Fact Checks

Consider the Source

Anatomy of an anti-vax fact-check: Consider the Source, Check the Site, Confirm the Content. Who made the claim, who published it, where’s the evidence?

A Facebook friend of mine messengered me a link to a talk by Dr. Peter McCullough (Internet ArchiveWayback), vilifying the COVID vax efforts. Published by the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, the doctor spouted the usual big-pharma, deep-state claims — overstretching morsels of truth into mountains of conspiracy fantasies.

Conspiracies are easy to believe. Checking out claims, OTOH, using independent, authoritative sources, takes work. As does accepting results, even those that don’t confirm your beliefs. An examination of the good doctor McCullough provides an excellent example of why and how to check claims. So I’m posting my admittedly over-researched reply to my friend…

Consider the Source

Step one in checking new info: Consider the source. Who made the claim? Have their past claims checked out? Are they trustworthy?

Getting out the Google, I learned Peter McCullough is a respected cardiologist. But he identifies also as an epidemiologist, despite no evidence of training or experience in epidemiology: US Cardiology Review | Wikipedia | LinkedIn.

Perhaps this deficiency is why he consistently misinterprets medical research, see “US cardiologist makes false claims about Covid-19 vaccination,” Iffy’s Fact-check Search, and Google’s Fact Check Tool. And why McCullough’s former employer convinced a court to stop him from deceptively using their name: “Baylor Gets Restraining Order Against COVID Vaccine Skeptic Doc.”

Google Fact Check Explorer results for Peter McCullough: False, Inaccurate, Flawed Reasoning

Check the Site

Step two: Check the site. Who published the claim?

The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons sounds like a credible source. However, it “promotes medical misinformation,” says Wikipedia. The trust-ratings site, Media Bias/Fact Check, rates AAPS a “Questionable source based on the promotion of quackery level pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, use of poor sources, a lack of transparency with funding as well as numerous false claims and failed fact checks.”

NewsGuard says AAPS “frequently makes false or misleading claims about the COVID-19 pandemic, often citing cherry-picked evidence or no evidence at all… [Their] website repeatedly publishes false information and headlines and does not gather and present information responsibly.” The organization, which has been opposing healthcare reforms since 1943, even made Quackwatch. So it’s no surprise AAPS fails fact-checks. One more claim-related coffin nail: The AAPS-posted McCullough video originates at Rumble, another source of “propaganda and conspiracy theories and false information.” Both AAPS and Rumble are among the Iffy Index of Unreliable Sources.

An untrustworthy source on an untrustworthy site: Normally, I wouldn’t have watched that video. But my friend vouched for the guy, so I hit play.

Confirm the Content

Step three: Confirm or refute the content. Where’s the evidence? Are those statements presented as facts supported by other sources with expertise in that specific topic?

From the start, McCullough is spouting known inaccuracies. He says “25 deaths” from the Swine Flu vaccine program “shut it down.” But the Swine Flu vax has no deaths conclusively linked to it. And the main reason the program shut down is that the flu never became a pandemic.

McCullough then contends that all Covid research went towards the vax, none into treatment. That’s nonsense: remdesivir, monoclonal antibodies, and plasma treatments were studied, approved, and widely used within months. Other treatments were also extensively investigated but trials proved them ineffective, like zinc and hydroxychloroquine, which McCullough still promotes.

Worse, though, is his misunderstanding of how we stop viral pandemics. Treatments help those infected but do little to slow transmissions or dodge dangerous mutations (e.g., Delta and Omicron). You need a vax to end a contagious-disease pandemic, along with masks and social distance.

McCullough cites no sources for his data — another huge red flag. Still, most of his claims are easily disproved. Twelve minutes into the video, he says, “Americans have not wanted to take the vaccine since mid-April” and “by April the vaccine administration trailed off to almost nothing.”

A glance at the data quickly debunks that. On April 15 2021, 41% of the USA had been COVID-19 vaxxed, leaving 59% unvaxxed. At the start of December, 71% were vaxxed, 30% more than in April. This means 51% of the USA unvaxxed pop got the shot since mid-April, which is higher than before mid-April (Nov: 30/59=0.51 vs. Apr: 41/100=.0.41) — not lower as the doc misstates.

About 15 minutes into the video, I gave up. Every McCullough claim I checked was either misinformed or misleading information.

After I laid out the facts, my FB friend was… unmoved. She remained comfortable in her beliefs and convinced that fact-checkers are co-conspirators. Here’s a meme she made for me:

Conspiracy meme depicting Fact-checkers as blind, Moderna as greedy, and the US Government complicit (title: Three Transgenic Mice, credit: Jaime Rae Chapman)

Conspiracies are addictive and dramatic. Hollywood is addicted to melodramatizing fictional conspiracies. Every other big-budget pic pits big corporations/governments against the little guy.

Since there’s no shortage of actual corrupt companies and countries, it’s easy to confuse real life for a conspiratorial plot. Comedian Abbie Richards gauges this increasing detachment from reality in her annual, interactive Conspiracy Chart:

Fact-checking McCullough and his video and AAPS took me hours, as did documenting it for this post. Most people won’t spend even a few minutes checking out the reliability of the information they spread.

So consider Mike Caufield’s famous 30-second fact-check. As he says, “there’s really no excuse not to do this for things you share.” The principles are the same: Consider the source. Check the site. Confirm the content.

Editors: Josef Verbanac and Claire Golding.

Top image: The 1802 illustration depicts the freakout over the first vaccine. Dr. Edward Jenner used a mild cowpox virus to build immunity from the deadly smallpox, He named it “vaccination”: the Latin “vaccine” means “of or from a cow.” So people, of course, believed bizarre bovine horrors awaited the recipients of Jenner’s injections.

Smallpox killed more than half a billion humans, before it was eradicated, largely due to vaccines, in 1980. No one grew cow parts. But smallpox vaccine resistance continued well into the 20th century.

1930 cartoon: Anti-vaccinationists walking off a cliff labeled Misinformation into a lake labeled Smallpox.
American Public Health Association “Health in Pictures” (1930)