Science in Crisis?

While Belgium has largely been spared, reported measles infections reached record numbers in the rest of Europe in 2018, with 82 596 children and adults in 47 of 53 countries affected; sadly enough, 72 of them did not survive the disease [1]. This outbreak of measles coincides with a growing distrust of vaccines in general. While precise numbers are difficult to obtain, it is striking that Europeans under 65 have less confidence in the safety and importance of vaccines than people over 65 [2].

Under heavy media attention, the European Commission recently had to decide whether or not the agro-chemical Roundup (developed by Monsanto, now owned by Bayer) would receive a new license. The controversy surrounding Roundup started in 2015 when the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) released a report classifying glyphosate (the main ingredient of Roundup) as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. With the license expiring in 2018, the green movement pushed for a ban. Yet, at the same time, many other organisations, including the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and Food Safety Authority (EFSA), as well as the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have declared glyphosate not to be a carcinogenic [3–6]. Was this the result of a cleverly designed campaign by Monsanto or is the green movement putting ideology over science?

Whatever the case, mistrust and manipulation of science are not new. It took decades for the general public to accept smoking caused cancer, despite conclusive scientific evidence. Similarly, many people still adhere to various conspiracy theories or paranatural phenomena. What is surprising is the fact that, despite continued progress in science and the democratization of knowledge, these movements remain strong and even seem to thrive. Is an anti-scientific movement on the rise? And if so, what can the scientific community do about this?

Science, by its very nature, is a slow and tedious process. Yet, good science can hardly be hastened; carefully designing methodologies and analysing data take time. Even more, a single study in isolation, no matter how good, does not leave much to conclude from. It is only in the comparison of different studies that true knowledge can be found, and even then, interpretations must be made with great care.

So, are the arguments of opponents of the scientific method then entirely without merits? Not exactly. There are, of course, the clear cases of fraud but in all likelihood, these only represent a minority of scientific publications. Far worse, is the intentional or unintentional use of questionable research methods. After two decades of “publish or perish”, many disciplines in the social and life sciences find themselves in a so-called replication crisis where a large number of findings fail to be replicated. In short, the ever-growing pressure to publish as much novel work as possible has led to an undervaluation of replication studies and an overrepresentation of false positive results.

Yet, this is still a mere professional critique that does not explain the aversion of ordinary people towards scientific and rational arguments. Surely, there is no scientific doubt about the effectiveness of vaccines, the dangers of smoking or the shape of the Earth.
One common explanation for this apparent lack rationality is the media’s tendency for reporting only those studies that have simple, fun messages, unfortunately exactly the type of studies that are at risk of being the least scientific. A second common argument is the fact that the human mind is notoriously flawed and not everybody is trained at countering these effects. When it comes to causality, we tend to see correlations that are not there and fall for story-telling or ideology. While there is little doubt both issues added to the problem, it is all too easy to blame the media and cognitive biases for irrational behaviour.

A more fundamental characteristic of the anti-scientific movement is its distrust of vested powers (the so-called establishment or elite). Many people feel they have been wronged by past and current socio-economic developments such as the loss of traditional family roles or gender identities, increased respect and inclusion of minorities, unequal economic gain from globalisation, etc. For people who feel left out, one solution is to blame the leading political class. Everything that opposes this view is seen as fake news (excusez le mot) or even worse, alternative facts.

Other people might simply experience a feeling of powerlessness or loneliness. There is some evidence suggesting conspiracy beliefs are more common amongst people who are anxious and feel powerless, lack socio-political control or psychological empowerment and feel unable to control their outcomes. Conspiracy theories, therefore, can serve as an instrument for people to feel safe and secure in their environment and to exert control over the environment [7]. Being a member of vocal and active movements like the modern flat Earth societies can create a sense of belonging and community. Mark Sargant, one of the founder fathers of flat Earth, used to be a professional video gamer living with his mom (although not in her basement as he likes to stress out) [8]. He is now a worldwide celebrity within the movement and a much-asked speaker, both offline and online. It seems hard to imagine he would be willing to give up all that for something as trivial as the truth.

Lastly, there have been and still are many groups that actively oppose scientific evidence that harms their agenda. In their book Merchants of doubt, the authors show how the tobacco industry actively discredited scientific evidence confirming the carcinogen nature of smoking, amongst other things by funding cancer research and insisting “the science isn’t conclusive” [9]. Similar forces are active today. Climate change denial is real, and the discussion about commercially important but possible toxic products like Roundup, is often heated and almost always politicians, journalists and lobbyists (rather than scientists) have the final say.

Given all this, are anti-scientific sentiments on the rise and should we be worried? I would argue the answer is definitely yes. While believing the Earth is flat might be relatively harmless, denying your children vaccinations clearly is not. Worldwide, tobacco use causes more than 7 million deaths per year, making it the largest single preventable cause of death [10]. Although science cannot explain everything, there is true risk involved with not leading an evidence-based life.
A possible solution to combat this anti-science movement is to better communicate and promote scientific findings and evidence-based practice. It is quite arrogant and naive to assume people will believe you simply because you tell the truth (or, as close as we can possibly get to it). The scientific community should adopt the same level of passion and intensify in communication as many of its proponents. Proper education is a key part in this but will not suffice as a stand-alone measure. While most people only study for a decade or so, conspiracy theorists might ‘study’ their field for the rest of their lives. The general public needs to be informed about science on a regular basis too.

Does communicate better also mean bolder? Or as one oncologist was inclined to say to a patient wanting (demanding might be a better term) to substitute natural medicine for chemotherapy: “Go ahead then, be healed. And I will almost certainly see you again, emaciated, ruined, lamenting the fact that it’s too late.” [11] Of course, we should that let our personal frustrations (understandable as they might be) cloud our professional attitude. Nevertheless, experts should demand some respect for their expertise. Not everyone with an internet connection is worth listening too. In a liberal democracy, expertise has its rights.

Lastly, it is important to create a sense of trust in scientific institutions. Transparency and integrity need to be further strengthened. Every case of fraud, implicit bribery and negligence towards methodology, damages not only the scientific community but also the society it claims to serve. Alternatively, scientists can combat the distrust in institutions by critically questioning the motives behind merchants of quackery. People selling alternative medicines often have made fortunes and internet heroes more than enjoy the attention and prestige they receive within their own community.

This is cross-posted from my personal blog.

[1] WHO, Measles in Europe: record number of both sick and immunized, (2019). (accessed May 13, 2019).
[2] European Commission, State of Vaccine Confidence in the EU, Publications Office of the European Union, 2018. (accessed May 13, 2019).
[3] ECHA, Glyphosate not classified as a carcinogen by ECHA, (2017). (accessed May 9, 2019).
[4] EFSA, Conclusion on the peer review of the pesticide risk assessment of the active substance glyphosate, EFSA Journal. 13 (2015). (accessed May 9, 2019).
[5] JMPR, Results of joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR), (2016). (accessed May 9, 2019).
[6] US EPA, EPA Releases Draft Risk Assessments for Glyphosate, (2017). (accessed May 9, 2019).
[7] K.M. Douglas, R.M. Sutton, A. Cichocka, The psychology of conspiracy theories, Current Directions in Psychological Science. 26 (2017) 538–542.
[8] D.J. Clark, Behind the Curve, Delta-v Productions, 2018.
[9] N. Oreskes, E.M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011.
[10] World Health Organization, WHO report on the global tobacco epidemic, 2017: monitoring tobacco use and prevention policies, World Health Organization, Geneva, 2017.
[11] R. Srivastava, My patient swapped chemotherapy for essential oils. Arguing is a fool’s errand, The Guardian. (2019). (accessed May 9, 2019).


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