Overwhelmed and Misinformed

Young people are searching for trusted intermediaries, while we keep pumping nonsense into their lives

The degradation of the information space is alienating people, as they realize providers are not on their side. The shift of scientific and scholarly publishing as a market serving users to a market serving producers is having a similar corrosive effect on our public interface and ability to elevate legitimate scientific findings and reassurances over the confusing din of the information hyenas.

In a recent interview, the author of a book based on surveys and interviews with young people called, “Young and Restless: The Girls Who Sparked America’s Revolutions,” talked about two relevant findings from her work — an exhaustion caused by drowning in a flooded information zone, and the fact that despite appearances, all information is mediated in some way, now often to exploit the user due to the prevailing producer-centric business models:

There’s no one trusted source, and that feels like a tremendous burden for young people. . . . One of the things I ended up talking about a lot with the young women alive now that I interviewed for the book is just to have the conversation that somebody is making money off what you consume. Now, it used to be we knew exactly who those people were, we knew the board rooms in which they sat, we knew the kinds of conversations that they had. . . . [social media] rewards a certain kind of information. There is no pure, unmediated access. It’s always going to be driven by what is rewarding the people who are responsible for and benefit from those systems.

Despite a few well-known and well-established shortcomings, in the prior, user-centric media era, you could see into a source for points of responsibility and accountability. — the editor, publisher, reporters, advisors, managers, and more were all named, as were board members and points of feedback (e.g., letters to the editor, contact the ombudsman, and so forth).

Today, mediation occurs, but in a black box, and without obvious points of accountability. In our world, who decides what is posted on preprint servers is a particularly hidden world despite its outsized and negative effects. Because, while Covid-19 misinformation seems to have slowed down, thanks to an OSF preprint, we have another bit of vaccine misinformation — this time a preprint introducing the scare topic of “residual DNA fragments” floating around in vaccines and doing terrible things. The preprint title ends with a frightening flourish — “Exploratory dose response relationship with serious adverse events.”

This is not the first such preprint posted on the OSF preprint server — another in April 2023 made a similar claim in more opaque language.

The two preprints share one author — Kevin McKernan — who is employed by Medicinal Genomics, a company that makes the qPCR reagents used to test vaccine purity. These commercial interests seem to be driving the posting of the preprints, making them an obvious effort to goose sales by introducing uncertainty and driving more testing using their reagents.

Such scare-mongering wouldn’t be so easy if authors had to go through a trusted intermediary capable of evaluating such claims. Studies of residual DNA fragments in vaccines have failed to find more than theoretical risks, and the authors themselves admit that using the best detection method found that the amount of DNA fragments in the vaccines test fell below WHO and FDA guidelines. Clearly, the vaccines are well-tested and safe, so including words like “with serious adverse events” is inflammatory and misleading, and no quality journal would have allowed such language, not to mention their poor techniques, in a final paper.

You can read an excellent review of the situation from actual experts here, which details the kind of things peer-review would certainly have detected and which would have likely caused the paper to be significantly revised or rejected outright, never to infect public discourse. But now, it is feeding the usual amplifiers — Epoch Times, various vaccine denial outlets, and social media.

Preprint servers are a form of mediation — they are made to resemble journals, given scientific-sounding brands, leverage DOIs for legitimacy, and use secret posting criteria and screening techniques like a technology platform. Their forms of accountability are unclear, and they like to publish sensational things. It’s not good mediation — in fact, some of it has been quite terrible — but it is still mediation.

The acceptance of such loose mediation may spring from the fact that open science advocates seem incapable of accepting that scientists can also be scoundrels.

They also seem to live fixedly in the pre-Internet age when it comes to their beliefs about how information travels, an odd juxtaposition to their claims of being more attuned to the digital world. Like some sort of Amish clan, they are frozen in time and have failed to keep up with the larger world.

Such poor mediation and the resulting externalized problems are exhausting people, young and old, while also raising unnecessary doubts about vaccination.

Things are definitely worse now, thanks to these baseless ideas about more information being better. In the peer-review era, we had one paper emerge that raised false concerns about MMR vaccines and autism, and it was amplified by Google searches to become a fixed narrative. Now, in the non-peer-review age of biomedical preprints, we have dozens of false anti-vaccine claims in the midst of amplification systems geared to promote anything sensational, controversial, or fear-provoking — things exactly like what these preprints claim.

The “open” movement has been nothing more than an abdication. We are now a major upstream, validating source of scientific misinformation far more often due to these abdications of our social, intellectual, and professional responsibilities.

OA and open science are the emperor’s new clothes in our world, which may be why a reader sent me this last week: