Scientific misinformation | Is ignorance bliss?
Our responsibility to inform – we are part of the ivory tower
Do a quick scroll in the news-feed of your preferred social media sites. Stop scrolling once you find a post covering ideas or even proclaimed facts about cancer research or treatments. If your feed resembles ours you could be reading the following headlines or ideas:
⊕ Cancer can be cured with fruits or herbs
⊕ This or that diet can cure cancer
⊕ The treatment for cancer has been discovered, but big pharma is hiding it for profit
⊕ Meditation can treat cancer
⊕ Even wine can cure… lung cancer???
The list goes on and can even extend after strolling around in that rabbit hole.
I encounter these claims or questions from family, friends or people I meet in social gatherings. The vast majority of the time, if not always, the comments are well-meant and intended to confirm or to fill an educational gap. As you can see from the shortlist of claims above there can be some logic behind each of them. You could get out some information from these articles that could make some sense in a certain context. However, you know it, your parents know it, heck; many generations before us knew, so let’s all spell it out in unison: “a half-truth is often a whole lie”.
The information malignancy
I many times want to keep scrolling down and just let these articles pass. After all, it’s just one article or posts out of a flood of attention-seeking headlines. Probably the original poster doesn’t know better or has hopes on the new “findings”. What could be the harm in that? And, most importantly, who are we to be criticizing people’s believes?
Then I realize that the stamp that these articles get as harmless is only valid as isolated cases. Confusing and/or hope-giving quasi-science, however, is more common than not and more available than ever. They have become part of a global problem and disinformation. In a time where homeopathy is part of pharmacy’s normal supplies, where supplement companies can sell you their product without any rigorous controls, we believe that experts in the respective fields can… nay, have a responsibility to inform our society about the real, evidence-based science and debunk dubious or limited claims in the media or the feeds. It must be; before voodoo dolls and holy water can be spotted on the pharmacy-shelves. Homeopathy has already reached them.
With today’s access to an almost unlimited amount of information about basically everything, it is next to impossible to separate evidence-based facts from FAKE news. This goes for many topics: health, diets, medicine, you name it. It can become very difficult to sort out the most reliable information out there. So, with the amount of misinformation that we constantly experience, inevitably we’ll inoculate and integrate some of it and we will spread the new malignant knowledge to the next victim. This is not always a coincidence as confusion many times can serve the interests of some, but that can be a topic for later.
It’s important to get the facts straight, especially in the case of cancer and other common diseases. Misinformation can lead to sub-optimal treatment, which can in the worse case be fatal to a hopeful patient. If we believe that a glass of wine will cure lung cancer, why should we go through a painful and long treatment? If pharma is hiding the cure, why should we ever trust the conventional medicine that they produce?
So then again, who are we to be criticizing people’s believes or misinformed knowledge about health, biology and cancer? The answer to this is: We are part of this minority that has insight into the scientific world. That is, the walls of the ivory tower surround us as well. We know how experimental procedures are established, how they are to be understood and the advantages and pitfalls of various scientific studies. We are the experts that you visualize on the ivory tower. Although we do not claim to know everything, in fact far from it, we are going to do our best to inform you about the knowledge we have.
We are not alone in having the responsibility in correcting erroneous scientific claims. I think all scientists or experts share this responsibility and should not only react to misinformation but also expose and explain their research topics. In doing so, we can avoid a lot of misunderstanding and confusion. Maybe we can even save a life or two by directly or indirectly stopping a cancer patient from trying to cure his/her cancer by eating an apple a day.
I think it is hard for each scientist to methodically inform the society about their respective topics. That’s why we started the Ivory Embassy project. We would like to act as a mediator between the general public and the science community. As your embassy, we will do our best to represent both worlds and to transmit messages from one to the other. Doing so, we can keep a dialogue. Tell us where we’re missing out, or topics that are interesting to bring up. In turn, we will do our best to fill your knowledge gaps.
Ignorance is always going to be with us, there’s no avoiding it. It’s more, the more knowledge we get the more ignorant we will feel. So, if ignorance is truly bliss, then you should be able to achieve the true level of blissfulness through feeding your intellect and get more knowledge. Get it? Let the Ivory Embassy be a part of that process.
Until next time, feel free to contact us with questions and/or suggestions!