The Importance of Maintaining the Public’s Trust in Science and Medicine
Often, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a plethora of misinformation that is spread. We have all probably seen at least one scientific publication, news article, social media post, or YouTube video that is spreading information that is not accurate. Every day, I am bombarded by conspiracy theories or unfounded scientific claims while skimming through social media. During a time when information is rapidly disseminated through the internet, it is often difficult to extinguish a lie.
Sometimes, misinformation is inadvertently spread by well-meaning individuals who have not had the time or energy to confirm or critically appraise the information shared. “Liking”, “retweeting”, and/or sharing a post from a colleague/friend/relative is facile. We have all probably “retweeted” or shared certain articles and posts that we did not completely critically assess before sharing. Sometimes dissecting truth from fallacy is difficult, especially when information is disseminated widely. Our current technological advances with the internet and social media magnify opinions, good and bad. Occasionally, one may think, if multiple people I know and/or respect are sharing certain information and the number of posts about the false information outnumber those on the truth, then the misinformation must be true.
Occasionally, misinformation about science or medicine is shared by members of our own scientific and/or medical communities, which can sometimes be more damaging to our profession. For example, more assumed credibility may be given to a scientist or healthcare provider, even if his/her expertise is not in the area that is commented on. Conspiracy theorists may continually reference these “experts” to support their arguments. Sometimes, refuting incorrect information requires massive efforts but may never eliminate the long-lasting negative effects of the misinformation. For example, Andrew Wakefield’s infamous, now retracted scientific article that was published in The Lancet and falsely claimed an association between the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine with autism is unfortunately still being referenced to support arguments against vaccinations even though multiple studies have overwhelmingly refuted the claims made in the retracted article.
With less malicious intent, some misinformation may be spread by the media or others in reference to research articles. Certain conclusions of research papers are sometimes not justified by the data presented due to inadequate sample size, biases, issues with the experimental design, etc. During a pandemic, since rapid dissemination of scientific and medical information is needed, there is frequently a tradeoff with the scientific rigor and reproducibility of the results. Since access to papers in preprint servers are available to the public, the media and public figures may tout certain research findings as truth when they have not been vetted by the peer-review process. A fellow AHA early career blogger, Dr. Allison Webel (@allisonwebelPhD), recently wrote an outstanding blog discussing the importance of the peer-review process (https://earlycareervoice.professional.heart.org/in-defense-of-peer-review/). Of note, even peer-reviewed articles are not free from research misconduct and incorrect conclusions. There are many articles retracted from high impact journals. Before the development of the internet and social media, critiques and feedback of research findings were typically only discussed at scientific meetings or at other selective venues (e.g., local conferences/presentations, journals typically not viewed by lay people, etc.). Now, these debates occur in the public arena with beneficial and negative aspects and frequently with nonexperts. These public debates may dilute the truth when unfounded comments are perpetuated.
What should we do about the spread of misinformation? Propaganda and false information are always going to be spread but we should try to mitigate their breadth and potential damage. On an individual level, researchers should thoroughly assess their results and determine whether their data are valid and whether the claims they make in publications are justified by the data before presenting the findings to the public. Limit overreaching conclusions. Scrutiny of results by authors and the research community is essential to the scientific process. Developments and advances in science often occur when findings are reproduced either within a specific lab/group or by other labs/groups and this is especially important to realize during a time when a deluge of single-center, small sample size papers are published about the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Elizabeth Knight (@TheKnightNurse), another fellow AHA early career blogger, recently calls to attention the scientific lessons learned from the current pandemic (https://earlycareervoice.professional.heart.org/evidence-whats-good-whats-good-enough-whats-dangerous-lessons-for-now-and-later/).
How do we influence other people’s opinions? Internal changes are often easier to make than changing other people’s opinions. However, we are all likely an influential source of information within our own social circles and networks. We may feel more comfortable directly communicating with people we know to correct misinformation. Altering the opinions of people who we do not personally know is more challenging. At minimum, as researchers and healthcare providers, we should not intentionally try to deceive the public. Flagrant dishonesty from researchers and/or healthcare providers may erode the public’s trust in our profession, possibly to a greater extent than a nonexpert’s comments. We all make mistakes and honest misunderstandings and misinterpretations can affect all of us. However, deliberately lying and abusing the influence of one’s position as a scientist or healthcare professional is more offensive. I do not know how best to address colleagues who blatantly mislead the public. If an individual we personally know is deceiving others, we can directly communicate with him/her about the impact of the misinformation. Depending on the extent of the damage created by an individual in our professional community who is propagating false information, should we review his/her ability to maintain as a member of our profession?
What are your thoughts on how we can preserve the public’s trust in science and medicine?
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