Yet activists have exploited this manipulation technique for years. From chemicals to food to air quality, most of the claims you read, many of which have been turned into government policy, are garbage. Want to claim pesticides cause autism? A sketchy activist did just that. Zero science. Want to claim organic strawberries are healthier? That nonsense was fabricated using a meta-analysis of papers making claims like they have better 'mouth feel' - and the methodology for the meta-analysis was created by the organic-industry-funded Washington state activist who wrote the mouth feel business.(1)
Well-connected activists take it a step farther - they have a successful playbook. They get funded by an environmental organization, often run by a trial lawyer, to write a paper - X is killing us or making frogs gay or whatever - and then hand-pick data for the meta-analysis. Then they go find a high-profile person to be the "senior author" in order to help get it into a top-tier publication. While they wait, they write supporting papers citing the one they manufactured. As soon as the big paper comes out, they pay open access journals to publish the supporting papers and then send this "growing body of evidence" to A-Team political allies who will stay "on message", like Tom Philpott, and it is soon all the rage in Mother Jones.(2)
Given that cultural milieu, it is not a surprise that ivermectin - a Nobel Prize-winning parasitic medicine for animals - became popular with people as a COVID-19 treatment. People also send infants to chiropractors, think vitamins can replace vaccines, and buy supplements made from animals on the verge of extinction. What is shocking is the angry response. Ivermectin had meta-analyses, just like thousands of suspect claims that have appeared in the New York Times science section. In the past, being critical of epidemiology claims and the inevitable meta-analyses that followed got "bro, do you even science?" responses from people who may be employed in academia, but know so little actual science they can no longer recognize that bad statistics do not make good science.(3)
Bad statistics are not science and animals are not people. They never were. It just took Republicans embracing epidemiology and animal models for a whole lot of Democrats to use some critical thinking.
It took Republicans embracing meta-analyses for academics and science journalists to see the weaknesses?
A recent Nature look at a preprint that had a big impact on two meta-analyses shows the weaknesses that have long existed. The paper they express concern about was a randomized control trial of ivermectin, and the authors looking at some of the data found it could not be experimentally derived.
Based on the meta-analyses, thousands of people have taken ivermectin. Let's start the outrage machine.
But where was the outrage over all of the other garbage studies that couldn't possibly have been real, using this exact same process? From organic food to endocrine disruptors to PM2.5 small micron particulate matter causing lower IQ? None of them have any more basis in quality methodology than ivermectin. Yet two of them have led to regulations that have helped no one, and they turned the first into a $120 million food placebo.
The difference between ivermectin and those others is those others are all things that Democrats overwhelmingly choose to believe, despite the lack of a science basis. It is simply not worth angering the tribe, when kicking right-wing people - now that they are finally becoming anti-vaccine the way the left has been for decades - is low hanging fruit.
That is not how science should work, yet it was the same process we saw with debunking hydroxychloroquine.(4) Papers that would have never been noticed, or could even have been placed into regulations as a "body of evidence" had they been pet causes for a political party, get dunked on. Our own CDC invented a condition called pre-diabetes, for crying out loud, and spent taxpayer money scaring the public about it. That was embraced by academics who claim Science Is A Corporate Conspiracy despite it not existing.
If the only time to be critical thinkers is when it is Republicans endorsing something, that's a weakness in science media. It is certainly not being trusted guides for the public.
(1) Environmental Health Perspectives, the in-house publication of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, produces similar junk papers every month - and your tax dollars pay for it.
(2) They are not even apologetic about their collusion. They just dismiss criticism.
(3) I was a signatory on an effort that appeared in Nature asking to Retire Statistical Significance, because it is so misused by Harvard School of Publish Health, International Agency for Research on Cancer, and Ramazinni Institute epidemiologists who were placed there to undermine science.
(4) It is the same process we saw with human embryonic stem cell research, when President George W. Bush was criticized for restricting it to existing lines until it was determined if it violated the Dickey-Wicker Law that President Clinton had signed. The same President Clinton who refused to fund hESC research at all. Bush was anti-science even though he was the first President to fund it.
- Conflict Of Interest? Few Meta-Analyses Identify Who Funded Drug Trials
- Meta-Analyses Get Lots Of Attention, Without Noting That Approaches Affect Outcomes
- Two Wrong Meta-Analyses Don't Make A Right
- Fewer Animal Studies May Be Putting Us At Risk
- Antidepressant Drugs Don't Improve Well-Being In Children And Adolescents