Just a few weeks ago as I was sitting there, minding my own business, when a dear friend of mine announced that he was not going to get “The shot”.
When I envision a person who might fit the profile of “anti-vaxx”, I must admit that my own bias rather carries the day. Tin-foil hats and home-made cardboard signs tend to dominate that particular caricature. But as this was one of my oldest and dearest friends, I offered to have a look at the various You-Tube videos and web-based articles that had convinced him, and a not-unimpressive number of Canadians like him, that the COVID shot was a bad idea.
What I discovered was a surprisingly sophisticated web of half truths, fabrications and outright lies that were woven together with an amazing, and arguably compelling, intricacy. Statements about gene manipulation, protein spikes and the dangers of mRNA abounded, as did claims of the existence of research-based evidence to back them up. I must admit, that even with my considerable experience with de-bunking pseudo-experts within the education realm, I found myself a bit out of my league. That is when I was introduced to Dr. Jonathan N. Stea, an adjunct assistant psychology professor from the University of Calgary.
Dr. Stea is a member of a group called ScienceUpFirst which came into existence primarily to debunk the myriad of myths that surround COVID-19. This organization was envisioned by Nova Scotia’s very own Senator Stan Kutcher and University of Alberta’s Dr.Timothy Caulfied and has been running since early 2021. ScienceUpFirst brings medical practitioners, academics and volunteers together in an effort to combat mis-information surrounding the pandemic.
Dr. Stea got involved because he has “a strong passion for science communication”, which is all about getting evidence-based information into the hands of patients. Although admittedly neither an immunologist nor an epidemiologist, he argues that all health professionals should be on the same team when it comes to such matters, and that as a psychologist, he does have some expertise when it comes to the science of human behaviour.
I spoke to Dr. Stea in early June, and explained the predicament in which I found myself. Apparently the frustration I was experiencing at the unending parade of pseudoscience my friend was exposing me to was not only well founded, but well funded. He pointed me in the direction of a group known as the Center for Countering Digital Hate, (CCDH) a not-for-profit with offices in London and Washington DC. They recently released a position paper identifying a group of individuals it calls “The Disinformation Dozen” which includes such multi-millionaires as Joseph Mercola and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
According to the CCDH, much of the disinformation about COVID-19 being spread around the interverse can be traced back to this small but powerful group of people. After running an analysis of over 800,000 Facebook and Twitter posts between early February and mid-March of 2021, the group concluded that 65 percent of anti-vaccine content that existed in those forums was attributable to the Disinformation Dozen. Furthermore, the CCDH concluded that the anti-vaccine industry (Yes, apparently that’s a thing) gathers almost $40 million in annual revenue and is worth more than a billion dollars.
Having seen that one of the major accusations lobbed out by the anti-vaxx crowd is centered around profiteering by folks connected to public health, I asked Dr. Stea how otherwise rational people could come to accept the counter narrative even when faced with what seems a fairly obvious case of profiteering. Furthermore, why is it that individuals question report after report from, for example, the CDC, even as they accept unverified, presumably for-profit information from alternative sources?
He explained “Much of the disinformation stems from fundamental misunderstandings about how the science works. Propaganda buzz words and phrases will be repeatedly thrown around – e.g., ‘experimental gene therapy’- but those terms belie the scientific reality.” When I asked him to elaborate, he drew my attention to the CDC website which specifically tackles the gene therapy myth, among others. The rather simplified version is that since the vaccine never actually enters the cell nucleus, it can not interact with our DNA.
The challenge, of course, is that many deniers have a hard time accepting that the CDC is a reliable source. When encountering such reluctance, Stea advises noting scientific consensus and its evolution, leading with facts, and referencing trustworthy sources. He also cautioned, however, that there is always a tipping point in such endeavours. “It’s important to remember ”, he told me “That the general audience is the target of the science communicator, not the ideologically possessed”.
I think that’s the bit in all of this that caught me so off guard; the absolute certainty with which the vaccine hesitant hold to their position. When explaining his rationale, my friend was exceptionally passionate in his beliefs; at one point expressing concern for my safety. A reader of my blog site also chose to weigh in:
“Have you looked at the SCIENCE behind the PCR test? The Nobel winner, Kary Mullis, who invented the test said it cannot be used for diagnosis. It is NOT a valid test, esp with the amplifications generally used! Have you checked the science behind the mRNA inoculations? I recommend you research what credible scientists and doctors are writing about it.”
Well, that’s not exactly what Mullis said, but to be fair to my reader, I haven’t completely unpacked all the information that is out there on this topic. What I tried to do, however, was take an honest and impartial look at the information I was given to see if I could make sense of it all.
And even after this much time, I’m still at a bit of a loss.
The obvious concern for me is not just about my friend, but rather, September. The vaccination numbers in Nova Scotia seem to have settled in at around 75 percent, which is great news for many. However, I can’t help but think that if people haven’t gotten at least one vaccination by this juncture, they probably aren’t going to, at least not for a while. If school populations are indicative of the general populace, we could be coming back to these buildings with twenty-five percent of the people within them not having the vaccine, even as we relax our protocols.
After thanking Dr. Stea for his time, I decided that it was time to go to the source. I sent an e-mail off to Senator Stan Kutcher and asked for a few moments, which he graciously granted. In the next part in this series, I will feature the highlights of that conversation.