I study molecular and cellular biology, and I am the founder of The Science Communication Project. For too long, I stayed silent when I came across misinformation about issues like genetic engineering, vaccines, or even climate change. Eventually, this silence came to betray who I really am as a person. I am a lover of science and critical thinking! I recently broke my silence and got involved in science activism, and it has helped me to finally feel genuine and not afraid to be myself. I have learned some lessons along the way, and I have some ideas on how and why I do what I do, and I’d like to share these here.
Why Do I Do This?
I have written about how we need a new path to science literacy, this is in part because anti-science and pseudoscience can harm the most vulnerable among us. For example, the anti-vaccine movement endangers children and immunocompromised people. The anti-GMO movement hampers our ability to fight hunger and malnutrition. And the denial of climate change will hurt poor people and developing nations more than others, and will only exacerbate issues of hunger, malnutrition, and disease. All of these anti-science movements demonize science and scientists, at a time when we need science most. Unfortunately, the organic food industry, oil companies, and anti-vaccine proponents are organised, have money, and are tech and social network savvy.
This is why I fight misinformation. Doing so elicits being called a paid shill of big pharma, Monsanto, or even the liberal science community. Of course I don’t get paid by any conspiracy group, though it would be nice. In fact, the fallacious title of Shill has moved from an embraced sarcasm to a proud badge of honor for those of us who fight misinformation. We have had a couple victories, with the passage of a bill in California to eliminate non-medical exemptions for vaccines for school children, and thanks to a great article, we saw the rise to fame of the Sci Babe, but we still have a lot of work to do.
What’s The Goal?
The ultimate goal is to change public opinion so that it aligns with the scientific consensus. This is important, because public opinion drives policies and influences industry. It’s impossible to know how much influence I personally will have in achieving this goal, but I do know that we are stronger if we are together. People don’t change their mind overnight, some people may never change their minds, but many do. We have probably all changed our minds about something, so we know it’s possible. Also, there are those who are on the fence, or lack an opinion, and when they seek information on these topics, we must ensure there is good science information out there, and it must rise to the top.
How Do We Do This?
I’m not sure actually, but we have started trying anyway. These are some of the things I think could help.
Create a List of Resources
Find good reputable sources of information and store them somewhere easily accessible. These should include links to articles and reputable sources, and statements from major science organizations. I keep a bunch in the Notes app on my iPhone, and I have recently been putting them online via my blog. Here’s mine on GMOs and Vaccines.
Speak Up When You See Misinformation
This used to be hard for me, but I have developed a couple techniques. If I see misinformation in print, I try to call or write the editor or author, if it’s online or on social media, I just copy and paste my resources into the comments. You never know who you’re going to reach, and you just might help someone from being duped, or even plant the seed that changed their mind. If a person engages in conversation with you, be warned that these conversations can get emotional. Should you choose to engage, act as if you represent the science community. Don’t use name calling, slurs, or sexist language. They might, but you shouldn’t. Remember that your conversation may be read by an onlooker, a solid argument is much more convincing than an ad hominem.
If you are commenting on an article posted by a friend or family member, I have found it best to just say, “Hi, I actually found some different information when researching this topic, check it out, and let me know what you think.”, and then post your resources. Remember that people don’t typically change their mind overnight, so be polite and have patience.
You can also use your resources in conversation. Now that everyone has smart phones, if you’re engaged in (in-person) discussion or debate with a friend or family member, you can just take out your phone and hand it to them. I’ve used this to show someone a statement from every major science organization in the world in support of GMO safety.
Another good thing about posting these links online, is it helps search engine optimization. The anti- science crowd and the deniers are getting good at making their content show up in searches, we need to be better. Linking back to credible information helps in search results. I will admit search engine optimization is an area where science communicators need to work harder, recently if you googled “What happened to the dinosaurs” a pseudoscience site, Answers in Genesis, was linked to in the top results with some young earth creationist BS.
Use Photo Albums
I found a cool way to collect images and memes that support science and fight misinformation, create albums on your social media. I have a Fighting Misinformation album, a Scientific Skepticism album, and others. You can make these albums public and then share links to the images when online. Also your friends will see when you add something interesting.
Vote and Get Involved In The Political Process
Even if we change minds, it won’t matter if those people don’t get involved. I was recently lucky to be living in Sacramento when the California vaccine bill was going through hearings and being voted on by our representatives. Our senator from Sacramento authored the bill. I called and wrote representatives on behalf of myself and The Science Communication Project, and I went to the capital to attend some hearings this year. This was a great experience, and I got to see how easy it is to interact with our legislature. We all need to be involved in civics and politics, after all we own it. Here are some ways you can get involved.
Something we need in science is content in many different medias that speak to diverse groups of people. So start a blog, make YouTube videos, or create a website. We need to at least match the amount of misinformation content that exists on the web, if not surpass it. Many of us are already doing this, but if you’re not, consider this a call to action. You can learn how to create content here.
It’s hard to keep up in this age of information, but an informed public is essential for a democracy and to fight misinformation. You can learn the science basics here. I read the news every morning, including science news from science daily. I don’t necessarily read every story, but I do read the important stories, and some that seem interesting. I also follow many different news sources on Facebook in order to combat bias. And of course I read books, listen to podcasts, and watch educational videos.
Shilling is the fight against misinformation, for science, for hearts and minds, and possibly for a better world. Science is not just a method, or a collection of facts, it informs us in the fight for social justice and moral responsibility. I expect we will learn what works and what doesn’t work in this fight, but this is a start. Happy Shilling!