Following the 2021 AGM theme of “Trust in Science”, the working groups “Trust in (Young) Scientists” and “Global Health” organised a webinar titled “Hardcore science skepticism – What can young scientists do?” The webinar was moderated by past Executive Committee member and Global Health co-lead Sandra Lopez-Verges (Gorgas Memorial Institute for Health Studies, Panama). The aim was to reflect on areas, such as vaccinations, about which there has been a lot of skepticism and distrust of science – with lethal consequences, not least during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first speaker, Peter J. Hotez, M.D., Ph.D., is a professor of pediatrics and molecular virology at Baylor College of Medicine, United States, where he is also co-director of the Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development and Endowed Chair in Tropical Pediatrics. Hotez is a renowned vaccine scientist who led the development of vaccines to prevent and treat neglected tropical diseases and coronavirus infections, and a public commentator and policy advisor on vaccination policies.

In Hotez’s presentation, entitled “The Rise of Antiscience in the US and Globally,” he spoke about his experiences as vaccine developer and as parent of an autistic daughter, which led him right into the center of the debate about the alleged – and now clearly disproven – connection between vaccines and autism.

Emphasising the different developments in different countries, he argued that anti-scientism and anti-vaccine attitudes in the United States came in different stages. A first stage came from the United Kingdom, where an alleged connection between certain vaccines and autism caused worries among parents. It began with a false and later retracted study published in The Lancet in 1998, and was fueled by the internet, where vaccine sceptics could spread false information. A second stage was when anti-vaccination attitudes were picked up by right-wing political actors, such as the Tea Party movement, under the label of “health freedom.” A third stage was when these movements were organised into anti-vaccine NGOs and were picked up by political propagandists. Anti-vaccine and anti-science attitudes are now a global phenomenon, with rallies against COVID-19 measures and vaccines in many countries. Professor Hotez also described the strategy of “moving the goal post” that is often used by anti-vaxxers: once a certain claim about the alleged risks of vaccines is disproven, anti-vaxxers come up with new ones; some of the wrong claims about corona vaccines that are currently circulated had in fact also been used against different vaccines before.

Professor Hotez emphasized the need to understand such “anti-science aggression” in all its dimensions, including socio-economic inequality, politics, and geopolitics. The patterns of aggression, he argued, resemble those made by authoritarians against scientists in the 1930s and 40s. In a recent Nature world-view article published in April 2021, Hotez highlighted confronting anti-vax aggression and stated that “Accurate, targeted counter messaging from the global health community is important but insufficient.”

In the webinar’s Q&A, he also called for scientists to communicate with a broader audience in a clear and respectful way, and for universities to recognize and support such work. The greatest challenge, he argued, is to detached anti-scientism from right-wing politics, where it is becoming more and more mainstream. The problem with this specific issue is that it works as a dogma and thus, communication and discussion using scientific data might not be sufficient to address them.

Professor Hotez suggested to put infrastructure and efforts towards combating anti-science as is done for other challenges such as cybercrime and climate change. He also highlighted the need to develop vaccines with high industrial scalability potential and capability to deliver the required numbers of doses globally to counter geopolitical challenges. In recent times, social media can be held responsible for spreading the dis/misinformation but cannot be blamed for generating the information, and hence, we need to get to the source of the disinformation and find ways to counter the same. Young scientists need to equip themselves with science communication skills, now more than ever. The need of the hour is to change the culture of science, such that scientist are more comfortable in communicating and defending their research.

The second speaker, Claire Nevacheis a political scientist specialized in human rights, working as a research associate at the International Center of Political and Social Studies (CIEPS), Panama, and with professional experience in Central America, South America and Europe. She studies conservative political movements and how they impact public policies in Latin America. In her talk titled “Understanding vaccines skepticism in Panama”, Claire described the influence of a positivistic understanding of science on Latin American societies.

According to such an understanding, science is associated with progress and modernity, and all criticisms of science are understood as irrational. Nevache argued that it is a mistake to see the notions of rationality and irrationality as a strict dichotomy, as there are multiplicities of rationality and irrationality, and we may miss several social factors, especially within complex societies, if we assume a back and white picture. Neither the harm done in the name of science, for example in ethically problematic medical experiments, nor the possibility of other rationalities, are acknowledged in this picture.

Nevache argued that science skepticism or hesitancy should not be considered as “only” irrational. They often have multiple societal and economic causes which need to be identified, studied, and acknowledged. In pluralist societies, and in particular in the highly unequal societies of Latin America, the different logics that prevail in different social groups need to be taken seriously to increase exchange and discussion on scientific and societal issues, and thus trust in science by the ones currently left behind.

According to a recent study, science skepticism in Panama varies massively depending on people’s socio-economic background. For disadvantaged individuals who have to work every day to cover their daily needs, suffering from the side-effects of a vaccination, especially, in the current COVID19 pandemic situation, can be a daunting prospect, because they would lose their income if they cannot go to work and have no insurance coverage. Such issues, but also questions about the profits of vaccine companies, the geopolitical dimensions of vaccine policies, or the inequities on vaccine access between countries and regions, need to be honestly answered by scientists to gain trust, Nevache argued.

She also emphasised that scientists need to break out the frame of “rationality vs. irrationality”, and acknowledge that science (like any human activity) is never value-free. When answering one of the questions posed to her, she suggested avoiding confusion among the public that can arise from conflicting view from various scientists being publicly aired. While we are in the midst of the pandemic, she suggested, it might be advisable for scientists with controversial findings to take a step back, reflect on their findings, communicate with the relevant public offices, and leave the communication with the broader public to these offices.

The third speaker, Dr. Bankole Falade, is a social psychologist working at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, and as a visiting fellow at the LSE, UK. He works on science and health communication, science and beliefs and African studies of public understanding of science, health and disease. In his presentation “Selling science in the Risk Society”, he started by describing patterns of vaccine resistance over time, since the first starts in the 19th century, emphasizing that certain patterns, such as wrong claims about infertility or “neurological complications,” have come up again and again against different vaccines. He argued that from a social psychological perspective, it needs to be recognized that different groups in society deal different with risks, e.g. adopting innovations early on or lagging behind. Rejection can be very specific, e.g. concerning certain vaccines but not others. It is possible to have a good understanding and still reject the message. Resistance to scientific notions is not only driven by probabilistic factors (e.g. science) but also experiential factors (feelings).

Dr. Falade argued that in order to overcome resistance, it is necessary to understand the position somebody comes from, as well as the social and cultural context and the economic constraints that individuals face. Mutual understanding via engagement, dialogue, popularization, and participation may be a step towards overcoming resistance. Attempts to manipulate public opinion through “public relations” or strategies of nudging raise various ethical issues. Instead, science communication needs to be about finding out where others stand, to engage in real dialogue with others. We need to revisit the communication that we are engaged in and tone down the language for a levelled discussion.

In the Q&A, participants and speakers discussed further about differences between different world regions and the different cultural backgrounds of science skepticisms. They discussed to what extent scientific disagreement should be aired publicly, and how to deal with the fact that in a globalized world, communication travels fast. Sandra Lopez concluded by emphasizing the need for scientific integrity and sensitivity to cultural and historical contexts on the part of scientists, in order to allow for trust among different publics.

Some key “lessons learned” were:

  • Different fields of research – natural, medical, social sciences and humanities – need to collaborate to understand the causes of anti-science and to develop effective strategies against them. Social scientists need to address vaccine skepticism with the same urgency as medical scientists.
  • Scientists need to understand the social and cultural contexts when engaging in science communication, in order to find the right communicative approaches.
  • Scientists have a responsibility to think about the ways in which they communicate with a broader public and the signals they send.
  • In the words of the three speakers: “Data and evidence alone may not help the cause”, “Data only may not be helpful in countering vaccine skepticism and hesitancy” and “Quite often science is just not enough.”