Defending Science In A ‘Post-Truth’ Era

17:29 minutes

Sue Desmond-Hellmann
Credit: ©Gates Archive/Mike Kane

Search for “measles vaccine” on Google, and millions of results come up. Which ones should anxious parents believe, and which should they ignore? Sue Desmond-Hellmann, a physician, scientist, and CEO of the Gates Foundation, points to this example as one reason why science is under threat. In a sea of social media posts, blogs, and articles from less-than-reputable sources, people have a tough time knowing which experts to trust. In this conversation with Ira, Desmond-Hellmann talks about what both scientists and journalists can do better to bridge the truth gap.

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Segment Guests

Sue Desmond-Hellmann

Sue Desmond-Hellmann is the CEO of the Gates Foundation. She’s also a physician and a scientist. She’s based in Seattle, Washington.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. If you search for measles vaccine on Google and you’re going to get– right? Millions of results. They’re going to pop up. If I’m an anxious parent, which sites can I trust to give me accurate scientific information? And which would I be better off ignoring?

That problem of sifting science fact from science fiction is one reason science is under threat today. But my next guest says scientists can help by talking about the consequences, moral or otherwise, of their work by avoiding the temptation to hype results and by clearly communicating limitations of their work.

And journalists can help, too, by guiding their audience towards good science journalism and away from the bad. Dr. Sue Desmond-Hellmann has been thinking, writing, and speaking about this. She is a physician, scientist, and CEO of the Gates Foundation. Doctor, welcome to Science Friday.

SUE DESMOND-HELLMANN: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You have written that scientists must participate in the public dialogue around facts and the truth. Are you saying this because there are not enough scientists participating in this?

SUE DESMOND-HELLMANN: What I’m saying is that science is under threat. You led with a discussion of measles vaccine, and I was struck. I started writing and talking about this when the Oxford English Dictionary coined the 2016 Word of the Year as post-truth.

Post-truth being the Word of the Year meant that the public is now relying on emotion and personal belief more than scientific facts. And so what my call to action to scientists is if we aren’t part of that dialogue– if we aren’t part of shaping public perception and personal belief, then our science, frankly, won’t matter.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think you can convince someone who doesn’t– who believes that autism is linked to vaccination? Because we did this on a show about 10 years ago. We spent a long time with this. And we had– a woman called in, and she said, I just don’t believe anything my government tells me. And the government does a lot of research in this, because that’s where the funding comes from. How do you get past that kind of bias?

SUE DESMOND-HELLMANN: Well, a couple of things that I’ve learned in investigating this. First of all, that scientists can’t be ivory tower. If you don’t trust your government, you might not trust your local university. What we’re really hearing from people is, I no longer trust authority. I’m going to believe my friends.

I’m going to believe things based on who I am, where I live, and what I’m a member of. And so I’ve asked scientists, myself included, when’s the last time you were at a community meeting? Are you a member of the PTA? Are you involved in your community, your church, your local museum, your local park?

I think there’s a part of what we’re seeing that is driven by scientists, government, and, quote, “elites,” being seen as other. And so it starts with us understanding people’s lives and being of the community, not directing our missives to the community. It’s a big shift.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, but I think the good news is what I’ve discovered– what we’ve done from the show and have discovered is that people love science. They love to talk about science. And science is very popular and in the entertainment industry of– The Big Bang Theory is almost the most popular show on television– entertainment show.

You have movies with Alan Turing and vying with Stephen Hawking for the best movie of the year. You have Lisa Simpson talking about Elon Musk. I could go on and on and on. It looks like the entertainment industry knows where to put their money in science in the entertainment business.

SUE DESMOND-HELLMANN: Absolutely. Science is fun. And one of the things that I think is underestimated is how much we need, not– first of all, not to overreact to this. People use science every day. I’ve asked colleagues, when’s the last time you heard someone say they didn’t believe in gravity?

We all believe in that. People believe in science all day long, unless it challenges something about their own identity– unless it challenges who they are. So first, I think we need not to overreact, but we also need to be humble enough and self-aware enough to understand when we overhype results– when we publish before things are ready.

And when new facts contradict what we used to believe, we need with great humility to engage people in moving with the facts. There’s actually another field in behavioral science called inoculation theory. As somebody who loves vaccines, I love inoculation theory.

Now, that is helping people understand when they have beliefs now, like they know smoking is bad for them. How can you inoculate people to continuing with that belief, even with faced with opposing information that might bring in doubt?

Inoculation theory actually has been around for decades and is now being utilized to guard against the change of beliefs or cultural norms like vaccination that are actually good for society. And so I think one of the calls to action is to increase our investment and understanding in behavioral science. Why do people believe what they believe?

IRA FLATOW: Well, maybe we might also inoculate people earlier in school.


IRA FLATOW: We teach science. I remember. We teach what? Six courses in science in high school. You have math every year, then you got chemistry and physics and whatever– biology. But we don’t have one course that tells people why they need to study this stuff, how to appreciate it, and why it’s good for society, why it should be supported, and who the good scientists are, how to know fact from fiction. We teach art appreciation. We teach music appreciation. We don’t teach anything about science appreciation.

SUE DESMOND-HELLMANN: Well, I think both science appreciation– and the other thing that I think is absolutely essential to develop good citizens and good consumers of scientific information is a fundamental, basic knowledge of statistics. And even saying statistics sounds potentially boring to people.

But as you know, Ira, science, really, is all about reducing uncertainty. And the goal for science is to be less wrong over time. So thinking about a confidence interval, or a p-value, or approximating truth feels extremely dweeby and weird and for students, potentially boring.

On the other hand, if it’s about, what should you believe? And what is truth? And how interesting it is when we understand how things work. Then it gets to be something that’s more worthy of a movie. You mentioned some movies. I would mention Hidden Figures.

IRA FLATOW: Hidden Figures. Sure.

SUE DESMOND-HELLMANN: I think Hidden Figures– a great movie for understanding innovation at its finest. Who doesn’t care about space? But also thinking about African-American women as being the drivers of really understanding the math behind– how accurate you need to be to do something like space journeys.

IRA FLATOW: So people are getting educated by the entertainment industry, instead of their school system.

SUE DESMOND-HELLMANN: Well, last week, as you mentioned, I gave a talk to a big group of science journalists in San Francisco. And my call to action to them, very similar to my call to action to scientists is, how does the public know what to trust?

If I read some coverage of science– and just yesterday there was new news about whether or not it’s good to have a stent when you have chest pain and are at risk of a heart attack. How should I consume science journalism?

And it’s in science journalists’ best interest to have consumers of their media understand the difference between something interesting and possible, and something that’s actually a fact and established by a consensus view of rigorous reasoning.

IRA FLATOW: But do you think you can convince people who just don’t want to change their view of the world? I mean, if you believe the world is only 6,000 years old, you’re not going to believe in evolution. If you don’t believe anything your government tells you, then you’re not going to believe all the research that it helps support.

SUE DESMOND-HELLMANN: Well, it turns out that it’s actually a lot easier to get people to buy into cultural norms and scientific facts before they are holding onto strongly held views. And it’s very hard to change people’s minds.

But I do think that one of the questions we need to ask ourselves is, who are the authority figures? Let me give you an example. When the Ebola epidemic was just a terrible problem in West Africa, one of the critical success factors was safe burials. Safe burials were needed to combat the spread of Ebola.

And when a lot of scientists and medical people went into West Africa, the last person who should tell people how to bury their loved ones is somebody with a white coat on. Now, the smart thing that was done is going into those villages and those communities, finding the local religious leader, or it might be somebody who had the most productive farm. Who did people trust?

So the sources of authority that drove that message on safe burials ends up not being the government, ends up not being the chief scientists. I think as scientists, we need to be humble about who people believe and where their sources of authority are. And for public health messages, like safe burials, we need to understand who can drive that.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think this lack of understanding is– and I know that the Gates Foundation is very interested in diseases. I understand the world is now very close to wiping out polio. But the idea that vaccinations could be bad– does that stand in the way of something like that being a success?

SUE DESMOND-HELLMANN: Well, the fear of vaccines and myths about vaccines are a clear threat to eradicating only the second disease in human history– polio. The first being smallpox in the late ’70s. This year there’s only been 12 cases of polio in the world.

And the last three countries involved are Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. So just as the example I gave you with Ebola, the most important thing that our colleagues and our partners in this quest to end polio have learned is get in there in the community.

Make sure that the moms, the families, who are thinking about the vaccine campaigns to eradicate polio, understand what’s going on and can see a benefit and an advantage. Many of these programs are now combined with other wellness programs such as nutrition, and breastfeeding education, and family planning.

So instead of being so targeted, making sure that the community understands this is all about the health and well-being of families, partnering with the community leaders, the religious leaders, the people who people do trust. And often in these villages in remote areas, the first person vaccinated is the local chief, the local person who’s in charge.

The religious leaders will be vaccinated in public and have their families receive vaccines. So what we’ve learned is if you want to eradicate a disease and you’re combating fear and myth and stories, get people where they live and have this be a community-driven effort, not a medical or scientific-driven effort. And I think we learn that over and over again with important public health messages.

IRA FLATOW: So where would scientists now– who are listening to us– what’s your message to them about getting involved better with the community?

SUE DESMOND-HELLMANN: So I– as I’ve spoken to scientists, the most important assets that we have is, one, we need to understand the consequences of our actions. We need to instill that confidence and credibility. And so what I tell scientists is get out of your bubble.

Get out of your lab, walk out of your lab, meet your neighbors, be involved in your community. And always ask yourself when you’re going to communicate new results, because we’re all excited when we have new results. We have a scoop.

We have something new. Something new for– in my case in my past, patients with cancer. Or here at the Gates Foundation, a new intervention that can solve a disease with a vaccine or a new diagnostic. Always ask yourself, what if I’m wrong?

What if I’m wrong and know that someday there’ll be new information that changes the best scientific information for consumers? And so to have the humility to be as excited as you should be about new discoveries and new science.

But also, know there’s a consequence if you’re wrong and to leave room for further study, further evolution. So that in the case that you have to give new information, that standards have changed. Or my favorite area for this– and I care, like all Americans, about nutrition information. How much has nutrition advice changed over time?

Be humble enough to know that 3 years, 5 years, 10 years from now, you may be giving different advice. And knowing that, I think, makes scientists more thoughtful when they tell people, here’s the best I know today that can help you and your family be healthy.

IRA FLATOW: So Desmond-Hellmann is a physician, scientist, and CEO of the Gates Foundation, talking with us on Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. I think one of the things that most people don’t understand– and you put your finger on it– is that they think science is a encyclopedic book of facts sitting on a desk and not a process of getting at the truth, a process that takes snapshots all along the way. And this is a hard part, or that people don’t understand about science, I think.

SUE DESMOND-HELLMANN: Yeah, it’s actually– I think we need to do a good job. And this is where I think scientists and journalists have a common goal, to make sure that people understand that science isn’t magic. It doesn’t turn everything into truth that we apply the scientific method. And we’re estimating truth, especially when we do small studies or small experiments.

We’re testing a hypothesis. And over time, we either accept or reject that theory, that hypothesis. The more we can engage people in the joy of the quest to understand things, the more it is a journey and not this kind of static, one moment in time. But that is fundamentally challenging for marketing type messages.

IRA FLATOW: Let me see if I can go to the phones quickly before we go. Kara in Fort Myers, Florida. Hi, Kara.

KARA: Hi, how are you?

IRA FLATOW: Hi, there. Go ahead.

KARA: I was listening. And I heard you mention for a question that why we didn’t– validity and reasoning in science classes, because we’re so focused on biology and chemistry and physics. But there’s not really a class that focuses on picking out information and determining what’s valid or why it’s valid. And I’m a high school English teacher. And part of the reason that we don’t do it in science classes is because that standard has shifted into English teachers’ responsibility.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re supposed to be a science teacher now?

KARA: Apparently, but we aren’t limited to having kids question science validity. They’re asking us to do it through the breadths of– history and math and science tends to focus more on nonfiction, because that’s what most kids will be exposed to after they graduate as opposed to literature and literary analysis.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Thanks.

KARA: So the Common Core Standards that they developed– hopefully, could be nationally, but most states don’t use them. But the Common Core Standards have shifted validity and reasoning into English domain as opposed to science.

SUE DESMOND-HELLMANN: Yeah. Actually, let me just pick up on that.

IRA FLATOW: I’ve got about–

SUE DESMOND-HELLMANN: I think that’s such an–

IRA FLATOW: –a minute left. Go ahead.

SUE DESMOND-HELLMANN: –yeah. That is a beautiful example of where reading comprehension can be a massive asset to being a healthy, productive citizen. I’m so glad to hear that your listener is teaching that in her class.

Because how you read, and how you understand, and how you question is a huge asset for her students. So terrific to know that you’re doing that, and I hope more teachers are teaching reading comprehension in the way you are using those Common Core Standards.

IRA FLATOW: And keep listening to Science Friday. So Desmond-Hellmann is a physician, scientist, and CEO of the Gates Foundation. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

SUE DESMOND-HELLMANN: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: We’ll have you back. When we come back, we’ve got our first visitor from outside our solar system. No, it’s not an alien. We’ll talk about what it is after the break.

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