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.
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.