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This Harvard epidemiologist is very popular on Twitter. But does he know what he’s talking about? His name is Eric and he has more than 165,000 followers– is he tweeting vital information or just generating clicks?


The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article on April 17 reporting on the phenomenon of Twitter popularity as applied to Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist (his PhD was granted in 2007 in epidemiology and nutrition) with a voluntary one-year appointment as a visiting scientist in the nutrition department at Harvard.  The specialty of nutrition in epidemiology is quite abstruse and there is a great deal of study in this area that tries to elucidate (make clear) the connections between what people eat and what illnesses they get or how long they live.  None of it relates to infectious diseases, not directly– although a person’s susceptibility to infectious disease may depend on their nutritional status.  For example, there is research suggesting that vitamin D deficiency increases a person’s risk for severe COVID-19.

His claim to fame is probably his tweet on January 25, stating that the R0 (the number of patients to whom each infected patient can pass on the infection) for SARS-COV-2 was 3.8.  This number means that the virus will spread very rapidly if there is any contact between infected and susceptible people; not as fast as measles or chickenpox, but faster than we can handle without strict isolation, contact-tracing, and a vaccine.

Another epidemiologist, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard and director of the University Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, described Feigl-Ding as a “charlatan exploiting a tenuous connection for self-promotion”.  He pointed out that Feigl-Ding is not an infectious disease specialist, just a regular epidemiologist.  Further, he stated that Feigl-Ding’s statements about the virus are “80% repeating conventional wisdom, 20% promoting wacko pseudoscience, and 100% derivative.”  Finally, he said Feigl-Ding “gets something spectacularly wrong sufficiently often that you should find other parts of the firehose of info [information] to drink from.”  I won’t give that man’s name because he doesn’t want to get backlash but really just wants to be left alone.

I can sympathize with this expert, who has real experience in “Communicable Disease Dynamics”, the science where the R0 is carefully studied (R0 isn’t applicable to nutrition in epidemiology).  He doesn’t want people attacking him on Twitter and neither do I.

Eric Feigl-Ding, on the other hand, seems to court attention.  He uses emojis, exclamation points, all-caps statements, and controversial claims liberally in his tweets.  Calling him an unqualified publicity-seeker is at least half right– his qualifications do seem to be “tenuous”.

A source at Harvard “with knowledge of the situation” said that Feigl-Ding had “been asked many times to stop promoting himself as having specialized knowledge.”  The article also says that “a University spokesman declined to comment on Feigl-Ding’s status.”

Here is a nearly perfect storm: someone who hungers for publicity (and Twitter followers), a global emergency, and at least a “tenuous” connection between that person’s specialized knowledge and the particulars of the emergency.  This makes me sad.

Personally, I do not hunger for publicity, in fact I fear it (not that much, but enough).  I nearly stopped posting altogether in my blog because of the impeachment circus.  It was obvious to me that impeachment would not work, although I was disappointed by the spectacular failure of the Senate to even call witnesses like John Bolton.  The disaster in the Senate and the inevitable but disgusting backlash that it inspired, the retribution/revenge that He-who-must-not-be-named exacted on his enemies and even those who did not sufficiently support him; all these things deeply depressed me.

Now, even the Steele dossier is being picked apart in the news media.  As if it wasn’t made clear by Steele himself that the allegations made in his notes were not verified and may possibly have included Russian disinformation…

There are so many people with inadequate knowledge who claim to be experts, starting with the *president himself, who keeps saying that the test swabs (of which we are short) are made of cotton.  To reiterate, cotton is unsuitable as a material for test swabs; synthetic materials like nylon or polyester are needed, and they have to be made in a certain way to maximize retrieval of virus from the samples.  Even with the best swabs, the virus is only retrieved from about 75% of nasopharyngeal samples in known cases of infection.  He-who-must-not-be-named has just said that he would invoke the Defense Production Act to mandate production of test swabs– although he didn’t give a timeline or say which company would receive the instructions.  I do hope that they aren’t cotton swabs.


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