“Science Wars” Are Not New: How to Navigate Credible Science vs. Conspiracy Theory

It’s confusing being a member of today’s society. Competing headlines reinforce our belief systems or confuse us, raise questions like: can I trust our government agencies, can I trust companies to do the right thing, and can I trust the media? They are all fair questions and need to be handled carefully.

It’s clear from all that has transpired in the last decade that our country is confused about science (and the media) and the role they should play in guiding decisions for government leaders and companies. And more important, which science we should believe and act on. (Take our current coronavirus debacle as one salient example!)

This article is going to get you started with some honest, unbiased and hard truths to help you avoid becoming a conspiracy theorist (srsly people, “chem trails” are not a thing), while still knowing when to ask tough questions. We need to understand first how science works, in order to understand which science is “true”.

The key theme here is to use your critical thinking skills and if you start to become very black and white about things, making definitive statements, it’s time to take a deep breath and check yourself.

Science is true, whether or not you believe it

I believe that climate change is real, happening, and caused in large part by human activity. I also believe that certain (not all) chemicals can have harmful impacts on our health. But the thing about science is it’s not really about what I believe.

When facts are facts, they remain true whether or not we want to change our behavior.

Weight of evidence

With that being said, one study does not mean something is “scientific fact”, which is where we have a tendency to be a reactive culture that doesn’t really understand how science is supposed to work. The nature of science is that hypotheses are created and then tested using validated scientific methodologies and tests. Over time, the more people study something, you can start to find patterns and scientific trends. This is how we learned about how to heal the human body, how rain forms, and how our solar system works.

If a study hasn’t been replicated or it’s the first of its kind, please take flashy headlines in the media with a grain of salt. It’s important to look at the weight of evidence to see if there are patterns across the scientific community. This does not however mean that you should dismiss all science until there is official “consensus”. This is where things get into the nuanced territory and it can get confusing.

Stick with me…

An example:

There are papers called “scientific consensus papers” where leading researchers compile all of their peer reviewed literature and make a collective statement. These are credible (if the scientists are and the papers are peer-reviewed and published in credible journals). For example, there have been scientific consensus papers on how flame retardants can impair brain function, climate change impacts to our environment and how our use of fossil fuels is to blame, how formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen, and the impacts of hormone disrupting chemicals.

Where we get into bad territory is when one paper is published, the press write about the study, and people jump to conclusions.

Credible sources matter

The term “peer-review” is the gold standard of modern day science. What it means is that a researcher needs to have his or her work reviewed by a group of peers. These scientists spend a lot of time reviewing how the research was conducted, looking for failed methodologies that would skew results of the tests.

This type of science helps draw important conclusions around scientific concepts and lets us know that the science was valid, and not intentionally skewed by the author or company funding the study.

It is also what grounds the body of literature showing how toxic chemicals in our consumer products are contributing to a rise in certain chronic diseases. Not surprising, the chemical industry’s science which shows their toxic chemicals are safe hasn’t been peer reviewed (in most cases). Major medical institutions have created statements showing toxic chemicals in consumer products are a threat to human health. As you can see, the credibility and weight behind these organizations should not be ignored:

These are just a few examples of when you know there is scientific consensus around a topic.

Pro tip: If you’re reading an article about a scary scientific study, the study itself should be hyperlinked. Click on that link and see if it is published by a credible journal. It will be clear if that is a credible paper, as news outlets and blogs don’t have actual study details, author names, publication date etc.

Can we trust the media?

We’re led to believe that all media is biased and can’t be trusted, but playing into those sentiments can lead to scary territory. Let me explain.

First, our founding fathers of this country created a free press and the idea was that they would be an important form of checks and balances to our government. The whole point was that the press was supposed to go in to Congress, ask tough questions, and tell us what was happening. The press is supposed to be transparency at its finest—and we all love transparency right? There are still many news publications that abide by this principle and therefore all media can’t be dismissed.

Are major media conglomerates owned and controlled by people with certain political persuasions? Yes. Fox News is undoubtedly conservative in its reporting, and MSNBC is equally biased in favor of liberal ideologies. But not all media is hogwash. There are still many credible news organizations that abide by and follow journalistic code of ethics.

Case in point news outlets like the Washington Post, New York Times, PBS, National Public Radio, and others uphold and adhere their investigative reporting to high standards. Meaning editors won’t publish articles unless the sources are fully vetted, credible, and everything is fact checked, including editing to make sure there isn’t undue bias.

These papers have editorial boards (who write non-news articles that are opinions) and they have political leanings. For example the Washington Post has a conservative editorial board and the New York Times has a more liberal one. LET ME BE CLEAR, this does not mean that all of the news reporting (not editorial) from those publications is biased (which we often hear when people roll their eyes and say “The liberal New York Times”).

When we start to assume all media is corrupt and lying to us, it’s easy to turn to other websites, Youtube channels or faux news organizations that do not vet their sources or use real science to base arguments.

Watch out for promoted articles (aka “ads”) on social media & Youtube

The well respected journal the American Journal for Public Health looked at how and if foreign governments were influencing debates around science in the United States. They found that Russian bots and trolls have been used to promote discord in the United States around key scientific issues, and this has been confirmed by other various publications. You can read the journal article for yourself here.

In addition, Facebook and Youtube have been the target of promoting content to “manufacture doubt” around key scientific concepts: climate change, nutrition, and much more. Many of these headlines are hard to decipher if they are from a credible source and are intended to seep into our minds as we scroll.

When you have time, watch this documentary Merchants of Doubt.

Science wars were started by the tobacco industry & are meant to sow seeds of doubt

It’s hard to believe that there were decades in which we didn’t know or think smoking caused lung cancer. In order to keep this notion alive in the minds of American consumers, the tobacco industry learned that if they presented counter science to what was being studied by real scientists, they could create enough confusion amongst consumers to allow them to shrug their shoulders and keep smoking. This concept around “dueling science” has been long replicated by the chemical industry, oil industry, and has successfully worked to further discredit scientists and public health organizations.

This opposing science has also been used in Congress, state legislatures and court rooms across North America to win cases and kill public health protective bills.

Example 1:

Here’s a great example, an organization with a very credible sounding name the American Council on Science and Health. As it turns out, leaked internal documents show that this organization is funded by the very industries it is seeking to defend: big oil, fast food chains, pharma, chemical and pesticide companies.

They have long criticized non-profit organizations working to protect public health from toxic chemicals. In particular they have written slam pieces targeting the Environmental Working Group (one title is “Dear EWG, This is Why Real Scientists Think Poorly of You“).

The ACSH is in the business of creating doubt. How do they define “real scientists”? Those that are bank rolled by industry? Sorry… we’re smarter than that.

Example 2:

According to NASA, 97% of climate scientists indicate global warming is happening and humans are to blame. This is based on decades worth of independent research, culminating in what’s called “scientific consensus”. And yet the oil and gas industry has been publishing “counter science” that then gets shared in the news media creating confusion amongst Americans where there is no confusion amongst scientists. You can start to see how these science wars start to impact our daily decisions or lack of action.

Example 3:

BPA (bisphenol A) is a chemical used to make hard rigid plastics and the liners of canned food. I helped pass the nation’s first law to ban BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups back in 2009 and we spent three legislative sessions trying to pass the bill. What took so long? The chemical industry flew in faux scientists from the chemical industry to testify at every hearing. What they were doing was presenting counter science, to create doubt and scare legislators from making the right decision.

Good news, we finally won, and now BPA is banned at the federal level.

Nothing is black and white

As I wrote in this article When to Believe the Hype: Navigating Scary Headlines, I’m not an absolutists. I don’t think wearing a bra will give you breast cancer, but I also don’t want chemicals linked to breast cancer in my night cream. Sounds reasonable right? And it’s backed by science.

I walk or bike to work and reduce my meat consumption because climate change is real and wreaking havoc on our health and environment and economy.

I know this article is long, and I’m not sure if you’re still reading, but thank you for taking the time and having the curiosity to think deeply about how we can be a nation of people who understand science. Who ask hard questions and push our friends and family to do the same.

I don’t blame anyone and don’t claim to be perfect. I’m just someone who has spent her career fighting to protect people and the environment from threats that are real and backed by science. I hope you too can use the best available science as your guiding light.

My go to resource for credible news on health and the environment

I subscribe to the daily news digest from Environmental Health News, it’s called Above the Fold. While it’s not for the faint of heart, this credible organization reads through news headlines from trusted sources discussing important and vetted scientific topics. You can subscribe here or check their website when you’re looking for a science fix.

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