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Science and the social media


Considered as the foremost English poet and satirist of the 18th century, Alexander Pope could not have hit the nail more precisely when uttering, way back in 1709, that “a little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again”.

It might sound all grandiose gibberish but, translated into simple terms, this excerpt from ‘An Essay on Criticism’ advises us not to rely on simply scratching the surface when seeking knowledge but to delve deeper, given that just a morsel of information is not enough to make you an expert on the same subject. The ‘shallow draughts’ (the morsel of information we have been fed by, for example, a video on YouTube) ‘intoxicate the brain’ or,  rather, they mislead us into thinking that we know more than we actually do.

There are so many contemporary settings one could apply this maxim nowadays. Take the current anti-vaxx crusade being embarked upon on social media, for instance. I deliberately selected the term ‘crusade’ given the sheer extent of the online misinformation campaigns being peddled out there.

The mainstream media reports that Facebook recently acted to stymie a number of accounts traceable to a Russian firm attempting to recruit anti-vaxx influencers whose main objective would be that to spread online propaganda against the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines.

No sooner had Facebook announced such a move that online portals were flooded with rebukes from those claiming that the ‘establishment’, ‘Big Pharma’, ‘Tech Giants’ and a set of other bogeymen were suppressing free speech by twisting Facebook’s arm into such a move. Such paranoia is deeply ingrained nowadays, leading many to be sceptic about anything remotely connected to scientific research.

The pope himself was taken to the cleaners recently for embracing the global vaccination drive when describing one’s decision to get vaccinated as “an act of love”. So was Josef Lauri, a professor of maths at the University of Malta, for daring to publicise his statistical research hinting at a higher probability of contracting COVID-19 for unvaccinated individuals.

Science education should be mandatory

“The professor should stick to the study of maths and not dabble in health matters” and “The professor should go back to maths school” did the rounds on social media, belying a very poor degree of understanding of the study of probability and the discipline of statistics in general, as well as a general disrespect towards academics who should be considered the real experts in their fields, rather than self-appointed online prophets of doom.

The sobering part of it all is the widespread definition of what constitutes reliable and rigorous ‘research’.

“Do your research guys so as not to be misled” is a regular call to arms one encounters on social media by those doubting the usefulness of vaccines or even the existence of the COVID-19 pandemic. It transpires that the ‘research’ being referred to here is not the traditional type conducted in a laboratory or in the field, where experiments are conducted so as to test a particular hypothesis but, rather, a perfunctory, desktop search for off-the-shelf links, videos, interviews, vlogs and whatnot.

The misinformation gurus availing themselves of online mouthpieces, such as YouTube videos, Facebook links and vlogs, provide a rarified list of what they deem as ‘alternatives’ to vaccines, namely a good dose of ‘common sense’, a healthy lifestyle and stocking on your Vitamin D levels, even taking the occasional paracetamol for good measure and these, rather than the advice given by the vast majority of medical professionals, are taken as Gospel truths.

Anti-vaxxers prey on daily statistics of mortalities of vaccinated individuals to drum their point home, belying a poor understanding of the study of statistics, which relies on the analysis of large datasets, and ignoring the fact that trends can only be extracted from such large datasets. The maxim ‘a swallow does not make a spring’ comes to mind in this context.

And the distrust of science is not limited to the vaccination debate.

The ‘climate hoax’ mantra is increasingly being bandied about, incredibly even as the Mediterranean burns to a cinder during the hottest summer on record, with such unprecedented wildfires being attributed, by the climate change deniers, to arson and to ‘natural cycles’. As for the vaccination drive, the climate change ‘narrative’, as it is dubbed by the deniers, is simply a ploy by the left to curtail our freedoms through the imposition of more taxes on the use of fossil fuels.

As heart-wrenching images of the Taliban’s romp to power in Afghanistan emerge, the renewed threat of global terror rears its head again. However, the insidious threat from online misinformation campaigns, which is leading the vulnerable (those who are unfamiliar with the rigours of scientific methods) to doubt anything scientific, should be placed on an equal footing in terms of its hazard potential as this is severely restraining our ability to make use of scientific discoveries.

What if a new, highly effective medicinal to treat a specific type of cancer was launched by Pfizer, or by any of the other companies involved in vaccine development, and approved for human use in the near future? Or, more concretely, what if we all need to take the third vaccine jab (the ‘booster’) as from this autumn as the immunity afforded by the vaccine wears off? What would its uptake by the public be, given the current paranoia with anything which screams ‘science’ or ‘vaccine’?

There has never been a greater need for researchers to engage with the public to allay their fears instilled by the online scaremongering campaign by translating the outcomes of their research in a language understandable to all, especially to those who have never been exposed to science and its tenets at school, given that peer-reviewed scientific publications are read and followed by a select few.

Science education should be mandatory so as to allay unfounded fears in the protocols followed by researchers. The alternative is unpalatable – anarchy, where policymaking is not driven by scientific evidence but by the whims of online influencers.

alan.deidun@gmail.com

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