South Africa

OP-ED

In a post-truth world, science is under threat — we need an inoculation against fake news

A protester displays a banner at a gathering outside Parliament House in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Scott Barbour)

The epidemic-like rise in alarming pseudoscience and fake news trends and associated damaging outcomes raise a crucial question: Will the scientific process survive this onslaught or will anti-vaxxers and other conspiracy theorists eventually hold sway in the public domain?

Professor Faadiel Essop is Director of the Centre for Cardio-metabolic Research in Africa (CARMA) at Stellenbosch University. 

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored” — Aldous Huxley

The forwarded WhatsApp message on my phone boldly proclaimed that an autopsy in Russia had revealed that a radiation-exposed bacterium (and not the SARS-CoV-2 virus) is responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic and “causes human death by coagulation in the blood”. The message triggered a tinge of despair as I realised that the plethora of similar, fake social media postings, with the widely reported (very rare) blood-clotting side-effects of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine will only further fuel the burgeoning anti-vaxxer lobby.

Of concern, the Centre for Countering Digital Hate reported that there are presently close to 58 million people following anti-vaccine groups on various social media platforms, with continued growth expected over the next few years. Moreover, a recent Ipsos survey reported a lukewarm response to vaccination in several countries. For example, the findings indicated that only 40% and 53% of the French and South African populations respectively, intend to get vaccinated.

Such alarming pseudoscience and fake news trends, and associated damaging outcomes, raise a crucial question: Will the scientific process survive this onslaught or will anti-vaxxers and other conspiracy theorists eventually hold sway in the public domain in a post-truth world? 

Post-truth was the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016 due to a 2,000% spike in its use compared with the previous year. Viewed in a global context, it describes a world where public opinion and actions are now shaped by emotions, feelings and personal beliefs as opposed to objective facts. To put it bluntly, as facts are increasingly ignored and dismissed it has serious consequences for the scientific process, evidence-based medicine and their broader impact.

In the post-truth world, it is therefore essential to consider the definition of a fact that is listed by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a thing that is known to be true, especially when it can be proved”.

The basis of contemporary science draws strongly on ideas of the philosopher Karl Popper who put forward the notion that scientists should do everything in their power to disprove a particular theory. Popper indicated that if, after repeated attempts, a particular theory cannot be disproven then it must be true.

For example, if we aim to prove the theory that Santa Claus is real, then the Popperian approach dictates that we should try everything in our power to disprove or falsify his existence. Thus, one may devise several observations to disprove the “Santa is real” theory — for example, to watch the chimney during the entire Christmas evening to verify that he actually arrived with reindeers to deliver the lovely presents typically found the next morning, and so on.

Hence if the sender of the WhatsApp message regarding the Russian autopsy applied this particular principle, it could be quite easily disproved as fake news and subsequently, its proliferation limited on social media platforms.

Thus, the scientific process is built on this premise. Here, the best minds employ the most robust observational tools and equipment available at the time to meticulously amass sound and overwhelming evidence to eventually establish a “scientific fact’’ or “truth” — for example, that Earth is round or that an apple falls to the ground in accordance with the laws of gravity. The scientific process of gathering facts by meticulous observations and experimentation is pursued by many researchers, often working independently in different laboratories across the globe. Findings generated are thereafter subjected to a rigorous peer-reviewed process of in-depth critique by various experts in the field in order to determine their veracity.

After a sufficient body of peer-reviewed evidence has been gathered regarding a particular theory or concept, experts in this specialised field usually meet to review all such facts to reach consensus. This process will be repeated numerous times to refine the “facts” and to eventually establish scientific truths. Thus, the scientific process is a slow and self-correcting one, but one that over time can result in major technological and health benefits for the broader society.

For example, this process ensured that the global average life expectancy has nearly doubled over the past 100 years, or that in-hospital mortality for heart attacks decreased from about 30% in the early 1960s to below 10% at present.

However, with a cataclysmic event such as the Covid-19 pandemic, the spotlight is shining brightly on those involved in this self-correcting process of fact generation with all its vulnerabilities and weaknesses. This created the perfect gap for conspiracy theorists to thrive by especially using social media platforms to spread false information for a variety of reasons.

Moreover, fake news generated by internet “bots” and also political manoeuvrings, add additional layers of complexity in this regard. For example, it is becoming evident that Russian intelligence organisations are aiming to discredit vaccines developed by Western countries to promote their own Sputnik V version. In this instance, the Russians are prioritising their efforts in Africa where there is often a deep-seated resentment of former colonial powers.

At a fundamental level, such schemes lie on the opposite spectrum of the slower, multistep scientific process with its unique system of inbuilt checks and balances. In contrast, there is a very rapid spread of fake news, often by so-called experts without any of the necessary checks and balances in place to attest to its veracity and truth. It is important to distinguish “disinformation” (completely false information spread by persons/organisations with evil intentions) from “misinformation” where someone spreads a false message without realising that it is not true.

Confirmation bias is rampant in such instances, where these individuals and organisations will only source, access or interpret information that will eventually confirm their deep-rooted, pre-existing beliefs. In this case, let us consider someone with a pre-existing bias that Santa may be real, who decides to prove his existence by collecting the required “facts” in an “objective” manner. Such “evidence” may include, for example, the fact that Santa was spotted at a nearby mall, or that he appeared on several television programmes and social media platforms, or that the cookies and milk left for him and his “team” on Christmas Eve were gone the next morning. Any information that does not fit this paradigm will be dismissed as part of a bigger ploy, or simply be ignored. 

The current clash between these two vantage points is crucial when one considers major global challenges facing humanity, such as the current pandemic and future ones, the threat of climate change or food insecurity. Despite the continued rise of the anti-vaxxer lobby, surveys show that the broader public still displays significant trust in scientists and the medical profession. However, such public goodwill may be eroded unless certain changes are implemented by those involved in the scientific research process and its eventual implementation.

In the first instance, universities should strengthen science and medical curriculums to better equip graduates to deal with the issues raised here. At present, the focus is strongly on the subject discipline with limited focus on philosophical and societal contexts. This is a process we have now begun at Stellenbosch University. 

Second, researchers also have a responsibility to better communicate with society as their endeavours are largely undertaken with public funds. Such interactions should not be done merely as dissemination of information (to an “ignorant” public), but instead as part of a constructive dialogue. For example, this may include sharing information on the nature of the scientific process with the public and to be honest that it is a self-correcting process with certain limitations, and not simply a magic bullet.

Third, the media also need to take responsibility in terms of reporting and to not sensationalise research findings. In this instance, the media often fail to accurately report the complexity and potential limitations of findings as typically indicated by researchers at press conferences.

Finally, during such public engagements, scientists should not try to debunk every myth as it is a near-impossible mission with the daily barrage of fake news encountered. They should instead focus only on the facts when dealing with the public, as well as explanations on the nature of the scientific process. In this way, a process of public “inoculation” against fake news will be established. Starting this process at school level would be an excellent way to get the ball rolling.

If these steps are implemented, I am confident that the scientific process will endure, as it has done previously, and thereby ensure that informed decision-making and evidence-based medicine will prevail. DM

Professor Faadiel Essop is Director of the Centre for Cardio-metabolic Research in Africa (CARMA) at Stellenbosch University. He is a former president of the Physiology Society of Southern Africa, the current vice-president of the African Association of Physiological Sciences and a board member of the General Assembly of the International Union of Physiological Sciences. He also served as a member of the International Committee of the American Physiological Society and is an elected Fellow of the American Physiological Society.

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