As with every other week, the last 10 days has brought a slew of tabloid stories, linking various things with causing or curing cancer:
As always, these stories are largely nonsense, suitable only for the bin. Unfortunately, they are reported credulously and are widely read, and this saturation of health-related articles has several negative consequences.
The constant bombardment of people with often-contradictory health information can drown out real health advice, making people think that eating some nuts can offset the effects of a terrible lifestyle for example. There is an enormous industry based on the peddling of cancer-preventing foods and supplements, often with a thin veneer of scientific respectability, and thanks to tabloid reporting, a much wider reach than should be allowed. It’s infuriating.
However, the most insidious problem with poor media portrayal of science is the gradual erosion of trust in science. This may not seem like a significant issue, but it may be the most important. The rejection of vaccines, denial of climate change and resistance to genetic modification of foods, for example, are all rooted in science denial.
This is an issue with many causes. Both political and religious beliefs play a major role in our view of the evidence, as does self-interest, meaning that arguments are often politicised or financially motivated. When Andrew Wakefield, for example, “found” a link between vaccines and autism, he personally profited from people not using the MMR.
The driving force behind denialist movements are often organisations that stand to gain from the confusion (climate change denial has largely been funded by groups that will suffer most from restrictions on fossil fuels). There has been a deliberate drive to manufacture controversy in many areas, most famously by the tobacco industry, whose tactic was not to win the debate, but to “foster and perpetuate the illusion of controversy in order to muddy the waters around scientific findings that threaten the industry”. A leaked memo to George W Bush on climate change tactics from 2002 suggested that although the scientific debate was closing, it was important “to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate”. Media organisations are often complicit in this, and there are many examples of the deliberate undermining of the scientific process, most notably by Fox News in the US.
That being said however, the large majority of people who subscribe to denialist views are people who have no such motivation. These people appear to have a basic mistrust of science, and are swayed by the anti-science rhetoric. It is easy to understand why parents hesitated to vaccinate after the initial reports of a link to autism, but despite this link being definitively shown to be false, vaccination rates in large parts of the world are still suffering. Be it the left-wing embracing of alternative medicine, the right-wing support of climate change denial or religious creationism, the anti-science movement is a pervasive one, largely based on the mistrust of science.
There are several roots of this mistrust. An obvious one is that science can undermine deeply held beliefs. When this happens, people are likely to reject the evidence, rather than give up their belief. In fact, when challenged on such a belief, people are more likely to strengthen their belief rather than the other way around (known as the “backfire effect”). This needn’t be a religious belief, and is something that has been observed in many areas of life, such as the belief in superstition or alternative medicine. If science continuously challenges these beliefs, then people stop believing in the science.
It is also the case that a misunderstanding of what science actually is also contributes to this issue. Many people see science as an “institution”, something that is telling us what to do. The reality is that it is a process. This misunderstanding of science makes it much easier for people to rationalise the rejection of valid conclusions, regardless of the strength of the evidence. The power of anecdotal evidence is a classic example of this: “my father smoked 20 a day, and he lived ‘til he was 90”. This view of science as an “institution” also feeds into an anti-establishment mentality that can also result in science denial. This is the same mentality that is behind the belief in grand conspiracies.
And this brings me back to the tabloids. If you are told every day that random things are making you sick, or are essential to health, it is likely that you will become desensitised to them. It is easy for people to reject science-based advice, because tabloid reporting makes science appear far more confused than it actually is. The reporting of preliminary findings, or of badly carried out science, leads to a confused picture of our current understanding. Scientists are constantly studying and learning, working towards the truth. Bad science and incorrect results are inevitable in science, but it is a self-correcting process that gradually works to show what is real and what is not.
Our entire civilisation is based on scientific innovation and progress. While that progress cannot be halted, it can be slowed by the mistrust of the public in the scientific process. That can only be a bad thing.