don’t feed the doubting machine
Researchers participating in the COP26 climate talks this month are well aware of how much doubt can be used as a weapon to delay action – something many COVID-19 scientists have taken too long to appreciate. They point out problematic methods, poor study design, and unwarranted claims, but their efforts would be much more effective if they first considered a broader strategy: how ‘science-ness’ is used to distract attention. reality and hamper effective policy.
Much of my own work focuses on how the industry harnesses scientific credentials to bolster false claims that harm breastfeeding to increase sales of infant formula and ultimately harm health. The strategies and patterns are repeated across industries: they have been documented in tobacco, fossil fuels, pharmaceuticals, food and more. This influence is so powerful that public health researchers see it as a separate area of ââstudy: the âbusiness determinants of healthâ.
Throughout the pandemic, I have been saddened by the way science has been hijacked. The arguments around herd immunity are one example: proponents claimed that acquiring immunity through infection was acceptable to most people and that communities were also on the right track to achieving herd immunity. . The messages minimized the dangers to those at high risk of exposure or serious illness. Technical arguments over infection rates have silently cemented the hypothesis that disabled or immunocompromised people do not deserve collective protective action; nor did workers whose work required dangerous public contact.
While many scientific champions provided the appropriate context, I have seen several respected colleagues engage in debates about when or whether society achieves collective immunity without realizing that the discussion was not. simply a scientific debate. Their too narrow focus unintentionally helped promote controversy and doubt, which ultimately hampered an effective public health response. The same has happened around the use of the mask, vaccination, and school policies. This has helped to change public opinion on “acceptable” public health measures: the less, the better.
The field of agnotology (the study of the deliberate propagation of confusion) shows how ignorance and doubt can be deliberately manufactured. Famous scholars include David Michaels, Marion NestlÃ©, and Naomi Oreskes. In September Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist at Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization based in Arlington, Va., Quoted environmentalist Bill McKibben on Twitter about climate change: âWe have long thought we were engaged. in a dispute over data and reasonâ¦. But now we realize it’s a fight for money and power. Hayhoe clarified, âThe ‘objections’ were always, fully, professionally, and very intelligently formulated in scientific terms. They [industry] focused their lasers on science and like cats we followed their pointer and their lead. Some elements of doubt fabricated in this pandemic may seem more vague, especially when particular interests are not always clear. However, the same lessons apply.
How can researchers avoid being distracted like cats? By gaining a better understanding of how strategies are deployed to fabricate doubt and ignorance.
First, researchers must learn to identify research authors and their relationships with industry and nonprofit groups that have specialized programs. How the tobacco industry has paid scientists and doctors to serve as advisers and consultants to undermine the body of evidence pointing to tobacco harms is widely documented. More recent examples abound. For example, the Washington DC-based nonprofit International Life Sciences Institute funded by leading companies in the food and chemical industries is casting doubt on the science that links ultra-processed foods to health issues, and provides experts to promote personal liability rather than regulations. on junk food in obesity policies.
Second, scientists should consider what types of arguments the data and conclusions are used for. How could these shape public opinion? What political decisions could they affect? A review of the determinants of corporate health shows how media ownership can shape coverage and determine whether health is viewed as a matter of ‘personal responsibility’, which suits corporate interests, or as a community and government responsibility (M. McKee and D. Stuckler A m. J. Public health 108, 1167-1170; 2018). This plays a key role in whether individual decisions are seen as a matter of âfreedomâ or âsolidarityâ, and regulations as a restriction or protection. Scientists can flag these frames when speaking to reporters or on social media.
Third, scientists can consistently highlight correct information and avoid inadvertently serving as amplifiers of wrong information; they can encourage journalists to do the same. Avoid links to news articles or comments that highlight bad studies or use science irresponsibly. To provoke outrage and controversy helps to spread misleading arguments, which serve to fabricate doubt. And, as documented in anti-vaccine movements and climate denial, controversy around an article can generate attention that legitimizes problematic arguments.
Scientists who erase the doubting machine do so by constantly pointing to the larger context, acknowledging genuine scientific debate, being attentive to the political and business connections of researchers, and staying informed about how denial works. If more scientists did the same, these warping strategies would be blocked.
The author declares no competing interests.