“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke
It’s frustrating, as a scientist, to watch from afar as the claims of anti-vaxxers are given credence in many parts of the country, despite ample evidence suggesting that they’re not correct.
Why and how can so many people be misled?
Unfortunately, we have an educational system that punishes failure; i.e., “points” are deducted for mistakes, and not rewarded for correction, thus discouraging students from trying again and learning from their mistakes. Widespread standardized testing narrows what could be the full breadth of learning to only the basics. Multiple choice exams are easy to grade. Feeding a student information and requiring them to remember it is easy for a teacher to do. Leading a student to find the information for themselves and evaluating their true & deep understanding of the concept is very time-consuming. Furthermore, when children are not inspired to question the information they’re given and curiosity is not encouraged, the process of learning becomes tedious and off-putting.
Such a system indoctrinates the idea that failure is bad, causing individuals to become reluctant to process new and conflicting ideas. Thus, it’s not hard to imagine that a large proportion of the US population is poorly trained in seeking and integrating new information, scientifically illiterate, and weak in logical reasoning. I just want to be clear: it is not the non-scientist’s fault, if they have never been taught better.
So whose fault is this?
We can try to blame the student for their lack of drive, the system for its barriers, or the teacher for their shortcomings, but in reality, this is a shared responsibility. Instead of focusing on who to blame, let us instead focus on who has the power to make the change. We do – the scientists. We know how to learn, how to reason, how to teach, and how to problem-solve. Ironically, it is the very same doubt, criticism and self-reflective thoughts, which are crucial to producing unbiased science, that also silence the knowledgeable from speaking, whilst the self-assured person with little knowledge and much confidence preaches to the masses as if an expert.
Research suggests that less than half (~40%) of the population “trusts” science and medicine. So, if we roughly estimate our chances of pushing science-driven policy under a “democratic” system, we have just 4 of 10 people voting for science, and 6 of 10 voting against it.
This needs to change.
There seems to exist a mentality among some in academia that science communication and other forms of civil service are a waste of time. While these individuals may argue that our time is better spent doing experiments, I suspect many more would argue that it is a worthy use of our time to communicate with people who can impact our government’s decision-making and funding investments. Science communication is an investment in the people whose tax dollars are funding our experiments, and whom the results of these experiments aim to serve. Long, frustrating hours at the bench might have compelled us to forget this greater civil purpose of science, but we should never take for granted the grants that many of us were given to carry out our aspirations and to satisfy our curiosity.
We need to close the feedback loop.
When money is invested in a project, the investor expects to see results. When tax dollars are spent on science, the people want to know that they are being used wisely. Without progress reports, people will start to lose hope and develop mistrust. While the reporting of scientific progress to others in the field has always been up to the scientists working within the well-established peer review system, the reporting of scientific progress to the public seems to have been outsourced to journalists. There are many competent journalists out there, but many others are motivated to write “clickbait” or may leave out important scientific details.
One way to remedy this problem of inaccurate reporting would be to personally write the press release associated with one’s recent research publication, or put up a short post explaining its significance (and limitations!). Another could be to act as a source to journalists who may be seeking advice from a scientist. Databases such as www.DiverseSources.org offer a platform where scientists can sign up to be contacted by journalists seeking expert opinions. Establishing such connections help ensure the scientist’s research is communicated properly, while boosting the legitimacy of the journalist’s report. Confidence in the press is currently at just 8%, but this can change if more scientists offer their educated insight.
We can report real truths, not fake news.
Communicate your research, because you are the expert. You, the “next-generation” scientist, will only benefit from being proactive in science advocacy. If you have a passion for science, then don’t just do it at the bench. Share it with others and let them see that you are worth investing in. Some great platforms for sharing your science include almost all of social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), writing blogs or making YouTube videos, as well as websites like www.SkypeAScientist.com, where scientists can sign up to get matched with K-12 classrooms across the nation. There are many ways to get involved, without ever needing to leave the bench!
The final point that I want to bring up is the importance of putting a face to science. In my experience through Twitter and #AskAScientist, most people genuinely want to know, but they are either too afraid to ask or have been discouraged by previous bad learning experiences. Surveys show that people generally believe scientists act in the best interest of the public, so let them ask us questions. Let us show them the spirit of science. Let us show them the resilience and endurance and passion and good that science brings. If we can provide rebuttals against stubborn reviewers and aggressive seminar-question-askers, we can certainly explain our science, and the process of science, to the public with a little practice and a lot of patience. Only then might we begin to foster the better trust among the public that is critical to sustaining our profession. Only then might we feel the true value of education. Only then might we find the real breadth of our impact factor.