Can ignorance be cured?
The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has caused a global panic, unfortunately, during these trying times many people have suddenly become ‘medical experts’. It was alarming for me when I received a WhatsApp text message claiming that the virus ‘can be cured by a bowl of freshly boiled garlic water’. The panic was; how many people received this message? How many people believed it? How many lives are at risk because of it?
The results of spreading fake news can be catastrophic. They could lead to deaths that could be prevented if the people received scientifically correct information. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that the vast majority of coronavirus information shared across social media comes from fake news sites. These fake news range from conspiracy theories of where the virus originated from to healing remedies. It was unsettling to see prominent leaders also prematurely announce treatments that weren’t approved by medical specialists. The repercussions of this misinformation have even sparked racial discrimination and lead to shortages of Plaquenil which is used to treat malaria.
I hope that as a community we can work together to spread the scientifically correct news and save lives! The NewsGuard has created the Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center which keeps a record of all the fake news websites. In South Africa, it is best to read updates and health-related advice directly from the government’s website (https://www.gov.za/Coronavirus).
In the age of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) people have become more susceptible to fake news. Old wives’ tales are no longer just beliefs of small groups but are vastly spread through the internet. Unfortunately, science is not exempt from fake news. An article posted by Psychology Today mentions that people fall for fake science news based on their individual ability to recognize misinformation, group beliefs, and societal factors. Addressing these individual/societal beliefs with facts doesn’t help much, research shows that evidence-based arguments are most likely to curb these beliefs.
The most popular in Astronomy has to be the belief in astrology, even print media cashes in on this one. People strongly believe that star signs directly affect their moods, personality, finance and love life. A study carried out at the University of Arizona showed that 78% of 10000 students believe that astrology is ‘sort of science’. A shocking 48% of students from the science faculty also believed that astrology is science-based. Counter to popular belief, star signs are based on a group of stars that appear in the sky at a particular time of the year, they have no effect on any individual. They were initially used by farmers to indicate the time of the year and navigate through a season change.
Right after astrology would be the ‘flat earthers’, a group of people who choose to still base their belief on an experiment performed in 1985. What is alarming is that the number of people who believe this myth seems to be on the rise. An experiment carried out by science enthusiast clearly shows that the earth is spherical and not flat.
The above examples are less critical, however, results of believing fake science news can be life-threatening. For example, a study carried out in the US showed that a third of the public disagrees that climate change is due to human behaviour. These individuals would be less likely to be more precautious when using objects that cause pollution or directly impact climate change. The truth is, we only have ~ 10 years to curb the climate change catastrophe, this can only be achievable if we work in unity. It is promising to see young individuals boldly advocating for this cause because it is the younger generation that will suffer the consequences of our ignorance.
Another hazardous myth is that vaccines are harmful to babies. This myth stemmed from a fake study that linked autism to the measles‐mumps‐rubella (MMR) vaccine. This hesitancy to vaccinate has caused a global increase in vaccine-preventable diseases and sometimes result in fatalities that could have been prevented. The truth is research has shown that vaccines save lives! They do not just protect the vaccinated individual but also provide community protection by reducing the spread of disease within a population.
It is promising to see that as much as 4IR might be the cause of the acceleration of the spread of fake news, it can also be the solution. A lot of research has gone into using machine learning and artificial intelligence as a resolution. These 4IR tools can be used to detect fake news based on text. Other studies include adding warning texts to articles that emanate from untrusted websites, these studies reveal that people are less likely to believe articles that are tagged as fake.
As scientists, I feel that it is our duty to educate the public with matters that we are well informed about. Ideally, it should be mandatory for all science postgraduate students to be enrolled for a science communication module. This would enable us to effectively communicate our science with a range of audiences. Hence, allowing us to engage with the public at a level which is not condescending but equally informative.
Majority of postgrad funding is from the government, either directly from NRF or through SARChI chairs, hence, science communication should be a public service from the recipients of the funding. The government already has science engagement avenues such as SAASTA and could escalate public engagement by working with more postgrad students.
Finally, as scientists we should be equally visible on social media, presenting evidence-based facts to combat the spread of fake science news. If we are not thrilled to do this as a public service then let us consider it as a mission to save mankind (Science Avengers maybe?).