Should scientists be responsible for correcting Covid-19 disinformation?

Scientific research and public information require very different skill sets. Can we expect scientists to do both?

Marie Steytler
3rd December 2021
Alex Jones (left), a prominent conspiracy theorist, and Dr Anthony Fauci (right), who had the hard task of combatting covid conspiracies during the peak of the pandemic. Image credits (left to right): Flickr, Wikimedia Commons
The major journal Science recently featured an editorial titled ‘Self-inflicted wounds’, in which the failings of scientists to quell conspiracy theories were discussed. But are they really equipped to deal with the task of representing their own work to the general public?

Just looking at the different divisions within the noun ‘scientist’ (the word is reductive), a social psychologist will probably have a much more applicable skill set to dispel conspiracy theories than an astrophysicist. But for the vast majority of those that fall under the 'scientist' umbrella, where does the time to develop and use these perfect communication skills come from, and what is sacrificed at its expense? Chronically overworked and underfunded, it seems unfair to ask scientists to be responsible for presenting their research to the general population.

The pandemic has proven that it is impossible to compete with the speed that misinformation spreads over social media - the feeble attempts from Twitter, Meta and Reddit to fact-check their own userbase was depressing to witness, yet Government-controlled media as an alternative seems dystopian at best.

[T]here will always be a loss of critical information that comes with making research more digestible to the general public

One of the core reasons conspiracy theories are so insidious is because of the belief that accessing data makes you qualified to interpret it. Unfortunately, there will always be a loss of critical information that comes with making research more digestible to the general public. But this is a questionable sacrifice to make when there is no guarantee that someone on Facebook won't overestimate their own competence, screenshot a graph, caption it with anything they want to and post it online. It cannot be a scientist's responsibility to painstakingly refute every incorrect conclusion.

Even with improved transparency and accessibility, there are no signposted routes to complete public acceptance. Many conspiracy theories have religious origins which are difficult to disprove with hard facts, something science is exclusively based on. Science and religion often have a tumultuous relationship, and therefore there will always be religious pushback that will not be swayed by scientific evidence. Whatever is implemented to crack down on future disinformation campaigns needs to not only be evidence based but also culturally sensitive.

In the early days of the pandemic, ‘fake news’ was blamed for these anti-science campaigns. However, the origin is more nuanced and perhaps best divided by the 'misinformation' and 'disinformation'. Whilst ‘misinformation’ is the unintentional spread of false information, ‘disinformation’ is a deliberate attempt at harming others, and is a more accurate descriptor of the origin of these theories. This is something a scientist’s presentation of their own research cannot solve, and is best left to a separate taskforce, government implemented or otherwise.

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