Friday, October 30, 2009

Twitter and information accuracy

I am going out on a limb: I do not wish to offend anyone, particularly those for whom I have a great deal of respect. However, this is potentially a moment where opinions need to be exchanged in the name of improved mutual understanding.

The other day I re-tweeted a tweet from someone whose Twitter activity I enjoy very much.  I like where his links take me, and I appreciate the intellectual and emotional honesty of his own writing. The message I re-tweeted was about Gardasil, Merck’s HPV vaccine marketed in the US. Diane Harper of the University of Missouri is a prominent researcher who was heavily involved in the Gardasil development program. Over the last several months she has cast serious doubt on both the cost-effectiveness and the risk-benefit profile of the vaccine. One of the facts she pointed out at the recent 4th International Public Conference on Vaccination in VA was that, though the drug is marketed to girls as young as 11 years old, the vaccine has never been formally evaluated in girls under the age of 16 years. Neither its safety nor efficacy, let alone effectiveness, is known in the younger population.

A link in the re-tweeted message took me to a newspaper article summarizing Dr. Harper’s objections to the wide-spread use of Gardasil in the US. As luck would have it, shortly following the first tweet, the author re-tweeted another message. This one directed one to a blog post by a British EBM celebrity railing against a deliberate fabrication of information by anti-vaccination ideologue reporters to cast doubt on GSK’s Cervarix in a story published in the British tabloid Sunday Express. In this blatantly sensationalist anti-vaccination article, the journalists were allegedly quoting Dr. Harper’s objections to Cervarix, objections that seemed identical to those she has voiced with regard to Gardasil. Being dubious of the veracity of such claims, the blogger diligently fact-checked with Dr. Harper directly, who promptly denied ever making any claims, or indeed having more than superficial familiarity with the data on Cervarix. In fact, the journal has removed the story from its web site. So, the blog recounted a necessary he-said she-said anatomy of distorting facts in service of the tabloid rag's sales. Perhaps in the UK these disreputable pseudo-news outlets have wider credibility than in the US. But I do not see that I need to get involved in further discrediting a source that would just as likely put news of alien abductions on its front page as the lies about a vaccine.

Since I have been following the Gardasil saga, I was interested in Diane Harper’s views of the data in the context of the epidemiology of both HPV infection and cervical cancer. Additionally, being a health services researcher, the cost-effectiveness questions also caught my eye. Not to mention the information about the age thresholds in the trials. For these reasons I re-tweeted the story. And while the debunking of the anti-Cervarix rhetoric was interesting, it did not add to my knowledge base, other than to trust all tabloids even less, if that is even possible. The blog post thus made the point that there is no evidence to date for any of the dire events that the reporters in their anti-vaccination zeal had made up. This does not excite me: as I keep pointing out, the absence of evidence does not mean that there is evidence of absence. The best we can say is that the vaccine proved safe enough in trials to be approved, and to date we have not seen any red flags. No new information here, other than confirmation of the lies, though, given the source, no big surprise. So, the post being simply more of voyeuristic than scientific interest to me, I chose not to re-tweet the second tweet. Particularly since this is a “controversy” I had not been following closely.

Shockingly, when I got back on Twitter a few hours later, I had a polite but insistent request from the author of the tweet to re-tweet his second, Cervarix, tweet. Now, because I respect this person, and because I am confident that, being an accomplished journalist, he was simply seeking balanced information, I complied without further ado. After all, this was harmless enough. However, I got to thinking about when it might be OK for a tweeter to insist that a particular tweet get re-tweeted. Journalists seek balance in reporting. Scientists seek balance when summarizing evidence. Both are averse to cherry picking. I am sure that my esteemed colleague felt that I was cherry picking the information to fit my point of view. In fact, I wish to assure him that I was cherry picking simply on the basis of what advanced my knowledge on the subject: a story about an important public meeting on vaccination vs. a recount of a tabloid inaccuracy. And even if my intentions had been nefarious, Twitter is neither a responsible journalism vehicle nor a peer-reviewed publication. The cynical view is that information chaos reigns, and while we should all strive for responsible diffusion of information, there is no contract to this effect. The less cynical way to look at it is that Twitter is an egalitarian vehicle, where individuals can make up their own minds as to what they deem important.

So based on this experience, let me respectfully suggest an alternative course of action around similar future situations, should they arise. Rather than emphatically asking to re-tweet a specific post, why not inquire why the person chose not to in the first place. And though it may be challenging to give a full explanation in 140 characters, it is worth a shot, as it is guaranteed to advance our mutual understanding and to build better relationships.

1 comment:

  1. Good or not, Twitter's success has devolved into something less than real relationship building. My guess is that since your last DM you've not had any real contact. Such is the world we live in. Communities on blogs form a much stronger 'bond' imho.