Flat Earthers and Anti-Vaxxers; the failures of scientific communication.

Cora Keegan wonders whether science is partly to blame for the existence of anti-vaxxers.

When you seem to receive emails about yet another measles outbreak every semester, it is difficult as a science student not to pay attention to the fact that a measles vaccine exists. It is glaringly obvious that vaccines are the way forward. Despite this, there is a huge growing movement of anti-vaxxers. It’s been taken as true for hundreds of years that the earth is round, but there are still thousands of adamant flat earthers, who think that big science is out to get them. We are living in the wake of a climate emergency, and there are still people who don’t believe in climate change. Something is going wrong, and it might be science’s fault.

For years, scientists have failed to engage with ordinary people. It’s taken the attitude of talking at people, instead of talking to people. I have spent a lot of time procrastinating on my college work listening to rubbish conspiracy theories. For a minute you can almost believe them. Everyone seems to use arguments that seem so intuitive and simple. They seem so easy to follow and real that it would be hard to not believe that the Earth is flat. Science on the other hand, is difficult to follow and the complex ideas, even the idea of gravity, seem hard to understand properly. Most people just trust it exists. Flat earthers, climate change deniers, and anti-vaxxers feel the need to question everything, and maybe that is a good thing to do. The problem is that science is bad at communicating ideas in an intuitive way. An obvious example is how scientists use a word like ‘theory’ quite differently to how it is used colloquially. There are very few resources available outside of academia that explain how it is used by scientists. 

Science seems so out of reach to most people. Peer reviewed papers are really important to scientists. They are how we figure out what is good science and is true and what might not be. However, most people would never go on google scholar, much less pay for a subscription service to a journal, for some light bedtime reading. Most of the information is only available in formal education settings. The world of STEM seems so disconnected from real life, in a way that’s not true in a lot of other subjects. Philosophy, for example, can be very complicated but a lot of philosophical ideas are around us, and people can have a chat about it without needing to always understand the jargon. Even in situations like the Leaving Cert, where we are explicitly trying to teach people, students are taught ‘wrong’ chemistry to make it simpler, so that big concepts can be understood and knowledge can be built on. As you progress through college this ‘wrong’ information gradually becomes more correct. If we cannot even always explain it to people in college, it is definitely reasonable for people to think science is lying to them.

In college you are encouraged to get involved and write papers. You are told about the importance of getting peer reviewed. However, there is barely any emphasis on engaging with others and the importance of explaining science in simple language that everyone can understand. It is always put on the backburner. Science and many scientists have put themselves on a pedestal for such a long time. They have convinced themselves that the only people they need to inform are each other, forgetting that the reason they spend their days researching vaccines is to save lives. Sure, a lot of scientists when asked about vaccines will explain, but no one is really spreading in layman terms how they work, hoping that statistics on their own will do the talking. They are fighting a war against a very vocal group of people using simple, albeit false logic. If you go on Twitter, anti-vaxxers are screaming and shouting from the top of their lungs about how dangerous vaccines are. All the while scientists have proven to themselves hundreds of times over that vaccines are safe, so have stopped telling the public about it. The evidence is so overwhelming that they see no point in communicating it to the public. The debate is settled in peer review, so the matter need not be spoken about.

This exact problem also exists about the idea of flat earth. Flat earthers are labelled as stupid and dumb conspiracy theorists and laughed at. We’re all probably guilty of this, but the problem is this is not working. More and more people are believing the earth is flat. Some flat earthers genuinely believe we have all been hoodwinked. The information available to them relies on understanding jargon that can take a while to get to grips with. To stop this argument there should be readily available books or websites to explain these things clearly, instead of calling them nuts. 

Parent’s lack of engagement goes right back to the idea of people even being afraid to have chemicals in their precious child's food. The problem is that the word has been demonised, and scientists have allowed it to be. Sure some additives are definitely not ideal in food, but not all chemicals are dangerous. Literally everything is a chemical compound. If they won't let a child eat a chemical, they definitely will not be injecting their child with these chemicals. 

There has been some development in the idea of science being more accessible but it hasn't been interested in what normal people need from science in a long time. Scientists are bored of doing one of the most important parts of science and that's conversing and telling people the importance of science. It's not all about new discoveries. Today sometimes it's about reminding people the importance of old discoveries.