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As a disclaimer, I have to say I am against any kind of censorship. That being said, academics also have a responsibility to their audience.

An academic with a few thousand citations purposefully perverts statistics on covid vaccinations. His statements are all "technically true, but what is the point" kind of statements which might mislead the population gravely.

Had it not been the case that he has a good track record, I wouldn't take any action. It is impossible to reply to everyone who doesn't understand statistics. But having a good track record and a good affiliation, his impact might cause confusion in public. Moreover, he uses twitter in his native tongue, while his affiliation is at a different country, so there is a good chance that his supervisors have no idea what is going on.

If he published these thoughts on a journal, anyone could have make a counter publication, or simply write to the editor after which the editor would request an errata. Yet, these statements are published on Twitter.

I personally feel responsible due to the dissemination of such misleading information. I mean, I am not disseminating them but I might stop this hurtful process. So, what is the correct way to approach here? My options are:

  1. Mind my own business. Maybe block him for a peace of mind and let him cast doubt in people without scientific reasoning.
  2. Write an anonymous email to his institution stating my concerns, as he flaunts his affiliation on his twitter bio.
  3. Write an email with my name on it. I seriously don't want this as it might affect me getting a job after my PhD.

Thanks in advance!

PS: I know that some of you will want to know how he perverts statistics. Here is a few of statements:

  • If you are vaccinated, have covid and pass it without complications, it means that vaccination was 0% effective against infection but 100% effective against hospitalisation. (Technically true, but who uses statistics when sample space is 1?)

  • We can't know if an unvaccinated person admitted to ICU due to Covid wouldn't be admitted if he were vaccinated. (Again, technically true. Either he wants to tell correlation does not mean causation, which is not obvious from the rest of the thread, or he wants to apply statistics to an individual case for a definitive answer, like he did above.)

Edit: Actually there is a bigger question here: "Are academics responsible for their statements in public domain pertaining to their field of expertise other than their publications?".

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    @GoodDeeds Yes, related. I don't want to give much information (I already told too much), but it is very related. Oct 27, 2021 at 14:14
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    @DaveLRenfro This particular academic works in a field that is very related to Covid, which makes him an expert. It is not a random individual failing at Monty Hall problem, this is an expert who is either unethical (doesn't mind perverting statistics), or undeserved of his reputation (doesn't know enough statistics). Oct 27, 2021 at 15:13
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    I assumed as much from what you originally wrote. My comment was simply to indicate that the level of "unethicalness" or "lack of understanding" is even greater than just that of using sample spaces of 1. There are also some major flaws in basic logical reasoning. Oct 27, 2021 at 15:17
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    Your bolded edit, which is different from the rest of the Q has a plain answer, yes of course, everyone is responsible for every statement they make. Oct 27, 2021 at 17:40
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    I’m voting to close this question because it is not in scope. The answer would be the same if the person posting on twitter was not an academic and was employed by a private company. Oct 27, 2021 at 20:40

4 Answers 4

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You can complain to his institution, and it might a good idea if only to make his colleagues aware of what he is doing, in case they are not already aware.

However, based on your description I don’t think you should seriously expect that the institution will take any steps to tamp down or suppress this person’s speech. People say technically true but misleading things all the time. Whether something is true or not is a factual question that can be resolved, but whether something is misleading is usually a subjective matter. So it sounds to me like this person is exercising the freedom of speech and academic freedom that are traditionally available to academics and to citizens of a free country. Even if I might disapprove of the way he is using those freedoms and think he might be causing harm, ultimately academia tries to encourage free inquiry in the pursuit of knowledge and truth. That requires giving academics the freedom to say stupid or misleading things.

If he crosses the line into spreading clearly false information, particularly in a way that’s clearly intentional or motivated by bad faith, then there’s a chance that some action may be taken.

This addresses the academic context. Beyond that, you can also complain to Twitter if you feel this person may be violating their vaccine misinformation policies. Twitter is not by bound by academic norms and is free to take action.

If this person is a member of a profession that has a licensing requirement, for example a physician, you can complain to the licensing organization or authority. They might have their own ethics standards to deal with these sorts of issues, which again might differ from the general academic norms.

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    Reporting to twitter is actually be a great idea. But apparently twitter handles it with NGOs rather than individuals and they probably direct their resources to government individuals. To quote the famous philosopher "sounds good doesn't work." :) Oct 27, 2021 at 18:16
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    @repbash2227 This is not to mention there exist respectable experts doubting whether the vaccine should be taken universally and this could be perfectly ethical. As a more well-established example, consider climate change. There is a small, but existing number of dissent climate scientists and it does not make them unethical; moreover, science needs that kind of thing. Unethical/bad part of the equation is the journalists making these 3% look like 50%+.
    – Lodinn
    Oct 28, 2021 at 7:20
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You can bring it up with their department. However, there's a good chance what they're doing is protected either by free speech and/or academic freedom, so nothing might happen.

The department could, however, make something like this webpage:

The faculty in the Department of Biological Sciences is committed to the highest standards of scientific integrity and academic function. This commitment carries with it unwavering support for academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. It also demands the utmost respect for the scientific method, integrity in the conduct of research, and recognition that the validity of any scientific model comes only as a result of rational hypothesis testing, sound experimentation, and findings that can be replicated by others.

The department faculty, then, are unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory, which has its roots in the seminal work of Charles Darwin and has been supported by findings accumulated over 140 years. The sole dissenter from this position, Prof. Michael Behe, is a well-known proponent of "intelligent design." While we respect Prof. Behe's right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.

I imagine what led to this was a lot of complaints to the department about Prof. Michael Behe "purposefully perverting information on evolution/intelligent design", to the point that the department felt they had to say something to distance themselves from the actions of one faculty member. Nonetheless, they are not censoring Prof. Michael Behe.

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  • Frankly, I am not expecting them to do anything. If I do it, it would more of a "name and shame" kind of thing. I believe he either found himself a niche area for social media (scientist fueling antivaxxers without saying he is an antivaxxer) and promotes himself, or he is too narcissistic to the point that he wants to prove he is different than all his peers. Whatever it is, I am not looking for him to be sacked, I just want to him to know that there are consequences. Oct 28, 2021 at 18:40
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I note from your description that this academic's statements are correct, but you regard them as not being on point and misleading people somehow. (You don't say how, but presumably you are being vague about the facts so as to preserve anonymity.) In view of that, it sounds like your position is a counter-argument seeking some kind of other contextual facts to be brought in so as not to mislead. That is unlikely to be a sound basis for any kind of academic complaint.

In such a situation, you might have more success by contacting this academic to calmly and politely explain your concerns. You could explain why you think his posts might be misleading to some people, and give your own view on what other information you think it might be useful to note. Assume good faith and see if you can start a dialogue where you both seek a good way to present the technical facts on the matter in a way that is clear to a general public audience. If you can convince him of the merits of your view, it might change how he presents those issues. (And if he can convince you of the merits of his views, it might allay your concerns about his posts.)

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There is certainly a need for proper communication of facts, but the twitter examples provided in the question are not egregious misrepresenations of fact. Even the OP agrees that they are technically correct.

To make a legitimate and effective complaint against an academic or expert--or anyone, for that matter--one must be careful to not appear biased or vendetta-driven in the process. If a complaint is made in which the arguments appear petty or open to interpretation, the complainant may injure his or her own influence.

With respect to COVID-19 information and policies, there is a wide spectrum within the expert community and knowledgebase in terms of best practices in handling it. Statistics can easily support an opinion from any side, depending on how the numbers are presented. On one side, adverse effects from the disease and numbers of fatalities are regularly reported. On the other side, VAERS data show a decided uptick in reports of vaccine-related mortality since the COVID vaccines were first administered--so much so that more deaths have been reported to VAERS this year than in all previous years on record, and for all other vaccines combined. This is publicly accessible information. Anyone with an internet connection can find it.

With considerable disagreement within the medical and scientific community, reporting someone merely because one's own view differs, however strongly, is problematic. The best option, really, is to talk to the individual personally and address, in a respectful manner, your concerns with him or her. It may be that you will persuade him or her to be more professional in supporting his or her facts. It may also be that the individual will clarify things for you regarding his or her position which you may have not fully grasped. In any case, it is the right thing to first address your concerns with the individual yourself. If you were to put yourself in his or her place, is this not what you would feel was most appropriate?

If, after communicating directly, you still feel the situation is unresolved, proceed very cautiously with making a report of any kind. Make sure that you do not make the same mistake you accuse him or her of--of not having sufficient support for the facts of your case. You might need to verify, for example, that his or her statements were in some way a clear falsification or misrepresentation of the facts. If all you have to go on are "technically correct" statements, your own perception of them as misleading may be seen as subjective. It will not help your case to appear at all vindictive; you must be sure to model the same professionalism you desire to see in your colleague.

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