On 30 July 2020 Forbes published an article titled: “You must not ‘do your own research’ when it comes to science”. In the article, Dr Ethan Siegel discussed how lay people may overlook, misinterpret or omit vital information when researching science subjects unaided. This is just one among dozens of articles from science communicators around the world trying to ‘debunk’ conspiracy theories which have been proliferating ever since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. But what are the causes of conspiracy theories? And why are they widespread in times of crisis?
Many governments promote public participation in scientific matters through various science literacy programmes. The aim is to have a situation in which all citizens can be involved in science discourses, can question claims made by others on scientific matters and can make evidence-based conclusions when making decisions about key issues, such as health and the environment.
It can be expected that there will be differing opinions on any scientific subject put up for discussion. Consequently, policy-makers face a huge challenge when making decisions. They need to take care that they do not arouse the suspicion that there are underlying motives for their decisions, a factor that is behind many conspiracy theories.
While the sources of conspiracy theories are inexhaustible, here we focus on some key factors that make them complicated to deal with.
A collision between science and society
An interesting exchange between a layman and an eminent scientist in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed provides an excellent portrayal of the general relationship between science and society. Professor Challenger is conducting ground-breaking research that sets the whole country talking. The layman happens to ask “what the object of so extraordinary an experiment can be”, to which the notorious professor angrily responds: “Away Sir, away! … Science seeks knowledge. Let knowledge lead us where it will, we still must seek it.”
A collision with society is imminent when science fails to recognise societal values and sticks to the long-held assumption that any antipathy towards science by the public is caused by illiteracy.
Ideally, science should be interrogated within socio-economic and political contexts. However, studies have shown that, in many cases, public opinion is considered only when the products of science are ready for the market. At that stage, public input on critical issues such as regulation, benefits and risks is simply irrelevant.
Such exclusion may motivate people to resort to the formation of pressure groups who closely monitor any scientific activities happening in their communities. These groups now formulate narratives which try to explain the underlying motives behind the science they are excluded from.
For decades, the reliability of scientific research has been preserved by the rigorous scrutiny that research findings would be exposed to before being published. However, the emergence of predatory journals has presented a real problem.
Predatory journals are notorious for mass-publishing research articles without sufficient peer-review and editorial work. In some instances, it has been reported that these journals are run by quack editors. Predatory publishers usually use the open-access model. The danger is that substandard scientific work becomes accessible to the public, often, regrettably, substantiating conspiracy theory claims.
Conflicts of interest
Conflicts of interest can be examined in a broader context to include research funding, conference sponsorships, consultancy, board membership, stock ownership and patent licensing. They are cross-sectional; between researchers and industry, policy-makers and industry or community-based stakeholders and industry.
Studies have shown that the injection of private funding into public research can compromise researchers to rubber-stamp findings to favour their corporate sponsors.
It has been revealed that companies can influence policy-making agencies: for example, investigations have shown that experts who advise the Food and Drug Administration have financial relations with pharmaceutical companies.
Similarly, reports have shown that community-based stakeholders, such as patient advocacy organisations, receive funding from corporations.
These issues severely undermine public trust in science and even strengthen conspiracy theory arguments. The www.nofluoride.com advocacy website, for instance, uses articles which reveal ties between industry and FDA advisers to drive their campaign against water fluoridation.
Plugging conspiracy theories in times of crisis
Transparency is the key to earning public trust during crises. Here, we review examples from recent pandemics to determine if stakeholders entrusted to handle the crises passed the transparency test.
The World Health Organization (WHO), national health authorities and the media came under heavy criticism for exaggerating the risks of the 2009 influenza A/H1N1 pandemic, and in the process, undermining public trust.
The European Council report of 2010 highlighted several issues which questioned the transparency of the WHO in dealing with the influenza pandemic. Some of the issues included: changing the definition of pandemic levels just before declaring A/H1N1 a pandemic; ignoring evidence that highlighted mild severity of the virus from the onset; and the rationality of developing new vaccines for A/H1N1 when approved flu vaccines were available.
Case studies on media coverage of the 2009 influenza A/H1N1 (‘swine flu’) pandemic found that the media grossly exaggerated the severity of the pandemic which, in many cases, turned out to be even milder than the common flu.
In Brazil, a significant amount of news in the Jornal Nacional contained alarming news about the spread of the virus. There was also misrepresentation of information; for example, preliminary data which suggested the virus to be more fatal than common flu was presented sas factual.
A similar trend of overhyped media coverage was observed in the Dutch media.
The repression of multiple voices by national health authorities may also excite public suspicion. For example, Professor Glenda Gray, a member of the Ministerial Advisory Committee tasked with advising the South African government response to the coronavirus pandemic, faced a massive backlash from the Department of Health after being quoted on News24 blasting the government lockdown regulations as “nonsensical and unscientific”.
This strongly suggested that the expert advice from the committee was being ignored, thus raising questions as to which ‘experts’ the government was following for their decisions.
From the aforementioned cases we notice that a lack of transparency from stakeholders entrusted to deal with health crises make it difficult to earn public trust.
We also notice that science doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but that the circumstances in which it exists may affect its appeal to the public.
As long as we ignore the socio-economic and political contexts within which science is conducted, it may prove futile to try to debunk conspiracy theories with scientific facts only.