The costs of misinformation adversely affects everyone
Science is not like ice cream. With ice cream, we all have our favourite flavours or brands of which we can pick and choose which we eat, and refuse. With ice cream, we can make our decisions on the ingredients, flavours, or the obscurity of their names even. But with science, it doesn’t work this way. The principles of sound scientific experiments, technologies and products are based on decades of research, thousands of publications and thorough risk assessments. Science, unlike ice cream, can’t be chosen on a whim.
Why would I reduce a comparison of science to ice cream? Well, it has to do with how we communicate about science as if it were as simple as picking out a flavor of the day. In science, risk assessments are essential. They are conducted on products and procedures before entering the market to ensure they are safe. The objective of risk assessments is to ensure the new product is as safe as existing products. Many mistakenly believe the objective of risk assessments should be to ensure there is zero risk. While this is a lofty ideal, it simply isn’t realistic as nothing in modern society has zero risks. Regrettably, those that seek to misinform society about innovation and science, deliberately attempt to mislead the public into believing that zero risk is achievable and those safe products are unsafe. Since nothing can be 100% safe, science is capable of ensuring new food, drugs or vaccines are 99.999% safe, but not 100%.
Campaigning on a digital level
In 2016, the World Economic Forum listed online digital misinformation as one of the leading threats to modern societies. Campaigns designed to provide incorrect and flawed information regarding safe products such as vaccines, genetically modified (GM) crops and farm chemicals have resulted in needless deaths and regrettable continuation of malnourishment and food insecurity in many countries. Misinformation that is magnified through social media may lead to decision-makers or policy-makers, making decisions or basing policy on information that harms society, rather than benefiting society.
The scientific method is tried and true
Empirically-based science is based on proven and rigorous methodologies. To begin, scientists make an observation or develop a problem into a testable question, called a hypothesis. To test a hypothesis, an experiment is developed, which includes protocols for collecting or generating data. These protocols must include sufficient controls and standards to ensure the experimental results are accurate. Each scientific discipline has its own experimental designs and protocols that are considered robust to test hypotheses, having been codified over decades of previous research. Science is based on previous research, with each new experiment contributing to the existing stock of knowledge.
Before scientists report their findings, they repeat this process multiples times to ensure they get consistent results. Upon the conclusion of the experiments, the results are analyzed and written up as a research article and submitted to a peer-reviewed journal for review. Academics and scientists who are experts in the relevant field review the article. The peer-reviewers examine the experiment methods, review the data and determine whether the results are supported by the data. If the reviewers determine the experiment controls fail to conform to existing models, the article will be rejected, or the reviewers can request that additional experiments be conducted that provide the proper controls. This process contributes to ensuring that published articles are rigorous research.
Aversion to risk
Historically, societies have aversions to some science and innovations that have been introduced, such as coffee into Europe, stream train travel, radios and refrigerators. What has changed with public uncertainty to modern innovations, such as GM crops, is the reams of misinformation generated by activist groups. The difference in the content disseminated by activist groups is that the basis for this content is not based on rigorous scientific methods, but rather by results that are not supported by the data or peer-reviewed. Activists groups that include, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, ETC Group, Third World Network, Center for Food Safety, Organic Consumers Association, and the Environmental Working Group have all publicly rejected the safety of GM crops. We know the GM crops are safe based on science, whose benefits include higher yields, lower chemical use and increase farmer profits. Regulatory agencies in 70 countries have assessed the risks of GM crops, finding no difference between them and conventional crops, yet these activist groups continue to misinform the public.
The concerns about misinformation are reaching a crucial point as these deception campaigns may affect the ability to increase the nutritional content of crops, fruits and vegetables, thereby contributing to improving food security the world over, not to mention the safe vaccination of children against dangerous diseases. Plant breeding technologies have evolved substantially, to the point that now, a targeted gene editing technologies known as CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) may be severely restricted in use and application. CRISPR technologies can be used faster and cheaper to develop new varieties and in the face of changing climates, scientists will be pressed to develop varieties that are capable of sustaining existing yields.
What if this misinformation spills into other areas of concern globally, which affects us all, like our health? Gene editing technologies are currently playing a substantial role in the development of new drugs and vaccines. The Economist identified in April that the majority of vaccines under development within the European Union are based on gene editing technologies. While the activist groups identified above have remained silent about the use of gene editing technologies to develop Covid-19 vaccines, they continue to demonize gene editing applications in agriculture. Rather than rely on proven science that has confirmed methods and rigorous evidence, activist groups prefer to focus on speculative science that lack methods and evidence. An excellent example of this is Greenpeace’s 20-year campaign against Golden Rice, which has increased beta carotene. Low beta carotene is a significant contributor to childhood blindness in developing countries.
It’s time to support the communication of empirically-based science for society’s benefit
Deliberate campaigns of misinformation, or pseudo-science, are dangerous at the best of times, but particularly so during times of crisis, such as the case with the Covid-19 pandemic. The solution to refuting misinformation is to build increased trust relationships between science communicators and those seeking information. Scientists and academics need to communicate value statements, rather than statistics or probabilities. With billions invested annually in scientific research globally, the value of these investments will be marginalized if the resulting products and technologies are not able to seamlessly enter societies. Substantially improved science communications are essential to increasing public trust in science and without this improvement, life may well come to resemble the world that Thomas Hobbes wrote in the 1650s, when he described life as ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short’.