Today's growing distrust of science is not an academic problem. It can be a matter of life and death.
Take, for example, the tragic incident in 2016 when at least 10 U.S. children died and over 400 were sickened after they tried homeopathic teething medicine laced with a poisonous herb called "deadly nightshade." Carried by CVS, Walgreens, and other major American pharmacies, the pills contained this poison based on the alternative medicine principle of homeopathy, the treatment of medical conditions by tiny doses of natural substances that produce symptoms of disease.
Such "alternative medicines" take advantage of the lack of government regulation and people's increasing hostility toward science.
Such "alternative medicines" take advantage of the lack of government regulation and people's increasing hostility toward science. Polling shows that the number of people who believe that science has "made life more difficult" increased by 50 percent from 2009 to 2015. According to a 2017 survey, only 35 percent of respondents have "a lot" of trust in scientists; the number of people who do "not at all" trust scientists increased by over 50 percent from a similar poll conducted in December 2013.
Children dying from deadly nightshade is only one consequence of this crisis of trust. For another example, consider the false claim that vaccines cause autism. This belief has spread widely across the US, and led to a host of problems. For instance, measles was practically eliminated in the US by 2000. However, in recent years outbreaks of measles have been on the rise, driven by parents failing to vaccinate their children in a number of communities.
The Internet Is for… Misinformation
The rise of the Internet, and more recently social media, is key to explaining the declining public confidence in science.
Before the Internet, the information accessible to the general public about any given topic usually came from experts. For instance, researchers on autism were invited to talk on mainstream media, they wrote encyclopedia articles, and they authored books distributed by large publishers.
The Internet has enabled anyone to be a publisher of content, connecting people around the world with any and all sources of information. On the one hand, this freedom is empowering and liberating, with Wikipedia a great example of a highly-curated and accurate source on the vast majority of subjects. On the other, anyone can publish a blog piece making false claims about links between vaccines and autism or the effectiveness of homeopathic medicine. If they are skilled at search engine optimization, or have money to invest in advertising, they can get their message spread widely. Russia has done so extensively to influence elections outside of its borders, whether in the E.U. or the U.S.
Unfortunately, research shows that people lack the skills for differentiating misinformation from true information. This lack of skills has clear real-world effects: U.S. adults believed 75 percent of fake news stories about the 2016 US Presidential election. The more often someone sees a piece of misinformation, the more likely they are to believe it.
To make matters worse, we all suffer from a series of thinking errors such as the confirmation bias, our tendency to look for and interpret information in ways that conform to our intuitions.
Blogs with falsehoods are bad enough, but the rise of social media has made the situation even worse. Most people re-share news stories without reading the actual article, judging the quality of the story by the headline and image alone. No wonder research has indicated that misinformation spreads as much as 10 times faster and further on social media than true information. After all, creators of fake news are free to devise the most appealing headline and image, while credible sources of information have to stick to factual headlines and images.
To make matters worse, we all suffer from a series of thinking errors such as the confirmation bias, our tendency to look for and interpret information in ways that conform to our intuitions and preferences, as opposed to the facts. Our inherent thinking errors combined with the Internet's turbine power has exploded the prevalence of misinformation.
So it's no wonder we see troubling gaps between what scientists and the public believe about issues like climate change, evolution, genetically modified organisms, and vaccination.
What Can We Do?
Fortunately, there are proactive steps we can take to address the crisis of trust in science and academia. The Pro-Truth Pledge, founded by a group of behavioral science experts (including myself) and concerned citizens, calls on public figures, organizations, and private citizens to commit to 12 behaviors listed on the pledge website that research in behavioral science shows correlate with truthfulness.
Signers are held accountable through a crowdsourced reporting and evaluation mechanism while getting reputational rewards because of their commitment. The scientific consensus serves as a key measure of credibility, and the pledge encourages pledge-takers to recognize the opinions of experts - especially scientists - as more likely to be true when the facts are disputed.
The pledge "really does seem to change one's habits," encouraging signers to have attitudes "of honesty and moral sincerity."
Launched in December 2016, the pledge has surprising traction. Over 6200 private citizens took the pledge. So did more than 500 politicians, including members of US state legislatures Eric Nelson (PA), James White (TX), and Ogden Driskell (WY), and national politicians such as members of U.S. Congress Beto O'Rourke (TX), Matt Cartwright (PA), and Marcia Fudge (OH). Over 700 other public figures, such as globally-known public intellectuals Peter Singer, Steven Pinker, Michael Shermer, and Jonathan Haidt, took the pledge, as well as 70 organizations such as Media Bias/Fact Check, Fugitive Watch, Earth Organization for Sustainability, and One America Movement.
The pledge is effective in changing behaviors. A candidate for Congress, Michael Smith, took the Pro-Truth Pledge. He later posted on his Facebook wall a screenshot of a tweet by Donald Trump criticizing minority and disabled children. However, after being called out that the tweet was a fake, he went and searched Trump's feed. He could not find the original tweet, and while Trump may have deleted it, the candidate edited his own Facebook post to say, "Due to a Truth Pledge I have taken, I have to say I have not been able to verify this post." He indicated that he would be more careful with future postings.
U.S. Army veteran and pledge-taker John Kirbow described how the pledge "really does seem to change one's habits," helping push him both to correct his own mistakes with an "attitude of humility and skepticism, and of honesty and moral sincerity," and also to encourage "friends and peers to do so as well."
His experience is confirmed by research on the pledge. Two research studies at Ohio State University demonstrated the effectiveness of the pledge in changing the behavior of pledge-takers to be more truthful with a strong statistical significance.
Taking the pledge yourself, and encouraging people you know and your elected representatives to do the same, is an easy and effective way to fight misinformation and to promote a culture that values the truth.
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.