The Science of Communicating Science
In 2015 the New York Times published an article that went against everything we had learned since childhood. This finding went against the advice from teachers, parents and elders. The article that went on to change our perception on things was titled “No, You Do Not Have to Drink 8 Glasses of Water A Day” . This finding left me skeptical. Since I could remember, I went out of my way, to criticize myself for not drinking enough water. I felt as though society had lied to me, without even realizing it themselves. I became distrusting of the entire popular science community and began to question everything that popped up in my newsfeed from the keto diet to breathing exercises.
Have you ever found yourself in the middle of an argument when suddenly you need to bring in backup from the web? Your argument could have been completely invalid, but you would still be able to find a couple of articles using “scientific data” to backup your point of view. This is how fads like the one about drinking eight glasses of water a day catch on. The 2015 New York Times article pointed out that the fallacy originated from a 1945 Food and Nutrition Board recommendation . It suggested that 2.5 liters of water a day was a necessary part of every person’s diet. Publishers went on to quote this statistic but left out one crucial point. In the paragraphs that followed the rule of 2.5 liters a day, the researchers clarified that the figure “includes water used in the preparation of foods and beverages”. Leaving out this sentence in articles surrounding this news, created the eight glasses of water a day phenomenon we all engraved into our heads. The question is why? Why is it that years later we still ignore a sentence that could have clarified this entire ordeal? Like many things in life, bad incentives and biased intentions led to this hydration hype.
A 2012 study in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism used it to declare that almost two-thirds of French children weren’t getting enough water . Another in the Journal Public Health Nutrition used it to declare that almost two-thirds of children in Los Angeles and New York City weren’t getting enough water . The first study was funded by Nestlé Waters; the second by Nestec, a Nestlé subsidiary. When the study is being conducted by a company that profits from water sales, the entire study comes into question. Just like how you may have pulled up an article to help prove your point, corporations use popular science communications to help back up their strategies. This not only puts the outcome of the study into question, it also introduces a lot of noise and bias that negatively impacts future studies. What makes this scenario so problematic isn’t how the public interprets the information, it is how policy becomes effected by it. For instance, Michelle Obama used such studies to back up her “Drink Up” campaign. Just like that, our attention, time, and resources are redirected towards projects that are grounded in misinformation.
When we believe our health can be restored by consuming the proper amounts of water, the days that we do reach eight glasses are a milestone that give us a nice pat on the back. Everyone wants to make an effort to improve their health and even if the results aren’t always effective, the effort itself brings a certain level satisfaction. Lifestyle and fitness brands monetize this human tendency in order to increase product adoption rates. Most of us feel less guilty spending on “health” products than other things. For researchers, corporate sponsorship provides generous funding that can support their experiments and research. For media agencies trying to grow their followers, such click-bait headlines and articles drive traffic. For the rest of us, it becomes embedded into our pop culture and influences our behaviors. People who come across rebuttals and corrections or dig deeper into the research methodologies start to become more skeptical. A healthy dose of skepticism is vital to keeping the scientific community motivated and accountable. However, given the right circumstances, skepticism can transform into conspiracy and cynicism. Extreme levels of skepticism are fueled by paranoia and misinterpretations that always leads to dismissal of scientific facts like the flat earth and anti-vaccination communities. On the other hand, those who are overly trusting might blindly follow the latest diets and lifestyle trends. The ones who remain in between, where the majority of us stand, lack good data to make a proper decision. We are constantly confused and end up taking little bits of information from everywhere and play roulette with our judgement.
An example of the confusion we face comes from our everyday sources. CNN is a trusted source for many Americans, with over 90 million households tuning in . Just doing a simple google search with the key words “alcohol, daily, and false” brought three different CNN articles contradicting one another. The first one, published in 2017 tells readers that a glass of wine a day keeps the doctor away . In 2018, a headline wrote “No Amount of Alcohol is Good for your Overall Health” . And the most recent article from this year has a headline of “Even one alcoholic drink a day can raise risk of stroke”. Well, that escalated quite quickly. As the headlines change, the news trickles to us and influences our decisions in hidden ways. I tried another search, this time only using the keywords “CNN alcohol”. This year alone, one article published in May had the headline “Binge Drinking Expected to Rise as Alcohol Use Increases Around the World, Study Says” . It contradicts another article published one month after, in June titled “People are sick of drinking. Investors are betting on the sober curious” . Once they get you to believe one new discovery and get your interest, they give you an opposing finding to get you to click and read. We end up using the findings to back up our case for any situation. Say I simply don’t feel like drinking. To avoid the peer pressure, I might just pull up the stroke article. Now let’s say I want to drink at a family function with a nagging religious aunt. That’s right, I pull up my argument for a glass of wine a day keeping the doctor away. On a greater scale, this is what politicians do when they want to convince the public to buy into their own political agendas.
An example of this can be found in the current situation surrounding the deadly disease of Ebola in The Democratic Republic of Congo. This year alone, there has been an outbreak, with more than 2,100 cases and more than 1,412 confirmed deaths. Despite having a new vaccine available, major cultural and political misinformation campaigns have made it difficult for response teams to effectively aid infected patients. Conspiracies around the existence and origin of the disease were exacerbated by some politicians running for election last year. Proponents of the conspiracy are mostly marginalized communities that are dealing with infectious diseases which make them susceptible to persuasive techniques played out by politicians. This extreme case of distrust in science and paranoia has even resulted in violent assaults and murders . Those who believe that Ebola is the cause of all the deaths face scrutiny by their peers if they try to seek help for the illness. While this is an extreme case, it is a perfect example of what is possible if misinformed skepticism towards science is left unchecked.
In a 2017 blog published on Naturejobs, the International Journal of Nature’s jobs board, titled Why scientists should communicate science explores how misinformation and misunderstandings can lead to deadly decisions regarding cancer treatment therapy . They point to a research published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI) that established “patients with cancer who rejected conventional anticancer treatments (surgery, hormone therapy, radiotherapy, chemotherapy) in favor of alternative medicine were two-and-a-half times less likely to be alive after five years” . The blog post went on to discuss that the reason that people even consider alternative treatment is because misguided information is readily available on social media. As we mentioned above, pseudo-scientific articles’ main purpose is to grow traffic and clicks on social media channels, which comes at the detriment of accurate science communication. The author of the Naturjobs article continues to say that “with social media sites such as ‘Natural News’ amassing millions of followers, it’s hard for a scientific, rational voice to be heard” but scientists and communicators must “hone our skills in making our science accessible to all” . Instead of basing decisions on facts, many are making literal life or death decisions based on deep-rooted misinformation.
I can’t say this enough; our society needs good data to obtain the right answers. This he said, she said way of approaching science and using outdated research to back up our own personal preconception is creating bad policy, and even worse consequences. It is the responsibility of science communicators and journalists to make knowledge more accessible and engage people in the scientific process. The scientific process is evolutionary and self-correcting by nature and effective science communication must establish trust and facilitate productive conversations with the public.