The role of scientists in providing science and biotechnology literacy through their own social media campaigns
Since biotechnology applications and products have an impact on many industries and aspects of human life, biotechnology literacy has become very critical to help the public draw the line between science fiction and facts, so they can make informed decisions. The COVID pandemic further highlighted the urgent need for science literacy to combat the pandemic of misinformation that we are experiencing in parallel to the COVID pandemic by throwing the disciplines of biomedicine and biotechnology into the social media spotlight.
Spreading misinformation regarding scientific issues by drawing false conclusions, such as the link made between vaccines and autism, had become common practice and had led to many anti-vaccine campaigns that significantly impacted public health despite strong evidence from scientific research conducted by independent institutions that debunked this myth. Correcting misinformation and providing reliable data are collective responsibilities of scientists and can be achieved through constructive scientific debate to replace the harmful effects of simplified pro-science versus anti-science representations by media outlets and to maintain an ongoing debate about incorporating scientific breakthroughs and innovations into public policy.
Misinformation on social media about the safety and efficacy of COVID vaccines, treatments, diagnostic tests, mask mandates, and social distancing, as well as speculations about the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus among many other related public health topics, has deepened the political divide and increased the public’s distrust towards public officials and scientists.
So how can this pandemic provide a teachable moment for developing strategies to confront disinformation campaigns that intentionally share misinformation to deceive? One approach is for scientists to become actively engaged by launching their own social media campaigns to confront this pandemic of misinformation and to help the public become critical consumers of scientific and public health information. Many scientists started campaigns on Twitter to correct the record, leading some to become “ScienceStars”, as daily active Twitter users climbed by 20 % between 2020 and the first part of 2021.
Most scientists realize that it is not an easy task for the public to understand, analyze, and evaluate scientific data, since science is forever evolving, as new discoveries and innovative technologies emerge to provide more insight. In addition, evaluating primary sources of scientific data is a very difficult task that requires significant scientific expertise, which the public cannot acquire by reading.Therefore, the public mainly relies on secondary sources and social media posts when it comes to scientific information. This has prompted many scientists to assume responsibility for providing the public with the scientific background and understanding that will allow it to appreciate the complexities and nuances of scientific information and findings. However, it is imperative for scientists to use simplified language that is relatable to the public, while still being objective. This approach will allow scientists to explain the concept of causation versus correlation, provide a conceptual understanding of the nature of science and the scientific method, and the importance of experimentation, data reproducibility and statistical significance, in addition to providing strategies for evaluating source credibility.
Unfortunately, the hostility common to social media platforms has driven some scientists away. Scientists who are successful at maintaining their “science literacy” campaigns try to remain objective and transparent about their expertise, keep perspective, and avoid providing sensationalist or “expert” comments outside their disciplines. Scientists also need to appreciate the value and impact of engaging in back-and-forth conversations with the public rather than imposing their opinion or expertise or getting caught up in conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns, as these quickly lead to “dead ends” or more hostility.
Finally, scientists have a responsibility to educate the public that science does not provide all the answers, and that it only plays a part in the overall debate about the covid pandemic and public policy. The public needs reassurance that while it is acceptable to debate and challenge scientific facts since they do not provide “absolute truths” that are “written in stone”, it is not acceptable to fabricate or make wrong associations and assumptions with the intent to mislead or support certain political debates. Combatting scientific dogmatism which either completely politicizes science or completely trusts science is our collective responsibility; and scientists can lead the way and set an example.
Finally, the public needs to accept the fact that scientists are not the only “experts in the room” and that science is not an ultimate authority when it comes to complicated, multifaceted public health issues such as this pandemic.