Skeptic News: Snopes, vaccines, and climate change

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

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This week there’s been a scandal over at the Snopes website. I get my COVID vaccine and we hear more about the situation we’re in with climate change.

Wishing you a good week - stay skeptical and keep promoting science!

Craig Shearer

I’m sure you’ve come across the fact-checking website Snopes. It’s a popular, and generally quick way to check some internet rumour or news story for its veracity. 

David Mikkelson is a co-founder of the website. It’s emerged, through a Buzzfeed investigation, that Mikkelson who used to write articles for the site plagiarised various other news sites for stories, often copying their text wholesale, or at least paragraphs. The contributed articles ran between 2015 and 2019.

Mikkelson also contributed articles under a pseudonym - Jeff Zarronandia, a practise frowned upon in journalistic circles. He claimed that using a pseudonym was for protection from people who didn’t like the results of the fact checks.

Now I have no journalistic training, but I know that you can’t just copy and paste text without attribution and get away with it. And apparently Mikkelson knew that too - he’s quoted as explaining “You can always take an existing article and rewrite it just enough to avoid copyright infringement.” The practise was to just copy and paste the whole text of a news article then go back and change various wording enough to avoid charges of plagiarism. That does seem like a fairly simplistic and dodgy approach.

So, to be clear, Snopes is still doing good work checking facts and being a source of information for shutting down hoaxes. But as always it’s best to check multiple sources, and attempt to locate the primary source where possible.

It is unfortunate that the scandal with Mikkelson will tar Snopes with that same brush. At least in the minds of simplistic thinkers, Snopes is no longer to be trusted. You can expect to have the scandal brought up if you choose to use Snopes as a source for whether something is true or not.

The current writers at Snopes have issued a statement about the plagiarism. It’s sad that they are affected by the unwise and unethical actions of one of their site’s founders.

I got vaxxed

Last weekend I got my first shot of the COVID vaccine. Given my advanced age of 55 years, I became eligible to book a vaccine, which is done through the “book my vaccine” website. I found the process to be pretty smooth, and they allowed my wife (who is younger than me) to ride my coattails and also receive her vaccine.

There are the obvious jokes that can be made about improved 5G reception, and being magnetic. But, I’ve fortunately had little in the way of side effects apart from a bit of a sore arm for a couple of days. My next shot is booked for the middle of next month. I’m happy to be contributing and being part of the best solution we have to COVID.

Vaccine discussions

This week I’ve also had discussions with some friends/acquaintances at my choir, which I’ve previously reported on.

One of the people I talked to is of fairly advanced age, and unfortunately seems to be a bit on the vaccine hesitant side of things. He asked some reasonable questions, such as what advantage the vaccine had if you could still catch COVID, and still transmit it. I explained that it’s our best line of defence that we have - that the main point of it is that it vastly reduces the consequences of getting COVID - it’s our best chance of not dying from the disease or being hospitalised from serious complications.

I also argued that we are certainly in an unfortunate situation with the spread of the Delta variant. But it’s the anti-science attitudes of some countries (or at least some of their people) that got us here in the first place. Allowing COVID to run rampant, and using half-hearted ineffective responses has allowed the virus to mutate into more contagious versions. 

The other person I talked to was an older woman who was indignant that our border closure and travel restrictions meant that her family living in the UK couldn’t come visit. I opined that it was perhaps unfortunate but the cost of allowing the border to be open would risk many deaths in our country. She responded with the point that we’ve had very few flu deaths, implying that we should trade the flu deaths for COVID deaths so she’s not personally inconvenienced. I politely ended that conversation!

This week we’ve seen announcements from the government following advice from the Skegg Report about how we can slowly reopen the border next year, on a risk-assessment-basis. This does seem to be the best approach. 

But it’s contingent on getting everybody who wants to be vaccinated the chance of doing so. To reopen the border without the protection of a vaccination for everybody who wants it would be ethically pretty dubious. In particular, we need to get kids vaccinated. We’ve seen the effects of “long COVID” on some adults. It would be particularly awful to allow kids to acquire the disease and potentially face a lifetime of consequences.

Naturally there are those who want things opened up more quickly. We only need look across the ditch to NSW where we see the effects of a poorly managed outbreak and the consequences of that. To date there’s been a strong element of luck that the delta variant hasn’t snuck in and spread around Aotearoa/New Zealand. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Of course, once the border does reopen, the protection we have from COVID is predicated upon a large percentage of the population being vaccinated. Modelling of the R0 number for the delta variant shows that herd immunity would require an unfortunately unrealistically high vaccine penetration. 

I used to think that decades into the future people will look and wonder, in horror, why people didn’t follow the recommendations of scientists and health experts. Maybe though, our arc of educational enlightenment isn’t following an increasing path.

Which leads me to the next topic...

Latest IPCC climate change report

This past week has seen the release of the IPCC’s 6th assessment report on climate change. The report is issued every seven years. It’s become increasingly obvious with successive reports, that the world is in danger of severe consequences of climate change, and it's increasingly certain (to the point of virtual certainty) that humans are the cause of it.

For some numbers, the last decade has been hotter than any time over the last 125,000 years. There’s now more CO2 in the atmosphere than at any point in the last 2 million years. We’re currently 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels, and it’s likely that we could hit the 1.5°C point by 2030. And while 1.1°C seems like a small temperature change, it represents a huge amount of additional energy trapped in the atmosphere. We see that played out in extreme weather events, which will become more frequent, and more severe. 

The science has been pretty clear for many decades (and the physical basis for it was known over a century ago). Skepticism of the science of climate change is misplaced. I’m skeptical that we can make meaningful enough change quickly enough to avoid the worst consequences.

Things that didn’t happen this week

On a lighter note, this week there were two earth-shattering events that were meant to happen. The first was the Global Prayer to End Atheism, and the second with the prediction of Trump’s reinstatement as president on Friday 13th.

Being a skeptic doesn’t necessarily make one an atheist, nor is there a requirement to disavow religious belief, but I have a feeling that most readers of this newsletter and members of NZ Skeptics probably lean in that direction. (And there’s always debate as to what it means to be an atheist - in popular conception it seems to mean that you know for sure that god doesn’t exist, whereas the more technical definition would be a lack of belief in a god or gods.) Anyway, this global prayer was either meant to turn all atheists into Christians or send them to hell. Neither seems to have happened, at least in my personal view of things.

And onto the Trump reinstatement. To be fair, it was only the extreme right wing fringe, mis-informed by the My Pillow founder Mike Lindell, that seemed to cling to these beliefs. To be clear, Joe Biden is still the president, and Donald Trump isn’t. The date for Trump’s reinstatement seems to be continuously pushed back in a similar fashion to religious claims of the second coming of Jesus or the end of the world. I wonder whether there will be future dates announced!

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