In the war between information and misinformation, by far the greatest weapon of all is mass media. A media that, unfortunately, more and more frequently is being utilised for the spread of misinformation of not only political matters but also scientific ones. Recently, there seems to have been a huge spike in the spread of academic falsehood, whether that be the rise of homeopathic remedies or the plague of climate change denial, the scientific community has found itself fighting a losing war that it was never prepared for in the first place.
If this is a war that they want to win, there must be a greater focus on the re-education and re-integration of the general public by the scientists who are making the discoveries that are changing their lives on a daily basis, the current state of scientific communication is just not enough.
Even in the world of commerce, a collection of random scientific words can be peddled as fact to the general public when presented in the right way. This is a practice most deftly applied by ‘Enagic’, a company that traces its roots back to a “Sony specialty trading operation”. The company sells water, but not just any water if you were to believe their adverts. They sell special ‘Alkaline water’ as well as ‘Water ionizers’. In of itself, this is pretty harmless, its basically just well-marketed water. However, this feeling of harmlessness slowly melts away on the discovery that a gigantic amount of their “Distributors” (self-employed sales-persons. Surprise, surprise, its a pyramid scheme) are selling the Alkaline water based upon the premise that it “hydrates you on a cellular level” and that it “cleans the acidic waste out of your cells”.Or if you take a deep-dive into the Facebook group “Kangen Water with Ron & Rhonda Gessner” you’re greeted with posts entitled “From Stage 4 lung cancer to NO MORE TUMORS!!! PLEASE share” or videos of the couple talking about the magical “oxidation-reduction potential of water”. Not only is the page littered with bad science, but many of the posts also imply the water could be a miracle cure for dangerous diseases. All of which is believed and perpetuated by people who are so easily manipulated by predatory companies. Through no fault of their own, they have not been engaged enough by the scientists who could provide them with the knowledge needed to defend against the rampant assaults of misinformation.
Take for example Katie Bouman, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier. They may be three names you are completely unfamiliar with, yet behind each of them are some of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 21st century. Whether that be the first-ever capturing of an image of a black hole, or a milestone discovery in gene editing therapies, they have propelled the advance of science forward more than many of their contemporaries. Yet the importance of their research and why it should matter so much is just not communicated thoroughly enough or easily enough for someone with little interest in science to understand. And the ones who are attempting to communicate science on a mass level either aim the content too much towards children and teenagers, such as Kyle Hill with his popular YouTube series ‘Because Science’, or they don’t even turn out to be scientists at all.
Take Bill Nye for example. Utter the words “Bill Nye” at less than 2 decibels in a room of millennials and you’ll more than likely instantly receive a cacophonous recreation of his classic theme tune in return.
This is by no means a bad thing. Nye is credited by many of the same people he inspired as being one of the greatest scientists of a generation, but this is exactly what he is not. In his younger years, Nye enrolled at Cornell University to study Mechanical Engineering and after this went to work for Boeing before deciding comedy was more to his liking. Nye is even less of a scientist than the famous actress Natalie Portman, who co-authored two research papers that were published in actual scientific journals.
So how is it that one of the “greatest scientists of a generation” isn’t even really a scientist? The fact that someone who has no experience practicing science in the field can communicate scientific theories far better than an actual scientist perfectly encapsulates the problem with creating easily consumable mass media that scientists seem to have.
Of course there are a few who have succeeded to a certain extent, such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who’s book ‘Astrophysics for People in a Hurry’ was a wild success. However, unfortunately, even the great DeGrasse Tyson still falls into the common pitfall of scientists everywhere, that being the unintentional patronisation. For example, after the recent horrific double mass shooting in Ohio and Texas, DeGrasse Tyson decided it would be an excellent idea to tweet:
“In the past 48hrs, the USA horrifically lost 34 people to mass shootings. On average, across any 48hrs, we also lose…500 to Medical errors, 300 to the Flu, 250 to Suicide, 200 to Car Accidents, 40 to Homicide via Handgun. Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data.”
Not only does this tweet unintentionally patronise the grieving families and friends of those who were killed and devalue the loss of human life, the tweet also serves to wonderfully alienate himself and his scientific colleagues to the general public, causing a surge of un-necessary mistrust in the scientific community. This toxic atmosphere of scientific mistrust is something scientists should be aiming to remove rather than propagate.
This anti-science sentiment is not only counter-productive for scientists themselves, it is also causing dangerous steps backward within the realm of public legislation. We now not only have a climate-change denier in the head office of the USA, but we also have another within the position as the head of the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Andrew Wheeler has so far appointed 3 new members to the EPA science board whom all deny the various effects of well known environmental hazards on the Earth and human health. Dr. Richard Williams champions the safety of formaldehyde, a chemical that damages the lining of the nose and throat; Dr. Brant Ulsh refutes the adverse effects caused by even low levels of radiation and, amusingly, Dr. Barbara Beck seems to think low levels of lead in children’s blood is absolutely fine.
Scientists are the men and women who stand upon the front lines of preservation and innovation, trying to make the world a better place through research and theory. But what good is thorough research and theory when the people whose lives you are trying so hard to improve reject your breakthroughs based upon the cleverly worded advice of a two-bit company selling mildly alkaline water. It’s about time the ‘Information Era’ started spreading the information that the general public need to hear from the people who spend their lives discovering it.
Words by Olly Singleton