Fishy Facebook science? Yale ‘Methods Man’ gives tools to interpret data
The coronavirus pandemic has, in the words of Dr. F. Perry Wilson, a.k.a. “The Methods Man,” ushered in a “perfect storm of scientific misinformation.”
Scientists are releasing new studies at an unprecedented pace, the public is clamoring for more information, and social media is amplifying news — including bad interpretations of science — faster than they can be de-bunked. By the time a scientific manuscript finds its way onto someone’s Facebook feed, “it has been filtered and interpreted” by various entities with their own agendas, said Wilson, associate professor of medicine at Yale and director of the Clinical and Translational Research Accelerator.
But, he argues, everyone can learn the skills to “judge the quality of the science for themselves.”
Wilson has made it his mission to help them: He is the instructor behind a free, online course called “Understanding Medical Research: Your Facebook Friend Is Wrong,” developed before the onset of the pandemic but especially relevant in the current onslaught of science and medical news.
In the seven-week Coursera course, designed to be entertaining as well as instructive, Wilson explains how medical research works and how misinformation happens through faulty study designs and bad reporting. He covers topics like medical jargon, statistics, and bias. He gives people the basic knowledge to go back to the original study and interpret it themselves, and to look at media reports about those studies with a critical eye.
Wilson keeps the lessons fun, using data from familiar experiences such as car-buying to explain different types of data and the Plinko ball-dropping game to explain bell curves. He considers the relationship between divorce rates and turkey consumption to illustrate the difference between causality and correlation. To explain information bias — when information is collected, measured, or interpreted wrongly — Wilson walks around campus with a microphone, asking students where they are from, and records their answers incorrectly. “St. Petersburg, Florida,” responds one student when asked about his hometown. “Bismarck, North Dakota,” Wilson responds, scribbling on his notepad. The videos also feature animated graphics and pop-up quizzes. No math skills are required.
“I’ve always loved communicating the process of medical science,” Wilson said.
Over 22,000 have signed up for the course since it launched in late April, from seventh-graders to Ph.D.s.
By day, Wilson is a clinical researcher who receives grants from the likes of the National Institutes of Health to develop predictive models for identifying how diseases will progress in individual patients and to implement clinical trials. He’s a nephrologist working with patients at Yale New Haven Hospital and teaches classes at Yale School of Medicine. Through his Methods Man website and column on Medscape, he debunks questionable interpretations of studies like responses to one study that some people interpreted to mean smoking had a protective effect against COVID-19 (it doesn’t). He tweets at @methodsmanmd.
Though Wilson began putting the course together two years ago with support from Yale’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, it took on new importance amid the coronavirus pandemic. He’s recently added content related to COVID-19 to existing videos, including one related to the concept of immortal time bias — when a study includes a period of follow-up during which, because of the design, death or the study outcome cannot occur. Wilson found a study in a leading journal related to anticoagulants and survival rates in hospital patients with COVID-19 and explained to viewers how time bias might be skewing the results.
Wilson said anyone who can think rationally can develop the skills to examine and understand scientific studies and draw their own conclusions.
“I really love being wrong,” Wilson said in the introductory video for his online course. “I love when I think something works one way and I find out with good data that it works another way.”
Video: F. Perry Wilson gives insight on his online course