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How scientific facts are being drowned out on social media

Criodan talks about the anti-vaccination and climate change denial movement and why they're so dangerous


Written by Criodán Ó Murchú and posted in opinion


This is an opinion of a young person and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of SpunOut.ie. It is one person's experience and may be different for you. If you'd like to write something for SpunOut.ie please contact editor@spunout.ie.


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I’m a sceptical person by nature. I struggle to believe anything at face value and I find it difficult to just take someone’s word for something. I like evidence. I like facts. In science, facts and information are currency. They pave the way to new discoveries, new inventions, improvements and more. Quite often some of the things I learn are difficult to get my head around. I can’t just absorb what I’m taught. I have to go back home and do more reading and study. It’s not easy but it’s worth it. I love learning and finding out new information.

Recently, I’ve been angered and shocked at the vocal minority that has taken it upon themselves to dispute science and experts with their own “facts”. With the ease of social media outreach, these incorrect ideas seep their way through people’s newsfeeds and unconscious. Whether we realise it or not, we are exposed to incorrect information. We are exposed to anecdotes, not fact. We are exposed to people who don’t have a good understanding of science. These are the people who scare me the most. People who manipulate knowledge or attempt to discuss a topic which they really do not understand.

It is perfectly understandable to not know much about some topics. I, for one, know very little about history and would never attempt to dispute a historian. Another example is if I were to dispute a painter over the correct technique or type of paint to use – I haven’t a clue. I don’t mind not knowing. It’s impossible to know everything; jack of all trades, master of none sort of thing.

While these areas are somewhat open to interpretation – people have different painting preferences and some historians may believe people's motives to be different – science does not allow for these differences

Science is not about being correct, it is about reducing uncertainty. However, with that reduction, we have come a long way. We build huge skyscrapers, we fly planes across continents, you can use our phone for so many, the antibiotics you take for your chest infection work. It’s impossible to dispute these facts.

In the past few months I’ve noticed a few topics that have really upset me. One is the anti-vaccination (anti-vax) movement. Another is climate change deniers.

Anti-Vaccinations

This controversy of vaccines causing ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) and other abnormalities in children started in 1998 with the publication of a fraudulent research paper in the medical journal “The Lancet” by Andrew Wakefield, an English doctor, who claimed that autism spectrum disorders  is linked to the combined MMR vaccine. By the time the paper was finally retracted 12 years later, few people could deny that it was seriously flawed both scientifically and ethically. Wakefield was later found guilty by the General Medical Council of serious professional misconduct in May 2010 and was struck off the medical register, removing his ability to practice medicine in England. However, it was too late. The misinformation had dug itself into the minds of many. A rise in celebrities promoting anti-vaccination rhetoric and the publishing of multiple books advising parents not to vaccinate their children has led to an increase in the number of vaccine preventable illnesses as well as an increase in the number of vaccine preventable deaths. People such as Katie Hopkins and Gwyneth Paltrow have publicly criticised vaccinations. People who do not understand how vaccines work are are easily susceptible to this misinformation.. It is an unfortunate consequence of the modern world and modern social media that allows this mismanagement of incorrect information.

Another item anti-vaxxers love to harp on about is vaccines containing mercury. Vaccines may contain a compound called ‘thiomersal’ which contains a mercury atom. This compound is used to prevent bacteria and fungi growth whilst the vaccine is in storage. It is not the same as ingesting methylmercury which is a poisonous organometallic (organo – organic; contains carbon atoms, metallic; contains a metal i.e. mercury). Elements can have very different uses and reactions depending on what they’re involved in. Other examples include

Chlorine: Poisonous gas used a weapon of mass destruction in the World Wars. It is also used to disinfect the water you drink and the pools you swim in.

Fluorine: Again, a poisonous gas and also used in toothpaste and water supply to strengthen tooth enamel.

Climate change denial

Climate change denial is a real bug-bearer of mine. I’ve written about it before so I won’t go too in-depth, but the arguments people create and ‘facts’ they produce are often correct scientific information, but the implications are entirely incorrect.

An example I saw recently was a video which discussed how methane gas was not as much of a problem to our atmosphere. The main reason for this, they concluded, was that methane is not as long lasting in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. While this statement is true, it implies that we don’t need to worry about methane.

Methane lasts about 10-15 years in the atmosphere compared to carbon dioxides’ ~200 year lifespan. The problem is people take that fact and run with it without doing any more research. Methane has a global warming potential 25-30 times greater than carbon dioxide. Methane is also converted into carbon dioxide – it doesn’t just go away after its’ 10-15 years. So, it does more damage initially and then contributes just the same after it has been converted.

While anti-vaccination and climate change are gigantic issues which we face everyday now, another issue arises from people's disregard for scientific fact and just the need to be correct. Many people are gullible especially to information sharing on social media. Everyone has a responsibility to research these topics in more depth if they’re going to talk about them and to trust the science. This is a problem we should concern ourselves with. We’re all in this together. If the boat we’re in is sinking and one person’s bailing, two people are throwing water back in and another one is just standing around asking for more proof or doesn’t believe the boat is sinking, we won’t be around much longer.

This article was written by a SpunOut.ie volunteer. Check out our volunteering opportunities here and get in touch if you’re interested in getting involved.

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Published Feb­ru­ary 1st2019
Last updated Feb­ru­ary 5th2019
Tags opinion climate change science vaccine facts fake news
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