Bob Ward: How science denialism contributes to the spread of Covid-19 conspiracies and disinformation

SPECIAL REPORT, Chapter two:

How science denialism contributes to the spread of Covid-19 disinformation

As part of a Hacked Off long-read investigation, scientist Bob Ward – Director of Policy at the Grantham Institute on Climate Change and the Environment – gives an exclusive account of his own battle for press accountability.

In his special report, Bob sets out his calls for reforms to press regulation to better protect the public against misleading information.

In Chapter One Bob detailed his own brushes with IPSO (the press complaints handler) and how the regulator has failed to properly sanction press inaccuracies in a series of climate change stories.

Bob also delved into wider newspaper coverage on coronavirus.

In Chapter 2 he highlights a wealth of misreporting in this area.

“The systematic and repeated promotion of falsehoods [about Covid-19] by some IPSO members and the failure of the regulator to act, alongside the rampant spread of false information on social media, are helping to create a culture of misinformation that is harming lives and livelihoods,” Bob writes.


Covid-19, IPSO and the Press: the consequences of science denialism in the midst of a global pandemic

Many of the commentators who are responsible for spreading misinformation about climate change, often to justify their opposition to policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions, have also been writing inaccurate and misleading articles about COVID-19.

For instance, several of the authors who frequently promote climate change denial have also championed a petition, called ‘The Great Barrington Declaration’, which calls for an end to so-called lockdown measures to tackle COVID-19. The petition advocates protecting only those at highest risk of serious disease while taking minimal precautions against anyone else becoming infected with the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in order to eventually achieve ‘herd immunity.’

On 17 October 2020, ‘The Spectator’ magazine published an article by Viscount Ridley which drew attention to the petition, wrongly claiming that it had been “disgracefully censored by Google’s search engine”. He highlighted figures for London that “just 34 people died of Covid in the first week of October, compared with more than 1,000 a week in early April”, and suggested that “it looks increasingly as if the virus is already finding it harder to spread in the capital this time round”. This proved dangerously misleading and complacent as daily fatalities since then have climbed and London hospitals recorded 1,112 deaths from COVID-19 in the week ending 14 January 2021.

Viscount Ridley’s article failed to mention any of the long list of objections raised by medical experts against the petition’s proposals, including:

  • It would mean isolating millions of vulnerable individuals, with, for instance, 9 million aged 70 years and over according to estimates for 2019: 
  • It’s difficult to identify all of the people who have underlying susceptibility to severe COVID-19
  • A small but significant proportion of people outside the most vulnerable categories suffer long-term symptoms (‘Long COVID’) as a result of being infected with SARS-CoV-2, and it’s unclear how long natural immunity lasts after infection and the extent to which ‘herd immunity’ could be achieved without vaccination.

Viscount Ridley also did not disclose to the magazine’s readers that ‘The Great Barrington Declaration’ was organised not by a medical organisation but instead by the American Institute for Economic Research [AIER], a ‘free market’ lobby group that campaigns against Government regulations that affect businesses. The AIER has a long history of misrepresenting the evidence for health and environmental risks, including the ozone hole and climate change.

Viscount Ridley is not the only writer to have peddled misleading information about both climate change and COVID-19. David Rose wrote an article for the ‘Daily Mail’ on 9 October 2020, with the headline for the online version stating: “Data shows the average age of death from coronavirus is 82.4 years, writes David Rose, as he argues for an anti-lockdown plan to shield only the most vulnerable”. He cited figures showing that “currently 40 percent of those who die from Covid are over 85, and a further 33 percent are between 75 and 84”, while “barely 1 percent of those who die are under 44”. Mr Rose claimed that the “figures appear to provide support for the ‘Great Barrington Declaration’”. Like Viscount Ridley, he withheld from readers the information about the AIER’s role in creating the petition and any indication that it had been criticised by medical experts.

Mr Rose also claimed that figures from a “study” by the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford showed that the infection-fatality rate (the percentage of people who die after being infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus) declined from 3 percent in June to 0.6 percent at the time of the article’s publication. Both these figures lie outside an infection-fatality rate of 1 percent, averaged across all ages, that has been calculated by the UK Government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies.

IPSO members have published several other articles that have downplayed the dangers of COVID-19, using false information, by commentators who have a track record of misrepresenting the risks of climate change.

For instance, on 1 February 2020, ‘The Spectator’ magazine published an article by Toby Young under the headline ‘Climate doomsayers keep putting sell-by dates on their credibility. It was packed with distortions, starting with the very first sentence: “I was slightly surprised when Greta Thunberg announced at Davos that we had eight years left to save the planet”.

The writer’s sneering attack on the 17-year-old climate change campaigner continued: “In eight years’ time, when the planet hasn’t disappeared in a cloud of toxic gas, presumably Greta will throw up her arms and say: ‘Sorry guys. Looked like I was wrong about you ruining my childhood. I’m now going to become a flight attendant.’

Young’s attack was based on a ‘straw man’ argument that misrepresented Ms Thunberg’s words. The transcript of her speech at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum shows that she actually stated: “In Chapter Two, on page 108 in the SR 1.5 IPCC report that came out in 2018, it says that if we are to have a 67 percent chance of limiting the global average temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, we had on January 1st, 2018, about 420 gigatons of CO2 left to emit in that budget. And, of course, that number is much lower today, as we emit, about 42 gigatons of CO2 every year, including in land use. With today’s emissions levels, that remaining budget is gone within less than eight years.”

A few months later, on 25 June 2020, the website of ‘The Daily Telegraph’ published an article packed with distortions about COVID-19 by Mr Young under the headline Day by day, the coronavirus edges ever closer to extinction. Time to get back to normal. He wrongly declared that the “virus has all but disappeared” and stated: “The number of deaths involving coronavirus is a better yardstick than the number of infections, partly because more and more people are being tested each day, and partly because the test itself isn’t very reliable”. In fact, the Office for National Statistics reported a robust analysis just before Mr Young’s article was published, estimating that about 51,000 people in England were infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and that the incidence had stopped declining.

 Mr Young’s article also inaccurately asserted that the Word Health Organization (WHO) had originally estimated that the infection-fatality rate was 3.4 percent and “that was revised downwards by Imperial College in March to 0.9 percent, then downwards again to 0.67 percent”. In fact, the Director-General of the WHO did not estimate the infection-fatality rate during a speech on 3 March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, but did report: “Globally, about 3.4% of reported COVID-19 cases have died”. Mr Young had also mixed up two different estimates by two research teams at Imperial College London. One paper by Robert Verity and co-authors, published on 13 March 2020, calculated that the infection-fatality rate of the COVID-19 outbreak in China was 0.66 percent. A report by Neil Ferguson and co-authors, published on 13 March 2020, explicitly took into account the results of the study by Robert Verity and co-authors and concluded that the infection-fatality rate in Great Britain was 0.9 percent. It stated: “The age-stratified proportion of infections that require hospitalisation and the infection fatality ratio (IFR) were obtained from an analysis of a subset of cases from China. These estimates were corrected for non-uniform attack rates by age and when applied to the GB population result in an IFR of 0.9% with 4.4% of infections hospitalised.”

As another example, ‘The Mail on Sunday’ published a column by Peter Hitchens on 12 January 2020 in which he denied any link between climate change and wildfires that were raging in Australia, under the sub-headline: “Bushfire facts the biased BBC ignores”. He complained that he was “sick almost to screaming of the BBC’s incessant coverage of the forest fires”, adding: “They do it only because it supports their fanatical preaching about man-made global warming. Actually, it doesn’t.”

In support of his claim, Mr Hitchens stated: “A little study reveals that Australia has been just as hot before, according to measurements as far back as 1889. Various excuses are now made for ignoring these inconvenient figures but there really isn’t much doubt about it. Huge forest fires are also common in Australia’s brief history, some of the worst having been in the very hot summer of 1938-9.”

This was inaccurate and misleading. Less than a month before the column by Mr Hitchens appeared, the Australian Government’s Bureau of Meteorology published ‘Special Climate Statement 72—dangerous bushfire weather in spring 2019’, which concluded: “The dangerous fire weather conditions during spring 2019 is consistent with the increasingly severe fire weather seen in many areas of the country, owing to increasing temperatures and reduced cool-season rainfall”. This was reinforced by the Bureau’s ‘Annual climate statement 2019’ on 9 January 2020, which pointed out that 2019 was the warmest year on record in Australia, with the 17th and 18th of December successively setting records for the hottest day. The Bureau’s website warned: “Climate change is influencing the frequency and severity of dangerous bushfire conditions in Australia and other regions of the world, including through influencing temperature, environmental moisture, weather patterns, and fuel conditions. There have been significant changes observed in recent decades towards more dangerous bushfire weather conditions for various regions of Australia.”

But Mr Hitchens has misrepresented as well the facts about COVID-19 in his columns for ‘The Mail on Sunday’ over the past year. On 21 November 2020, the newspaper published his assessment of a new paper by Henning Bundgaard and co-authors about whether the use of face masks by a sample of people in Denmark provided protection, in addition to other precautions, against infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Mr Hitchens wrote: “Can a Covid virus move only one way through a mask? Or can it go both in and out? Because if it can go both ways, we now know that all this mask-wearing is an almost complete waste of time.” He said that the paper found that “there was almost no difference” in rates of infection between those who wore masks and those who did not. In fact, the paper concluded that “the findings were inconclusive and cannot definitively exclude a 46% reduction to a 23% increase in infection of mask wearers”. The authors also emphasised that it did not measure the effectiveness of masks in settings where other precautions are not taken, nor of the extent to which they protect other people by blocking virus-laden droplets exhaled by mask-wearers.

As of 15 January 2021, IPSO has published ten rulings in response to complaints about articles that cover aspects of the science of COVID-19. It upheld complaints against ‘The Daily Telegraph’ and the Mail Online which related to misleading reports in each publication that half of the people who have arrived from overseas with the SARS-CoV-2 virus travelled from Pakistan. IPSO also ruled against ‘The Sun’ for two articles on its website about the West Midlands Ambulance Service which misled readers about the proportion of staff who had tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the reason why some types of personal protective equipment had not been worn.

IPSO’s Complaints Committee also decided in favour of a complaint about an article by Toby Young which was published on 11 July 2020 on the website of ‘The Daily Telegraph’ under the headline ‘When we have herd immunity Boris will face a reckoning on this pointless and damaging lockdown’. The article stated: “Some will have developed antibodies without knowing they had the disease, while others will have a natural immunity because they’ve already successfully fought off other coronaviruses, such as the common cold. People in that latter category will be immune even though they won’t test positive for Covid-19 antibodies. That means that the population of London is probably approaching herd immunity, even though only 17 percent tested positive in the most recent seroprevalence survey.”

James Whitehead complained that this was inaccurate and misleading, pointing out that the evidence showed that the potential resistance resulting from the exposure to other coronaviruses was created by the presence of a type of white blood cell, known as a T-cell, rather than by antibodies. The presence of these T-cells can confer some protection against the development of the disease from SARS-CoV-2 but does not necessarily stop an individual from becoming infected or passing on the virus to others, so could not lead to ‘herd immunity’. Furthermore, the complainant drew attention to studies directly rebutting the suggestion that London or anywhere else in the UK was close to ‘herd immunity’.

Although the article is no longer accessible on the newspaper’s website, it has published a correction online as required by the IPSO ruling.

However, IPSO has rejected a couple of complaints against ‘The Spectator’ magazine that clearly contained inaccurate or misleading information. One article by Dr John Lee, a former Professor of Pathology and NHS Consultant Pathologist, was published on the magazine’s website on 8 May 2020 under the headline ‘Ten reasons to end the lockdown now’. Dr Lee has authored several media articles arguing against so-called ‘lockdowns’ to limit the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, including for the ‘Daily Mail’ and ‘The Daily Telegraph’. His article for ‘The Spectator’ made several predictions that have subsequently turned out to be tragically wrong. For instance, he stated that “even if you assume 40,000 Covid deaths, its death toll is in the same ballpark as diseases we live with, not something so extraordinary as to justify the lockdown reaction”. He added: “And because it is new, this is likely to be as bad as it gets”.

Dr Lee severely underestimated the progression of the death toll. The latest figures published by the Government show that as of 15 January 2021, COVID-19 was listed on the death certificates of 89,243 people in the UK who have died since the start of the pandemic. An analysis by the Office for National Statistics of figures for England and Wales concluded: “In comparison with the deaths due to influenza and pneumonia occurring in the year to 31 August 2020, deaths due to COVID-19 have been higher than every year monthly data are available (1959 to 2020)”.

Dr Lee’s article also stated that “an evolutionary view suggests that the virus is likely to change quickly, with less virulent forms becoming dominant”. He added: “Lockdown could potentially slow this beneficial tendency”. He did not mention the possibility that more transmissible variants of the virus might appear, as has now occurred.

But the article also contained claims that were known to be false at the time it was published. For instance, it stated: “Somewhere around 99.9 percent of those who catch the disease recover”. This implies an infection-fatality rate of about 0.1 percent. In fact, this was ten times lower than the 1 percent estimate of the rate by the UK Government. A study published on 22 December 2020 estimated that the infection-fatality rate in England during the first wave of the pandemic (18 March until 31 May 2020 inclusive) decreased from 1.25 percent to 0.77 percent due to factors such as improvements in the clinical management of the disease.

However, IPSO did not uphold the complaint by Adam Bromley about the inaccurate infection-fatality rate. Its ruling stated that ‘The Spectator’ “had provided studies which demonstrated a range of infection fatality rates; the figure of 0.1% fell within this range”. It added that “publications are at liberty to publish articles, including those by subject experts, with a specific point of view, and for them to marshal and defend their choice of valid data and statistics to support their point of view”. It added that “the article was a comment piece which affected the way in which readers would have understood the passage”. IPSO appears to be so confident of its verdict that it has also drawn attention to the ruling in a section on its website on COVID-19. The section also states: “As long as comment pieces are distinguished from factual reporting, newspapers, and columnists are free to express different opinions, so long as they do so accurately and in accordance with other clauses of the Editors’ Code”.

NEXT WEEK: Bob Ward explains why his experience of IPSO underscores the need for reform.

About Bob Ward

Bob Ward is a scientist currently based at the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics, where he directs the organisation’s policy and communications work.

Mr Ward is a fellow of the Geological Society, of the Royal Geographical Society, and of the Energy Institute.


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