My father was a journalist for most of his professional life. He served variously as a sports writer, a reporter, a humor columnist, and, finally, an editorial writer. He was occasionally invited to speak to journalism classes. He said he would always tell the students that if they wanted to be journalists, they should major in anything but journalism. Major in something like history, political science, or economics, he’d advise them. That is, major in a discipline that would give you a store of knowledge on which to draw. That wise counsel seems largely ignored these days.
One would think that a science writer at a major newspaper such as the Philadelphia Inquirer would have a background in science. How else would the writer in question be able to evaluate current developments in science? Sadly, today’s “science writers” are often woefully ignorant about science. There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the threat that enemies of science represent to contemporary American culture. That concern is well founded. In fact, it is better founded than I believe most people suspect. Until recently, most victims of the anti-science contagion were religious fundamentalists, or those on the far right of the political spectrum. Recently, however, a more virulent form of the anti-science contagion has appeared. It’s spreading like wildfire and reducing to imbecility even “science writers” for major newspapers. A case in point is Marie McCullough, a “science writer” for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
McCullough, whose degrees are in “communication and media studies” rather than in any empirical science such as biology or chemistry, argues that cases of shingles outbreaks in people who had received recently received COVID-19 vaccines cannot have been caused by the vaccines as early speculation had suggested (“Shingles is not caused by COVID-19 vaccines. Here’s the science”). “Science,” writes, McCullough, “is littered with post hoc fallacies.” The inference, she argues, from the fact that someone comes down with shingles shortly after getting a COVID vaccine to the conclusion that it was caused by the vaccine is an example of such a fallacy.
A post hoc, or more correctly, a post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy refers to the inference from the fact that one event followed another event to the conclusion that the first event caused the second event. More is necessary to support such a conclusion than mere temporal succession. McCullough is right about that. That’s about the only thing she gets right, however, in an otherwise very misleading article that is marred by its own equally egregious informal fallacy not to mention by striking ignorance of the history of science.
Correlation, explains McCullough, is not sufficient for establishing a causal relationship. She compares the inference that shingles might be a side effect of the new COVID vaccines to the infamous post hoc, ergo propter hoc inference that “ because the rooster crows at dawn every day, he makes the sun come up.”
Again, McCullough is right that a correlation is not proof of a causal relationship. Failure to prove a causal relationship, however, is not proof that there is no causal relationship. That inference is also a well-known informal fallacy. It’s called the “fallacy of appeal to ignorance,” or argumentum ad ignorantiam. It occurs when someone interprets the failure of an argument to prove its conclusion as proving the opposite conclusion. If you argued, for example, that alcohol has a sedative effect on the basis of the fact that you felt more relaxed after you had a glass of wine, someone could legitimately point out that you had committed a post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. They would commit a fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantiam, however, if they purported, by having exposed the problem with your argument, to have proven that wine does not have a sedative effect.
We know wine has a sedative effect because years of observing changes in behavior of people after consuming alcohol led scientists to assume there was a causal relationship between alcohol consumption and sedation so they set about looking for the causal mechanism responsible for those changes. That’s the nature of the scientific method. You observe a phenomenon, such as a correlation between two events —e.g., alcohol consumption and sedation — come up with various hypotheses concerning what causal mechanisms might be at work there, and then test those hypotheses until you find one that passes the tests.
Correlations, while they don’t in themselves prove causal relationships, are crucial to science, as anyone with even a passing familiarity with the history of science knows. They are our first indications of causal relationships. We observe a correlation between two events and then proceed to investigate whether there might be a causal relationship.
McCullough’s analogy of the inference that shingles might be a side effect of the new COVID vaccines to the inference that a rooster’s crowing makes the sun come up is itself another fallacy. It’s what is known in informal logic circles as a false analogy. There’s no prima facie reason to suppose a relation between animal behavior and the movement of planets. There is a prima facie reason, however, to suppose a relation between a vaccine and a physical ailment. That is, both relate to the body, and, more specifically, both relate to the immune system.
The COVID vaccines, which have received only Emergency Use Authorization, and not the standard FDA approval, use novel and largely untested medical technology that we are only beginning to understand. Hence we need to be particularly vigilant in our collection of information concerning possible side effects. The Department of Health and Human Services has a website, VAERS, for the reporting of what people may suspect are adverse reactions to vaccines. Many of what may appear initially to be side effects may turn out, on closer inspection, to be unrelated to the vaccine. We won’t know that, however, for some time to come, hence no physical ailment experienced shortly after receiving the vaccine should be dismissed out of hand.
Finally, while it would be wrong to conclude from a rooster crowing and the sun rising that the former caused the latter, there is a causal relationship between the two. It just goes the other way. That is, it’s the sun rising that causes the rooster to crow. It doesn’t do this directly. What scientists now believe happens is that the rising and setting of the sun sets the rooster’s internal circadian rhythm to alert the rooster to the approach of dawn. Of course we would never have figured that out if we’d dismissed the correlation between the rooster crowing and the sun coming up as purely “coincidental” in the manner McCullough argues the relation between the COVID vaccine and shingles is.
We shouldn’t simply dismiss the possibility of a causal relationship between two events because we can’t immediately confirm what it is. There is no more extreme expression of antipathy toward modern science than that. McCullough should know that given that she is a “science writer.”
But then maybe McCullough doesn’t actually write all the pieces that appear in the Inquirer under her name. “Pharmaceutical companies hire PR firms to promote drugs,” explains science writer Norman Bauman in Trust Us, We’re Experts. “Those promotions include hiring freelance writers to write articles for peer-reviewed journals, under the byline of doctors whom they also hire.” That’s right, pharmaceutical companies are planting their own propaganda in peer-reviewed medical journals.
Pharmaceutical companies use these same PR firms to draft articles that they send to mainstream-media outlets such as the Philadelphia Inquirer as “news releases.” They typically do this, according to Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, the authors of Trust Us, We’re Experts, to promote drugs for unapproved uses (p. 23). A pharmaceutical company might, for example, hire a PR firm to draft and disseminate articles that suggested a drug that had been approved only for the treatment of a particular infectious disease, was also effective at preventing transmission of it. Such an impression, if it became popular, would, of course, vastly increase sales of the drug.
That isn’t the only sort of propaganda such PR firms, sometimes euphemistically referred to as “medical communications companies,” engage in. They also do what is known in the PR industry as “damage control.” If, for example, it begins gradually to emerge that a new drug, or medical treatment, might have undesirable or even dangerous side effects, these PR hacks will draft articles to convince people that the correlation between the drug and the apparent side effects is merely coincidental, that no proof of a causal relationship exists.
According to Rampton and Stauber, a study found that
40 percent of the news content in a typical U.S. newspaper originated with public relations press releases, story memos, or suggestions. In 1980 the Columbia Journalism Review scrutinized a typical issue of the Wall Street Journal and found that more than half of its news stories “were based solely on press releases.” Often the releases were reprinted “almost verbatim or in paraphrase,” with little additional reporting, and many articles carried the slug “By a Wall Street Journal Staff Reporter.” There is no reason to think that the situation has improved since or that it is much different at other papers. ‘Most of what you see on TV is, in effect, a canned PR product. Most of what you read in the paper and see on television is not news,” says the senior vice president of a leading public relations firm (pp. 22-23, emphasis added).
Of course that study was done more than forty years ago. Things have gotten better since then, right? Wrong. More recent work suggests that the situation has actually gotten worse, much worse.
That’s why “science writers” don’t actually have to know much about science, as well as why what they say about it is sometimes so obviously wrong. They should actually know something about reasoning more generally, though, shouldn’t they?
(An earlier version of this article appeared in the 28 April 2021 issue of the political journal Counterpunch.)