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How do you Solve a Problem like Pseudoscience?

Posted in: Science Communication & Ethics

If you need hair advice are you more likely to scour the Trichological Society’s website, or head over to Pinterest?

In the age of the search button, people have access to all sorts of “information,” and knowledge is power. No subject or discipline is shielded from social media, and now more than ever the public is interested in the science behind things. Unfortunately, this interest largely hasn’t been met with engagement from scientists, leaving a wide vacuum. Enter the pseudo-scientists.

From the hair cream that claims to be 99% effective at fixing split ends (impossible) to  detoxifying tea (also impossible) and the occasional resurfacing of “the earth is flat” assertion (c’mon B.O.B!), people are misled by pseudoscience every day.

All it takes is 1K likes, a couple of shares, and a story is on its way around the world.

Is Pseudoscience a Serious Problem?

It is perfectly fine for people to disagree with science. In fact, differing opinions often fuel research. Take the story of Alfred Wegener. This guy was not a geologist, and one day came up with a theory that the continents were all connected at one point and drifting away from each other ever since. “Nonsense!” leading geologists bellowed, and publicly mocked the guy for the rest of his life. How is he different from Joe Black who shares on Facebook something curious he found on a slice of bread while sitting at the dining table one night and begins a trending half-truth on the effects of GMOs? Not very, except that Wegener happened to be right.

No, differing opinions aren’t inherently dangerous. What is dangerous is when people can’t tell whether something is scientific or not—then, they aren’t merely choosing not to believe the science; they are misled into thinking that something that isn’t fact-based, is science. This is rampant in healthcare and nutrition. People quote studies as proving all sorts of things that they do not prove. Often these studies or reports misuse causation and correlation. While some people have altered their diets or refused medication on the basis of pseudoscience, many others simply don’t know where to get trustworthy information.

The people in charge—the policy makers, etc.—need to make informed decisions that impact all of us, and pseudoscience is a real pitfall for them too.

Pseudoscience does a disservice to the public but also to scientists. Take funding. Think of the money we could lose if people thought that they could do science in their kitchens just as well as us in the lab? I’m making light of this, but the value that science brings to society is downplayed when there are tons of just-plain-wrong assertions claiming to be scientifically proven.

Whose Fault Is It?

Really, it’s the “trending” sidebar on Facebook and Twitter that allows posts to be accessed by millions of unsuspecting people, but blaming never solves problems and taking responsibility can.

Scientists are trained to properly interpret data but not in communicating these results. Most scientific literature is not what you would call Saturday morning light reading, and people can’t stomach it. The responsibility lies with scientists, then, to also present our work in a digestible way to the general public—not dumbed down or speculative but highlighted sound bites that teach. We should jump at the opportunity to do this, as it gets our work out there. Why don’t we? Enter academic snobbery and poor media engagement.

The separation between academics and the “real world” is a massive chasm. Not many people know a scientist. Most scientists are friends with other scientists, or have “real world” friends who don’t know that they are scientists. Nerd-hood is displayed in pop-culture in the context of the one super-smart friend that talks over everyone’s head, like Sheldon Cooper in Big Bang Theory.

What Can We Do?

Stop being snobs. Talking down to people or, worse, refusing to talk to people who are not on our imagined level/status is a waste of precious time. Every chance to talk to a non-scientist, undergrad, or junior lab member is an opportunity to win the public’s trust in the work we are doing.

Engage in the media process. People shouldn’t have to run through a maze to get access to the facts that their tax money is funding. Scientists need to prioritize putting out content that people can use as a primary source of information. While the average person may not post the title of your journal article, a link to a blog post or a short report highlighting the take-home message is definitely tweetable (this word is actually in the Oxford Dictionary).

Science is already part of the conversation; it’s time that scientists chimed in.

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Image Credit: Andrew Kuchling

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