Nate Silver Draws Criticism for COVID Vaccine Report Interpretation

Prominent data journalist, Nate Silver, has come under fire from scientists after repeatedly questioning a report on how to distribute COVID-19 vaccines.

The editor-in-chief of the FiveThirtyEight website, has twice highlighted concerns he has with the report by scientists for a key immunization advisory committee, which helps decide how the U.S. will get the vaccine shots into people's arms.

He called it "pretty embarrassing" for such public health professionals that it was "largely outsiders like" him and other journalists, who had flagged such concerns first.

But scientists have accused Silver of misinterpreting the presentation and stressed that no decision had been made by the committee.

The clash concerns a report by a group of scientists working for the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). That group gives vaccine-related advice to the U.S. Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC), which in turn advises the U.S. government.

The report, titled "Phased Allocation of COVID-19 Vaccines" and published on November 23, looked at the order in which different groups in the U.S. should be given the vaccine.

The CDC has already recommended initial supplies be given to healthcare workers and long-term care facility residents. Behind these two groups, the new report proposed prioritising both "adults with high-risk medical conditions" and those aged over 65.

Silver criticized the suggestion. He argued the elderly should get the vaccine earlier, citing higher death rates in that group, than those with health conditions.

In a tweet on Friday, Silver accused the report's author of "NOT following the science."

Next to a screenshot of part of the presentation, Silver said the report had used modeling which showed fewer deaths would come from vaccinating those aged over 65 ahead of those with health conditions.

He said prioritizing people with pre-existing conditions "isn't projected to save nearly as many lives as prioritizing based on age. So they're basically ignoring their own data."

The reports author, Jo Walker, hit back by saying Silver had cited a slide which assumes use of a vaccine which still allows the virus to spread. "Differences in strategies are much smaller if you assume vaccine can also prevent infection and transmission," they wrote.

Hi @NateSilver538 I'm the epidemiologist who did this analysis. The slide you show assumes a "disease-blocking" vaccine which still allows the virus to infect/spread. Differences in strategies are much smaller if you assume vaccine can also prevent infection and transmission. pic.twitter.com/LvZMz44Bnq

— Jo Walker🏳️‍⚧️ Festively Defund the Police (@Jo_Walker_ATL) December 19, 2020

The dispute re-emerged on Saturday, when Silver again criticized the report, calling it "completely indefensible."

He wrote: "I am sorry to be a broken record, but it is completely indefensible that ACIP presents data like this showing that age is a FAR bigger risk factor for dying of COVID than pre-existing conditions & yet puts them on the same tier for vaccine prioritization."

Walker replied by pointing out ACIP "hasn't made a decision about the tiers," and would not do so before it meets on Sunday.

@NateSilver538 ACIP literally hasn't made a decision about the tiers yet (aside from Healthcare workers and long-term care facility residents being first). That's what tomorrow's meeting is about, deciding how to prioritize those 4 groups in Phase 1 (the second pic you posted).

— Jo Walker🏳️‍⚧️ Festively Defund the Police (@Jo_Walker_ATL) December 19, 2020

In a wider broadside against public health officials, Silver also wrote the community had been "pretty poor at almost every juncture" during the coronavirus pandemic.

He added that it was "also pretty embarrassing for the public health profession that it's largely outsiders like me and @zeynep [sociologist Zeynep Tufekci] and @mattyglesias [journalist Matthew Yglesias] who are **actually looking at the scientific evidence** and pointing out these obvious problems and that there aren't more critiques from within."

His remarks were met with counter-criticism from scientists.

Gregg Gonsalves, an assistant professor in epidemiology of microbial disease at Yale University, was among those to defend Walker and the report.

In a lengthy series of tweets, Gonsalves said there are "complex trade-offs that have to be considered" in considering how to distribute vaccines, and that Silver's "easy derision of the process is sorta gross."

The main point here? It's complicated. But not complicated for @NateSilver538, @mattyglesias & @DouthatNYT who've got the answers and will take down an entire field, well, a diverse set of fields under the rubric of public health with their arrogance and snark. 28/

— Gregg Gonsalves (@gregggonsalves) December 20, 2020

Journalist Matthew Yglesias, whose work was referenced by Silver, replied to that thread, writing that he had "never tried to take down an entire field or said I have all the answers." He added that he thought it "would be best" if ACIP prioritized the elderly.

Isabel Ott, a lab assistant working in the same department as Gonsalves, accused Silver of trying to "flagrantly misinterpret" the report's findings, as well as repeatedly "flattening & misinterpreting" scientific analysis.

"If he's posting screenshots of ACIP presentation slides with data broken down in very specific ways, the people who assembled & read & approved those slides, who think about these problems for a living, are probably also considering these angles, & others he wouldn't think of," she wrote on Twitter.

If he's posting screenshots of ACIP presentation slides with data broken down in very specific ways, the people who assembled & read & approved those slides, who think about these problems for a living, are probably also considering these angles, & others he wouldn't think of.

— Isabel Ott (@IsabelOtt) December 20, 2020

Public health doctor Abdul El-Sayed also questioned how and why Silver had criticized the report on Twitter.

"What's actually happening is that you're just arrogant enough to misinterpret models you don't understand & write whole damn tweet thread about it," he wrote. "And you forget this isn't sports or politics. Trust matters here, & you're undermining it out of ignorance/arrogance."

habibi, what's actually happening is that you're just arrogant enough to misinterpret models you don't understand & write whole damn tweet thread about it. And you forget this isn't sports or politics. Trust matters here, & you're undermining it out of ignorance/arrogance. https://t.co/fNCqfbe8LN

— Abdul El-Sayed, MD, DPhil (@AbdulElSayed) December 20, 2020

Epidemiologist Epidemiologist Elizabeth Pathak highlighted an earlier thread of hers which she said explained why Silver's "reasoning is misguided".

She wrote: "Yes, vaccinating the very frail and elderly may drop the case fatality rate in the short term, giving politicians a "win." But this strategy will not even slow down the pandemic!

Members of ACIP are holding discussions this weekend to discuss how best to prioritize different groups of people as the roll out of COVID-19 vaccines is stepped up.

Founder of FiveThirtyEight Nate Silver
Founder of FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver, speaks onstage at the Bryant Park Grill in New York City, on September 28, 2015. Silver has criticized a recent report into how vaccines should be distributed across the United States. Slaven Vlasic/Getty