In recent times, we have seen a rise in anti-vaxxers, anti-GM sentiment and my personal favourite, a resurgence in the flat earth theory. How can this happen in such an information-rich age?
This is an age where we can find out information in seconds. Equally we can find opinion-pieces masquerading as fact just as easily. Not knowing what to read may well be a factor in this, but we’ll cover that later, it’s not the whole story.
It’s not as if there isn’t peer-reviewed evidence disproving these potentially damaging viewpoints either. Andrew Wakefield’s controversial (and downright fallacious) 1998 paper linking the mixed MMR vaccine to autism has been widely disproved by science but vaccination compliance rates severely dropped after his paper was published and the incidence of measles and mumps increased, tragically resulting in at least 35 deaths in Europe in recent years.
So why do these pervasive theories still cling? Often, they are multifactorial in their origin. The melting pot of reasons can include media representation, the socio-political climate, poor discourse and, ultimately just human nature.
Within my lifetime we have seen voices on the fringes of the political spectrum challenge and become part of the establishment. We can see symptoms of people’s dissatisfaction in the rise of UKIP (or rather Nigel Farage), Trump’s America and numerous far-right groups in Europe. You can see a parallel in motive for both the rise in unconventional politics and non-scientific conjecture.
One factor that seems to link these conspiracy theories is a distrust of ‘the establishment’. The Flat Earthers are rife with anti-NASA sentiment, Monsanto often get touted as the enemy in anti-GM discussion and Big Pharma are the culprit according to the anti-vaxxers.
I suppose the argument here would be that, whilst NASA, Monsanto and the Pharmaceutical industry are all experts in their respective fields, our best interests are not necessarily their priority. Therefore, their output is itself a product of their agenda, and if they are drawn as the antagonist then they cannot beget wholesome work. As an aside, let us not forget what Michael Gove said about experts.
Using these figureheads as an antagonising societal image makes life easier to explain. It’s the same when politicians blame immigrants or any other marginalised class for the problems of a country. It’s an easy answer to what is inevitably always a complex question. It also fits neatly with narratives seen in science fiction, from Jurassic Park to The Planet of the Apes – scientists, whether intentional or otherwise, are to blame for the world’s woes.
Seeing is believing
Another element at work here is that we can’t necessarily see the science for ourselves.
It’s fair to say that we are past the time of the polymath and no one knows everything, that’s why peer-reviewed scientific papers are published. My background is in biology and biotechnology and I work in a next-generation sequencing facility; however, I don’t necessarily know the ins and outs of, say, cancer biology. If I don’t fully understand a related field, what chance do I have of understanding the latest physics or economics studies and breakthroughs?
Ultimately, science is an act of trust and faith. I trust that those reviewing the latest papers know what they’re doing, and I have faith that the institution is honest. It is this faith that differentiates me from the anti-vaxxers and Flat-Earthers. I can investigate the scientific findings and try to draw my own conclusions, but it’s not necessarily possible to replicate the methodology. I don’t have the necessary equipment, or the knowledge to use it to make the same conclusions.
If there is already mistrust in the established knowledge bases, then published science is being viewed too critically. There is of course a place for criticism, it is essential, but here I refer to emotional critique rather than measured evidence-based critique.
If you really must try to replicate the science, well it will be hard. Often, without decent equipment and, quite frankly, a deep understanding of the field, any good intentions can be waylaid by inaccuracy. Alternatively, a zetetic approach can be taken, as seen most obviously by the flat earth community, for example, who take photos from a high altitude and cannot see any curvature on the horizon. This can be easily explained by stating the size of the (globe) Earth, however seeing is believing. If you see a flat horizon and the counter-argument is just some numbers (irrational and otherwise), then you’re likely to stick to your guns if that’s what you originally thought.
Where do I look?
Whilst the internet is an abundant source of information – it is also an abundant source of nonsense and knowing what to read can be a challenge. We’ve all read biased political articles and I must admit I do stumble across the odd ‘alternative health’ site. A good place to start would be respected journals, but equally it can be difficult for everyone – myself included – to understand them and, to be fair, who has the time?
Another issue is that if you’re not discerning about what you read, you may end up reading conjecture and fabrications. I’ve noticed plenty of ‘health food’ articles in circulation espousing ineffective or potentially dangerous dietary plans. If you don’t know any better, why would you not take these on board? Don’t get me wrong, the scientific community has its own health food philosophies, but these aren’t quite as exciting and amount to little more than, ‘eat a balanced diet, lots of vegetables and do some exercise.’ There’s much less to grasp on to than those articles promoting juice cleanses and ‘clean’ eating.
This is where the science communicator must get involved.
Your knight in shining armour – the effective science communicator
Clearly just stating facts doesn’t cut it. Equally getting everyone to read Nature or PLOS One is unlikely to happen. So how does the scientific community engage in a meaningful dialogue with the public? Both science and ‘fake news’ are fighting for the same resource – you and me.
I think a greater emphasis needs to be placed on why the science matters and this ought to be an easy task: transforming findings into what they can be applied to. Public sector science has a responsibility to provide value, which it does fantastically, but I don’t necessarily think it has the clout in the media to portray itself as well as it could. In all honesty a bit of confidence and panache might be what’s needed.
The flipside to this, is that like any field, there are trends. Certain areas receive funding and a bias can form towards the fields that are directly applicable to society. That’s not to say that other areas are less important but the communicators behind such fields have a harder task to create empathy with the public.
Rhetoric and empathy need shrewd deployment alongside the facts. Perhaps the battle can still yet be won.