One observation of our deadly pandemic is the readily apparent evidence that science itself has become even more politicized in our increasingly polarized society. It is surely a disappointment. It should certainly not be a surprise. The idea that we can determine a person’s politics by a willingness to don a mask is only the newest example of a trend that has intensified over the decades.
As part of our reputation management and crisis practice, we have worked with some of the world’s largest chemical companies. We have worked with companies that make food ingredients. We have worked with healthcare companies and healthcare professionals, including those who produced or administered vaccines. We have worked with educators trying to teach evolution in public schools while trying to fend off advocates of creationism. Much of our work involves making science more understandable. The more difficult challenge is making science more believable.
The days when trotting out a PhD in a lab coat would win a scientific argument in any public forum are long gone. It staggers organizations to find that scientific arguments are rejected not out of ignorance but because people don’t believe you. It is important to know the sources of such disbelief. Fundamentally, scientists make decisions based on evidence that is empirical. The rest of us, often in media, make our decisions based on evidence that is merely anecdotal. It has not helped that some in the scientific community are dismissive of people of faith or disrespectful of geography, cultures and traditions at odds with current science. It has not helped that companies have misreported or altered data to support a product. As an example, once it is discovered that an automobile company falsified data on the performance of its diesel engines, we are inclined to distrust not only that company but every company compiling such data. Once a company illegally puts an excess amount of any chemical into the air or water every company using that chemical, no matter how responsibly, is subject to withering media and public scrutiny.
The larger problem, though, is that we live in an age now where the problem is not that we cannot understand. It is that we refuse to understand. Increasingly, we distrust government, big business, journalists, scientists or any educated professional we now see as elite. Tempting as it may be to assign blame for this to any political administration or to crackpots in social media, it has been a long time coming. In a May issue of The New Yorker, a study made in the 1960s is referenced, entitled “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.” Since we regularly deal with media, clients understandably make an assumption that responsible journalists will respect a science argument. That was once true. Decades ago, a daily newspaper of any size had a regular section devoted to science, staffed by journalists covering a science beat. Those journalists understood the importance of control groups in research and peer review. They understood that the best science was replicable and was undertaken using good laboratory practices. They understood the difference between a toxic reaction and an allergic reaction. They understood the importance of both dosage and species differences in animal testing. Those days are long gone. While there is occasionally outstanding science reportage online, without dominant brand names in popular online journalism a reader must first discern the motivating agenda in any story.
Instead, if you are an ingredients or processing company, the journalist or social media influencer asking the questions might be a food writer, since there are far more food writers than science writers. You may think that your wealth of quality research will carry the day. Instead, the questions may be driven by an obscure unvalidated study suggesting that your product is “linked to” cancer in laboratory animals. It will not matter that the dosage in that experiment is 20,000 times the equivalent exposure in humans. What will matter is not a matter of science but of science funding. All science funded by industry is suspect. All science seen as non-profit will carry a saintly aura, despite the fact that such science often reaches only the conclusion that more research, and another grant, is needed. It will not occur to such a reporter that he or she is accusing a respected scientist in your employ of willingly and knowingly poisoning your customers. They will be surprised if you take offense.
Today, like it or not, science is not just something to be offered to audiences but something to be sold creatively to audiences. That means powerful messaging, graphics, video and, as important, knowing the biases prevalent in our culture. Any communications plan without a robust social media component that employs every communication asset is not a plan at all. Remember that it isn’t simply science that we reject. It is science that conflicts with our worldview. We want science to agree with us. We want science outliers suggesting that the foods we crave in great abundance will not make us fat. Others will cite a cancer-free person who smoked two packs of unfiltered cigarettes every day for 40 years as proof that smoking may not be harmful.
And those people who see a voluntary quarantine to combat the current pandemic as an infringement on civil rights may well be the same demographic that wanted enforced, mandatory quarantine of HIV-positive citizens decades ago. If you expect that modern news cycles will erase your issue, consider that American communities still debate adding fluoride to drinking water to prevent tooth decay more than 70 years after it was introduced. We argue the safety of MSG, artificial sweeteners, GMOs, herbicides and pesticides decades after the science has ostensibly been settled. Unfortunately, in a global business environment you cannot count on a uniform set of regulations governing what you do. In Europe irradiated milk is sold, while we find it abhorrent. We see the chemical DDT as one of the drivers of the environmental movement, yet it is widely used around the world. There are hundreds of such inconsistencies.
Every county and culture evolves and devolves as it relates to scientific acceptance. In the 1950s the development of the polio vaccine was seen as a gift from God. In 2021 or thereabouts we are likely to see a coronavirus vaccine. Will we welcome it in all circles or suggest that it will, without any evidence, increase autism in children? If you are a state government, municipality or school district, will your argument that all children attending public school must be inoculated prevail, or will a mandated vaccine challenge our ideas of liberty and personal choice? What science will tell us that it is now safe to get on an airplane or cruise ship? There is little to suggest that all of us will embrace the supporting science of these arguments. On the contrary, the evidence, both empirical and anecdotal, suggests that science faces a hostile audience.
Last, in the wake of the pandemic it is worth noting the speed with which misinformation and junk science speeds across communication platforms. It is particularly ironic that we have long described the rapid and widespread dissemination of such information as having gone viral.
Bruce Boyle is a former journalist who covers science the old-fashioned way: scientifically.