominated by cars. So many benefits — for the environment, public health and safety, mental health and well-being.

Until next week,

By Daniel Zahler

I’m Daniel, a healthcare and life sciences consultant based in Santa Monica, California. Every week I write an email newsletter with perspectives on health and wellness trends, and strategies & tactics on how to optimize cognitive, physical and emotional health. I hold a JD and BA from Harvard, have worked at Goldman Sachs and McKinsey, and currently advise global business leaders as a GLG council member.

Check out my articles in Thrive Global here.

Enjoy this?

There are a few things to do:

  1. Follow me on Twitter.

  2. Hit reply with your feedback and ideas :)

  3. Share this post with others.

Share Vitamin Z by Daniel Zahler 💊