SciComm Corner – Turning the tide against science conspiracy theories
Article written by Sam Jarman
Turning the tide against science conspiracy theories
In today’s landscape of widespread social media use, the average internet user will be no stranger to science conspiracy theories. From misleading reports of imminent asteroid impacts, to falsified statistics that appear to undermine the severity of climate change, the public is now being exposed to misleading statistics and unproven claims at unprecedented levels. While many of us have learnt to recognise the dangers of this content, it has also persuaded many others to outright reject scientific facts. As social media has come to influence so many aspects of our everyday lives over the past decade, this critical problem now seems to be growing rapidly.
The underlying causes of science conspiracy theories can be widely varied, whether they are malicious efforts to gain profit or political power, or genuine beliefs that influential scientists are actively lying to us. Regardless of their motives, the perpetrators of these causes have become highly skilled at conveying their theories in ways that can spread rapidly, while captivating large audiences across widely varied backgrounds. As a result, millions of people around the world have been convinced into believing falsehoods which can, in the very worst of cases, threaten many thousands of lives.
Drawing in the crowds
To members of the public who have learnt to steer clear of fake science news, the tactics used by these creators are easily spotted, whether they come in the form of clickbait headlines or endorsements from celebrities. Yet beyond these strategies, there are perhaps deeper underlying reasons why these ideas become so widespread across social media. To internet users without a sufficient level of scientific literacy, the scientific process as a whole can appear to be strange, unfamiliar, and even threatening. As a result, the responses of these demographics can echo the populism which has now come to the forefront of political discussion in the western world.
Ultimately, these ideas stem from an inherent mistrust towards authority. While this suspicion is usually directed towards moderate, well-established politicians, it can also apply to scientists, who have far greater levels of knowledge in their specific subjects than the average member of the public. As a result, the aims of scientists to provide complex, multi-faceted solutions to complex, multi-faceted problems stand in stark contrast to the simple, easily digestible concepts presented by populist conspiracies.
If content creators manage to successfully mislead the public in this way, they can lead them to mistake the easy comprehension of their ideas for clear scientific evidence. Perhaps even more worryingly, these ideas can go hand in hand with established political mindsets – particularly those claiming that science-based policies are restricting personal freedom, and used as excuses to tighten the grip of governments. If not addressed, these attitudes hold the promise of dangerous societal consequences in the not-so-distant future.
Counting the cost of conspiracy theories
In reality, science conspiracy theories can only serve to prevent meaningful public discourse, damage critical progress in scientific research, and hold back its numerous benefits to our society and everyday lives. Over the past year, their influence has proven itself to be more dangerous than ever. As the global fight against the Covid-19 pandemic enters a critical stage, scientific advice on masks, travel, and social distancing continues to be fought against. These movements have likely already cost the lives of many thousands of people, and could even threaten the efficacy of global vaccination programs. In the longer term, science conspiracy theories also threaten to hinder efforts to prevent the catastrophic consequences of climate change and environmental destruction.
Without further measures from scientists or communicators, the problem only threatens to grow. For all the authority that scientists appear to have, their conclusions will sometimes be wrong – meaning no statistic or experimental result is ever likely to paint the full picture. However, the very nature of the scientific process means that researchers aim to correct these misconceptions through subsequent research, while being entirely transparent in their mistakes. This concept simply cannot be understood by misled members of the public if they don’t have the educational background to recognise the importance of scientific findings.
Unfortunately, there is little that can be done to draw people away from science conspiracy theories through rational scientific arguments alone. But as a growing and highly influential community, science communicators are by no means powerless in their fight against the spread of these dangerous ideas. Using already well-established social media platforms, there remains hope that concise, engaging, and widely promoted science-related content could help to divert the attention of the public away from baseless conspiracy theories and fake science news.
The opportunities presented by these efforts have perhaps never been better. Over the course of the pandemic, public attention has been more focused on scientific research than ever before. With the skillsets required to disregard harmful content, many people with little previous interest in science have now made sincere efforts to learn more about epidemiology – from the mathematics involved in the spread of diseases, to the biochemistry of antibodies and spike proteins. For all the damage it can do, social media has also proven to be an ideal communication tool, and has helped millions of people to better understand the importance of the scientific process – even if a full understanding is not always possible.
A new hope for scientific literacy
Over the coming year, the world will hopefully begin to recover from the pandemic, while the incoming administration in the US promises to bring meaningful science-based decision making back to the forefront of political discussion. As this happens, science communicators could be given ideal opportunities to build on positive public attitudes and the enhanced scientific literacy that have been gained over the past year. Beyond epidemiology, the content they create will also extend to a diverse array of events and discoveries in 2021, from the long-awaited launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, to the critical and highly anticipated UN Climate Change Conference.
For now, the efforts of scientists and communicators to combat the growing influence of science conspiracy theories are still far from over, and the coming months and years could prove crucial to stemming its harmful effects. But provided the right steps are taken, a brighter spotlight on impactful scientific research could direct the attention of the public away from baseless conspiracy theories and towards discussions that will improve our society.
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Following the announcements of three approved COVID-19 vaccines, when many of us were dancing for joy, anti-vaccination – or ‘anti-vax’ – proponents around the world were ramping up their efforts. Twitter posts quickly began circulating drawing comparisons between the new COVID-19 vaccines and thalidomide – the notorious medication that led to thousands of children being born with congenital disorders in the 1960s. Conveniently, the posts failed to mention that the tragedies wrought by thalidomide led to strict new regulations for clinical trials that have ultimately helped medicine to reach the excellent safety records experienced today. Science, by its very nature, is a field that recognises and develops from past mistakes.