In Part I of this blog series, I discussed what disinformation is, why it occurs, and why it is dangerous. I want to reiterate; I am not trying to combat disinformation because I want to force anyone into doing anything that they choose not to do. As I stated, my intent is to make sure that everyone simply has the best information as we know it so that they can make an informed decision of what is best for them. I see too many people who have been tricked into making decisions that they would not have made if they had only had good information. Unfortunately, sometimes those decisions made due to lies have cost people their health or even their lives.
So, with Part II, we will begin the rest of this series with how to identify disinformation, or at least how to recognize that that the information you are hearing or reading may not be reliable. Today, we are going to begin with how to recognize a purveyor of disinformation, or at least that the source of the information may be questionable.
As I was thinking of examples to provide readers so that you can see how to recognize real-life examples of disinformation, I realized that a doctor here in Idaho, Dr. Ryan Cole, provides an abundance of examples in almost every category that I am going to discuss. To be clear, Dr. Cole is not the only physician who is providing disinformation. Further, I am not suggesting that everything that Dr. Cole says is disinformation. Indeed, it is that fact that makes Dr. Cole one of the most dangerous sources of disinformation (more on that later). I also believe that Dr. Cole provides very instructive examples because I believe that he is one of the most effective physicians that I have seen at presenting disinformation in a very persuasive manner.
[A note – I know Dr. Cole. I actually like Dr. Cole, but I hate what he is doing. I believe that Dr. Cole is very smart. I have met with Dr. Cole for a couple of hours to express some of my concerns and he has provided me with some of his defenses, few of which I find compelling. There are some things upon which we agree. However, we disagree on more than we agree. This was the second time we met during the course of the pandemic and Dr. Cole’s and my exchanges have always been respectful.]
So, let’s take Dr. Cole as our example and see what clues we can see that tell us we should be skeptical of him as a source for reliable information.
The first thing that should make us “consider the source” is that Dr. Cole is a pathologist, specializing in disorders of the skin (dermatopathology). As you can see from his website, he owns and operates a laboratory that conducts testing of pathological samples. That is great. Pathologists are very important, but they rarely treat patients. Most often they provide laboratory results to physicians who do treat patients. That certainly does not exclude him from having expertise in the prevention and treatment of COVID, but it he is not in a specialty that is generally involved in direct patient care, and it should just be a warning sign that he may not be the best source of information on this particular issue. Just as you would generally not look to a neurosurgeon to evaluate and treat a prostate condition, generally you would not visit a pathologist or dermatopathologist to evaluate and treat COVID.
2. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
I am reminded of this quote from William Shakespeare. It is a reference to one of his characters, Gertrude, who goes to such lengths in her attempt to convince the audience, that she actually loses her credibility. It is very interesting to listen to the beginning of some of Dr. Cole’s interviews and videos. He seems to go to great lengths in an attempt to persuade the audience of his credibility. I have given hundreds of interviews about COVID. Similarly, I have listened to countless experts on COVID as they are introduced. Generally, the introduction consists of this is Dr. such-and-such with this title who serves in a particular role. That’s it. Think about the reputable experts that you have listened to or gone to see for medical evaluation or treatment. Do you know what medical school they went to or where they did their training?
Dr. Cole on the other hand provides us with an over-abundance of information – he is a doctor, he is “Mayo Clinic trained”, he is board certified in anatomic and diagnostic pathology, he specializes in dermatopathology, and he has done “PhD research” in immunology.
But let’s look closer. Obviously, Mayo is an outstanding institution, so he wants us to know he should have our confidence in him because of this outstanding training. That is impressive… until we find out that Mayo was anxious to avoid association with Dr. Cole. The famed Minnesota medical center on September 21, 2021, distanced itself from Cole’s anti-COVID-vaccine claims in an email to a reporter. Mayo spokesman Bob Nellis wrote: “Mayo Clinic is aware of claims made by Dr. Ryan Cole regarding vaccines. Dr. Cole was trained at Mayo Clinic but is not a Mayo Clinic employee. His views do not represent Mayo Clinic.” It is important to note that Dr. Cole must believe that Mayo Clinic is reputable in that he wants you to know he trained there, but Mayo Clinic has its sights on Dr. Cole and wants to make sure that no one is associating his views with those of the Mayo Clinic.
The next thing is that Dr. Cole wants you to know that he did “PhD research.” Hmm. Well, I think that the phrase “PhD research” would imply that you are doing research as part of your candidacy for a PhD, but note that Dr. Cole did not receive a PhD. Doing research is great and an admirable pursuit, but it seems a bit misleading to make this point at the beginning of his talks and interviews as if he is perhaps trying to gain extra credibility by creating the idea in people’s minds that he may be extra qualified as both a physician and PhD.
I find another subliminal message that Dr. Cole uses fascinating. Of course, throughout the pandemic, we have seen doctors interviewed at hospitals while caring for patients. It is not uncommon for physicians to wear their scrubs and/or lab coats while caring for patients, and it is understandable that this might be their attire if you are interrupting their patient care activities at the hospital for an interview. But, note that Dr. Cole has given at least two talks at the state Capitol building. For his videos, he is always in scrubs and/or his lab coat. For the state Capitol, he wore his lab coat both times. I have given many talks and interviews over the years I was practicing medicine. I don’t recall once that when not at the hospital or in my office that I wore scrubs and/or a lab coat. Think about the doctors that you have seen interviewed who were not at the hospital. Do you recall ever seeing one in a lab coat? My guess is that Dr. Cole is trying to send the message – see, I am a very busy doctor having just rushed in to the Capitol to give you a talk in between treating patients.
There is nothing wrong with any of these things. It is just that in aggregate, you begin to see that it seems that Dr. Cole sees the need to go to greater lengths than normal to try to gain our confidence in him as a credible source to speak on COVID.
3. Fact Check
Finally, whenever you want to check out about anyone who is in the public and seems to be stating controversial things or things that seem to be contrary to what the experts are saying, try searching for that person’s name and fact check. In Dr. Cole’s case, you will find numerous fact-check articles that go through point-by-point to demonstrate things he has publicly stated that are not true or are misleading. In addition, there is a scientist who actually does have a PhD in immunology on social media who goes segment-by-segment of some of Dr. Cole’s videos to point out where what he says is correct and where it is false.
In the next part of this blog series, we will go through quotes from Dr. Cole’s videos that will help you learn how to spot disinformation.