The War Against Pseudoscience Is Ideological, Not Personal
Evidence-based tactics can help combat misinformation.
Posted Jun 17, 2020
It is an ethical responsibility to society for health professionals to both promote and practice evidence-based health care. Part of the mission to promote evidence-based health care also involves the converse, which is to call out and debunk pseudoscientific misinformation and health practices. One particular route to fulfill this mission is to engage in science communication on social media.
The time to heed this call has been especially paramount since the world has been ravaged by COVID-19. Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the recent explosion of misinformation as an “infodemic.” One captain leading the charge in this mission is Timothy Caulfield, professor of health law and science policy at the University of Alberta. He recently wrote in the esteemed journal Nature about the ugly relationship between pseudoscience and COVID-19, and he amplified the sentiment that it is a professional responsibility to stand up for quality information (Caulfield, 2020, April 27).
Several weeks later, Scales, Gorman, and Gorman (2020) responded to Caulfield in Nature. They agreed with the goal but disagreed about the approach. Specifically, they issued a warning that battle cries to take up “cudgels” against pseudoscience sparked by COVID-19 (Caulfield, 2020, April 27) could backfire. Notwithstanding the limited evidence on the backfire effect (Caulfield, 2020, May 25), I agree with their contention that the problem associated with the spread of health-misinformation extends beyond a lack of scientific and health literacy to the ideological. It is for precisely this reason that the war against pseudoscience is ideological and not personal.
I also agree that the key to winning this war is for stakeholders to more effectively engage in science communication to pre-emptively disseminate factual evidence with a view towards inoculating against false information. And while I agree with the spirit of respectful online discussion as a helpful debunking strategy, I respectfully disagree that the use of battle metaphors toward dangerous mis- and dis-information is not apt. We fight disease. We battle racism. And we go to war against ideas in order to grow at the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and societal levels of analysis.
The general public is the audience of the science communicator, not the ideologically possessed. It is a tall order to convince the unconvinced when underlying epistemic beliefs are predicated on anti-scientific and anti-intellectual values, such as the elevation of anecdote, intuitive thinking, conspiracy theory, postmodern philosophical positions, and distrust of scientific authority.
When expertise is ignored to preserve a worldview, we are unlikely to reach some individuals on social media. Naysayers will nay. But we can reach others using a variety of evidence-based tactics: providing the science, using clear and shareable content, referencing trustworthy sources, noting the scientific consensus and its evolution, incorporating narrative and story, leading with facts, being nice and authentic, and highlighting gaps in logic and rhetorical devices (Caulfield, 2020, May 25). And yes, I think embracing metaphors is okay, too.
Caulfield, T. (2020, April 27). Pseudoscience and COVID-19 – We’ve had enough already. The scientific community must take up cudgels in the battle against bunk. Nature. http://doi.org/ggtbvj
Caulfield, T. (2020, May 25). Does Debunking Work? Correcting COVID-19 Misinformation on Social Media. https://doi.org/10.31219/osf.io/5uy2f
Scales, D., Gorman, S., & Gorman, J. (2020, June 2). Resist pseudoscience with respect, not ridicule. Nature, 582, 32. doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-01626-9