• Melinda

What goes into a false narrative?

How do we decide to trust a theory over proven science?

Hey gang,

(Kinda makes you feel a little like a badass, doesn't it? Like we're some sort of biker gang. No? Ok...)

As many of you know, I transitioned careers a few years ago from scientific research to science communication. I made this decision for many reasons, but the biggest driving force for me was the growing mistrust of science I was seeing in society. Why is it, I wondered, that thousands of scientists are publishing peer-reviewed data and people aren't believing it?

Looking at the anti-vaccination camp, for example, we see that many parents still choose not to vaccinate their children, even when hundreds of studies show their safety and efficacy. Clinical trials enroll multiple thousands of participants before the FDA approves a vaccine. (Even the Sars-CoV-2/COVID vaccine trials had multiple thousands of people getting dosed before the FDA would grant emergency approval, and that was fast-tracked for obvious reasons). Still, there is mistrust. Various polls reveal that approximately 20% of adults will not get the vaccine to prevent COVID unless they are forced. There is clearly a disconnect here. Either people don't believe COVID is worrisome enough to get vaccinated, or they do not trust science/"big pharma."

This disconnect, I believe, is a science communications problem. It is multifaceted, but here are a few of the factors, in my opinion:

  1. People don't understand what goes into scientific studies. Who reviews them, how can we trust them, what if they are faked, etc. These are valid concerns. What chance does a non-scientist have in trusting this process when it's shrouded in mystery? You don't see scientists on TV discussing what they do. It all feels like it's some secret process that everyone is supposed to trust.

  2. Lack of access to scientific results. If the average person wants to understand the research behind something such as the development of a new drug or vaccine, there is very little they can do to get access to the first-hand information (the primary literature). Most scientific papers cost money to download, if you don't have access to a university login. Even if you get an article, what chance do you have at understanding it? Little to none. I don't say that to be condescending. Scientific articles are highly technical and full of jargon. In fact, they're not meant for the average person to read. These articles are meant for peers in the field. I have a PhD in neuroscience, but I can guarantee you that if I pick up a molecular biology or genetics publication, I will understand very little of it. That's how highly-specialized these are. So, the average person interested in science must depend on the translation of these findings via news outlets or magazines like Scientific American, etc.

So whose fault is it that more people don't understand science? The lay individual cannot be blamed, because they don't have access to digestible, first-hand content. But scientists cannot be blamed, either, because their job is to conduct experiments and report data. We've seen how it goes when scientists present more and more data to combat popular falsehoods that come out (see anti-vaccination, climate change, the list goes on). The more scientists talk (often in what is perceived as a holier-than-thou tone), the less people listen.

This is where science communication comes in. I truly believe the answer to this mistrust is two-fold. First, we need good content that is delivered in understandable ways. This does not mean dumbing down the content (which I am strongly against). This means finding common ground. You know what this is called? Empathy. That's it. Empathy really would solve all the world's problems.

Keeping in line with empathy, the second way I believe we can solve the problem of mistrust of science, is by humanizing scientists. Yes, they are already human. But people have a very strange view of what a scientist acts/looks like. You google scientist, and you get a bunch of old white guys that have crazy hair and look like Einstein. Many scientists are, in fact, old and white. But many are not! Scientists are often young, vibrant, fun people who paint and write poetry, who hike and ski. They tell jokes at parties. They have kids and friends. They are people.

But the false narrative wins much of the time. There are a few reasons why, but one of them is that more often than not, these narratives arise in social settings like Facebook, etc. This automatically makes these narratives better in terms of effective storytelling, and they also appeal to a parent's sense of fear. Sure, they tell themselves, there are all sorts of mysterious studies that present data about vaccines, but I've never seen these studies. But I have seen stories circulating about vaccine reactions and they often have personal anecdotes and pictures.

Please understand that I am not making fun of these people. If anything, I am making a case for them. They are trying to make the best decisions for their children. Who could fault them for that? What I am trying to do is illustrate why people choose to believe friends over scientists.

To conclude, I want to show you something my brother sent to me. He is a pediatrician and scientist, and he recently published exciting results from a clinical trial to make chemotherapy more effective for kids with leukemia. He thought that if people understood the long and arduous path that it took for a scientist to make a contribution to children's health, they might trust the process more. Below is his list:

To get a clinical trial published (my experience—paths may vary)

Get a bachelor’s degree (4 years)

Get an MD/PhD (8 years) Get into a residency

Finish residency (2 years)

Get into fellowship

Pick a scientific area of interest

Read a ton of peer-review literature on the subject

Come up with research project that hasn’t been fully explored

Find a lab to work with

Get some funding from your institution to do the research

Finish fellowship (3 years)

Get a faculty position (startup packages for bench researchers can cost millions of dollars, so these positions are not easy to get)

Hire people to work in lab

Oversee laboratory research

Present research to peers within institution, get feedback, criticism

Submit findings for abstracts

Present to people at conferences, get feedback, criticism

Submit papers to journals. Get reviewed by 2-4 expert reviewers, plus journal editor

Get papers rejected (most of the time), do more experiments, revise paper, resubmit

Submit grant to funding agencies to do laboratory research

Get rejected (paylines are ~10-20%, meaning get rejected 80-90% of the time)

Do more experiments, revise, resubmit

Get grant (average age to receive first big grant from NIH for researchers is 43-45 years old; I got my first major grant 3 years after getting my faculty position)

Publish a few more papers

Conceive of and design clinical research experiments (for me was about 10 years after getting my first faculty position)

Submit application to university institutional review board to do human subjects research; they ensure the research is ethical and will likely lead to important results

Get feedback, revise application, resubmit

Submit grant to funding agency to do clinical research

Get funding, hire clinical research coordinators, research personnel

Get approved by several committees

Put your trial up on clinicaltrials.gov before you start it. That way if it fails, you can’t just retry it and pretend you didn’t do the first go

Do clinical trial

Hire statistician to go over your results to make sure they are rigorous

Present research to peers within institution, get feedback, criticism

Submit findings for abstracts

Present to people at conferences, get feedback, criticism

Submit papers to journals. Get reviewed by 2-4 expert reviewers, plus journal editor

Get papers rejected (most of the time), do more experiments, revise paper, resubmit

Publish results (for me this occurred 16 years after starting research in this area)

To publish anti-vax statements

Log in to Facebook

Well, there you have it. This was a long and rambling post and if you're still with me, you deserve a gold medal. Thank you for reading!


Your average neuroscientist, Melinda

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