When a congressional candidate was recently cheered on after demanding the execution of Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, it was another reminder that civil discourse and trust in science are continuing to dwindle.
A controversial household name in the sciences, Dr. Fauci was the first scientist to make the cover of Time Magazine in its 100-year history. Well-established scientists can easily recognize Fauci’s important contributions to science and humanity. However, social media influencers who lack a deeper knowledge of science continue to traffic enormous amounts of misinformation about Fauci’s expertise and COVID-19 vaccines.
While incredible scientific milestones can turn lab coat stars into pop-culture sensations, Fauci’s celebrity status is undoubtedly outside the norm when it comes to widespread interest in the sciences. But, at the onset of the pandemic, Fauci failed to protect the American public from a misinformation overload by not learning more about how powerful online propaganda could be — and the experts he should have learned from were social media influencers.
Thanks to social media (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, etc.) and scores of reckless websites, people still believe that COVID-19 is not real, masks are ineffective and the latest vaccines alter DNA and cause sterility — none of which is true. While the information provided by scientists did not suffice, social media influencers without any prior medical degrees have been validated with trust.
Unfortunately, most infectious disease experts don’t have social media influence on their side to counteract the steady flow of misinformation coming from harmful, yet popular, online personalities. The world, at least for now, is rewarding social media influencers and science interlopers with enumerable likes, shares, and forwards.
Countless suspicions about science continue to float around the internet unchecked. Since the beginning of the pandemic, people have dismissed the idea and life-saving abilities of COVID-19 vaccines. Instead, conspiracy theories spread about how scientists could develop a safe vaccine so quickly but still have no cure for cancer.
Furthermore, the credentials of scientists who have worked for over more than two decades in developing an mRNA-based vaccine were called into question.
The power that mainstream media holds to spread inappropriate representations of scientific research is concerning. While well-meaning mainstream media tries to help, too often, the results become sales points rather than public service. For example, when a friend of mine published an article about how the dietary flavanols often found in red wine can help with Alzheimer’s dementia, the findings were primarily used for the benefit of selling wine.
Without public buy-in and funding, anti-science will prevail, and critically important science related to health and disease won’t move forward. People may not have a vaccine to combat the next pandemic.
Instead, there might only be arguments with no public support for research — and the problem runs deeper than COVID-19.
Eighty-nine percent of Americans with medical concerns or symptoms consult with Google before their doctor, and simply trust the top search results as the truth. In this digital age, it is critical that the public learns to verify health information with reputable doctors and scientists. Otherwise, people on the internet will continue playing Russian roulette with their bodies and lives.
The question of the hour should be: What can scientists do to bridge the ever-widening chasm between scientific expertise and public knowledge?
With so much distrust of science now, universal messaging from scientists needs to improve. The public should always be aware of how important science is for society, and the scientific community owns this responsibility to ensure trust in scientists instead of social influencers who sometimes don’t even identify themselves.
In recent years, more scientists have realized that it’s not enough to just do science in the laboratory. Researchers must be able to explain their work in words that make their discoveries relevant and understandable to decision-makers outside of the scientific community. Scientists generally feel like they need to change people’s minds, but instead, they need to find ways to connect to what people already care about. Learning to talk about science using a story or clear analogies can help make scientific research more interesting, relatable and applicable to the public.
Young scientists attaining their PhD training should be better trained to communicate scientific issues and associated groundbreaking research to the public, media, and stakeholders. Senior scientists should train young PhD students on how to communicate science in a non-scientific scenario. Teaching them the importance of telling the story of the science process– inviting people, including media stakeholders, to see that science is more than just a collection of facts — it is a practice of exploration. This can give the public more confidence in science and help make science and scientists more relatable.
Generations so highly influenced by social media and divisive political rhetoric have villainized Fauci. Doctors, scientists and researchers who become heroes of the social media age must take their place to turn the tide against the misinformation threatening scientific progress and health. As for me, I promise to start tweeting regularly.
Kajal Gupta is a research scientist.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com