The dangers of misinformation and miscommunication

I will start this article, I’m fairly confident, the way that no good story has ever started:

I was standing in the line at home affairs last week. I happened to strike up the usual conversation one has at these places; “Why is the line so long? Do you need photos?  (It amazes me that no one ever knows the answer to this question!) Are we going to be here so long that the sun will absorb all of our moisture and when our families come looking for us all that will remain is our tortured souls still hoping for our passports?” Having run out of things to complain about, I asked my fellow brave soul what he did for a living. He was a very high powered investment banker who also had a PhD. I learnt that day that education truly is not enough when ignorance is a dominating plague.

I wish I had told this man I was a struggling actor or an astronaut – but then again he would have had an opinion on that too. “An astronaut? Really? I heard the earth is flat and the moon is Gorgonzola. Is that true? Wait, I know it’s true. So don’t respond.” I didn’t though. Sadly I said I was a HIV researcher and his face darkened. A frown dug its way into his forehead and I could hear the 10 ton piano that was about to fall on me strain in its support. “You know,” he said in a suddenly condescending tone, “I don’t buy this whole ‘HIV’ thing. (He actually did the inverted commas with his fingers, which somehow made the whole thing worse.) I heard that it was the Americans.” I realised by the way he sneered the last part of his sentence that nothing I said was ever going to change his opinion. Valiantly I tried to explain that HIV was a zoonosis and had jumped species on at least 3 different occasions. (Read more about why this doesn’t happen that often.) I spent what felt like an entire lifetime trying to convince him about the scientific evidence. And in the end, the best line emerging from this conversation was his, “Well, you can have your opinion and I will have mine.”

The benefit of having a science degree is knowing that the most popular opinion is not always the right one. Having been trained to question everything, I’ve since understood, is not a skill everyone has. In society, the loudest (most obnoxious!) person is the one who gets heard (once again think Donald Trump) while in science you will get laughed off of a conference stage without any data. This is possibly the root of misunderstandings in science. The people listen to the strongest voice and all the while the white coats are in a corner throwing around statistics. Even when scientists are completely right, some rapper may still convince a few people the earth is flat (see this hilarious exchange between B.O.B and Neil Degrasse Tyson – thank goodness for him!).

Another huge contributor to the hall of misunderstanding and strange theories is the media. Now let me be clear; it is not just the journalists who misinterpret. It is the job of a scientist to simplify and explain their work. One of my science heroines Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (co-discover of HIV), who I was privileged to hear speak, said that at the end of your life you do not remember the journal articles you published or how high their impact number was, but the lives you have changed with the work. If you can’t communicate and translate your work, who will it ever truly benefit? I find that if you can explain your project to your Granny so she understands why you are doing it and how it may help the world, you really understand it yourself.

As a postgrad it’s easy to feel lost; to feel that your work is too far removed from any kind of real-world application. It is easy to think that you’re just doing this to get a degree. However, it’s good to communicate your science for lots of reasons: 1) you can prevent misinterpretation, 2) you can make people feel that they can engage with science and not have their heads explode, 3) you can help scientists in queues at Home Affairs retain their sanity when non-scientists begin to ask questions and 4) you can feel relevant. It’s important to remember it really is our duty to not lock ourselves in a lab, but to reach out: to teach not only the uneducated but the ignorant too. It’s up to scientists to add their voice, otherwise we may be drowned out by the loudest opinions. It’s up to us to build public trust in science. If we are only heard when there is crisis then we are never heard in calm (see this article by Tolu Oni).


Scientist news cycle
How science communication works… (

There have been miscommunications that have done very serious damage too. One is most certainly the notion that vaccinating your child will result in autism (read here why this isn’t true). This has resulted in 100s of unnecessary deaths from measles in small children. Another is that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, perpetuated by our very own ex-president Thabo Mbeki. Some “facts” are even started out of fear as a rumour: in a small town called Vulindela, wonderful things are being done by the organisation we work with (CAPRISA), to try to reduce unwanted pregnancies and HIV incidence. One of the proposed ways to do this was to insert IUDs into young girls following extensive education on the matter. The programme had to be stopped because one of the girls told all her peers that maggots would grow internally. Naturally teenage girls were then hesitant about IUDs. A far more famous case of misinformation is what happened to Hendrietta Lacks in 1951. With questionable ethical practice, doctors treating this woman took samples of her cervical cancer and made a cell line (cells that are descended from one cell and have the same genetic features) that was able to be kept in culture indefinitely. This cell line is one of the most widely used in clinical trials today; a form of which we use to test the efficacy of HIV vaccines. This woman had no idea what these doctors and scientists were doing and many years later, her family thought that she was still alive because scientists had “immortalised” her cells (Read more about this incredible story in Rebecca Skoot’s novel).

Miscommunications in science can be deadly and disturbing and we have to find ways of changing this. As a PhD student it is my job to pick the hard questions and find answers but, it is imperative that I find ways to explain the hard questions in a way that anyone can engage with them. Solutions can come from the strangest places, even the line in home affairs.

Viruses: Their tiny dictatorship and why I love them

We may have surpassed the age where scientists said the flu is caused by “mysterious somethings”, but we are still very much in the dark about viruses. Virologists are even torn when it comes to knowing if they are alive. At the very least, viruses are shortcuts on the principle of life itself. While the rest of life is scrambling to evolve complex mechanisms, viruses are the couch potatoes of micro-organisms. Essentially they are just Netflixing their way through series in their sweatpants while the world around them runs the Comrades. Then, instead of putting on the pounds, they end up winning an Olympic gold for marathon running and everyone else is left a bit bewildered. They compete, they attack, they overthrow and they invade. They are the Hitlers, Mussolinis and Idi Amins of the immune system – but unlike their human counterparts, I love them.

I was 14 when my love affair with these tiny parasites started. I was (and am still) small for my age — perhaps that is why I found a kinship with them. They are in the smallest of packages and have managed to jump across species, dominate lifeforms and cause havoc without lugging around any of their own cellular machinery. HIV impressively hijacks the very system that is there to destroy it, Ebola can hide its cell surface proteins to avoid detection, and influenza forces cells to burst to enhance viral release. I appreciate the skill with which they shrewdly take command, often under the radar of our supposedly complex but largely unprepared cells. Another feature that sets viruses apart from their microbial brethren is how quickly they can adapt. Viruses that consist of nothing more than a bit of DNA or RNA wrapped in protein can change dramatically within a couple of hours, whereas bacteria have a far slower mutation rate. It is their simplicity that gives them power that very few complex systems can counteract.


Read more about complexity versus success here.

A virus doesn’t necessarily achieve anything by killing its host – that could lead to its untimely destruction. Ultimately, self-interest just requires simple transmission and replication. Often a virus enters a host benignly with no visible symptoms and while it may kill a few cells, it does so with limited destruction. In a reservoir host, the host that the virus originated in, there is a truce; a sort of dictator parlay. In these situations the virus ‘rents’ the space and the space doesn’t complain (sort of like Donald Trump in the Republican party). When the virus makes a move and spills over into a new host, though, all bets are off (i.e. Donald Trump becoming president of the USA). HIV, Ebola, Marburg, swine flu and yellow fever are just a few examples of successful plagues (or, zoonoses) that have made the evolutionary leap and caused massive damage in doing so. Like a horror movie they are so intriguing, I can’t stop watching them through my fingers.

As I speak with admiration for them, it may seem counter-intuitive that I spend my days growing them, giving them some host cells and then finding cruel and unusual ways to kill them. This is the first lesson about medial science: know your enemy, appreciate them, truly have passion for them. Scientist need to be devil’s advocates, always balancing disdain with adoration. In this way you will find creative answers to hard questions. You can get a PhD that really means something.  In my case, knowing what I’m up against is what will always keep me a few replication cycles ahead. I constantly marvel at what nature has to throw at us and I hope this will make me a good virologist: over-thrower of dictators!