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Is the future of science under threat in a post-truth world?
Author: Faadiel Essop
Published: 06/05/2021

​We need “inoculations" against fake news to help safeguard the future of science in a post-truth world, writes Prof Faadiel Essop (Department of Physiological Sciences / Centre for Cardio-metabolic Research in Africa) in an opinion piece for Daily Maverick (5 May).

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

​Faadiel Essop*

Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored - Aldous Huxley.

The forwarded WhatsApp message on my phone boldly proclaimed that a post-mortem in Russia 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 together 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 currently close to 58 million people following anti-vaccine groups on various social media platforms with continued growth expected over the next 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 usage compared to the previous year. When viewed in a global context, it describes a world where public opinion and actions are now shaped by emotions, feelings and personal beliefs compared to objective facts. To put it bluntly, as facts are increasingly ignored and dismissed it holds 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 post-mortem applied this particular principle, it could be quite easily disproved as fake news and subsequently limited its proliferation 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 the 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 its 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 in order to reach a 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 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 nearly doubled over the last 100 years, or that in-hospital mortality for heart attacks decreased from around 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 maneuverings, 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 in order 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, multi-step scientific process with its unique system of in-built 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 actually 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 evening 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 display 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 curricula to better equip graduates to deal with the issues raised in this opinion article. 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.  Secondly, 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 regarding the nature of the scientific process with the public and to be honest that it is a self-correcting process with certain limitations versus it simply being a magic bullet. Thirdly, the media also needs to take responsibility in terms of reporting and to not sensationalise research findings. In this instance, the media often fails 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 regarding the nature of the scientific process. In this way, a process of public “inoculation" against fake news will be established. Starting with this process at school level would be an excellent way to get the ball rolling. If these steps are implemented then I am confident that the scientific process should endure, as it has done previously, and thereby ensure that informed decision making and evidence-based medicine will prevail.  

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