What would happen if you were starving, were offered food, but refused to eat it because you thought it was cursed by a witch? Sound medieval? Sure it does. But it has a modern incarnation and we are living it.
In a democratic society, citizens use reliable knowledge to make informed choices. Idealistic, perhaps, but worth aiming for. We naturally want our organizations, governments, scientists and leaders to be open, transparent and honest when it comes to sharing information with the public. So far, so good (at least in our idealistic world). However, a major hitch comes when the public doesn’t use this information – or misuses it.
A sad example of this was brought out – not for the first time — in an article by Tom Spears (Postmedia News) this week. “The 21st century is a time,” he writes, “when many educated people in developed countries are fighting their way back to pre-scientific views. After spending untold billions on scientific research, we reject everything our best experts tell us on two key fronts: public vaccination programs, and the promise of genetically modified foods.”
Spears cites the infamous study by British doctor Andrew Wakefield “demonstrating” that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism. Despite being shown to be a fraud, the study was widely published and is still believed by otherwise educated people. As a result, measles has come back from the brink of extinction to put children’s lives at risk. When I worked at The Montreal Children’s Hospital, doctors I met were wringing their hands over the refusal of parents to protect their children against this dangerous disease.
Another example Spears cites is rejection of genetically modified rice that can prevent blindness and many kinds of diseases. A similar situation I remember vividly is the Alar apple scare in the 1970s. I’m sure you can think of more.
There are plenty of reasons misinformation circulates: people are quick to latch on to rumours that cause fear and suspicion (think of all those urban myths still going round on the Internet); a wide range of organizations – special interest groups, profit-making enterprises and politicians – use this human tendency to promote their own causes; and media make money from giving it air time. When the story is disproved, the fear becomes the story. And everybody loves a good conspiracy theory.
The professional communicator in me is always asking, how can wilful ignorance be combated? One way is to discredit the sources of mis- or disinformation. It is no coincidence that in the cases of both the MMR vaccine and the Alar scare, people were paid by special interests to put about the original false information. More media stories on these sources of misinformation would help. They might even be attractive. (Conspiracy, anyone?)
Another strategy is not to let the misinformation go too long without being debunked – loudly. Rumour fires need to be put out before they take hold in the public imagination.
Scientific research itself needs to be put together in more attractive, palatable packages. Science needs more spokespersons – scientists trained in communication and communicators trained in (or at least conversant with) science. Finally, we all need to realize that being in the 21st century is no guarantee of reliable information and good judgement.
Who would be responsible for making this happen? In our democratic if idealistic society, everyone has a role to play. Governments have a responsibility to encourage transparent disclosure of scientific information. (Harper, are you listening?) Even more important, they need to resist the temptation to play to the crowd by letting misinformed public opinion guide policy. (Marois, are you listening?) Educators, parents, media – we all have our responsibility. Most important, it is up to us individuals – citizens in a world where knowledge is so readily available and public opinion has influence – to question, seek more information, and resist our primeval impulse to scream, “Witch!”