5 Times Journalists Thought They Were Scientists And Got It Wrong About Coronavirus

From masks to herd immunity and "false positives", these people have spread potentially dangerous disinformation to hundreds of thousands of people.
Toby Young, repeat offender.
Toby Young, repeat offender.
EMPICS Entertainment

Once upon a time, the phenomenon of your average Joe insisting they knew better than the experts was largely and happily confined to pub chat about the performance of [insert any football team here].

Alas, the rise of social media, “alternative” news sources, and the widespread belief that shouting on Twitter constitutes actual public debate mean there are many for whom watching videos on YouTube is now considered equal to a lifetime dedicated to the pursuit of science.

During the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, one class of professional has been guiltier than most – celebrity journalists, many of whom have spent months cherry-picking, distorting and generally getting a bit confused about all things Covid-19-related and then broadcasting these tidbits to their sizeable followings.

And this stuff matters – the effects aren’t confined to Twitter. They have real-world implications.

If you don’t believe us (and to be fair we are also journalists) then here’s Dr Dominic Pimenta, an NHS hospital doctor and chair of healthcare workers foundation Her, who told HuffPost UK: “We face the rather ludicrous situation of radio show hosts arguing with statisticians about false positive rates, for example.

“There is always a place for proper scientific debate, in journals and academic forums, but in the public arena during a pandemic it has troubling real world implications.

“Downplaying the consequences of the virus or the importance of the guidelines means compliance will naturally fall, increasing the spread of the virus at a critical time for many areas in the UK.

“Having lost 640 health and social care workers already the stakes are very high here, and there is a distinct lack of care and due diligence to what is being broadcast that is unacceptable frankly.”

Here are five guilty parties...

Dan Wootton – 354,500 Twitter followers

“Science has used forever used herd immunity to deal with coronaviruses.”

The latest example is talkRADIO host Dan Wootton, who built a career in writing showbiz and gossip articles for The Sun.

So it was somewhat of a surprise when on Monday Wootton adamantly declared the best way out of the pandemic was to shield all the vulnerable people in the UK while the rest of us deliberately catch Covid-19 in order to reach herd immunity.

When questioned by his guest Labour MP Chris Bryant on how exactly the UK could protect the vulnerable amid a “herd immunity” approach, Wootton declined to give specifics, opting instead to say there is “a whole load of ways to do it”.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is exactly the proposed strategy of the Great Barrington Declaration, a document reflecting the views of a minority of the world’s scientists that oppose lockdowns and say we should all carry on largely as if nothing is happening and let herd immunity do the rest.

But there are four things you need to know about the Great Barrington Declaration:

  1. It completely ignores the fact that herd immunity has never been achieved without a vaccine
  2. It provides no plan for how a country can effectively shield all vulnerable people
  3. It was sponsored by an organisation funded by Charles Koch – a right-wing billionaire known for promoting climate change denial and opposing regulations on business
  4. The vast majority of experts disagree with it

Undeterred by this, Wootton still felt compelled to spout these opinions on shielding and herd immunity in an interview with Bryant, who branded him a “dangerous conspiracy theorist”.

Julia Hartley-Brewer – 234,300 Twitter followers

“Why are we using a Covid-19 test that has 90% false positives?”

Another talkRADIO host, Hartley-Brewer has helped promote the apparently alarming statistic that 91% of coronavirus tests in the UK are “false positives”.

Obviously this would be shocking if true – it would basically mean the pandemic isn’t really a pandemic and we’ve all been sitting in our homes under various forms of restrictions for months all for no reason.

But it isn’t true. You can read about it in detail here, but in short, Hartley-Brewer based her claims on one article written by someone who got their maths a bit muddled.

Alas, the false claims are still circulating and out in the real world it’s having an actual effect on the country’s ability to fight the pandemic.

Toby Young – 139,000 Twitter followers

“The virus has melted into thin air. It’s time to get back to normal.”

Toby Young has so much to say about coronavirus that he started his own newsletter called Lockdown Sceptics.

Unfortunately, the former government adviser – who was forced to quit his role in 2018 when people realised he’d spent years saying grossly offensive things – hasn’t got much right so far.

Young hit the ground running way back in March when he wrote he was “beginning to suspect the government has overreacted to the coronavirus crisis” and that “spending £350bn to prolong the lives of a few hundred thousand mostly elderly people is an irresponsible use of taxpayer’s money”.

And then in June, Young said the virus “had melted into thin air”.

There are currently over 300,000 new cases every day around the world.

He also subscribes to the false positives myth.

Allison Pearson – 74,200 Twitter followers

“If Hancock ever dares to try and vaccinate children, who are unharmed by Covid, he’ll have a revolution on his hands.”

The coronavirus pandemic has been a bit of a rollercoaster for Pearson, forcing some remarkable U-turns in her opinions on the matter.

She began in the early days of the pandemic by criticising young people and branding them “Generation Me”. She urged them to practise social distancing and suggested they would “start whingeing how ‘stressy’ it all is when the authorities try to curtail their freedom to even a minor degree”.

Six months later, she now spends much of her time on Twitter getting stressy about her own freedoms being curtailed and even advocated herd immunity when she revealed her son had contracted Covid-19.

Pearson has also falsely stated that children are “unharmed by Covid-19”, and railed against vaccinations.

Then, to top it all off, just the other day Pearson appeared to suggest that postponing death wasn’t a valid objective for medicine and science.

Mark Dolan – 17,300 Twitter followers

“The first step to [getting back to normal] is binning these wretched... scientifically empty masks.”

We come full circle for our last entry, all the way back to the studios of talkRADIO.

This is Mark Dolan. He doesn’t like wearing masks and says there is no science to back up their effectiveness.

And rather than putting up with the ever-so-slight inconvenience of wearing one in a shop in order to help stop the spread of a pandemic that has killed over one million people around the world, he made a very big deal of cutting one up in what we’re sure he thought was a very dramatic and symbolic gesture.

Mark is also very wrong. There is a wealth of scientific evidence to back the effectiveness of masks in combating the coronavirus pandemic which you can read here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here – take your pick.


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