In a recently published paper, Dr. Lykke Sylow shares three challenges for scientists during a time where not only misinformation, but the quantity of misinformation questions what science stands for (1).
Dr. Lykke Sylow is an assistant professor for the department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports at the University of Copenhagen. Her line of research involves muscle insulin sensitivity, GTPase, exercise cancer cachexia and metabolism. Dr. Sylow shares the following three challenges in a recent publication: 1) Balancing correct interpretation of results with the need for promotion, 2) Schism between the need for fast scientific communication and scientific trustworthiness, 3) Tackling the social media platforms as they take a leading role in how we seek information.
The figure below highlights the incentivization for scientists to promote their research findings, thus the idea of bias comes to mind. This supports challenging circumstances to rely on the public to determine if scientific results are correctly interpreted and translated into a meaningful and comprehensive message (2).
It is important to notice the complexity of the third model and the larger circle of the socio-political context that may often be overlooked.
The next figure below similarly highlights the reliance on the public to balance political and societal concerns with what is shared to them (3). Think about the citizens never-ending exposure to streams of very often contradictory information and/or arguments. Science cannot tackle this age of misinformation alone.
I reached out and asked two other scientists for their thoughts about the current state of science and misinformation. Dr. Derek Kingsley is an associate professor at Kent State University in the School of Health Sciences in Kent, OH, US. Dr. Kingsley’s research involved cardiovascular dynamics and outcomes with resistance exercise interventions. His responses are below:
- “During times like these it is important to remind scientists to slow down. Good science takes time. It seems that nothing can come quick enough these days, but we all have to remember that is never how science works.”
- “When it comes to sifting through information it is important to look for repetitions and commonalities in the data. Science is about repetition. Any experiment should be repeatable, and produce similar findings. Three or four studies do something a little bit different, but the story should generally be the same. If you find a study that stands out as different, then you have to ask the question, why is this one study different?” Dr. Kingsley reminds us that the difference could be strength or a weakness. He stated, “You should probably read more than just one piece of information from one source.”
- Finally he finished by stating “Look to understand both sides of the coin.” While commonalities are important, so are differences. Scientists should embrace and understand them. A great argument or point of discussion requires an open-mind, so at the minimum people should be exposed to both sides. This allows them to make a decision supported by the embraced evidence. Remember, this doesn’t make the other side wrong, sometimes it’s just a different perspective.”
Dr. Babajide Ojo is currently a research Fellow at Cincinnati Children’s, in Cincinnati, Ohio, US. His interests are involved with gastroenterology, hepatology, and nutrition. Dr. Ojo is earlier than Dr. Kingsley in his career and shared his thoughts shared below.
- He states the first challenge is related to fear. “Misinformation sells and already has a huge following. Breaking through huge following can be a bit scary especially for young scientists trying to establish themselves. Social media is now the number one channel for communicating scientific information to lay audiences. As a scientist with nutrition training, I see the supplement industry as a mess. People spewing a lot of advice on social media that are not backed by repeatable and valid research. My fear is not always about challenging the fake experts, but if I get into it with people on social media for this “good cause”, I worry about my image with my boss, my employer, future employers, and so on. What if some of the big supplement companies have some influence in government regulatory bodies, or with my employer? Unfortunately, this is a real worry for some of my colleagues.”
- Dr. Ojo statement reminds us there is little to no reward in academia for science communication to lay audiences. “Why bother? So we decide to focus our time on what pays the bills– the science. This creates a vacuum that the fake experts have capitalized on.”
- Finally the third challenge Dr. Ojo states is related to the dearth of mentors. “When you look at senior scientists and achievers in your field, most individuals are where they are at because of science. Therefore, we naturally thread the path of our seniors to achieve that level of excellence in the field.”
Whether it’s remembering your fundamentals like repeatability, or strengths and limitations of a study design, or bringing a concern to help mentorship types of relationships change focus. Dr. Sylow puts misinformation concern best by stating in the article,
“The concern is less about perceptions of consensus, but about what it stands for. If the public are convinced that science is not settled, why would the public weigh scientific facts more heavily than conspiracy beliefs or “alternative facts.”
Misinformation is here to stay, scientists should continue to engage with transparency in the best ways available. You can find Dr. Sylow’s publication in the references below.
- Sylow L. Three challenges of being a scientist in an age of misinformation.
- Scheufele DA. Science communication as political communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2014 Sep 16;111(Supplement 4):13585-92.
- Drummond C, Fischhoff B. Individuals with greater science literacy and education have more polarized beliefs on controversial science topics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2017 Sep 5;114(36):9587-92.
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