The Internet has made it easier than ever to misguide people. The anti-vaxx movement, climate change denial, protests against stem cell research, and other movements like these are rooted in the spread of misinformation and a distrust of science.
Science illiteracy is pervasive in the communities responsible for these movements. For the mainstream, the challenge lies not in sharing the facts, but in combating the spread of misinformation and facilitating an open dialogue between experts and nonexperts.
I grew up in a household that was deeply skeptical of science and medicine. My parents are evangelical Christians who believe the word of the Bible is law. To protect my four siblings and me from secular influence, they homeschooled some of us and put the others in private Christian schools. When my oldest brother left for a Christian college and the tuition began to add up, I was placed in a public charter school to offset the costs.
There, I became acutely aware of my ignorant upbringing. I had been taught intelligent design and young-earth creationism instead of evolution, geology, and biology. My mother skipped over world religions, and much of my history curriculum was more biblical-based than factual. She warned me that stem cell research, vaccines, genetic modification of crops, and other areas of research in biological science were examples of humans trying to be like God. At the time, biologist Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion was a bestseller and science seemed like an excuse to not believe in God, so she and my father discouraged me from studying it.
The gaps in my knowledge left me feeling frustrated and embarrassed. The solution was to learn about the things that had been censored from my education, but several obstacles stood in the way.
I lacked a good foundation in basic mathematics after being taught by my mother, who never graduated college. My father, who holds a graduate degree in computer science, repeatedly told me that I inherited my mother’s “bad math genes” and was therefore ill-equipped for science. While my brothers excelled at math under his supervision and were even encouraged toward careers in engineering and psychology, I was expected to do well in other subjects, such as literature. When I tried to change this by enrolling in honors math and science classes, they scolded me — so reluctantly, I dropped math. By the time I graduated high school, I was convinced that math and science were beyond me.
When I look back at my high school transcripts, that sense of failure was unfounded: my grades were mostly A’s and B’s, and I excelled in honors biology. Even my elementary standardized test scores don’t reflect a student disinclined toward STEM, because I consistently scored in the top percentile for sciences. Teachers often encouraged me to consider studying science in college. Why then, I wondered, did my parents reject that idea? Why did they work so hard to sway me from that path? It wasn’t until I moved away from my parents’ home and started working to put myself through community college that I discovered my passion for both biology and science writing.
As a young adult venturing into the field of science communication, I’ve become fascinated with understanding communities that foster antagonistic views toward science. When I first learned about fundamentalism, my parents’ behavior finally made sense. It is the foundation of the Religious Right, a right-wing Christian group which heavily influences the Republican party in the United States. The Religious Right crusades against secular education, stem cell research, abortion, evolution, and other controversial issues in science and medicine on the basis that they contradict Christian beliefs. They are quietly overturning the separation of church and state in order to enforce their religion as policy — at the expense of science and progress.
Growing up in this community, I learned that strong feelings about these issues arise from both a lack of science literacy and a distrust of experts. Those who are against genetic modification of crops don’t understand that GMO research aims to produce more, and longer-lasting, food for a growing planet. The anti-vaxx movement is still relying on a deeply flawed study that was ultimately retracted. Those who are against stem cell research don’t understand how it works or the important benefits it provides the field of medicine, such as discovering new treatment methods.
In fact, at one point the famous Christian radio show Focus on the Family spread anti-vaxx mentality when they discussed vaccines that, long ago, were derived from aborted fetal cells. Although Focus on the Family now endorses vaccines, at the time it was enough to convince my own mother, who listened to the show every morning, not to vaccinate us unless the law required it.
We can help clear up misunderstandings by sharing the facts, but the real challenge lies in willful ignorance. It was hard for me to accept, but I’ve come to understand that I’m not going to change anyone’s mind. It’s up to an individual to evaluate the facts, consider the arguments for and against, and make his or her own decision.
As my parents grew older and my siblings and I introduced them to basic concepts in science, they came around to trusting the experts a little more. They now see real doctors instead of homeopathic practitioners. They acknowledge our world’s changing climate instead of denying it. And they even applaud two of their children for pursuing careers in science. Although they have held on to their fundamentalism and we still disagree on many issues, these basic changes give me hope that people in deeply skeptical communities are not entirely out of reach.
In everyday interactions with skeptics, science communicators need to shift their focus from convincing to discussing. This means creating an open dialogue with the intention of being understanding and helpful, not persuasive. This approach can be beneficial in both personal and online interactions. There are people within these movements who have doubts, and their doubts will grow as we continue to feed them through discussion.
People will only change their minds when it is the right time for them to do so. We need to be there ready to hold their hand and lead them toward truth when they reach out. Until then, all we can do is keep the channels of communication open, keep sharing the facts, and fight the spread of misinformation. Science is the pursuit of truth, and as scientists and science communicators, sometimes we need to let the truth speak for itself. We’re just there to hold the megaphone.