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I have recently discovered that anti-vaxxers have been citing one of my papers on Twitter and elsewhere as evidence of a specific 5G-related conspiracy theory surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine. Of course, my work has no relationship with any vaccine, COVID or otherwise, and their arguments are laughable misinterpretations of my results. In fact, an accurate understanding of the work would be a potent counterargument to this conspiracy theory.

What, if anything, should I do? I have not had any interactions with these people so far, but I'm concerned about my work being associated with them.

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  • Is the paper open access? – Nemo Jun 18 at 19:15
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – cag51 Jun 19 at 19:06
  • I think what you're really asking about here is your options under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). – Patriot Jun 19 at 21:26
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I'm going to disagree with the folks saying to just ignore the anti-vaxxers.

These people are not cranks, in the sense of the proposed duplicate question. A crank in that sense is an intellectually isolated person who is merely wrapped up in their own personal eccentricity.

The groups opposing COVID-19 vaccines include well-funded and purposeful organizations that have in many cases become linked with politics. You may not be able to stop them from citing your work, but you can certainly make a public statement explaining that they should not cite your work and why they are wrong to do so. There's no point in having a public fight with a harmless trisector, but there's a damned good reason to have a fight with a group that is actually effectively working to undermine public health.

The question is: are you up for the potential of a public confrontation? They'll probably just ignore you... but they might not. They might add you to their cast of villains, and that might or might not be a risk that you feel able to afford.

Bottom line: I believe that ethics indicates that you should oppose the use of your work in this case. The only question is how much you feel is an appropriate investment of energy and taking on of risk given your current personal and professional circumstances.

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    I think two considerations to add: 1. how visible are they? Making public statements may actually fuel the debate and their visibility when it otherwise may just die out - this is a judgement call. 2. If you engage with political groups that have too much time on their hands, be aware that you may become a target, with hatemails, doxxing, or worse. The pool of people that these movements can mobilise is much larger than it used to be, and they can also much more cheaply find out things about you. I am not saying you should not battle these, but you should be aware of potential consequences. – Captain Emacs Jun 16 at 23:54
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    I think you have mischaracterised the reference. The majority of the advertisements link back to two people: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Larry Cook. These do seem to be cranks. The original source, which does not mention them by name, is sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/… – Anonymous Physicist Jun 17 at 1:13
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    Probably 2 of the most confrontational ways (and thus the ways most likely to go bad) to deal with those you disagree with (especially less rational people) are to tell them to not do things and to explicitly tell them they're wrong. No-one likes to be told either of those things. If you want to make a public statement, I'd suggest just clarifying what your results actually show (and what they don't show). If you want to minimise confrontation further, you could also avoid referencing or addressing the person misinterpreting the results altogether when making the statement. – NotThatGuy Jun 17 at 9:24
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    One day the trisectors will rise up and take over our society, and you'll rue the day you underestimated them! ; ) – Ben Jun 17 at 9:40
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    One thing you could do that is clear but not too confrontational would be to put a short clear statement on your website/Twitter bio/similar. At least some people will Google you when they see your name mentioned, and that way they will see that you do not endorse the reference to your work. – dbmag9 Jun 17 at 10:15
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Dan Pfeiffer* has a great article about combatting misinformation without bringing it more attention. I believe it's largely relevant here. The most relevant section† is here:

The gist of this argument is that the only way to [combat misinformation] is to shine a light on it. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. The point is not wrong. We cannot ignore these dangerous trends [...] But how we shine that light matters:

Quote tweet your friends, screenshot [misinformation]: This is an online engagement rule from Dash: If you need/want to push back on disinformation or highlight a dishonest or dangerous statement, using a photo of the statement allows you to make your point without giving the troll the information they need.

Don’t spread disinformation: If you respond to disinformation for the purposes of debunking it, you are inadvertently instructing the algorithm to show the offending disinformation to more people. You can either use the screenshot trick above or separately share a fact check or article that debunks the conspiracy theory.

In the context of stopping the spread of your paper being used for COVID misinformation, I would interpret the above guidelines to mean: Don't retweet or share the tweets containing misinformation, or link to other sites mis-citing your work, even to point out how they're wrong. Instead, create a tweet or a response on another medium from scratch, which can be shared and that fact checks in a way that highlights the facts − not the myths. The key is not giving engagement to falsehoods, and instead try to drive engagement to facts.

*former Senior Advisor to U.S. President Barack Obama for Strategy and Communications
†American political emphasis removed to specifically highlight how this technique is applicable to the question at hand

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – cag51 Jun 18 at 1:08
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I was in a similar situation: during a few radio programs with a homeopath and a magnetizer (or whatever the man who has cosmic power in his hands is called), I made informed fun of their "science". They were there to answer and it went sideways.

One thing I learned: their groupies are terrifying.

I was in my PhD phase at that time, and in a very hormone-powered confrontational mood so I went in headfirst.

It was great at that time but I would not do it now (30 years later), for several reasons:

  • I do not have the time I had
  • I have a family and these people are nuts, they would literally make standups in front of your house. I was living in a campus at that time so it ended up well (without going into gory details: not that well for them)
  • specifically homeopathy companies have lawyers: when you tell them that their science is idiotic (because dilution, atoms and everything), they will drag you to court (I have to find a reference for that I read some time ago).
  • After 30 years, instead of gaining the wisdom I was supposed to, I believe that these people should be made to shut the fuck up because they are a danger for society. So the discussion quickly turns to words usually considered unfit for a scientific discussion.

You really need to consider if you want to fight, and if you do, whether this is going to be interesting/amusing/fun/energizing for you.


As a special note for my favourite subject of "the science of homeopathy" (closely followed by "religion and science"), I was trying with the homeopaths to settle the fact that homeopathy may very well work due to the placebo effect. When I take an aspirin, it does not even have the time to drop into my stomach and I feel that my headache gets better, see?.

They insisted that there is a physical reason for homeopathy (memory of water, usually) and then we were done.

I also feel that people should understand that they pay 30€ for a placebo effect - whihc may or may not be fine for them.

Finally there is the despicable class of preachers of alternative solutions such a these who will use the fear and despair of people and drag them from actual treatments to their crap, endangering their life.

As they say in Kingsman, I had to let some steam off :)

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  • You're right to be worried about going to court. At least in the UK, the defendant in libel has to prove what they said was true: e.g. that Homeopathy is bunkum. The plaintiff does not have to prove that it works. It is the exact opposite burden of proof that is used in science. – Oscar Bravo Jun 18 at 7:00
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    In addition to the defence of justificiation (i.e., truth), the "fair comment" defence is another standard defence you would assert in such a case. This does not require you to prove that homeopathy is bunkum --- you would only have to prove (on balance of probabilities) that this is a view a reasonable person could hold. – Ben Jun 19 at 1:39
  • @Ben In the UK, the set of available defences was changed (both in nomenclature and in substance) by the Defamation Act 2013. There are no longer defences called "justification" or "fair comment". – Daniel Hatton Jun 19 at 15:39
  • ... incidentally, one of the stated reasons for introducing the Defamation Act 2013 was to protect scientists and science journalists from the danger identified by @OscarBravo, but I have no idea whether it's worked. – Daniel Hatton Jun 20 at 19:42
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Another reason to make a public statement: to avoid becoming their "hero".

Pseudo-scientific conspiracy theorists try to present their views as something fast-growing, something which will very soon become the mainstream, and something which is "supported by more and more scientists". Especially many covid-related misinformation is claiming that "most doctors" are already on their side (even if it's actually just an extremely small but loud minority).

The few doctors or researchers which are genuinely on their side, are heralded by them as heroes. The few I researched are usually ex-medics who now make their living from selling dietary supplements and homeopathy, or have founded political parties, and publicity gained from the controversy is good for their business.

You probably can't entirely avoid to become their unwilling "hero" in social media posts and newsletters ("more and more scientists, including Icyfire, are rising up to finally admit the truth!"), but you'd surely want to not become that "rebel leader" in the eyes of mainstream science.

Therefore a public post, which doesn't engage in the debate but briefly and firmly states something akin to "that's not what I said" can help you avoid becoming the "hero" of that conspiracy theory at least in the eyes of the mainstream scientific community. It might also help others indirectly: nothing will dissuade the fanatics (they might think you've been bribed even in the rare chance they do look it up) but there are many undecided people out there having a more open mind, and if they see a claim in a pulp magazine or social media post about a scientist having stated something, at least some of them might look up that scientist to see what the original statement was.

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This issue can often be broken down into two parts:

  1. Someone has misunderstood/misrepresented my research. They are claiming that it shows ABC, but this is incorrect.
  2. Someone is claiming that since (as they believe) my paper is convincing evidence for ABC, this implies PQR and XYZ and so therefore [anti-vax/aliens/global cooling/flat-earth/perpetual motion machines/zombie bunnies/...].

Applying Hanlon's Razor, (1) could be a legitimate mistake. If you are aware that a misinterpretation of your research is circulating, you might consider what you can do to clarify the situation, and ensure that anyone who wishes to 'fact-check' the claims can easily do so. For example, you could write a plain-language summary of your work, and place it on your website, or publish it via one of the many popular science websites.

Addressing (2) is more challenging, and is the focus of several of the answers here. Such debates are driven by an assortment of individuals, each with their own motivations and perspectives, and you may find yourself drawn into playing conspiracy-theory whack-a-mole. Some people enjoy this game; others don't.

My point is: the claim ABC can be addressed without necessarily getting drawn into the debates about PQR, XYZ, and the bunnies, and it may be worthwhile to do so.

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You do the same thing you'd do in any disagreement: respond with reasonable arguments. You never respond to a critic (no matter how eccentric, wrong-headed, or confused) by telling them that they're wrong and you're right and that they should just TRUST you.

No. If the whole world is confused about something, you simply let them bask in their confusion and do your due diligence to state your case. You don't have to compromise, but that's all you can do. If it boils down to a pissing match, where neither party wants to listen to the other, then you have some work to do as well. I know of no moment in history where one side is completely right and the other completely wrong.

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    Presumably the paper already contained reasonable arguments. I do not see how this helps. – Anonymous Physicist Jun 23 at 0:39
  • Is that enough? Do you think their paper can tracked ALL reasonable arguments? – TheDoctor Jun 23 at 0:41
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    If one side of a debate limits itself to dialectic only, and the other side has access to the full range of tools of rhetoric, the outcome is unlikely to be a happy one from an academic point of view. – Daniel Hatton Jun 23 at 10:24
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That's the thing with (i) countries that allow for free speech for everyone, (ii) exercising this right yourself by making your own opinion public in the form of a paper: Free speech also includes the right to misrepresent someone else's opinion.

There is little you can do about it unless whatever others claim about your work is slander or is a threat. The only thing that is within your power is to ignore these folks and move on.

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    I'm aware that they have the right to speak how they like, but what about exercising my own right and speaking up against them? – Icyfire Jun 16 at 23:59
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    (+1) I'm honestly dumbfounded as to how this answer is heavily downvoted. Is this honestly that controversial? – Ben Jun 17 at 8:54
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    @Ben is it in any way helpful? – s.harp Jun 17 at 9:00
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    @Ben, that is true, but the OP clearly states "What, if anything, should I do?" and the answer, contradictory to it's first paragraph, states that there is little to do about it. But he can very well express his opinion as well, and that is what OP asks for. The answer, currently, gives no answer (or only a self-contradicted one) – Mayou36 Jun 17 at 9:15
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    "The only thing that is within your power is to ignore these folks" is just blatantly false. One can certainly make a public statement oneself to correct them, clarify what your research shows, distance yourself from them, scold them and/or whatever else. If you don't believe this would be effective (or it would be harmful), I would suggest editing your answer to explain why you believe so. – NotThatGuy Jun 17 at 9:35

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