ToxSquad Outreach Blog
Issues in Environmental Health, Current events, and cutting edge research
Issues in Environmental Health, Current events, and cutting edge research
By Danielle Love Cucchiara and Alexis Wormington
In the digital age, information is shared across the world with just one click. Facilitated by the world-wide web, ideas are proposed, discussed, and spread globally within seconds; a fact that has introduced a new, unprecedented level of collaboration to human society. However, the unlimited availability of information is a double-edged sword, as the spread of information is not always dependent upon its value or truth, but instead by how it is communicated. And often enough, communicators can manipulate or even falsify information to achieve a purpose. Some of the most valuable information is gathered through scientific discovery; and, unfortunately, this information is often the target of deceptive communication.
The internet is riddled with ads claiming lavender oil or shark cartilage can cure cancer. There are anti-vaccination parties where parents take their children to the home of a child with chickenpox or measles, intentionally trying to infect them. There are large, vocal groups of people who do not believe in scientifically verified concepts such as climate change and a round earth. Companies are making millions selling “health” products that are unregulated and scientifically unverified. All these ideas are shared and supported through the spread of scientific-sounding information – not all of which is accurate or even true.
There is wealth of misleading or blatantly false information out there posing as science, leading to real-life, substantial consequences. For example, nutritional and herbal supplements, which are often advertised as “safe” and “natural” even though they are unregulated, are responsible for around 23,000 emergency room visits and 2000 hospitalizations annually. Another example of the harm caused by misleading science is the re-emergence of preventable diseases, such as measles, due to the “supposed” controversy surrounding vaccinations. The vaccines controversy originated from a retracted paper published in 1998 that falsely claimed that the MMR vaccine was associated with autism – a claim based on falsified data and an experiment conducted by a discredited physician with a huge financial conflict of interest. Although the paper’s “findings” are widely disregarded by the scientific and medical communities, all it took was the support of the charismatic, non-scientist celebrity Jenny McCarthy to get the anti-vaccination movement rolling in 2007. Despite the scientific support and success of vaccination programs, physicians are seeing more parents who ignore medical advice and refuse to vaccinate their children – a problem with no easy solution except to continue educating the public and addressing the concerns of parents in a respectful way.
Communicating effectively with a general audience is a learned skill that academics do not always have the time or resources to develop. Researchers tend to take the logical approach to convey a message, reporting only facts and neglecting to consider the emotions, beliefs, and culture of those receiving the information. This has created a disconnect between scientists and those who do not have scientific training. The archetype of the cold, calculating scientist and of the ivory tower elitist exists, and unsurprisingly, many people believe that it’s accurate. With Scott Pruitt (a non-scientist, former lobbyist for big oil companies) running the Environmental Protection Agency, vacant research positions throughout the federal government, cuts to federal research funding, and a decreasing number of scientifically literate legislators in Washington, researchers can’t afford to stay in our towers any longer. Scientists must become better at communicating the importance and role of their research in the lives of regular people. The question is: How?
The Oxford Dictionary chose “post-truth” as their 2016 word of the year. The definition: Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. Attacking people with only data and complicated terminology does not work; in fact, people tend to think of those with opposing views as morally or intellectually inferior, even when those opposing views are factually correct. So, if a full-frontal fact attack doesn’t accomplish an efficient exchange of information, then it’s time to investigate some alternative strategies. During a seminar entitled The Counter Intuitive Nature of Effective Science Communication, Dr. Kevin Folta, a professor and chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida, discussed ways to better communicate scientific information to concerned citizens. Rather than pelting them with facts, Dr. Folta suggested listening to the audience, ensuring them that their concerns are important, and trying to relate to them on a more personal level.
Something to consider during the exchange of information is the amount of trust and respect between the two parties. The truth is, the public has a more negative view of the role science in society than it did ten years ago. It is clear that scientists need to try harder to foster trust and respect with the public, but doing so is easier said than done. Many of the issues facing the country affect people on a personal level, and so it may be effective to connect with people personally when discussing these issues from a scientific perspective. The mother of three listening to a presentation on food safety doesn’t care about p-values or bar graphs, she cares about the health and well-being of herself and her family. Empathy is the key here – scientists should try to listen to the concerns of the public, understand where they’re coming from, and show them that their concerns matter. Additionally, scientists should try a little harder to break the bubble of academia that metaphorically separates them from regular society, and emphasize the fact that they are just people, just trying to contribute to society world– like everyone else. Scientists, like everyone else, have values and things that they feel passionately about. Express that passion – it makes scientists more approachable when they care, and can communicate that with compassion and enthusiasm.
Another issue faced by the scientific community is that the public and scientists differ widely in their opinions on scientific topics. This issue, while likely influenced by several factors from media coverage to social circles, is not helped by the way that scientists are currently trained to communicate their work. Explaining a complicated topic scientific jargon may be effective for communicating within an academic circle, but is likely not an efficient way to relay information to the public. Dr. Marshall Shepherd, Director of Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia, suggests the use of analogy or metaphor in lieu of hard data. Scientists are trained to discuss all of the details, but Dr. Shepherd advises getting straight to the point and to avoid oversharing. His take-home tips are to stick to 3 topics and keep the message memorable, meaningful, and miniature.
Going forward, it is of the utmost importance to teach young scientists to properly communicate to a layperson audience. A paper published in the Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education in 2013 advocates for the incorporation of formal science communication into university undergraduate and graduate program curricula. Social media is an excellent tool to encourage this sort of communication, and is good way to help introduce researchers to scientific communication. For example, to underscore the importance of learning to communicate our work to the public, Dr. Folta asks his students to present in one publication geared to regular people for every scientific publication they submit.
Scientists have information that is important to everyone, and it is paramount that the general population understands this information so that the members of the public can make informed decisions about their own lives. There is a lot of false or manipulated information out there with the goal of taking advantage of uninformed individuals, influencing policy decisions, or simply pushing an idea. These purveyors of faux-science are appealing to consumers and lawmakers in a different way than scientists do, through the use of emotions and beliefs. If scientists want a voice in this world, and they should, it’s time to move outside of their comfortable boxes of data and facts, reach out to the public, and earn their trust.