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Facebook Says Noting the CDC’s Scientific Misrepresentations ‘Could Mislead People’

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Facebook Says Noting the CDC's Scientific Misrepresentations 'Could Mislead People'

Facebook says my recent column about face masks is “missing context” and “could mislead people,” based on an assessment by “independent fact checkers.” That judgment and the analysis underlying it show how reflexive deference to government agencies distorts supposedly “independent” summaries of scientific evidence on controversial issues, especially issues related to COVID-19 control measures. When one of those agencies gets something wrong, criticism of its position is apt to be labeled “misleading” on social media platforms that strive to police COVID-19 “misinformation” at the government’s behest, regardless of what the evidence actually shows.

My column summarized the results of January 30 Cochrane Library review that considered 18 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) aimed at measuring the effectiveness of surgical masks or N95 respirators at reducing the spread of respiratory viruses. Judging from those studies, the Cochrane review found, wearing a mask in public places “probably makes little or no difference” in the number of infections. The authors said that conclusion was based on “moderate-certainty evidence.”

Does the Cochrane review prove that masks are worthless in protecting people from COVID-19? No. But it does show that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) misled the public about the strength of the evidence supporting mask mandates, which was the point I made in my column.

The authors of the Cochrane review suggest several possible explanations for their results, including “poor study design,” weak statistical power “arising from low viral circulation in some studies,” “lack of protection from eye exposure,” inconsistent or improper mask use, “self-contamination of the mask by hands,” “saturation of masks with saliva,” and increased risk taking based on “an exaggerated sense of security.” It is possible that some subjects in these studies did derive a benefit from wearing masks, but that effect was washed out by the behavior of other subjects who did not follow protocol, especially if those subjects took more risks than they otherwise would have because masks gave them “an exaggerated sense of security.”

It is nevertheless fair to say that the Cochrane review is inconsistent with the CDC’s statements about masks. After casting doubt on the value of general mask wearing early in the pandemic, the CDC decided the practice was so demonstrably effective that it should be legally mandated even for 2-year-olds. The CDC’s mask advice initially did not distinguish between surgical masks or N95s and the commonly used cloth masks it eventually conceded were far less effective. Its message was that wearing a mask—any mask, apparently—”reduc[es] your chance of infection by more than 80 percent,” a claim it said was supported by the best available evidence.

CDC Director Robert Redfield averred that masks were more effective than vaccines at protecting people from COVID-19. His successor, Rochelle Walensky, insisted that “the evidence is clear.” But the evidence on which the CDC relied came from two sources with widely recognized drawbacks.

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Laboratory experiments provide good reason to believe that masks, especially N95s, can reduce the risk that someone will be infected or infect other people. But those experiments are conducted in idealized conditions that may not resemble the real world, where people often choose low-quality cloth masks and do not necessarily wear masks properly or consistently.

Observational studies, which look at infection rates among voluntary mask wearers or people subject to mask mandates, can provide additional evidence that general mask wearing reduces infection. But such studies do not fully account for confounding variables.

If people who voluntarily wear masks or live in jurisdictions that require them to do so differ from the comparison groups in ways that independently affect disease transmission, the estimates derived from observational studies will be misleading. Those studies can also be subject to other pitfalls, such as skewed sampling and recall bias, that make it difficult to reach firm conclusions.

Despite those uncertainties, the CDC touted an observational study that supposedly proved “wearing a mask lowered the odds of testing positive” by as much as 83 percent. It said even cloth masks reduced infection risk by 56 percent, although that result was not statistically significant and the study’s basic design, combined with grave methodological weaknesses, made it impossible to draw causal inferences.

RCTs aim to avoid these problems by comparing disease rates among subjects randomly assigned to wear masks in real-life situations with disease rates in a control group. That design makes the evidence produced by RCTs stronger than the evidence produced by laboratory experiments or observational studies. When they are conducted properly, RCTs support the inference that a difference in outcomes can be attributed to the intervention they test, because the treatment group and the control group are otherwise similar.

If wearing a mask had the dramatic impact that the CDC claimed, you would expect to see some evidence of that in RCTs. Yet the Cochrane review found essentially no relationship between mask wearing and disease rates, whether measured by reported symptoms or by laboratory tests. Nor did it confirm the expectation that N95s would prove superior to surgical masks in the field. The existing RCT evidence, the authors said, “demonstrates no differences in clinical effectiveness.”

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According to Facebook, making these points “could mislead people.” But in fact, it was the CDC that misled people by insisting that the case was closed on masks and mask mandates while citing impressive but empirically shaky estimates of their effectiveness.

The “independent fact checkers” on whom Facebook relies, who work for an organization called Health Feedback, give the game away by contradicting themselves. “Multiple studies show that face masks reduce the spread of COVID-19,” their headline claims, echoing the CDC. Health Feedback’s “key take away” modifies that claim, saying “evidence suggests that widespread mask usage can reduce community transmission of SARS-CoV-2, especially when combined with other interventions like frequent handwashing and physical distancing” (emphasis added).

Already we have moved from a confident assertion about what “multiple studies show” regarding the effectiveness of masks in particular to a qualified statement about what “evidence suggests” regarding the effectiveness of multiple precautions taken in conjunction with each other. But the whole point of RCTs is to isolate the impact of a specific intervention—in this case, face masks.

According to Health Feedback’s conclusion, “a growing body of evidence from RCTs and observational studies suggests that consistent mask-wearing can effectively reduce the spread of respiratory viruses like SARS-CoV-2 in both healthcare and community settings” (emphasis added). Health Feedback’s fact checkers concede that “the extent to which community mask-wearing contributes to limiting the spread of different respiratory viruses and in different circumstances is still unclear” (emphasis added). They note potential weaknesses in the RCTs covered by the Cochrane review and say more research is needed to definitively settle the question of how effective masks are.

Contrast that gloss with the position taken by the CDC, which says “the evidence is clear” that wearing a mask “reduc[es] your chance of infection by more than 80 percent.” Walensky said that remarkable reduction applies to “the flu,” “the coronavirus,” and “even just the common cold.” The CDC also thinks the evidence is clear that mask mandates work in schools and other settings, despite the methodological problems with the observational studies it cites.

Health Feedback’s analysis ostensibly addresses the claim that the Cochrane review “demonstrates” face masks “are ineffective at reducing the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases.” I did not make that claim. But the fact check, which cites two publications of my column (on this website and in the Chicago Sun-Times), also objects to my statement that “the CDC grossly exaggerated the evidence supporting mask mandates.” Health Feedback not only fails to show that assessment is wrong; it reinforces the point that the CDC distorted the science to support a predetermined conclusion.

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Christian family goes in hiding after being cleared of blasphemy

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Christian family goes in hiding after being cleared of blasphemy

LAHORE, Pakistan — A court in Pakistan granted bail to a Christian falsely charged with blasphemy, but he and his family have separated and gone into hiding amid threats to their lives, sources said.

Haroon Shahzad (right) with attorney Aneeqa Maria. | The Voice Society/Morning Star News

Haroon Shahzad, 45, was released from Sargodha District Jail on Nov. 15, said his attorney, Aneeqa Maria. Shahzad was charged with blasphemy on June 30 after posting Bible verses on Facebook that infuriated Muslims, causing dozens of Christian families in Chak 49 Shumaali, near Sargodha in Punjab Province, to flee their homes.

Lahore High Court Judge Ali Baqir Najfi granted bail on Nov. 6, but the decision and his release on Nov. 15 were not made public until now due to security fears for his life, Maria said.

Shahzad told Morning Star News by telephone from an undisclosed location that the false accusation has changed his family’s lives forever.

“My family has been on the run from the time I was implicated in this false charge and arrested by the police under mob pressure,” Shahzad told Morning Star News. “My eldest daughter had just started her second year in college, but it’s been more than four months now that she hasn’t been able to return to her institution. My other children are also unable to resume their education as my family is compelled to change their location after 15-20 days as a security precaution.”

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Though he was not tortured during incarceration, he said, the pain of being away from his family and thinking about their well-being and safety gave him countless sleepless nights.

“All of this is due to the fact that the complainant, Imran Ladhar, has widely shared my photo on social media and declared me liable for death for alleged blasphemy,” he said in a choked voice. “As soon as Ladhar heard about my bail, he and his accomplices started gathering people in the village and incited them against me and my family. He’s trying his best to ensure that we are never able to go back to the village.”

Shahzad has met with his family only once since his release on bail, and they are unable to return to their village in the foreseeable future, he said.

“We are not together,” he told Morning Star News. “They are living at a relative’s house while I’m taking refuge elsewhere. I don’t know when this agonizing situation will come to an end.”

The Christian said the complainant, said to be a member of Islamist extremist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and also allegedly connected with banned terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, filed the charge because of a grudge. Shahzad said he and his family had obtained valuable government land and allotted it for construction of a church building, and Ladhar and others had filed multiple cases against the allotment and lost all of them after a four-year legal battle.

“Another probable reason for Ladhar’s jealousy could be that we were financially better off than most Christian families of the village,” he said. “I was running a successful paint business in Sargodha city, but that too has shut down due to this case.”

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Regarding the social media post, Shahzad said he had no intention of hurting Muslim sentiments by sharing the biblical verse on his Facebook page.

“I posted the verse a week before Eid Al Adha [Feast of the Sacrifice] but I had no idea that it would be used to target me and my family,” he said. “In fact, when I came to know that Ladhar was provoking the villagers against me, I deleted the post and decided to meet the village elders to explain my position.”

The village elders were already influenced by Ladhar and refused to listen to him, Shahzad said.

“I was left with no option but to flee the village when I heard that Ladhar was amassing a mob to attack me,” he said.

Shahzad pleaded with government authorities for justice, saying he should not be punished for sharing a verse from the Bible that in no way constituted blasphemy.

Similar to other cases

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Shahzad’s attorney, Maria, told Morning Star News that events in Shahzad’s case were similar to other blasphemy cases filed against Christians.

“Defective investigation, mala fide on the part of the police and complainant, violent protests against the accused persons and threats to them and their families, forcing their displacement from their ancestral areas, have become hallmarks of all blasphemy allegations in Pakistan,” said Maria, head of The Voice Society, a Christian paralegal organization.

She said that the case filed against Shahzad was gross violation of Section 196 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), which states that police cannot register a case under the Section 295-A blasphemy statute against a private citizen without the approval of the provincial government or federal agencies.

Maria added that Shahzad and his family have continued to suffer even though there was no evidence of blasphemy.

“The social stigma attached with a blasphemy accusation will likely have a long-lasting impact on their lives, whereas his accuser, Imran Ladhar, would not have to face any consequence of his false accusation,” she said.

The judge who granted bail noted that Shahzad was charged with blasphemy under Section 295-A, which is a non-cognizable offense, and Section 298, which is bailable. The judge also noted that police had not submitted the forensic report of Shahzad’s cell phone and said evidence was required to prove that the social media was blasphemous, according to Maria.

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Bail was set at 100,000 Pakistani rupees (US $350) and two personal sureties, and the judge ordered police to further investigate, she said.

Shahzad, a paint contractor, on June 29 posted on his Facebook page 1 Cor. 10:18-21 regarding food sacrificed to idols, as Muslims were beginning the four-day festival of Eid al-Adha, which involves slaughtering an animal and sharing the meat.

A Muslim villager took a screenshot of the post, sent it to local social media groups and accused Shahzad of likening Muslims to pagans and disrespecting the Abrahamic tradition of animal sacrifice.

Though Shahzad made no comment in the post, inflammatory or otherwise, the situation became tense after Friday prayers when announcements were made from mosque loudspeakers telling people to gather for a protest, family sources previously told Morning Star News.

Fearing violence as mobs grew in the village, most Christian families fled their homes, leaving everything behind.

In a bid to restore order, the police registered a case against Shahzad under Sections 295-A and 298. Section 295-A relates to “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” and is punishable with imprisonment of up to 10 years and fine, or both. Section 298 prescribes up to one year in prison and a fine, or both, for hurting religious sentiments.

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Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2023 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, up from eighth the previous year.

Morning Star News is the only independent news service focusing exclusively on the persecution of Christians. The nonprofit’s mission is to provide complete, reliable, even-handed news in order to empower those in the free world to help persecuted Christians, and to encourage persecuted Christians by informing them that they are not alone in their suffering.

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Individual + Team Stats: Hornets vs. Timberwolves

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CHARLOTTE HORNETS MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES You can follow us for future coverage by liking us on Facebook & following us on X: Facebook – All Hornets X – …

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What went wrong with ‘the Metaverse’? An insider’s postmortem

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What went wrong with 'the Metaverse'? An insider's postmortem


It’s now two years since Facebook changed its name to Meta, ushering in a brief but blazing enthusiasm over “the Metaverse”, a concept from science fiction that suddenly seemed to be the next inevitable leap in technology. For most people in tech, however, the term has since lost its luster, seemingly supplanted by any product with “artificial intelligence” attached to its description. 

But the true story of the Metaverse’s rise and fall in public awareness is much more complicated and interesting than simply being the short life cycle of a buzzword — it also reflects a collective failure of both imagination and understanding.  

Consider:

The forgotten novel

Ironically, many tech reporters discounted or even ignored the profound influence of Snow Crash on actual working technologists. The founders of Roblox and Epic (creator of Fortnite) among many other developers were directly inspired by the novel. Despite that, Neal Stephenson’s classic cyberpunk tale has often been depicted as if it were an obscure dystopian tome which merely coined the term. As opposed to what it actually did: describe the concept with a biblical specificity that thousands of developers have referenced in their virtual world projects — many of which have already become extremely popular.

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Snow Crash.

You can see this lack of clarity in many of the mass tech headlines attempting to describe the Metaverse in the wake of Facebook’s name change: 

In a widely shared “obituary” to the Metaverse, Business Insider’s Ed Zitron even compounded the confusion still further by inexplicably misattributing the concept to TRON, the original Disney movie from the 80s.

Had the media referenced Snow Crash far more accurately when the buzz began, they’d come away with a much better understanding of why so many technologists are excited by the Metaverse concept — and realize its early incarnation is already gaining strong user traction.  

Because in the book, the Metaverse is a vast, immersive virtual world that’s simultaneously accessible by millions of people through highly customizable avatars and powerful experience creation tools that are integrated with the offline world through its virtual economy and external technology. In other words, it’s more or less like Roblox and Fortnite — platforms with many tens of millions of active users. 

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But then again, the tech media can’t be fully blamed for following Mark Zuckerberg’s lead.

Rather than create a vision for its Metaverse iterating on already successful platforms — Roblox’s 2020 IPO filing even describes itself as the metaverse — Meta’s executive leadership cobbled together a mishmash of disparate products. Most of which, such as remotely working in VR headsets, remain far from proven. According to an internal Blind survey, a majority of Zuckerberg’s own employees say he has not adequately explained what he means by the Metaverse even to them.

Grievous of all, Zuckerberg and his CTO Andrew Bosworth promoted a conception of the Metaverse in which the Quest headset was central. To do so, they had to overlook compelling evidence — raised by senior Microsoft researcher danah boyd at the time of the company acquiring Oculus in 2014 — that females have a high propensity to get nauseous using VR.

Meta Quest 3 comes out on October 10 for $500.
Meta Quest 3.

Contacted in late 2022 while writing Making a Metaverse That Matters, danah told me no one at Oculus or Meta followed up with her about the research questions she raised. Over the years, I have asked several senior Meta staffers (past and present) about this and have yet to receive an adequate reply. Unsurprisingly, Meta’s Quest 2 VR headset has an estimated install base of only about 20 million units, significantly smaller than the customer count of leading video game consoles. A product that tends to make half the population puke is not exactly destined for the mass market — let alone a reliable base for building the Metaverse. 

Ironically, Neal Stephenson himself has frequently insisted that virtual reality is absolutely not a prerequisite for the Metaverse, since flat screens display immersive virtual worlds just fine. But here again, the tech media instead ratified Meta’s flawed VR-centric vision by constantly illustrating articles about the Metaverse with photos of people happily donning headsets to access it — inadvertently setting up a straw man destined to soon go ablaze.

Duct-taped to yet another buzzword

Further sealing the Metaverse hype wave’s fate, it crested around the same time that Web3 and crypto were still enjoying their own euphoria period. This inevitably spawned the “cryptoverse” with platforms like Decentraland and The Sandbox. When the crypto crash came, it was easy to assume the Metaverse was also part of that fall.

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But the cryptoverse platforms failed in the same way that other crypto schemes have gone awry: By offering a virtual world as a speculative opportunity, it primarily attracted crypto speculators, not virtual world enthusiasts. By October of 2022, Decentraland was only tracking 7,000 daily active users, game industry analyst Lars Doucet informed me

“Everybody who is still playing is basically just playing poker,” as Lars put it. “This seems to be a kind of recurring trend in dead-end crypto projects. Kind of an eerie rhyme with left-behind American cities where drugs come in and anyone who is left is strung out at a slot machine parlor or liquor store.”

All this occurred as the rise of generative AI birthed another, shinier buzzword — one that people not well-versed in immersive virtual worlds could better understand.

But as “the Metaverse” receded as a hype totem, a hilarious thing happened: Actual metaverse platforms continued growing. Roblox now counts over 300 million monthly active users, making its population nearly the size of the entire United States; Fortnite had its best usage day in 6 years. Meta continues plodding along but seems to finally be learning from its mistakes — for instance, launching a mobile version of its metaverse platform Horizon Worlds.  

Roblox leads the rise of user-generated content.
Roblox.

Into this mix, a new wave of metaverse platforms is preparing to launch, refreshingly led by seasoned, successful game developers: Raph Koster with Playable Worlds, Jenova Chen with his early, successful forays into metaverse experiences, and Everywhere, a metaverse platform lead developed by a veteran of the Grand Theft Auto franchise.

At some point, everyone in tech who co-signed the “death” of the Metaverse may notice this sustained growth. By then however, the term may no longer require much usage, just as the term “information superhighway” fell away as broadband Internet went mainstream.  

Wagner James Au is author of Making a Metaverse That Matters: From Snow Crash & Second Life to A Virtual World Worth Fighting For 

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