Fact-Checking the Fact Checkers

One of my recent posts on the Daily Sceptic was the subject of a ‘fact check‘ by Full Fact, which self-importantly describes itself as “the UK’s independent fact checking organisation” but is in fact funded by Google, Facebook and George Soros, among others, to help them suppress unapproved news and views. Even U.K. broadcasting regulator Ofcom has said it relies on the organisation to tell it what to censor regarding COVID-19, so unfortunately the dog has teeth and can’t just be ignored as one more absurd website with excessive faith in its own infallibility.

The post in question, from September 10th, simply reported on Public Health England’s latest Vaccine Surveillance report, which included infection rates by vaccination status for the previous month so allowed the calculation of an unadjusted estimate of vaccine effectiveness. Full Fact, however, took exception to the idea that vaccine effectiveness can be estimated in this way, because it wasn’t adjusted for confounders. Or used the wrong population data. Or because the article included the (entirely accurate) claim that the PHE report showed higher infection rates in the vaccinated in some age groups. Or because the heading didn’t include ‘caveats’. Or something. In any case, it was ‘incorrect’.

Here follows my correspondence with them, attempting to explain that the factual errors lay entirely in their ‘fact check’, not in my piece.


September 27th 2021

To: The Editor 

Incorrect claim that report from Public Health England shows COVID-19 vaccines have “negative effectiveness” in the over-40s: Full Fact correction request  

I’m writing to you from Full Fact, the U.K.’s independent fact checking organisation. I have seen an article you published on Friday September 24th so I know you are already aware of a fact check we published earlier last week, but I wanted to send an email to explain why we wrote that fact check.

The article you published on September 10th had the headline “Vaccines Have NEGATIVE Effectiveness in the Over-40s, as Low as MINUS 38%, Shows New PHE Report

This headline falsely claims that a report from Public Health England (PHE) shows COVID-19 vaccines having “negative effectiveness” in the over-40s. It is not true that the PHE report shows this.

You note in your article that PHE says its data cannot be used on its own as a reliable measurement of vaccine effectiveness. However your headline makes a claim about vaccine effectiveness based on it.

As you will know we have published a fact check on these claims which is available on our website here: 

Vaccines do not raise your risk of catching Covid

We are asking that you issue a correction on this article in line with the above. We would also ask that you bear this in mind when writing future articles about this data, including the one you published on Friday. We hope our fact check is helpful in this regard. 

Please let me know if you’d like to discuss this further.

Many thanks, 

Bethan Davies

Policy and Impact Manager
Full Fact


October 5th 2021

Good afternoon,

I just wanted to follow up on an email I sent last week about a fact check we have written on an article you published on 24th September. I will be updating this fact check on our website this week with details of what action we have taken so I wanted to check in with you before I do this. If you are planning to amend this article I’d be very grateful if you could let me know.

Many thanks,
Bethan


October 5th 2021

Dear Bethan

Thank you for your email.

Apologies – I appear to have missed your first email.

As you are aware, I have written in response to your piece ‘fact-checking’ my article of September 10th (here and now also here). 

Your piece wrongly implies that people had been confused by PHE’s report as it “seemed to show for the month in question (August 9th to September 5th) that people in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s were more likely to test positive for Covid if they had been vaccinated than if they hadn’t”. However, the report doesn’t “seem” to show that, it plainly does show that. Can you explain why your piece attempts to cast doubt on this correct understanding of the data in PHE’s report, and thus misinform the public about the infection risk among vaccinated and unvaccinated people during that month? Will you be amending your piece to ensure it does not confuse or mislead in this way and makes clear that in fact the PHE report does show that vaccinated people in those age groups were more likely to test positive for Covid during that period?

Your piece’s discussion about population estimates is interesting but I hope you will agree that people are entitled to present data and make calculations based on the population data PHE presents in its reports?

You say in your email: “PHE says its data cannot be used on its own as a reliable measurement of vaccine effectiveness.” Those are your words, not theirs. They say: “The vaccination status of cases, inpatients and deaths is not the most appropriate method to assess vaccine effectiveness…” (emphasis added).

However, regardless of what PHE say is the “most appropriate method”, the fact is that vaccine effectiveness is defined as the reduced risk of infection in the vaccinated compared to the unvaccinated (see here). I am clear in the piece that the VE figures given are unadjusted (though they are controlled for age). I explain the limitations of the estimates and address the reason PHE gives for the sample being biased. This is a perfectly valid approach to presenting an estimate of vaccine effectiveness, provided the limitations are clear. It also needs to be kept in mind that studies which do attempt to adjust for various confounders can come with significant problems of their own (see e.g. this and this).

A study in the Lancet published yesterday confirms that vaccine effectiveness has been declining fast against Delta and over time – and that study used data only up to the start of August. This indicates that the VE figures you quote in your ‘fact check’ to counter mine are out of date. The point of estimating unadjusted VE from real-world data is to try to keep up with how vaccines are faring now, not six months ago. We are not trying to denigrate vaccines – that’s why we are sure to make clear their continued effectiveness against serious illness and death. We are only interested in reporting up-to-date factual information about them.

My question for you is why you appear to be attempting to cover over the fact that infection rates in the vaccinated are very high – on PHE data, higher than in the unvaccinated, with the gap increasing week-on-week? Would fact-checking energies not be better spent on those who continue to claim that the vaccines are highly effective against infection, a claim which looks less and less accurate with each passing week?

I would be grateful for confirmation that you have amended your piece to ensure it does not mislead about current infection rates in vaccinated people (according to PHE data) and about the latest vaccine effectiveness estimates.

Kind regards

Will

Will Jones

Associate Editor – Daily Sceptic


October 7th 2021

Dear Will, 

Thank you for your response to my email. 

We disagree with your point that we have misunderstood the PHE report.

We acknowledge in our fact check that your article mentions PHE’s caveats, but our fact check and the email we sent you initially are related to your headline, which has no caveats in it. 

We are happy with information we included on vaccine effectiveness and we have made it clear to readers where this came from.

We very much appreciate you setting out your position. In conclusion however, after consideration, we will not be amending our fact check.

Kind regards,

Bethan


October 7th 2021

Dear Bethan

Thank you for your reply.

You say your ‘fact check’ is related to our headline. Please can you spell out more precisely for me what you object to in the headline? Is it because it doesn’t include the word ‘unadjusted’ before ‘vaccine effectiveness’? Or is it something else? Unadjusted vaccine effectiveness is still a form of vaccine effectiveness so the headline is not inaccurate on that point (and the caveats are explained in the piece). Part of the problem is that you seem to regard vaccine effectiveness as something which can only be calculated in a formal study, rather than a quantity representing the reduced proportion of infections in a vaccinated group versus an unvaccinated group which may be calculated on any such data set (with limitations acknowledged). It is therefore not ‘incorrect’, as you claim, for me to calculate vaccine effectiveness from population data and report on it.

I appreciate that you are happy with the information you have included on vaccine effectiveness. However, the important point is it is not valid to claim that an article using more up-to-date data on real-world infection rates among vaccinated and unvaccinated groups is ‘incorrect’ by citing out-of-date estimates from studies using data from earlier periods, even if they come from government sources. You can point out that the new estimates disagree with the old estimates, but that doesn’t invalidate the new estimates or make them ‘incorrect’. What you are doing amounts to attempted censorship of reporting on emerging data, rather than ‘fact-checking’.

You say you disagree that you have misunderstood the PHE report. But you clearly imply that the PHE report does not show infection rates higher in the vaccinated than the unvaccinated. To quote:

This data had already caused widespread confusion, because it seemed to show for the month in question (August 9th to September 5th) that people in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s were more likely to test positive for Covid if they had been vaccinated than if they hadn’t. In particular, a chart displaying the data seemed to give this impression.

This is a patently misleading section as you completely fail to acknowledge that the report plainly does show infection rates higher in the vaccinated in these age groups and instead attempt to make it sound like it does not and that this was a matter of ‘confusion’ on the part of others. The PHE report even explicitly states: “In individuals aged 40 to 79, the rate of a positive COVID-19 test is higher in vaccinated individuals compared to unvaccinated.”

I urge you again, as a matter of professional integrity and for the sake of the credibility of your site, to amend the ‘fact check’ so that it is not misleading in this way and makes clear that the PHE report is correctly understood as showing infection rates higher in the vaccinated in these age groups during this time period.

Kind regards

Will

Will Jones

Associate Editor – Daily Sceptic

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