Peter Doshi and vaccines data: “trust but verify

Peter Doshi’s (denied) request for access to the raw data of the vaccine trial published in the British Medical Journal is a starting point to analyse on the delicate relationship between science and the media by Andrea Monti  – Originally published in Italian by Scienza in rete

Those who practise the scientific method have the stubborn habit (incomprehensible to most) of drawing conclusions from the analysis of data according to the criteria of a research hypothesis and applying a method that allows the inter-subjective verifiability of the results.

This mental attitude is diametrically opposed to those who base their opinions and – worse – decisions on ‘trust’ (often turned into ‘faith’) and therefore on the authority of various eminences. I do not criticise this attitude in the religious sphere, but in the secular one, that of science, yes. If a dogma exists in the practice of science, it is that of the methodical doubt, together with that of the absence of certainty. An experimentally verified theory is valid as long as it is valid. It happened to give an example of which expertise overflows outside the laboratories, with Newton’s gravitation and quantum mechanics.

This long preamble expresses some perplexity about the journalistic approach to the scientific method that has characterised the generalist media over the past year concerning the pandemic’s complicated issues.

The latest example (but certainly not the only one, nor the last) is represented by the reactions to the (denied) request to allow access to the raw data of the vaccine trials formulated to the competent authorities by Peter Doshi, a US university professor who has publicly explained his reasons for re-reading the data on the efficacy of vaccines. In short, Doshi’s position is expressed by an old Russian proverb, later also taken up by the then US President Reagan: Доверяй, но проверяй. Trust but verify

There is nothing wrong, then, in being like Saint Thomas, and wanting to see the data that made possible to assess the vaccines’ efficacy at almost 100%. If Doshi were right, vaccination policies (and the related costs) would have to be adjusted immediately to compensate for the vaccines’ reduced effectiveness. If only in the name of the precautionary principle, which is so often inappropriately invoked, independent verification of vaccine efficacy rates would be a useful tool to guide decision-makers’ choices (who, in the meantime, are right to continue with mass vaccination).

Curiously enough, Professor Doshi’s position has been criticised not on scientific grounds (I do not know: errors of the method, ambiguity in the objectives to be achieved, use of unsuitable software and instruments). Criticisms were targeted upon the grounds of political expediency and the principle of authority. In other words, on assumptions that are diametrically opposed to those of a technical judgment. In the same way, the positions of the American professor are used to make him say, or rather, to make the British Medical Journal, which hosted Doshi’s article, say that the authorised vaccines are less effective than stated (except for specifying that in reality we still have to wait for some time to find out).

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, Peter Doshi’s article should not have aroused such interest because the real news would have been the publication of his study’s conclusions, not the announcement that he wanted to start it.

Mind you, Doshi is no Giordano Bruno or Galileo. No one is going to drive a nail down his throat to keep him from talking or ostracise him to the point of retraction. In a few days, the media will forget about this non-news story and give space to yet another ‘man biting dog’, and so on. Just as curiously, the generalist media have ignored essential questions about the Coronavirus vaccine research, such as the importance of animal experimentation and how Italy’s confusing legislation slows down research.

It is obvious, but unavoidable, to note that talking about science is a very delicate matter, to be handled with extreme caution even by experts, as Giovanni Boniolo well explains in Scienza in rete.

Being a communication professional does not automatically imply the gift of omniscience. On the other hand, researchers who are very good in their laboratories are not qualified to ‘communicate’, a job for which they are not prepared and which, if poorly practised, can have severe consequences.

We have all seen examples of this for some time now, ever since doctors and researchers became regulars on television news and talk-shows, transformed from ‘experts’ into ‘opinion leaders’ even about issues upon which they have no particular authority.

It is the revenge of the geeks. Those who have spent a lifetime in the laboratory, ignored by ‘cool people’, and who are still incredolous that, finally, someone has noticed them.

They are intoxicated by the fact that, at last, in the Olympus of fame, they sit alongside showgirls and footballers.

However, that is another article.

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