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Don't Feed the Beast

In a column in Nature, Johns Hopkins School of Nursing Associate Professor Cecília Tomori says that some scientists have learned well how doubts about their work can be "weaponized," against them, but that too many researchers are still too slow to recognize this problem and react against it.

Climate scientists, for example, have learned this lesson well, while those researching COVID-19 have taken too long to appreciate it, she says, adding that scientists should consider "how 'sciency-ness' is used to distract from reality and hinder effective policy."

And this happens in many fields, Tomori says. It's been documented in tobacco, fossil fuels, pharmaceuticals, food and more. In fact, this kind of sciency-ness leading to doubt has become so prevalent that public health researchers have deemed it a distinct area of study called "commercial determinants of health."

"Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been saddened at how science has been hijacked," Tomori writes. "Arguments around herd immunity exemplify this." The large arguments about health and death were lost in technical arguments over infection rates, and seemed to cement the idea that "disabled or immunocompromised people did not merit collective protective action; nor did the workers whose jobs required dangerous public contact," she adds.

And unfortunately, many scientists entered debates without realizing that they weren't being held with sincere scientific context in mind. 

"I watched several respected colleagues step into debates on when, or if, society would reach herd immunity without realizing that the discussion was not simply a scientific debate," Tomori says. "Their too-narrow focus unintentionally helped to promote controversy and doubt, and that ultimately impeded an effective public-health response. The same happened around mask use, vaccination and school policies."

So to stop from being distracted like this, researchers must gain a better understanding of how strategies are deployed to manufacture doubt and ignorance, Tomori argues. Researchers must learn to identify authors of research, and their relationships with agenda-driven groups. They must also consider what kinds of argument the data and conclusions serve, and how they shape public opinion and policy-making. Finally, scientists must consistently highlight correct information and avoid amplifying flawed information, however inadvertantly, and must encourage others to do the same. 

"The scientists who gum up the doubt machine do so by constantly pointing to the broader context, by acknowledging genuine scientific debate, by being alert to researchers' political and commercial connections, and by staying educated on how denialism works," Tomori writes. "If more scientists did the same, these distorting strategies would be stymied."