Words

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by Shannon – We are living in strange times.  I realize that under a horrific global crisis this is an understatement, but times are also extremely strange for scientists. Just yesterday I found this discussion from a relative on my Facebook feed:

discussion 1discussion 2

Now, I’m not going to discuss the efficacy of hydroxycloroquine for treating COVID-19.  As I joke to my family: “I’m not that kind of doctor”.  But, I do want to discuss this exchange. What struck me about this discussion is that my relative, though well educated, does not have a degree nor training in biomedical science, medicine, or pharmacology. Neither, as far as I know, do any of the commenters, but yet they make such claims as:

“The majority of clinical trails showed that it did little to no good for the coronavirus”

“This drug may work for some people”

“Perfectly safe drug”

I begin to wonder at this exchange on drug efficacy by people that have no training in the subject. My concern is not that they had the exchange, per se. I have heard enough “free speech” and “entitled to my opinion” arguments to know that each of these individuals is entirely in their right to say what they want.  My question is, rather, why they feel qualified to make statements that until a few years ago would have only been found in a discussion between qualified professionals.

The answer, I believe, has to do with words and their consequences. When I was a chemistry student, I gained knowledge through books and articles provided strategically by my teachers. Until the internet age, these documents were confined to libraries or universities.  It is entirely possible that an individual could have acquired the same knowledge I obtained after a four year study of chemistry by reading the same documents on their own.  But that person would have also needed to know which documents to read, and how to find them.  As such, unless you went to university, it was unlikely that you even had access to the terms that chemists use to describe the universe, much less their meanings.

Then came the internet.  Now, a quick Google search gives you all the scientific texts you want. You can read words like “placebo” and “methylation” and “phase II clinical trial” within a few mouse clicks.  And you can repeat those words to abandon:

“The Phase II clinical trial showed the methylated compound had no greater impact on symptoms than a placebo”

See?  I just made this sentence up.  I have no idea what I’m talking about because, like the people on my relative’s facebook page, I don’t have a degree in pharmacology.  But it sounds good, right? The difference in today’s age is not access to the words that experts use, but rather understanding their use and meaning.  This still takes training and experience.  Science has its own language.  Until the past 20 years or so, that language was restricted to those who had studied the subject.  Today, anyone can sound like an expert just by stringing the right words together.

In my relative’s case, I wonder if her Facebook friends would make such comments if they were standing at the bedside of a seriously ill patient and their response would dictate the treatment.  Perhaps, but I imagine it is unlikely.  On Facebook, however, these individuals face no immediate consequences. They can discuss the efficacy of hydroxychloroqine or the neurological impacts of space flight to Mars with equal impunity.

In many cases, such conversations are truly innocuous.  But the current pandemic has shown that these types of discussions can have life-threatening consequences.  The defiance of lockdown orders is often coupled with statements on epidemiological disease spread.  The refusal to wear masks is often coupled with material science discussions on droplet transfer through fabrics.   In these instances, using words without understanding meaning or context can put people’s lives in danger.

So what can we do going forward? While governments might rush to police people’s words as a quick fix, this muzzle on free speech would be dangerous and unwarranted. Rather, I see two possibilities, and scientists have a big role to play in both.

The first is to explain our words.  We scientists use specific words because we require precision, and the use of those words is necessary to accurately describe a phenomenon.  So why not use those words, but explain what we mean? Too often science communication is translated to “dumbing down” science for the public. This can lead to people finding words on the internet and using them with no context.  So, why don’t we give scientific context?  Why don’t we explain the terms rather than avoid using them. Sure, it takes a bit longer. But one of the biggest benefits knowledge brings is helping people to better understand the limits of their own knowledge. The more you learn, the more you understand how little you really do know about the world.

Second, is to teach responsible knowledge gathering. This is happening throughout the world in schools and colleges. Understanding where to find accurate, peer-reviewed information can at the very least prevent people from parroting unfounded claims. They may not understand what they are saying, but at least what they are saying comes from a qualified source.

In some ways, we can partially lay the socio-political upheaval of this pandemic  at the feet of scientists. It’s not that we didn’t predict such outbreaks.  It’s that we didn’t do enough to help non-scientists understand what we meant by our claims. I sincerely hope that this crisis creates a revolution in science where we no longer quibble over impact factors and H-indices that mean nothing outside of our little navel-gazing profession. We must realize the real impact lies in my relative’s Facebook page.  Because what good is learning about the observable universe if no one listens to what you’ve learned? It’s like burning down a library where no one has ever read a single book.

 

 

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