The following multipart blog series was inspired by a conversation among a few friends about scientific communication, the current state of education in science and scientific integrity. To adequately cover such a broad topic, I’ve chosen to break it up into smaller, connected parts.
In the first entry of this series, I discussed scientific integrity and its vital role in changing the atmosphere of mistrust in corporate science. My second post explored the importance of clear and honest communication with the general public. I would like to wrap up the series exploring scientific literacy in the internet age and the interrelatedness of these topics in elevating the scientific public discourse.
In 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a paper in The Lancet suggesting a link between the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. Although the science in the paper was relatively soon shown to be complete bunk and the original paper retracted by the journal editors, the conclusions had already spread throughout the Internet and the pseudoscience community. Anti-vaccination campaigns spread across the western world. One of the biggest perpetuators of this false link between vaccinations and autism was talk show hostess, Jenny McCarthy, whose own son is autistic. Her very public platform led to the propagation of anti-vaccine websites and blogs across the Internet. Mothers in search of information would turn to the Internet and see more and more postings from other mothers with anecdotes of how their child developed signs of autism after receiving a vaccination. Even a current leading Presidential candidate has perpetuated the myth. The very real outcome of this pseudoscience is a decrease in vaccination rates and resurgence in diseases that were once under control in the developed world. In 2015, the US had its first death from measles in twelve years due to an outbreak that originated at Disneyland in late 2014.
So, where did we go so horribly wrong? The information age brought about by the explosion of the Internet has been a blessing and a curse. What used to be considered the body of knowledge existed in the form of encyclopedias on the bookshelf in your room. Now, most people carry orders of magnitude more information at their fingertips in the form of the smart phone in their pocket. The answer to most questions can be found with a swipe and a click. Unfortunately, that virtual bookshelf is also full of misguided opinion and misinformation. Google University does not make us all Ph.D.’s. In fact, we most often use the Internet to find information that supports our own preconceived notions. This phenomenon is known as confirmation bias and is well documented. We tend to search and find information that supports our already conceived opinions. Worse, social media algorithms tend to show us links that support our views based on our online activities. In short, we are surrounded by a world that wants to confirm our beliefs for us in spite of data contrary to those views. Far too often when found swimming in a sea of data, we fall back to the familiar and the trusted. We seek out the opinions of friends or family. Worse, we hear something from an adored celebrity and take it as fact.
In a world of information overload, critical thinking is crucial to sorting the truth from the noise. This is especially true in science. As parents and scientists, it is imperative that we teach our children critical thinking skills. We should be willing to go to schools on career days, volunteer in science classrooms, and engage in ways that promote critical thinking skills in our children. We need to actively work to raise the level of STEM literacy in this country so that in this massive alphabet soup of information, society will be able to sort through the bytes and influence public discourse based on facts and logic.
Science-based industries must play their part in defending their science against biased misinformation in the name of social and political agendas. If companies will not stand up for themselves, then the informed public will not likely stand up for them. But companies alone will not be successful in dispelling scientific misinformation. As individuals it is critical for us to engage our friends, families, and acquaintances when we see them propagating unsound science. In addition to promoting critical thinking, as discussed previously, we must always be acting ethically in our science; but we must also communicate with our audiences factually using language that is clearly understood by our audiences. The key to making all of these things work is trust. When we behave with integrity, communicate openly and clearly, and use defensible fact-based arguments, we create an atmosphere where our audience will listen with an open mind. Having increased critical thinking and scientific literacy, we will have created a field that is fertile for the seeds of science to germinate and grow. It is with this approach and in this environment that we have our best hope for removing “shill” from the scientific lexicon.
Jeff Seale is a Science Fellow at Monsanto where he has worked for 18 years building world-class protein engineering platforms and developing the next generation of science leaders. Outside of work he enjoys watching his children's artistic and athletic endeavors, sailing with friends and working to end extreme global poverty with the ONE Campaign. (The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of Monsanto.)