The Internet has made it easier than ever to misguide people. The anti-vaxx movement, climate change denial, protests against stem cell research, and other movements like these are rooted in the spread of misinformation and a distrust of science.
"I had been taught intelligent design and young-earth creationism instead of evolution, geology, and biology."
Science illiteracy is pervasive in the communities responsible for these movements. For the mainstream, the challenge lies not in sharing the facts, but in combating the spread of misinformation and facilitating an open dialogue between experts and nonexperts.
I grew up in a household that was deeply skeptical of science and medicine. My parents are evangelical Christians who believe the word of the Bible is law. To protect my four siblings and me from secular influence, they homeschooled some of us and put the others in private Christian schools. When my oldest brother left for a Christian college and the tuition began to add up, I was placed in a public charter school to offset the costs.
There, I became acutely aware of my ignorant upbringing. I had been taught intelligent design and young-earth creationism instead of evolution, geology, and biology. My mother skipped over world religions, and much of my history curriculum was more biblical-based than factual. She warned me that stem cell research, vaccines, genetic modification of crops, and other areas of research in biological science were examples of humans trying to be like God. At the time, biologist Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion was a bestseller and science seemed like an excuse to not believe in God, so she and my father discouraged me from studying it.
The gaps in my knowledge left me feeling frustrated and embarrassed. The solution was to learn about the things that had been censored from my education, but several obstacles stood in the way.
"When I first learned about fundamentalism, my parents' behavior finally made sense."
I lacked a good foundation in basic mathematics after being taught by my mother, who never graduated college. My father, who holds a graduate degree in computer science, repeatedly told me that I inherited my mother's "bad math genes" and was therefore ill-equipped for science. While my brothers excelled at math under his supervision and were even encouraged toward careers in engineering and psychology, I was expected to do well in other subjects, such as literature. When I tried to change this by enrolling in honors math and science classes, they scolded me -- so reluctantly, I dropped math. By the time I graduated high school, I was convinced that math and science were beyond me.
When I look back at my high school transcripts, that sense of failure was unfounded: my grades were mostly A's and B's, and I excelled in honors biology. Even my elementary standardized test scores don't reflect a student disinclined toward STEM, because I consistently scored in the top percentile for sciences. Teachers often encouraged me to consider studying science in college. Why then, I wondered, did my parents reject that idea? Why did they work so hard to sway me from that path? It wasn't until I moved away from my parents' home and started working to put myself through community college that I discovered my passion for both biology and science writing.
As a young adult venturing into the field of science communication, I've become fascinated with understanding communities that foster antagonistic views toward science. When I first learned about fundamentalism, my parents' behavior finally made sense. It is the foundation of the Religious Right, a right-wing Christian group which heavily influences the Republican party in the United States. The Religious Right crusades against secular education, stem cell research, abortion, evolution, and other controversial issues in science and medicine on the basis that they contradict Christian beliefs. They are quietly overturning the separation of church and state in order to enforce their religion as policy -- at the expense of science and progress.
Growing up in this community, I learned that strong feelings about these issues arise from both a lack of science literacy and a distrust of experts. Those who are against genetic modification of crops don't understand that GMO research aims to produce more, and longer-lasting, food for a growing planet. The anti-vaxx movement is still relying on a deeply flawed study that was ultimately retracted. Those who are against stem cell research don't understand how it works or the important benefits it provides the field of medicine, such as discovering new treatment methods.
In fact, at one point the famous Christian radio show Focus on the Family spread anti-vaxx mentality when they discussed vaccines that, long ago, were derived from aborted fetal cells. Although Focus on the Family now endorses vaccines, at the time it was enough to convince my own mother, who listened to the show every morning, not to vaccinate us unless the law required it.
"In everyday interactions with skeptics, science communicators need to shift their focus from convincing to discussing."
We can help clear up misunderstandings by sharing the facts, but the real challenge lies in willful ignorance. It was hard for me to accept, but I've come to understand that I'm not going to change anyone's mind. It's up to an individual to evaluate the facts, consider the arguments for and against, and make his or her own decision.
As my parents grew older and my siblings and I introduced them to basic concepts in science, they came around to trusting the experts a little more. They now see real doctors instead of homeopathic practitioners. They acknowledge our world's changing climate instead of denying it. And they even applaud two of their children for pursuing careers in science. Although they have held on to their fundamentalism and we still disagree on many issues, these basic changes give me hope that people in deeply skeptical communities are not entirely out of reach.
In everyday interactions with skeptics, science communicators need to shift their focus from convincing to discussing. This means creating an open dialogue with the intention of being understanding and helpful, not persuasive. This approach can be beneficial in both personal and online interactions. There are people within these movements who have doubts, and their doubts will grow as we continue to feed them through discussion.
People will only change their minds when it is the right time for them to do so. We need to be there ready to hold their hand and lead them toward truth when they reach out. Until then, all we can do is keep the channels of communication open, keep sharing the facts, and fight the spread of misinformation. Science is the pursuit of truth, and as scientists and science communicators, sometimes we need to let the truth speak for itself. We're just there to hold the megaphone.
In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan switched the residents' water supply to the Flint river, citing cheaper costs. However, due to improper filtering, lead contaminated this water, and according to the Associated Press, many of the city's residents soon reported health issues like hair loss and rashes. In 2015, a report found that children there had high levels of lead in their blood. The National Resource Defense Council recently discovered there could still be as many as twelve million lead pipes carrying water to homes across the U.S.
What if Flint residents and others in afflicted areas could simply flick water onto their phone screens and an app would tell them if they were about to drink contaminated water? This is what researchers at the University of Cambridge are working on to prevent catastrophes like what occurred in Flint, and to prepare for an uncertain future of scarcer resources.
Underneath the tough glass of our phone screen lies a transparent layer of electrodes. Because our bodies hold an electric charge, when our finger touches the screen, it disrupts the electric field created among the electrodes. This is how the screen can sense where a touch occurs. Cambridge scientists used this same idea to explore whether the screen could detect charges in water, too. Metals like arsenic and lead can appear in water in the form of ions, which are charged particles. When the ionic solution is placed on the screen's surface, the electrodes sense that charge like how they sense our finger.
Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose.
The experiment measured charges in various electrolyte solutions on a touchscreen. The researchers found that a thin polymer layer between the electrodes and the sample solution helped pick up the charges.
"How can we get really close to the touch electrodes, and be better than a phone screen?" Horstmann, the lead scientist on the study, asked himself while designing the protective coating. "We found that when we put electrolytes directly on the electrodes, they were too close, even short-circuiting," he said. When they placed the polymer layer on top the electrodes, however, this short-circuiting did not occur. Horstmann speaks of the polymer layer as one of the key findings of the paper, as it allowed for optimum conductivity. The coating they designed was much thinner than what you'd see with a typical smartphone touchscreen, but because it's already so similar, he feels optimistic about the technology's practical applications in the real world.
While the Cambridge scientists were using touchscreens to measure water contamination, Dr. Baojun Wang, a synthetic biologist at the University of Edinburgh, along with his team, created a way to measure arsenic contamination in Bangladesh groundwater samples using what is called a cell-based biosensor. These biosensors use cornerstones of cellular activity like transcription and promoter sequences to detect the presence of metal ions in water. A promoter can be thought of as a "flag" that tells certain molecules where to begin copying genetic code. By hijacking this aspect of the cell's machinery and increasing the cell's sensing and signal processing ability, they were able to amplify the signal to detect tiny amounts of arsenic in the groundwater samples. All this was conducted in a 384-well plate, each well smaller than a pencil eraser.
They placed arsenic sensors with different sensitivities across part of the plate so it resembled a volume bar of increasing levels of arsenic, similar to diagnostics on a Fitbit or glucose monitor. The whole device is about the size of an iPhone, and can be scaled down to a much smaller size.
Dr. Wang says cell-based biosensors are bringing sensing technology closer to field applications, because their machinery uses inherent cellular activity. This makes them ideal for low-resource communities, and he expects his device to be affordable, portable, and easily stored for widespread use in households.
"It hasn't worked on actual phones yet, but I don't see any reason why it can't be an app," says Horstmann of their technology. Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose. But industry collaborations will be crucial to making their advancements practical. The scientists anticipate that without collaborative efforts from the business sector, the public might have to wait ten years until this becomes something all our smartphones are capable of—but with the right partners, "it could go really quickly," says Dr. Elizabeth Hall, one of the authors on the touchscreen water contamination study.
"That's where the science ends and the business begins," Dr. Hall says. "There is a lot of interest coming through as a result of this paper. I think the people who make the investments and decisions are seeing that there might be something useful here."
As for Flint, according to The Detroit News, the city has entered the final stages in removing lead pipe infrastructure. It's difficult to imagine how many residents might fare better today if they'd had the technology that scientists are now creating.
Of all its tragedy, COVID-19 has increased demand for at-home testing methods, which has carried over to non-COVID-19-related devices. Various testing efforts are now in the public eye.
"I like that the public is watching these directions," says Horstmann. "I think there's a long way to go still, but it's exciting."
A natural material that looks and feels like real leather is taking the fashion world by storm. Scientists view mycelium—the vegetative part of a mushroom-producing fungus—as a planet-friendly alternative to animal hides and plastics.
Products crafted from this vegan leather are emerging, with others poised to hit the market soon. Among them are the Hermès Victoria bag, Lululemon's yoga accessories, Adidas' Stan Smith Mylo sneaker, and a Stella McCartney apparel collection.
The Adidas' Stan Smith Mylo concept sneaker, made in partnership with Bolt Threads, uses an alternative leather grown from mycelium; a commercial version is expected in the near future.
Hermès has held presales on the new bag, says Philip Ross, co-founder and chief technology officer of MycoWorks, a San Francisco Bay area firm whose materials constituted the design. By year-end, Ross expects several more clients to debut mycelium-based merchandise. With "comparable qualities to luxury leather," mycelium can be molded to engineer "all the different verticals within fashion," he says, particularly footwear and accessories.
More than a half-dozen trailblazers are fine-tuning mycelium to create next-generation leather materials, according to the Material Innovation Initiative, a nonprofit advocating for animal-free materials in the fashion, automotive, and home-goods industries. These high-performance products can supersede items derived from leather, silk, down, fur, wool, and exotic skins, says A. Sydney Gladman, the institute's chief scientific officer.
That's only the beginning of mycelium's untapped prowess. "We expect to see an uptick in commercial leather alternative applications for mycelium-based materials as companies refine their R&D [research and development] and scale up," Gladman says, adding that "technological innovation and untapped natural materials have the potential to transform the materials industry and solve the enormous environmental challenges it faces."
In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long. We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal."
Reducing our carbon footprint becomes possible because mycelium can flourish in indoor farms, using agricultural waste as feedstock and emitting inherently low greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas. "We often think that when plant tissues like wood rot, that they go from something to nothing," says Jonathan Schilling, professor of plant and microbial biology at the University of Minnesota and a member of MycoWorks' Scientific Advisory Board.
But that assumption doesn't hold true for all carbon in plant tissues. When the fungi dominating the decomposition of plants fulfill their function, they transform a large portion of carbon into fungal biomass, Schilling says. That, in turn, ends up in the soil, with mycelium forming a network underneath that traps the carbon.
Unlike the large amounts of fossil fuels needed to produce styrofoam, leather and plastic, less fuel-intensive processing is involved in creating similar materials with a fungal organism. While some fungi consist of a single cell, others are multicellular and develop as very fine threadlike structures. A mass of them collectively forms a "mycelium" that can be either loose and low density or tightly packed and high density. "When these fungi grow at extremely high density," Schilling explains, "they can take on the feel of a solid material such as styrofoam, leather or even plastic."
Tunable and supple in the cultivation process, mycelium is also reliably sturdy in composition. "We believe that mycelium has some unique attributes that differentiate it from plastic-based and animal-derived products," says Gavin McIntyre, who co-founded Ecovative Design, an upstate New York-based biomaterials company, in 2007 with the goal of displacing some environmentally burdensome materials and making "a meaningful impact on our planet."
After inventing a type of mushroom-based packaging for all sorts of goods, in 2013 the firm ventured into manufacturing mycelium that can be adapted for textiles, he says, because mushrooms are "nature's recycling system."
The company aims for its material—which is "so tough and tenacious" that it doesn't require any plastic add-on as reinforcement—to be generally accessible from a pricing standpoint and not confined to a luxury space. The cost, McIntyre says, would approach that of bovine leather, not the more upscale varieties of lamb and goat skins.
Already, production has taken off by leaps and bounds. In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long," he says. "We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal," so there's a much lower scrap rate.
Decreasing the scrap rate is a major selling point. "Our customers can order the pieces to the way that they want them, and there is almost no waste in the processing," explains Ross of MycoWorks. "We can make ours thinner or thicker," depending on a client's specific needs. Growing materials locally also results in a reduction in transportation, shipping, and other supply chain costs, he says.
Yet another advantage to making things out of mycelium is its biodegradability at the end of an item's lifecycle. When a pair of old sneakers lands in a compost pile or landfill, it decomposes thanks to microbial processes that, once again, involve fungi. "It is cool to think that the same organism used to create a product can also be what recycles it, perhaps building something else useful in the same act," says biologist Schilling. That amounts to "more than a nice business model—it is a window into how sustainability works in nature."
A product can be called "sustainable" if it's biodegradable, leaves a minimal carbon footprint during production, and is also profitable, says Preeti Arya, an assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and faculty adviser to a student club of the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, products composed of petroleum-based polymers don't biodegrade—they break down into smaller pieces or even particles. These remnants pollute landfills, oceans, and rivers, contaminating edible fish and eventually contributing to the growth of benign and cancerous tumors in humans, Arya says.
Commending the steps a few designers have taken toward bringing more environmentally conscious merchandise to consumers, she says, "I'm glad that they took the initiative because others also will try to be part of this competition toward sustainability." And consumers will take notice. "The more people become aware, the more these brands will start acting on it."
A further shift toward mycelium-based products has the capability to reap tremendous environmental dividends, says Drew Endy, associate chair of bioengineering at Stanford University and president of the BioBricks Foundation, which focuses on biotechnology in the public interest.
The continued development of "leather surrogates on a scaled and sustainable basis will provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people, in perpetuity," Endy says. "Transitioning the production of leather goods from a process that involves the industrial-scale slaughter of vertebrate mammals to a process that instead uses renewable fungal-based manufacturing will be more just."