Beware The Antibody Test Results
Antibody testing is being touted as having provided information it hasn’t. This article argues that these results are wrong and dangerous.
On April 21, Dana G Smith published an article with the title “Early Antibody Studies in California Suggest High Infection Rates” which does make some effort at explaining the problems with the antibody tests used in the research, but in my opinion she comes up just a hair short of the degree of skepticism needed to ensure a healthy grasp of the situation in her reader. Unfortunately for us, she has probably done one of the better jobs I’ve seen of attempting to expose the problems with this line of thinking. This article will explain the issue with this present study in an attempt to help the reader understand why the antibody testing numbers are not to be trusted or relied upon.
The situation is compounded by a variety of factors — for example, it is a violation of the rules of statistical mathematics to attempt to generalize a conclusion about a population if the sample from which the data was taken was not randomly selected. Additionally, there is a political dynamic that is ongoing during this situation which is frankly toxic and eager to lead us to make bad choices.
The study which features most prominently in Smith’s article can be found here. It features an unusual press release which itself probably constitutes an ethics violation, and it seems to me that too many writers are being too soft on this stuff.
This Study… I mean, seriously? How could they manage to get it so wrong?
In this article I explored the problematic nature of serological antibody testing. False positives are bad news in a study like this where a small initial population is used to draw conclusions about a bigger general population, because they can disproportionately skew the data. The figure Smith cites of 17 possible false positives in the data set as collected seems small to me, but frankly, with this study, this is the least of our worries.
The bigger problem here is the nature of the study, the nature of the political reception the study received, and the fact that these results will be reported across the nation and nobody will stand up and yell BULLSHIT! loudly enough to get it thrown out. People will base their lives on this study and make worse choices about whether or not to take risks that could lead to their exposure.
And that’s not even the half of it. The study organizers actually recruited the test subjects via Facebook ad. One of the first things you ever learn in a statistics class (seriously, this is first week stuff!) is that you HAVE TO have a RANDOM sample to make any sort of generalization from the sample back to the population. Why, you ask? Because a sample of 3300 people who think they’ve had COVID-19 is a different group than a city the size of Los Angeles where most people don’t think they’ve been exposed. The relationship between the city and the people in the study is not a 1-to-1 relationship; we’re not dealing with an apples-to-apples comparison.
So what we have is a baseless study about to make the rounds throughout the news media and get reported everywhere as good news. Everyone will use it for their own political ends, and the readers and viewers who take in this information will be more likely to get hurt in what may become the deadliest pandemic in American history. I apologize for the bad news, but not for attempting to help set the facts right. More of my views on the current situation can be found here.
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Thomas Dylan Daniel is an existentialist philosopher, professional ethicist, author, and biophysicist. He has written four books and started a Medium publication called Serious Philosophy.