Meaning Message and Misinformation

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Image: Vanessa Cowan

In the beginning there was a post on the importance of science communication and thus this blog was thrust into creation. ( HERE, if you haven’t read it and want to jump back). The area of science communication is currently exploding, much like the gaseous expanse of our universe during it’s infancy.

I am going to spare you any pseudo-philosophical musings on cosmology or astrophysics. I do find the beauty of a galaxy awe-inspiring and the cold, vast, apathy of space a reflection of the way we should view the world (The universe doesn’t care about your beliefs, a person once uttered) but I can’t pretend to know much about it.

It’s a cold, cruel mistress born from explosions, implosions and volatility.

Sorry, I got a little carried away.

I am going to spare you from an extended pseudo-philosophical musing because, frankly, I know nothing about space, astrophysics or cosmology.  My understanding is so minimal that I would butcher it until it was hardly recognizable. In the end it would be a mutation riddled with so many inaccuracies that it would come out looking much like Jeff Goldblum at the end of The Fly.

I want to maintain accuracy and in order to do that, I won’t attempt to write about a topic I have a hard time wrapping my own squishy brain around.

My focus is much more micro – a introspective viewpoint of the tiny universe that you contain inside every cubic centimeter of your body. Your blood, your bones, your neurons, your cells, the colony of creatures living on and inside of you, and the way all those things miraculously work in perfect synchronization to make you the person you were, the person you are and the person you will eventually become.

Sci Comm is not Science Fiction

In terms of science communication all science is important. All scientific discovery should be talked about and not just in laboratories and conferences and symposiums by the scientific elite. The intellectuals with tightly guarded scientific prowess who woo each other in their rapid dialogue of jargon; an attempt to one up the next in a gladiator battle of the frontal cortex and sheer strength of their action potentials.

Science should be talked about anywhere.

It should be talked about in bars, at dinner, to wide eyed curious children or while you are on the couch with your feet in your partner’s lap winding down from the long day. The discussion of scientific ideas should be an activity that people engage in every day.

It should be a continuous dialogue.

Science Communication, or Sci Comm, is a relatively new animal. Before an explosion of blogs and books and Instagram and Twitter it was a relatively lonely universe occupied by the very outspoken Carl Sagan and his lovely turtleneck collection.

Carl Sagan Cosmos
Carl Sagan Cosmos


And while Sagan wrote books, ruminated on a cliff about the vast expanse of our beautiful universe and made the 1980s talk show circuit –he was also a scientist loathed by the scientific community for his attempts at communicating science ideas to the public. They thought him to be a narcissistic showman. That his “altruistic education” of the public was a charade for his celebrity advancement. Perhaps a plausible theory. Even so, few people have been both a passionate contributing scientist and such a captivating communicator of ideas. It’s a rare gift.

Now, Sagan was a more contemporary example of the human experience of science. He wasn’t a cold, white male in a lab coat with a questionable beard and round glasses viewing the public skeptically over a clip board. He was a philosophical, mildly poetic thinker with questionable taste in clothing and hair cuts. He was also a ladies’ man – married three times. (His second and third wives an artist and writer, respectively.) He pondered the existence of an omnipresent deity. He asked questions to the public and encouraged a discussion. He was a human who engaged in science and in thought and in emotion.

(Aside: I found this lovely quote from his wife, the writer Ann Druyan, who was married to him at the time of his death. If you are also a person that finds strange things beautiful read along, if not, skip over.)

” When my husband died, because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me—it still sometimes happens—and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl”

Strange Science

The strange thing about science is that it is an entirely human activity. Humans, in all of our fallibility and emotional tendencies, are embarking on these curious discoveries of how the world around us works. We have evolved a detached, objective methodology in order to try to avoid contamination of this wondrous world.

Sometimes we are successful. Other times we let too much of our humanness seep into that which we are looking at, clouding it over until all we can see is our own reflection.

The world is wonderful and mysterious and sometimes a little bizarre. Science has evolved as a way to explain the strange and unusual– giving names to things, describing the function and importance of things that would otherwise appear mystical in nature. It’s quite wonderful. Yet, the process of such discovery is often not well explained by scientists.

In decades prior, science has been prescribed as an authority. Often described as an ivory tower,  the process is locked away and the secrets of thought are only available to those elite shadow scientists.

Traditionally, science dishes out it’s explanations, guidelines, facts and findings while keeping much of the process in the darkness. This has bred suspicion and distrust in the public, especially in individuals who haven’t had much experience with the scientific method (which is a stunningly high percentage of the population).

This distrust and suspicion has been around for hundreds of years and, with the dawn of the internet, has seemed to explode into a chaotic fever.  The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that entropy always increases over time.

Now scientists and non-scientists alike are attempting to destroy that ivory tower of authoritative and prescriptive science.

You have PhD students like Toronto’s Samantha Yammine  instagramming her own research and laboratory adventures (along with fun facts about current science). There is Daniel Toker out of Berkeley doing some absolutely incredible neuroscience research in consciousness (and waxing philosophical while staring out at the Mediterranean sea). You have science journalists like Ed Yong who is quite prolific over at The Atlantic. Before that he was a humble blogger. He is also a New York times best selling author.

Science Communication and the importance of accessible science has grown in recent years. It has it’s own hashtag. It has people, all over the world — whether students of science and writers (like myself) or legitimate laboratory scientists — talking to the public about the wonders of science and what she has to offer.

But, with this celebration of science and attempt at unmasking the mystery comes misinformation, melodrama and a loss of meaning.

Zombie Deer Disease

A couple weeks ago I ran into some pretty bizarre news stories about Chronic Wasting Disease, a prion disease that afflicts Deer, Elk and Moose. Prion diseases are terrifying in their own right, and really don’t need any hypeman to up the horror of their progression and pathology.

Prion disease involves progressive neurodegeneration caused by misfolding proteins. These misfolded proteins have a Midas touch – their causal glancing into others causes their sister proteins to misfold. This causes a cascade that eventually leads to neuronal death and destruction of the organism whose poor brain happens to be afflicted. Another terrifying component is that Prion diseases have an excruciatingly long incubation period. Meaning an animal (humans too) may be infected with the disease and not show any symptoms of deterioration for a very long time.

Mad Cow Disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or BSE) is probably the most well known prion disease, sparking panic at BBQs and picnics all over the UK decades ago. There is evidence that it is transmissible from cows to humans via consumption of BSE contaminated meat.

There is also an aptly named prion disease, Scrapie, that affects sheep. One of the hallmark behaviours is the mindlessly scraping of their wooly bodies against objects until they are a ratty, bloody mess.

Kuru – a prion disease that afflicted the Fore people of  New Guinea — was transmitted via cannibalism of the dead. It appeared to die out after the funeral practices were stopped. It has the terrifying nickname of “The Laughing Disease”

And, there is my personal favourite nightmare, Fatal Familia Insomnia. This appears to be a genetic prion disease that a poor Italian family has suffered from for quite a few generations (the book, The Family Who Couldn’t Sleep, explains it all).

In short, prion diseases are a death sentence and the reality of them are more terrifying than any misinformation propagated by media outlets.

Enter stage left, Zombie Deer disease.

Yes, Fear The Walking (Deer) Dead.

This unfortunate headline was everywhere, spreading misinformation on Chronic Wasting Disease and attempting to get the paranoid public riled up.

Even Men’s Health Mag had a story on it (Image)


My personal favourite article was this gem HERE

Especially the headline:

“Black Death: Scientists fear health DISASTER as deadly ‘ZOMBIE deer virus’ may soon infect humans. A HORRIFIC virus that has killed thousands of deer may soon infect humans, sparking fears of a Mad Cow Disease-like epidemic.”

First of all, prions are misfolded proteins. They are not viruses. Viruses are completely different creatures.  Prions do not replicate the way viruses do. They are their own terrifying abomination.

Secondly, the unfortunate thing about misinformation in the media is that it is about as detrimental as misfolded proteins. It creates a cascade of fear and mass delivery of misinformation.

It is a plague far beyond what the so- called zombie deer disease could manifest.

Prions have a special place in my strange and morbid heart. They are the perfect illustration of how bizarre and terrifying science can be. They are something so incredible they altered the dogma of biology and biochemistry.

They illustrate perfectly how fluid science is. It is not set in stone. It must change with the unearthing of new evidence; everything needs to be altered in the light of discovery.

Influenza and the Plague of Misinformation

Virion of  Influenza A

Zombie Deer Disease wasn’t the only unfortunate news story I stumbled across lately.

There is a virus of misinformation being disseminated on Facebook in recent weeks.

It has been well documented that this year’s influenza vaccine has, unfortunately, been quite ineffective. I was told by my virology professor that this year it carries a 10% efficacy rate — which is pretty dismal.

Influenza is a tricky virus to create vaccines for because it likes to mutate rapidly.

Some of our most effective vaccines, like that which helped to eradicate Smallpox, was designed for a virus that had one serotype (essentially one type of species of the pathogen). Influenza has dozens of different subtypes. The mutation and drifts that occur every year creates a pathogen that is hard to predict. This unpredictability may lead to a vaccine that is less effective than desired. That being said, any protection is better than no protection.  Influenza kills many people every year and this year has been exceptionally bad.

The influenza misinformation came in the form of a Facebook post being circulated by many individuals. It states that not only was this year’s influenza vaccine ineffective, it was catastrophically dangerous.

The fake news story claims that CDC scientists warn of the vaccine CAUSING super influenza outbreaks that will lead to certain death. It is complete fiction, in the sense that it was written by someone with the intent to spread misinformation. The scientist that is  quoted in the article does not exist, he is a character created by the author of this “news story”.  People are sharing it, without fact checking, as one does on Facebook.

So let’s do some digging to see if any part of this carries a granule of truth or if it’s all an exercise in creative writing.

First, lets start with the flu vaccine itself. The needle that pierces your skin contains a mixture of inactivated, purified surface proteins (HA and NA) of roughly four different strains of Influenza. These surface proteins are recognized by your immune system and your immune cells go to work. The end result? If the real influenza virus bypasses your body’s outer defense system and ends up inside, your immune system recognizes it and neutralizes it (hopefully). This vaccine doesn’t contain a live version of the virus. The purified surface proteins are unlikely to wreck havoc inside your body — meaning they are unlikely to organize into a fully formed infectious influenza virus. Viruses need DNA or RNA – some sort of genetic material -to successful replicate after hijacking our cells. The vaccine that is delivered via a needled syringe does not contain that.

The FluMist – or nasal influenza vaccine – does contain live attenuated virus. Attenuated viruses are still “living” but their ability to cause illness ( their virulence) has been significant altered (the smallpox vaccine I mentioned early was an attenuated vaccine). The mist is used to create a local immune response (the influenza virus likes the respiratory tract) which, in theory, should lead to an greater immunity to the virus. The FluMist is not recommend for use for 2017-2018 session, not because of it’s great danger to mankind, but because it appears to be ineffective.

So, the chance of the flu vaccine giving you a mutant super flu leading to your untimely death is just not likely. It is propaganda being propagated by people who are easily scared and unlikely to fact check the things that scare them.

There is usually a shadow of some reality in these things. It’s just that it’s mutated beyond recognition. It’s jaw has fallen off and it is now dissolving your arm with it’s digestive juices (The Fly again, sorry for ruining it). If we look back into history, we can see where the author of the influenza vaccine hoax piece got his inspiration from.

The Cutter Incident. In 1955, an outbreak of polio was traced back to the very thing that was trying to prevent it – the polio vaccine manufactured by Cutter Laboratories. The vaccine contained a whole virus that was inactivated by formaldehyde. The Cutter vaccines were defective– the virus, in some preparations was resistant to inactivation — and had horrible outcomes.

Some good news — this is unlikely to happen with the flu vaccine. It is merely made from subunits of proteins, not  the whole virus.

Awful, unexpected things can happen but you have to keep your eyes open and make sure that reports are founded in evidence not in historically inspired creative writing exercises.

Ask Questions, Do your Research

This is exactly why we need science communication. Misinformation can kill. It leads to health decisions based on non-information.

I have been the first person to shit talk my nursing education, but it keeps proving itself valuable in some form or another. One of the things nursing teaches is the idea of informed decisions. That is, the idea of people making decisions on their health or treatments based on evidence.

Misinformation is destroying that. You can not make informed decisions if you are no longer informed.

You are shooting in the dark. And unless your name is Clarice Starling, chances are you aren’t hitting Buffalo Bill in the gut and saving the day. (I apologize that all of my movie references are from 1986-1991– please Netflix at your leisure)

Again, as I have mentioned before, be skeptical. If what your reading doesn’t seem plausible– or appears out right ludicrous– do you research. Hell, even if it seems plausible it’s best to triple check.  Follow it back to the source and make sure that source is credible. When it comes to research, make sure you are looking at articles that are based in science and follow protocols (peer reviewed are best).  Always ask questions – Does this make sense? Where is this coming from? Can I find evidence that is reliable and replicable?

Lastly, a general rule for Facebook, chances are it is not what it appears to be.


* This has been edited. My first version of this post was, thankfully, called out by someone much more knowledgeable than myself who pointed out the error of my ways and gave me suggestions on how to improve on this piece and avoid my own misinformation missteps. Forever Grateful. The irony is not lost on me. *

Prion Information
Viral Fake News
The Family Who Couldn’t Sleep
2017-2018 Flu
Zombie Deer Disease
Unscientific America
Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons
The Cutter Incident: Poliomyelitis following formaldehyde inactivated poliovirus vaccination in the United States during the spring of 1955
Medical Microbiology. Murray. 2017


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