My Facebook feed is truly inspirational especially when I’m stuck for a topic for this blog. Nevertheless, the realm of pseudo-science and misinformation that is spread on Facebook is a gold mine for me. In the past I have covered topics on detox, improving your mind and superfoods, areas where many claims do not match up to the evidence. Understanding how best to tackle these claims comes with the understanding and knowledge as to why so many react emotionally and aggressively when confronted with critique. This blog piece looks at my journey on this topic and how it has shaped my public engagement and science communication.
Aside from using this blog to bust unscientific claims, I take the opportunity to speak out on social media to correct claims and question the poster on something that may not even be a scientific topic. Being objective and unbiased is highly valued when interpreting facts and evidence, and this mind-set can be nurtured and cultured to become a general approach to life. As good as this may sound to some, it can actually be quite damaging which I found out myself. A life built solely on science and logic is flawed and there is much to be debated on the topics of emotion, religion, art and perspective. But it seems that very often objectivity gets coloured by these topics, and when they do in the science world, false claims and misinterpretations arise. My first lesson was to understand this and it dawned on me that the key issue here was to separate out emotional investment and the objective facts from an issue. So if you are engaging with the public, ask them to do exactly this, and if you are a member of the public- can you differentiate between the facts and your emotions?
Asking others to do this however is a lot more difficult than it sounds, but I think it can be a valuable method if engaging with the public. People react emotionally if you are critiquing an article or a claim, to the point where it can result in a string of aggressive insults, or if you are lucky enough you might only get a passive aggressive post. From such cases I developed My Golden Rules for Science Engagement: how to deal respectfully with the public when such issues arise, which I could probably summarise as: think Pollyanna, be Pollyanna.
Getting involved in such discussions however is emotionally draining and tiring. I was asked recently why I respond to such posts, and I replied “because I feel as though it is my moral obligation to correct”. I was surprised to find out in this Guardian article that Christain Behrenbruch (RMIT, Australia) sacrifices three hours a day to dispelling pseudoscience! It takes some emotional resilience to deal with insults and accusations on a weekly basis but three hours a day?! That is dedication! Unfortunately, however civil or respectful scientists respond to the public, there will always be someone who takes the response personally and will defensively fire back. So my question to the scientists is this: What is your emotional resilience to backlash? How do you feel about the quote from the aforementioned article: “Cutting through bullshit and getting to the truth of the matter is pretty much the job description”?
To get to the heart of why people flare up, especially around controversial subjects that encircle health and environment, it is firstly this emotional investment. A critique of an article or a meme is likely to be misinterpreted as an attack on the person instead. A certain level of defensiveness is to be expected. I always prepare myself for the backlash and quite often I nearly always have a respectful counter argument ready. Can this backlash be prevented? Well this lies with the public on an individual case basis, so if you are a member of the public, remember that scientists are not out to attack or insult you, they are simply bringing objectivity to the table and asking you to do the same in a civil manner. It is hard on social media to get your point across so being patient with them and engaging in polite debate with a scientist will be fulfilling for both of you.
Secondly, as the above mentioned Guardian article brings up, people don’t like to be told what to do. Michael Gove (and his comments on experts) is brought up to illustrate this point. Thirdly, is that people generally are not anti-science. This is highlighted by the fact that the very same people who argue for vaccinations and against Creationism are also the ones that are against GMO’s. These people will gladly accept what the evidence says in some cases, but will ignore the evidence in others (which does highlight someone’s emotional investment) but this ultimately shows that they are not against science or evidence per se. This leads nicely onto why people accept evidence in some cases or not in others: bias. There are several types of bias that people fall for which are listed here, and this is what we have to be aware of. This takes us full circle back to separating out emotions from facts. By ultimately being aware of these biases, we can try to see results through the lens of objectivity. This is hard for everyone- scientists and public alike, but the more people that are aware of this, the more we can prevent it.
It is possible however that some feel strongly against something despite what the evidence says, which seems to be the case for GMO’s. Usually the way most scientists respond to this is by banging on about facts repeatedly, which has been found to be the wrong thing to do as this pushes the public away. The important thing about separating out emotional investment from the facts is that scientists need to listen to this emotional side from the public. It is not enough to simply correct claims, scientists need to truly engage in discussion and forge good relationships. So is this really a battleground where we are fighting science and each other? I don’t think so, and this has been my most recent lesson: Instead it is a journey to understanding and debate from both sides; scientists and the public alike.