We believe in the social responsibilities of scientists
Because of the social nature of science, the dissemination of scientific information is crucial to its progress. Scientists can help the public and its representatives to assess the possible effects of projected policies. In our present era, however, individuals constantly evaluate their position and they prefer to make up their own mind, based on the information that is available to them. The Internet provides them access to a World Library of data and opinions. And the media enthusiastically try to soothe that craving for information. Columnists, bloggers, politicians and other opinion makers are omnipresent on television, in the newspapers and on the Internet. Opinions and choices are constantly challenged. Decisions of high social relevance are ‘tested’ in street interviews… After all, controversy sells. But what if the mainstream information turns out to be wrong or inconsistent? What if different messages contradict? Mixed messages threaten to confuse the public and to undermine rational and science-based regulation. Confused people are also less likely to comply with expert health advice. They are prone to ignore advice about behaviours for which there is no ambiguity that they lower disease risk, such as vaccination.
We believe in science to improve public health
Disagreements will always remain an essential feature of the scientific endeavour and controversies can prove a powerful driver in science. Disagreements, however, exist in many forms…
When only one side of a story is heard and often repeated, it will determine the public opinion. When that side of the story appears to be wrong, the scientific community has the moral obligation to join forces and to counter any misleading messages with better data and stronger analyses.
In modern society, different actors attempt to influence and determine the agenda of authorities, organizations, specific social groups and individuals, either to sell a product or a service, to build an image or to gain support for an opinion. Media, institutions and corporations therefore use communication techniques that lead others to accept one meaning over another. One of these techniques is often referred to as ‘framing’. It means that a communicator emphasizes one dimension of a complex issue over another, calling attention to certain considerations and certain arguments more so than other arguments. Obviously, scientific data can play a significant role in framing, since they can be used as an objective and rational argument to support a specific message or position. Scientific data, however, can also provoke confusion when different sets of data or research results appear to be conflicting. Or when data appear to be insufficient to support a specific position and communication thus builds on an incomplete picture. In both cases, science is ‘misframed’, creating confusing which obviously heavily contradicts with the principles of the scientific endeavour.
Public health issues are typically complex and also have a lot of uncertainty about the causes and the best approaches to solutions. This complexity and uncertainty leaves room for specific actors (often large corporations) to ‘frame’ the issue to serve their (commercial) benefits instead of the social, public benefit. The tobacco industry, for instance, funds medical and other research intended to serve its lobbying strategies and to advance its ultimate goal of selling its unhealthy products. Anti-vaccination lobbies deliberately misconstrue information to suit their own ends. Junk food purveyors create diversions or introduce irrelevancies to diffuse the debate.