EDITORIAL

Persuasive words are not enough

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Science  26 Jun 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6498, pp. 1405
DOI: 10.1126/science.abd4085

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PHOTO: CAMERON DAVIDSON

Communicating the findings of science plays a vital role in shaping our lives and the planet. From my vantage point at the Science family of journals, I witness daily how editors, journalists, and scientists work together to deliver scientific information to the world. Given the recent rapid pace of discovery, relaying remarkable findings has never been busier. So why aren't these efforts having a bigger positive effect on the public acceptance of science?

It's baffling that as the world struggles to tame coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), a large portion of the population ignores the fact that wearing masks and practicing social distancing dampen the spread of the pandemic. Even when a vaccine for COVID-19 becomes available, the benefits of achieving herd immunity will be endangered if growing antivaccine sentiment leads some folks to refuse to get vaccinated. American science denialism, in particular, persists, even at the highest level of leadership, with a president who denies climate change and a vice president—a devout creationist—who believes that Earth is only 6000 years old.

I hear a lot from our readers and stakeholders about how to solve this problem of science denial. Most of them suggest that Science and science “need to do a better job at telling its stories.” I don't buy it. For more than a century, this journal has been delivering insightful and reliable scientific information; today, our articles have the highest readership ever. Sure, we can do a better job of simplifying messages and making them accessible to more people. There is always room for improvement. But is this really the crux of this dangerous problem?

The scientific community is up against a sophisticated, data-driven machine that is devoted to making sure that science doesn't fully succeed, and the history of this is quite clear. A recent Science editorial pointed out that U.S. Republican politicians embraced Earth Day when it started 50 years ago. But in the 1980s, digital analysis of political polling data based on location fostered the formation of the anti-science movement in the United States—politicians and their supporters who did not like the results criticized the findings and the process. It became fashionable and politically expedient to run against science. Any carve-outs for the environment in the conservative government went away in favor of the dismantling of regulations grounded in evidence. Over time, digital technologies have become more sophisticated, and now there is a massive, churning, finely tuned digital misinformation machine that has seized social media to ensure that a portion of the population doesn't accept science. And this battle between science fact and fiction isn't just being waged in the United States—the United Kingdom, Russia, India, and Brazil all face a similar predicament.

The current implications of this battle in the United States are everywhere. The administration has promulgated the idea that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19) was engineered in China's Wuhan Institute of Virology, in part based on a non–peer-reviewed preprint that was later retracted. The misinformation about masks and social distancing is spurring dangerous bar gatherings and choir practices. Unsubstantiated claims in a “plandemic” video are convincing citizens that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime leader of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is hiding a secret business deal from which he stands to profit from COVID-19. The antiscience movement started with the environment, which could hurt our long-term survival, but in the era of COVID-19, it threatens our immediate survival.

The scientific community is losing the battle against this digital leviathan of misinformation. A well-reasoned and highly placed op-ed on this topic is not going to move the needle, no matter how well it is crafted to adhere to the best practices in science communication. Neither is a perfect trade book, television appearance, or speaking tour by a scientific leader. The only way to win this fight is to harness the same sophisticated tools in the name of science that are being used to tear science down. With social media companies afraid to challenge the misinformation machine, even when their own platforms are being misused, the task is daunting. But we can at least move on from the idea that if we could just find those perfect, persuasive words, everyone would suddenly realize that facts are facts with no alternatives.

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