The Rooster and the Sunrise
The invalid assumption that correlation implies cause is probably among the two or three most serious and common errors of human reasoning.
Stephen Jay Gould, American biologist and author, 1981
During the Covid19 pandemic all sorts of misinformation and disinformation have been created and shared. How and why has this happened? A news account of remarks made at an anti-vax, anti-mask rally near the Minnesota State Capitol on August 28th offers an answer to that question.
….Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, who had been a supporter of [Jan Malcom] the [Minnesota commissioner of health], told the crowd that firing Malcolm is now an option. “I’m not defending her anymore,” Abeler said. “It seems the only language the governor understands is the removal of another commissioner.”
Abeler, who chairs a key senate human services reform committee, describes Malcolm as a friend and said it saddens him to call for her ouster. But Abeler wants Minnesotans to decide for themselves whether to get the COVID-19 vaccine. He said he opposes mandates or any heavy-handed efforts to get people to comply and that he believes Malcolm and the administration have failed to tell people the whole story.
“They had been behind encouraging, cajoling these employer mandates, the college mandates strongly, saying that the vaccines are safe and effective,” Abeler said in an interview. “But there are huge safety issues, which no one is talking about, and people should have the right to know that. That’s my simple request.” Abeler claimed during his speech that more than 200 Minnesotans have died from the vaccine, but that number is hard to confirm.
Abeler got the number from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, a database of "information on unverified reports of adverse events (illnesses, health problems and/or symptoms) following immunization with U.S.-licensed vaccines." The system is designed to detect problems with vaccines, but it clearly states that just because a death or other health problem is listed, it cannot necessarily be attributed to the vaccine.
In some of the Minnesota cases, the deaths reported were likely from other causes but just happened to have occurred within 60 days of the person being vaccinated. Meanwhile, the Health Department reports more than 7,800 Minnesotans have died because of COVID-19.
How does this vignette help explain the origin of misinformation? First, note how Sen. Abeler “frames up” the issue by raising suspicion in his hearers. He accuses Commissioner Malcom and Governor Walz of having failed to tell people the whole story of the pandemic. He goes on to declare: “But there are huge safety issues, which no one is talking about, and people should have the right to know that. That’s my simple request.” Abeler implies that “somebody” or a nefarious group of individuals is covering up allegedly disastrous results produced by the Covid19 vaccinations. Second, Abeler marshals what he considers to be alarming evidence to back up his claims: “…more than 200 Minnesotans have died from the vaccine.”
Four days after Sen. Abeler made these comments, Minnesota Public Radio carried the following comments from one of the nation’s foremost epidemiologists, Dr. Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota. Osterholm was unequivocal in refuting Abeler’s claims:
“The senator’s wrong, and he knows it. It’s just not true,” Osterholm said. According to Osterholm, Abeler’s claim is an “abuse” of data from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), a national effort to detect potential safety problems in vaccines. Any adverse health outcome following vaccination, even if ultimately unrelated, can be reported to VAERS for further investigation. Osterholm said Abeler was mischaracterizing deaths in the system unrelated to vaccines.
“I can say safely at this point in Minnesota, no one has died from receiving the COVID vaccine. No one,” Osterholm said. “These vaccines are safer than aspirin.”
This situation illustrates well how misinformation about the pandemic is created and spread. In the context of divided government in Minnesota (the Democrats control the House of Representatives and the Governor’s office, while the Republicans narrowly control the Senate) and, in anticipation of the 2022 elections in which Republicans intend to capture both chambers of the Legislature along with the Governor’s office, the pandemic has emerged as one of the most fought-over “political footballs” in Minnesota.
Senator Abeler and his Republican colleagues in the state Senate have done their best to “weaponize” the pandemic and the numerous measures the Walz administration has taken to keep Minnesotans safe and healthy during a pandemic, the likes of which have not been seen for more than a century. In this regard, Walz has gone “by the book” in terms of following CDC and other Federal public health guidelines—and he’s been willing to endure the slings and arrows of his GOP critics. As we approach the 2022 election cycle, Republicans appear to be highly focused on attacking Walz’s alleged heavy-handedness in keeping Covid19 under control.
Another reality that both Democrats and Republicans in Minnesota have to deal with is that the pandemic is still causing sickness and taking lives—despite the high (but not high enough!) rate of Covid vaccinations that Minnesota residents have received. Frustrated by Walz’s relative popularity and effectiveness, GOP leaders are tempted to go “out of bounds” as Senator Abeler did last Saturday.
In this regard, we dare not miss the logical fallacy woven into Abeler’s contention that the Covid19 vaccine has killed 200 of the over 3 million Minnesotans who have been vaccinated. Abeler seems to have ignored the fact that VAERS data indicates a correlation with, but not necessarily the causation of, those 200 deaths.
From ancient times this has been described in the Latin phrase: Post hoc ergo propter hoc (translated: “after this, therefore because of this.”) This fallacy is often illustrated by the old parable of the rooster and the sunrise: the rooster crows and the sun rises—so the rooster must have caused the sun to rise, right? Wrong!
At its root, our country’s difficulty with misinformation and disinformation about the pandemic reflects a mindset that has infected too many of our fellow citizens: a deep-seated skepticism about public health experts and their expertise. What if, on the other hand, we all developed the more healthy habit of becoming more skeptical of the skeptics?
Sadly, this saga demonstrates how easy it is for false information to be shared in such a way that it develops a life of its own. Senator Abeler planted a seed of misinformation (“Covid vaccinations killed 200 Minnesotans”) which will likely “grow” every time it is repeated (and sensationalized?) by those who heard him at that State Capitol rally on August 28.
 Minnesota Public Radio: “Malcolm next? GOP senators threaten another commissioner’s job,” by Tim Pugmire and Tim Nelson, on August 30, 2021 3:29 p.m.
 Minnesota Public Radio: “Osterholm on the fourth COVID-19 wave, schools reopening and vaccine safety,” by Cathy Wurzer, Lindsay Guentzel and Alex Cheng on September 1, 2021 6:04 p.m.
 As Sen. Abeler failed to mention, the VAERS website makes it clear that: “While very important in monitoring vaccine safety, VAERS reports alone cannot be used to determine if a vaccine caused or contributed to an adverse event or illness. The reports may contain information that is incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental, or unverifiable. Most reports to VAERS are voluntary, which means they are subject to biases.”