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Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

A few days ago, I was walking my dog, when I passed the community bulletin board with a new handwritten note on it. The note was full of data that sent the message that COVID vaccinations are neither safe nor effective. The note included data enumerating the number of people who have had severe side effects from the vaccine. It also claimed that the number of deaths in the 32--60 age group is much higher for the vaccinated than unvaccinated. Each piece of data included a source (though the sources were vague i.e., insurance companies.)

I, having had two Moderna COVID injections and a booster, certainly have a perspective on the wisdom of being vaccinated. I decided to get vaccinated and then get the booster based on data presented to me that the vaccination would keep me healthy or at least prevent a severe COVID illness.

I do not want to debate the merits of being vaccinated (you should be), but to observe that the decision-making process between the anonymous person who posted the flier and me were the same. We were both making data-based decisions, and we both relied on data from sources we trusted.

All of sudden, I realized that presenting data to change the minds of those who are not vaccinated won’t convince them to get a shot. They already rely on data. And the person posting the flier should realize presenting data to me won’t move me; I am already relying on data.

The real disagreement is not about trusting data but being able to ascertain the reliability of the source of the data. I tend to rely on the CDC and medical experts quoted in the media I read. People who come to different conclusions rely on very different sources.

Before we scoff at those not trusting the CDC, we ought to remember the unreliability of some of their early pronouncements. At the pandemic's start, in an attempt to protect masks for medical professionals, they announced that masks might not be effective against COVID. In relatively short order, they claimed masks were the best way to fight COVID's spread. When the mRNA vaccinations first were released, they were claimed to be over 90% effective in preventing COVID. After many breakthrough cases, the story evolved that the vaccination is designed to prevent severe COVID and hospitalizations. With the advent of Omicron, we needed a booster to not become severely ill. And all the while the vast majority of folks who contract COVID do not get a severe case. It is understandable why some people would not trust the CDC.

This is not to argue that all sources are equal--I still trust the CDC over most other sources--but to say, that it is not all so clear cut.

As a result, we need to not talk about data but the sources of data. From a school perspective, we need to help students ascertain the reliability of sources and understand the hidden agendas of any source. Students need to bring a healthy dose of skepticism to all sources and learn how to triangulate information. We must teach students that many media outlets are in the business of making money, not supplying accurate news. And as true as that is for the mainstream media, it is more true of social media. Schools need to do a better job of teaching media literacy.

For the media is working hard to get as many eyes as they can and are willing to color the truth to do so. Schools need to be the antidote to media manipulation.

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