When Melinda Wenner Moyer, a science journalist for The New York Times, was attempting to report on an unexpected aspect of a vaccine’s efficacy or safety, she found that scientists often didn’t want to talk with her. And when she did get them on the phone, she says, a worrying theme emerged: “Scientists are so terrified of the public’s vaccine hesitancy that they are censoring themselves, playing down undesirable findings and perhaps even avoiding undertaking studies that could show unwanted effects. Those who break these unwritten rules are criticized.”
These are tough days for truth and, particularly, for those truths that are supported by evidence that academic experts provide. It’s a strange new world dominated by intentional misinformation and disinformation campaigns, by deliberate hoaxes, and by the slander of solid, verifiable facts as questionable, even false — not to mention the maligning of individual academics. The constant challenges to truth, and the means to arrive at it through informed and reasoned discourse, exacerbate the trend.
Julia Baird, a journalist writing for the Australian Public Broadcasting Corporation, sums it up with a smart edge: “It had never occurred to me to add ‘Ph.D.’ to my name on Twitter until I was slammed for mentioning that I had one.” Baird found that some viewed her degree not as a sign of expertise but as a provocation, a pretension — that “Ph.D.s were worthless and did not prove anything, and that five years of research were simply my ‘opinion.’” It’s not just about women academics, Baird discovered, but a general and disturbing tendency to dismiss academic and especially scientific expertise as bias or elitism — and that it is a view “at high tide, and climbing.”
Indeed, questioning scientific expertise is showing up in some uncommon places these days, not least the hallowed chambers of the United States Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Roberts dismissed academic research as “sociological gobbledygook” in a recent case affecting redistricting in the states, Gill v. Whitford, and wound up saying a good deal about the role of social science in the court’s deliberations.
Indeed, Roberts’s questions in oral argument regrettably diminish how social science has helped the court to understand complex issues. In the Supreme Court’s opinion in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, for example, Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing for a unanimous court, relied heavily on social science research to refute the Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine of “separate but equal.” Moreover, political science research on gerrymandering has been crucial in aiding prior courts, and lately professors of geometry are finding they have quite a lot to offer courts as well.
Beyond the courts, a look at congressional hearings held during one week in May is revealing: only two university researchers were among the 124 people invited to address lawmakers on topics that included economic development and trade, taxation, health care, energy, military procurement, prison sentencing, and the environment. Legislators relied instead on the views of government officials and fellow lawmakers, as well as representatives of labor groups, businesses and advocacy organizations, among others.
What’s going on? Not mere skepticism of science by any means, but direct moves to reduce the value of the work that scientists and other experts do and undermine the influence they should have. Indeed, attacks on colleges and universities — on their scholars, researchers and teachers — go hand in hand with the mounting distrust of institutions and agencies of government, along with the independent press that keeps those bodies accountable. The polarizing politics that plague the nation are infecting academe.
So if colleges and universities were once above the fray, they are no longer. And the more academics engage in public domains, the more they seek to inform and shape policy, the more skepticism and even outright scorn they face. To be sure, resistance to expertise is coming from individuals and groups with interests at stake — political, economic, cultural, religious — and from those whom they aim to confuse and mislead. Research-based evidence can prove to be very “inconvenient,” and, unquestionably, lifting veils of secrecy and exposing harms can create enemies and breed contempt for the academy. In addition to homegrown antagonists, Russian trolls have reportedly been creating online accounts to direct hostile commentary about higher education to exacerbate tensions within American society.
Some months ago, in an opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed, I encouraged greater public engagement by academic experts, suggesting they “translate” their work so that it can be effectively used to advance the public interest. Comments on the column clearly suggested we have our work cut out for us.
Fact vs. Opinion: The Vaccine Debate
To take a close look at how attacks against scientific expertise are taking shape, we can find no more fertile ground than the opinion versus fact debate over vaccine efficacy and safety. And academic researchers are at the center of it.
The people challenging the scientific evidence are claiming space in public forums, stoking fires on social media and finding sympathetic or “politically sensitive” officials willing to weaken vaccination requirements. Skepticism and fear can erode the integrity of any science, and vaccine science is hardly immune. Russian trolls are fueling the discord here, as well.
Take the case of measles. Measles was virtually eliminated in 2000, but outbreaks are anticipated now as more parents refuse or delay vaccinations due to personal beliefs or the misguided idea that the disease no longer poses a threat. That threat, however, is real: if vaccination rates drop to 88 percent — below the 90 to 95 percent needed to achieve herd immunity — a total of 150 children may well contract measles each year, putting them at risk for pneumonia, hearing loss and brain damage, while costing government health programs an estimated $2 million.
Meanwhile, the vaccine to prevent measles, mumps and rubella is safe and about 97 percent effective. Still, misinformation on the internet and unverified studies on vaccines cause some people to believe that vaccines do more harm than good. As a result, the growth in parents choosing not to vaccinate their children has caused the American Medical Association grave concern, with many experts decrying the rise of so-called exemptions of convenience. In some areas, nearly one out of five children has not received their recommended vaccines. The consequences are serious not only for those unprotected children but for the rest of society, as well. As more and more parents “free ride” off the community’s dwindling immunity, outbreaks of diseases thought to have been conquered have already occurred.
Concerns over what antivaccine groups may do is having an effect, as noted, on those who do the research, even though academic-based science provides evidence on the efficacy of vaccines and supports and encourages immunization. A public health researcher at George Washington University, Lone Simonsen, for example, lamented the negative reaction of her peers when she and a colleague published research that questioned the efficacy of flu vaccine in older adults. They found it to be less effective than it was believed to be at the time, and their work helped lead to the development of a more effective flu vaccine for older people. Yet, initially, she reports, colleagues viewed her work as detrimental — and were unhappy that it was published — because it fed antivaxxers’ skepticism and fears.
If scientists allow research results to be suppressed, crucial problems may not be identified. Gregory Poland, a Mayo Clinic vaccinologist, for example, recognizes that some study results could scare people away from vaccines, and people could die: “That’s a big risk to take to protect the sanctity of scientific discourse,” he says. “I was warned several times that covering this issue could leave me with ‘blood on my hands.’ But in the long run, isn’t stifling scientific inquiry even more dangerous?”
Climate Change Denial: Modeling a Defense for Academic Research
No field seems more likely to offer up academic experts as targets than research on climate change. Climate change deniers and fossil fuel interests, among others, are hard at work generating skepticism of expertise and questioning scientific consensus. Few people have been as subject to pronounced vitriol as Michael E. Mann, one of the nation’s leading climate researchers. A professor at Penn State University, he has been relentlessly attacked by those who deny human factors in climate change.
His reaction to the criticism provides a model for running defense for research. Mann has hardly been subdued by his critics. He continues his research and publishing — surpassing 200 peer-reviewed and edited publications. Earlier this year, he received the coveted American Association for the Advancement of Science Award for Public Engagement, an honor that recognizes Mann’s “tireless efforts to communicate the science of climate change to the media, public and policy makers.”
His persistence makes clear the value of resisting efforts to censor and suppress scientific evidence by enhancing one’s profile. In the past year, he has had 500 media interviews and appearances and directly reached public audiences via social media, including his own blog. His op-eds and commentaries have been published in dozens of outlets, including The Washington Post, The Guardian, Le Monde, CNN and The New York Times.
The Daily Kos published a column celebrating Mann’s award and offered this critical observation:
“Scientists should feel not just comfortable, but obligated to correct those who use their platforms to continually make incorrect assertions about science, again and again. Scientists should correct the systematic distribution of misinformation and help inform the public of where, why and how that misinformation is being spread in the public discourse and relied on by politicians to enact anti-climate policies. Most importantly — and especially given the denial machine that attacks those who speak out on climate — academics should be supported in these education efforts by institutions like AAAS.”
Just so. Academics should give no ground to ill-informed, deliberately misleading advocates, no matter how prominent, celebrated, well financed or misguided — or nasty — a set of contenders they may be. As Julia Baird would advise us, “Sometimes authority should be worn lightly. But sometimes it should be brandished like a torch.”
Equating opinion with fact not only fuels skepticism of scientific consensus but leads to practices that can threaten the public’s safety and health and retard the nation’s progress. Academic scholars and researchers have a duty to defend their work and resist unwarranted attacks on their integrity and objectivity. And college and university presidents, institutional governing boards, and professional associations should stand solidly behind them.
We need to make our work known in public settings, not least in court proceedings and in legislative hearings. And, of course, we must help educate citizens, to find spaces to cultivate conversation, to provide information based on evidence, so that citizens are able — and willing — to separate facts from opinions. Making scientific research known, understood and used is vitally important to the nation.