Fact check: Setting the record straight on claims about vaccine hesitancy among Ph.D.s

North Carolina

A healthcare worker fills a syringe with Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at a community vaccination event in a predominately Latino neighborhood in Los Angeles, California, August 11, 2021. – All teachers in California will have to be vaccinated against Covid-19 or submit to weekly virus tests, Governor Gavin Newsom announced on August 11, as authorities grapple with exploding infection rates. The number of people testing positive for the disease has surged in recent weeks, with the highly infectious Delta variant blamed for the bulk of new cases. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Some skeptics who question the vaccine are pointing to a survey that found a high rate of hesitancy among people who have Ph.D. degrees.

CBS17.com tracked down one of the authors of the study that’s based on those survey results, and while she says the numbers are accurate, they might not mean what the questioners think it does.

THE CLAIM: Nearly a quarter of people with Ph.D. degrees responding to a survey expressed hesitancy about the vaccines, with the implication that if some of the most educated people have questions about them, then perhaps more people should, too.

THE FACTS: Researchers Robin Mejia at Carnegie-Mellon University and Wendy C. King of the University of Pittsburgh based their study of vaccine hesitancy rates off of results from a Facebook Data for Good survey, reviewing about 1 million responses each month between January and May and analyzing it by race, education, region and support of former President Donald Trump.


They found 23.9 percent of the people who said they hold Ph.D. degrees expressed hesitancy, the highest rate among the various levels of education.

But some of their work appears to be misrepresented online, missing the overall point that hesitancy dropped.

“There are people that can kind of take a data point and twist it around to mean something that it doesn’t mean, and that’s unfortunate,” King said.

A sensitivity analysis found some people answered in the extreme ends of some demographic categories to throw off some of the numbers. King said it appeared to be a “concerted effort” that “did make the hesitancy prevalence in the Ph.D. group look higher than it really is.”

For example, they observed higher hesitancy rates than expected in the oldest age group — 75 and over — as well as the top end in terms of education level.

“We found that people basically used it to write in political … statements,” King said. “So they weren’t genuine responses. They didn’t really complete the survey in good faith.”

There were some other issues. 

The study hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet. 

People taking the survey were on the honor system, with no way to make sure people who claimed to have Ph.D. degrees actually have them.

And the Ph.D. group does not include medical doctors or nurses.

“So it’s not representative of the medical profession,” King said.

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