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Friday, June 26, 2020

How to fight anti-science sentiment

If you treat humans like little children who can't be trusted with the truth, you shouldn't be surprised when they start whining about it.

I 'm hearing over and over from scientists and science publishers in no-smoking-and-no-vaping-within-fifty-feet-filled rooms about how anti-science sentiment is growing in America. What I'm actually seeing, though, is that what may look like anti-science is often, on closer examination, nothing of the sort.

One editor of a highly respected print magazine says:

The scientific community is up against a sophisticated, data-driven machine that is devoted to making sure that science doesn't fully succeed, and the history of this is quite clear. . . . Over time, digital technologies have become more sophisticated, and now there is a massive, churning, finely tuned digital misinformation machine that has seized social media to ensure that a portion of the population doesn't accept science.

It seems to me that this view is mistaken. There's no conspiracy to turn people against science. On the contrary: what's really happening is that people are living in a credibility desert. The collapse of almost all other sources of factual authority has led people on all fronts to turn themselves into pretzels to claim that science is on their side.

Some people recognize the cost of surrendering to a false narrative, so they rebel against it. If they're told that IQ tests are meaningless or that biological sex is a continuum, they believe strongly in its falsity and they'll keep struggling to get the truth out. They don't, and shouldn't, take our word for anything. If they're told that SARS-CoV-2 has been proven to have occurred naturally, they'll read for them­selves the Nature article that purports to prove it, even if they have to pay the twelve bucks or whatever it is, and they'll shout from the rooftops that we're lying to them.

The public is not anti-science

Internet commenter on scientific predictions

"Seventy years ago people predicted in the next fifty years we would have flying cars. Instead we got racist syrup." —anonymous

These are admirable traits, even if they're not always fun to listen to. These people scour the scientific research literature for articles that support their point of view. They are of course hampered by their lack of expertise and by our inability to write clearly, but they're also hamp­ered by lack of access to the articles that would clarify the issue for them.

These articles are freely available to staff at research institutions, and we take them for granted. But they are behind enormous paywalls—I've seen US$44 just for a single article—that make this vital knowledge inaccessible to the general public. And then we complain and call them anti-science because they haven't read it.

People have longer memories than we give them credit for. They remember they were lied to about wearing masks, and how the restrictions were lifted for political reasons during the protests, then reinstated again. They remember how the news media portrayed Fauci as being contemptuous of the president, and how Fauci did little to dispel the impression. And they remember the epidemiological predictions that were so far off that even our medical department heads now joke about them.

These people are not anti-science. Not by a long shot. But science news is filtered through the media, and the media are more mistrusted than ever. When science makes no effort to dissociate itself from the news media-generated hate or from political causes that people find absurd and repugnant, we find ourselves lying down with the proverbial dogs and getting up with proverbial fleas.

Scientific articles want to be free

It was a welcome change when science publishers, realizing the importance of accurate information, opened up their paywalls for articles on SARS-CoV-2. They should be encouraged to continue this and expand it to all articles.

It will happen eventually whether publishers want it or not, and publishers need to prepare for it. Scientists don't get paid to write; they pay the journal thousands of dollars per article to publish them. In many journals scientists do the formatting and spell-checking for the editors, they identify peer reviewers for them, and they download articles from the Internet instead of buying the print version. These days the primary function of publishers is to add status to an article; most everything else is done by the authors.

As the credibility of the news media continues to decline, readers increasingly turn to science to find the truth. If we want people to understand science, we should make this vital health-related information freely available to them. After all, they've already paid for it with their taxes.

But let's back up a bit and look at some purported examples of anti-science.


Vaccination is a good one, because it's one of the few topics we're still allowed to talk about. Virologists and immunologists know it's in the public's interest for everyone to be vaccinated. MMR vaccines save thousands, maybe millions. Human papilloma virus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted infection, is the second biggest cause of cancer in women, causing up to 500,000 cases of cervical cancer every year, half of which are fatal. Vaccines against HPV, if given before a woman becomes sexually active, would protect her from cervical cancer.

But virologists are reluctant to mention the many catastrophes and near-catastrophes that have happened over the years because they think that if the public knew they'd refuse to get vaccinated. This creates an endless supply of oxygen for the anti-vaxxers.

A classic example is the SV40 story. In 1960, Sweet and Hilleman discovered a new virus, called SV40, as a contaminant in the rhesus macaque monkey kidney cell cultures that had been used to grow polio and adenovirus vaccines. Two years later it was found that SV40 caused neoplastic transformations of hamster cells in culture. By then, hundreds of millions of people had been given live (Sabin) or inactivated (Salk) polio vaccines.

It could have been a nightmare. For a long time it was firmly believed, based on sound evidence, that while SV40 transforms cells in culture, it does not cause cancer in humans. Then when a more sensitive method (PCR) was invented, it was discovered that SV40 did exist in patients with the types of cancer caused by SV40. However, many never received the vaccine, which suggested that SV40 was already widespread in human populations. SV40 might cause cancer, but the vaccine was not responsible.

Then doubts arose about the accuracy of that PCR testing: 40–50 cycles were needed to detect the virus, so the signal could just be contamination. The issue is still not resolved. It's nearly sixty years later and we still don't know whether it was a medical catastrophe or a close call.

What is a scientifically naive person to think when they realize that information like this is withheld from them behind a paywall or couched in obfuscating language to keep them from panicking? They might wonder what else is being withheld, and they might even suspect that even worse problems are being concealed to protect professional reputations or even financial interests.


Another good one is 5G wireless. It's easy to ridicule the idea that 5G is dangerous, and many science advocates have done so, often by exaggerating the anti-5G claims to make them sound ridiculous. But anyone can find dozens of peer-reviewed articles in the scientific literature with only a few minutes of searching that claim 5G and millimeter-wave frequencies are a hazard.

The scare articles might not be convincing to someone with a degree in biophysics or a background in radar and microwaves, but it's inaccurate to say the people are anti-science. They're not pulling this stuff out of those chemtrails that the nutty ones think we put up there to sterilize them. They're getting it from us. For goodness sake, they're reading the scientific literature. What more do you want?

The existence of women

And let's not forget that, though they claim to be the party of science, it is Democrats and not Republicans who deny the existence of women. They (or at least a vocal contingent of them) claim to believe that a male who undergoes a surgical transformation and hormone treatment “becomes” a woman. It is a gray area between magical thinking and redefining common words, but it has put third-wave feminism, whose fundamental belief is that there is, in fact, an essential thing called a woman, into a downward spiral from which it is unlikely to recover. Belief that sex is a continuum is DNA denialism, and it is even starting to appear in reputable scientific publications.

Nuclear energy

Another example is the unholy alliance between climate studies and the greens. Green ideology holds that nuclear power is unacceptable as a substitute for fossil fuels. A global warming skeptic will see this position as inherently contradictory, and he or she will naturally wonder what the real motivation behind the panic about fossil fuels might be, since it could not be climate.

Apologists for the greens often say nuclear reactors are too expensive and the permitting process is too slow and complex, so they're not viable. Skeptics see through that argument: both the expense and the permitting are government-created problems that are not intrinsic to the technology.

Regardless of whether you think CO2 is a problem, it's clear that the skeptics are making reasonable points. Indeed, despite the strong disagreements, or maybe because of them, most people are more pro-science than ever. All sides regard science as the only bastion of truth that is still standing. That is why they fight about it. The problem we face is not that some people dispute what we say. It is that political activists want to give their ideology the imprimatur of science so they can use it as a club against their opponents. We are not doing enough to discourage this, and so we find ourselves covered from head to foot with fleas.

Science gets politicized when activists appropriate it to gain credibility. Allowing this to happen would be a disaster for science, and for society, if we lose the public's trust in our neutrality.

Unsubstantiated conspiracy theories have a nasty habit of turning into unchallengeable dogmas, and the idea that there is such a thing as a massive misinformation machine may be one of them. But I have written sixteen hundred words already, and that, my friends, is a rant for another day.

The bottom line is: if we treat humans like little children who can't be trusted with the truth, we shouldn't be surprised when we hear whiny voices from the back seat asking: are we therrrre yet?

jun 26 2020, 7:36 am. last edited jun 27 2020, 4:44 am

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