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Cambridge University Science Magazine

Humanising Science

‘So, how do you explain [insert questionable piece of information], since you are the scientist here?’

Many of us will find such confrontations familiar, be it from birthdays of relatives or bars filled with strangers. You may even find that these situations trigger ‘fight-flight-or-freeze’ responses — after all, it is a lot of pressure to represent the gigantic and infallible institution that is Science. And fair enough – as (prospective) scientists, we are trained to chase and esteem the objective truth, garnered via the rigorous ways of the scientific method, and regard it as this superhuman entity that transcends all that is flawed about human thinking. Science is often presented as the collective legacy of what is our (perhaps arrogantly self-assigned) distinguishing feature as a species: our intelligence.

However, while perhaps not the easiest thing to admit to relatives holding you to account as a vessel for objective rigour, it seems to be a universal experience that the longer you stay within science, the more obvious its issues become. As most of us are aware, the ‘making of science’ is done by humans and is hence not free from human flaws, biases, and bigotry. It remains important to acknowledge that, in the name of ‘making science’, people have been hurt - minority groups disproportionately so (Brandt et al., 1978). Minority groups have also been (and continue to be) harmed by underrepresentation in clinical trials and scientific spaces in general (Hussain-Gambles et al., 2004; Ramasubbu et al., 2001; Tahhan et al., 2020). Science, in its institutional form, is by no means a pure pursuit and any such ideas about it need to separate scientific institutions — tainted by human flaws — from the scientific method itself in order to apply sufficient scrutiny and make progress in the conducting of science. 

This is important not just for the betterment of science, but also for its appreciation by others within much wider society. Indeed, regarding science as less of a divine entity, and more of a malleable and fallible process, may increase its accessibility not only for yourself but also for those you communicate with about your scientific endeavours. Humbleness towards our own understanding of science (taking into account things like the Dunning-Kruger effect), as well as compassion towards that of others, can be hugely transformative in how we define ourselves as scientists — and thus, how we talk about it to those distant relatives at birthdays confronting you with their Facebook-amplified Anti-Science ideation. And these conversations really matter — especially nowadays.

Dismantling misinformation

After the past two years, it is no hubris to say we are in a Pseudoscience Crisis (also aptly called the ‘info-demic’). It is a crisis that, on its own, has contributed to much societal damage. Perhaps less well-known is how intricately the Pseudoscience Crisis intersects with many other modern crises. For instance, the Climate Crisis suffers from misinformation on climate change, and world hunger suffers from misinformation on genetic engineering of crops – two examples where misinformation is still percolating through the policy- and decision-making arena, and hence obstructing much-needed progress (Wang & Kim, 2018; Ahmad et al., 2021). Misinformation is becoming an important tool in geopolitical crises as well, now that modern warfare is increasingly hybrid - a painful reality exemplified by recent affairs in Eastern Europe. The Pseudoscience Crisis partially derives from its exponential nature: misinformation is generated far more easily than scientific fact, and then travels at least six times faster across online spaces (Vosoughi et al., 2018). In addition, it should not be overlooked that anti-science thinking often offers a path towards a warm and welcoming community: a less daunting alternative to reading up on the overwhelming and often over-complicated body of scientific literature.

Misinformation is fast-evolving, and its ever-optimising clickbaity-ness — in an environment that rewards clicks — means it can continue to reach and ‘infect’ more and more people. Perhaps intuitively, one may think that the solution to the crisis thus lies in changing the environment where misinformation festers: for instance by restricting algorithms to make their clicks less rewarding, or imposing bans/censorship to make their clicks not possible at all. Yet, it may be risky to put the solution of the crisis on the end of information platforms/distributors. Perhaps it is more effective to put the solutions in the hands of the information consumers themselves. After all, as seen elsewhere, we cannot afford to wait on the multi-billion social media industry to change their profit-generating algorithms, nor do we have time to argue the ethics for or against free speech in each individual case of proposed censorship or media bans.

What is needed is a change in discourse across all sectors. Internally, within the scientific community, we need to break through the culture where communication about and garnering public support for science often dangle at the bottom of priority lists.  And even if any such effort is regarded seriously (and not patronisingly), we need to get rid of the false but prevalent notion that the problem of science denialism lies in a lack of scientific literacy — this is not the case (Rutjens et al., 2018; Drummond, C., & Fischhoff et al., 2017). Strategies relying on such assumptions disregard the important role of social determinants in susceptibility to pseudoscience and hence are at best incomplete and at worst counterproductive. This ignorance towards social determinants is also prevalent outside of the academic sphere. For instance, the Dutch Prime Minister, Rutte, has on several occasions openly dismissed the social science behind civil disobedience and anti-science ideation during the country’s COVID lockdowns. Similarly, the French President Macron’s vow to ‘piss off’ the unvaccinated only serves to feed the ‘us-versus-them’ narrative without acknowledging, and thus providing actual solutions to, the underlying problems leading to vaccine-hesitant or anti-vax ideation. 

Any attempt at countering misinformation or anti-science ideation is not effective if the overall result is further marginalisation or polarisation. A deeper understanding and appreciation of the social and cultural determinants behind pseudoscience and science denialism is required if we really want to be effective in fighting this crisis and empower everyone with the tools to consume high-quality, factual information. The humbling reality is that none of us are immune to pseudoscience, and this vantage point inadvertently adds compassion to one’s idea of science and those that are distrusting of it. Thus, to go forward, it is essential to make the pro-science narrative more humble and inclusive, more interdisciplinary, and less polarising; both within the institution(s) you occupy, as well as in encounters with individuals who have lost their faith in science. The role of compassion in future discourse around pseudoscience will be critical in defining not only Who Scientists Are but, most importantly, who is with us.

Naomi Iris van den Berg is a second-year PhD student at the MRC Toxicology Unit, member of Darwin College, and Vice-President (External Affairs) of Cambridge University Students Against Pseudoscience (CUSAP). Artwork by Mariadaria Ianni-Ravn.