The Egyptian army’s claim to have invented a device that can detect and cure hepatitis C and AIDS seemed incredulous to many of us when it was first announced in a large press conference, but with every media report it became more absurd and ridiculous.
In a matter of days, it quickly spiralled to become a device (or two) that can use electromagnetic waves to remotely detect, treat and cure HCV and HIV, along with cancer, diabetes, AIDS and any other bacterial or viral infection. These claims were fueled by the person claiming to have invented the device, members of his team, unknown clinical doctors and a host of eager journalists and talk show hosts.
I have discussed the false science behind this device, and the reason why almost everyone in the science community is skeptical about it, in a previous blogpost. There’s absolutely no way this research paper can be taken seriously or be treated as science in the first place due to a host of unforgivable errors.
But maybe this whole debacle is a good chance to look at some of the underlying problems that extend across the Middle East, and not just Egypt, that led to this embarrassing situation:
1) We have a serious problem with media in general, and science journalism in particular. As outrageous as the claim was, none of the journalists who reported it have questioned it. They simply took the story and ran with it, and with every news report the claims became more outrageous. Instead of acting as watchdogs and pursuing their role as searchers for truth, the media outlets chose to be a mouthpiece for the authorities. This could be for various reasons, from political gains of private newspaper owners to lazy journalists willing to take anything they are fed – but whatever the reason, we are left with a disaster, and the public are the losers in this.
Even worse, this points out to the glaring lack of a science editor in these publications, someone with enough scientific information to raise a dozen warning flags before such a story is published. While politics and sports sell most in newspapers, science cannot be ignored, especially with the large number of science-related problems that the region is facing from threats to water and energy security to poor education and a degrading environment.
2) The whole issue points to the most glaring problem: the lack of critical thinking. It is a problem with our school education system, with our universities and with the general upbringing of most people. Children are discouraged from questioning or from analytically thinking and analyzing what they are taught. This very often translates, in adulthood, into a failure to question such “discoveries” – no matter how bizarre the premises is, as long as it is endorsed by the government and media.
The public is desperate for good news, especially in a country in turmoil like Egypt. However, the claims here were too outrageous for anyone to believe – and the least bit of critical thinking and a little research would have quickly shown this to be bogus. But the lack of a culture that supports and promotes either meant this was silently accepted and hailed with much ado about nothing.
3) There is a glaring problem of abuse of public health for the sake of fleeting political gains. Regardless of who is in power, giving false hope to millions of people in danger of death for the sake of some extra votes in an election is a disaster. Health and science should not be political tools, they are basic human rights and should be enshrined as such. The way this whole facade was presented was, obviously, made for political gains. Citizens should be protected from such abuse, where any entity that advertises such false health hopes is harshly punished.
4) Science has no “champion” in Egypt. There is no one to stand up to such claims and call them out as bogus. The few voices who did, such as the Egyptian president’s science advisor and planetary scientist Essam Heggy, were clawed to pieces by the media and politicians who said he was “tarnishing Egypt’s and the army’s international image.”
There is a need in Egypt and in the rest of the Arab world for an independent science body – such as the Royal Society in the UK for example – that can act as a watchdog and advisory to protect the public from such false claims in the name of science. When a handful of us are fighting to strengthen the role of science in society in the Arab world, such claims can wreck what took us years to build in a matter of days, and shake the public’s faith in science.
This entity would protect both the public, and their understanding of science. It would be vocal in fighting such claims and can help the media produce better coverage of science – protecting the public, protecting science, and advising the government on science-related issues independently.