Communicating science effectively needs more than facts, says Eileen Parkes.
Fake news seems to be a new fact of life. Fake science news, though, is not a new phenomenon. From my background in medical oncology, I’ve seen first-hand the impact of ‘alternative’ scientific fact.
“My friends told me I shouldn’t take these toxic drugs — I should use natural medicine instead.”
“We were going to save up to buy a water alkaliniser. Could we alkalinise the water she’s given in hospital?”
“What if I just take turmeric instead? My son said it’s as good as the drugs.”
A recent study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI) found that patients with cancer who rejected conventional anticancer treatments (surgery, hormone therapy, radiotherapy, chemotherapy) in favour of alternative medicine were two-and-a-half times less likely to be alive after five years. This study made headlines around the world, lit up my twitter feed and was the central topic of conversation at work.
Rather than feeling vindicated, I felt profoundly sad for those patients who opted for unproven therapies. The take-home message for me was not the need to scrutinise alternative medicine, but the failure of science communication in making anticancer treatment better understood.
The appeal of alternative medicine — of unrealistic promises behind a kindly face — is well recognised. Of course, some complementary treatments, such as meditation or acupuncture, do produce clinical benefits alongside conventional medicine. But the complete rejection of proven treatments, no matter how inconvenient, made no sense to me. For others, the evidence I was producing simply wasn’t appealing enough. The same argument applies to vaccination or climate change. Vaccination may be unpleasant, and with no immediately obvious benefit. Acknowledging climate change requires a fundamental change in behaviour, sometimes at a cost to a comfortable lifestyle.
It’s tempting to dismiss arguments against the scientific basis of anticancer treatment, vaccination and climate change as stemming from a lack of education. In the JNCI study, those with a higher level of education were more likely to reject conventional treatment, suggesting that those who should be able to weigh up the evidence, in fact, don’t.
Those choosing alternative treatments were also more likely to be younger. Younger people increasingly obtain their health education information from social media, with 90% of 18 to 24 year olds engaging with health information on their social media feeds, and many relying on the internet as their primary source of health education. With social media sites such as “Natural News” amassing millions of followers, it’s hard for a scientific, rational voice to be heard.
The role of social media in promoting and reinforcing behaviours can also lead to fake news-based beliefs which are hard to shift. Our social networks tend to reflect homophily, where we group with those who are like-minded, which can reinforce opiniAons among a group. While social media could be a force for good in influencing behaviour, research suggests that it is more likely to bolster pre-existing ideas than change minds.
Professional science communicators are important in keeping science in the public eye. Despite this, it’s essential that scientists don’t forget our individual responsibility and privilege to be science communicators in our daily lives, to our friends, family and neighbours. How can we stem the tide of science untruths?
I would suggest a key first step is learning to understand where people are coming from. They’re enthusiastic about a wonder cure, they’re scared for their children, they’re anxious about the future. Rather than dismissing these feelings with cold fact, we can try to empathise. We share these emotions, we understand. Not by relying on facts, percentages and graphs, but acknowledging the underlying concerns.
As well as communicating our research effectively to other scientists, we should hone our skills in making our science accessible to all. We’ve all heard that Britain has had enough of experts — is that because scientists’ facts-based approach can be off-putting? Knowing the hook for our research — what makes it important, why it matters to the person we meet on the street — is key. Getting to the heart of our research will enable us to get to the hearts of those we are trying to reach. Scientists are human too: we should remember that.
Eileen Parkes is a clinical post-doctoral researcher at Queen’s University Belfast, exploring the immune response to DNA damage. Outside the lab she loves spending time with family and using social media to talk science. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.