Like most of America last year I lived in a bubble oblivious of the “fake news” (because I don’t have time to watch TV or read crappy websites) and it did not occur to me until the past week how as scientists we must also defend against the twisting of science and statistics even in fields far from the ‘hot topics’ like climate change and vaccines etc. It has hit home only recently to me and I think its important that as scientists we stand up and voice our extreme displeasure now before things start to slide further in the wrong direction. I am not an uninterested party, I am dependent on NIH funding for the science I do in my company and through collaborations, at the outset its important that this potential conflict of interest is brought up.
Since the election here in the US I have noticed a distinct change in many of the scientists I follow on Twitter or talk to in general. I sense deep uncertainty with the leadership direction and the effect this could have on funding for science, trust in science and just deep concern in what is ‘real’ any more. Watching the daily political news is wrenching, were those with anti-science backgrounds proposed to head positions they are barely qualified to do so. Having friends in Russia I would be greatly dismayed to see this great country take steps in the direction in which pseudoscience trumps science, and in which fear prevents anyone from speaking out and holding a scientific opinion that differs from its leadership. I would say that I am politically neutral, I am pro-business, pro-healthcare, I long for a country which invests more in science and engineering, which supports everyone so that they could have a good education and healthcare. Like anyone in America I am also susceptible to fake news and propaganda, but also we have a voice and responsibility to fight back and call out blatant lies and misinformation.
Several months ago, like many others, I erroneously retweeted a story on TB incidence in refugees in America. At the time I was naïve enough to not think that it was politically motivated. I was soon put right by others on twitter. That moment slid by and I was reminded of it in the past week when I was sent a link to what I can only describe as a “fake news article on TB” appearing in the epicenter of fake news, a website called Breitbart. I was sent this purely because I work on TB and the sender thought I would be interested. Instead I was repulsed, angry, sickened at what we have become as a nation. One which uses the unfortunate circumstances of others to spread a reprehensible political agenda.
Lets break down some of the statements in the ‘article’ which describes TB in refugees from 2012-2015 – It says a lot about how public statistics can be twisted to tell whatever unsavory story these hacks want to tell.
- It says the reports are hidden – they are not – the CDC has them on public websites. Anyone can read them. No conspiracy to keep that data quiet. What is interesting and not raised in the article is that the rate of decrease in TB in the USA has levelled off and that presents challenges in how we continue to bring the number lower.
- The title is “1565 refugees diagnosed with active TB since 2012, three times more than previously reported” – all this represents is the sum of the number of refugees diagnosed with TB from 2012-2015 it makes it appear as though there are far more refugees with TB. It also does not explain how this is 3 times more than previously reported. They provide no reference – probably because nobody would have previously thought that TB levels in refugees was even remotely newsworthy, let alone of interest to anyone.
- In 2012 the number of refugees with TB represented 3.6% of the total number of people in US diagnosed with TB, in 2015 this number was 4.3% – these numbers represent 0.61% of all refugees resettled in the USA in 2012 and 0.58% in 2015, respectively. This does not represent a great change nor a huge percentage of the TB problem in the US. I would honestly say from this that refugees are not contributing to TB being a problem in the US and the statistics for these years support this. The CDC has plenty of information and statistics which is very accessible.
- What the article does not mention is: One third of the world’s population is infected with TB. In 2015, 10.4 million people around the world became sick with TB disease. There were 1.8 million TB-related deaths worldwide. A total of 9,557 TB cases (a rate of 3.0 cases per 100,000 persons) were reported in the United States in 2015. Incidentally, the WHO does a terrific job of tracking data on TB globally.
What also struck me was how anyone reading this “article” would take it at face value because it described data from the Centers for Disease Control presented in a way to make their spurious case – very reminiscent of what the anti-vaccine people do. The reader would be left thinking that refugees and foreigners were responsible for TB in this country which is way off the mark. This unfortunately is also how a large segment of the population get their news, from dingy little websites, written by what can only be described as evil little pawns with no knowledge of science, who just want to spread hatred. In this case its anti-refugee, anti-foreigner rhetoric based on the fact that a small number have a disease which is incredibly common outside the USA and which unfortunately kills many. In the US we are lucky that we can treat those with TB and few have the multidrug resistant form. Are we really going to hold back immigrants on our borders on the basis that they might have TB? Its incredibly short sighted.
All of the people I know in science in the USA and elsewhere work incredibly long hours and put heir heart and soul into what they are doing. Many of them work on developing treatments for TB and understanding the disease. The majority of people that will benefit from these efforts are those in countries like Africa, India etc. What we do not need are vicious little articles that blow up TB as a problem associated with refugees and immigrants – it is far from it. TB is a global problem, the US is as much a part of the problem as it is a part of the solution. Misinformation about TB actually causes more problems. We need to be vigilant for examples like this which use open science data in a way that spreads a hateful political agenda. Hopefully, readers “fake science news radar” will be set to “on” after reading this.