The Truthiness of Vaccines and Autism, Y2K Meltdown ...and Toxic Biosolids
Vaccines cause autism! When the calendar rolls over to the year 2000 computer malfunctions will cause catastrophic breakdown of electricity and communications worldwide! Biosolids are toxic and should not be used as fertilizer!
Are these statements true? Or are they perceived as such because of their “truthiness[i]” established through repeated emphasis by speakers and writers whom the public trusts? (Truthiness being the quality of seeming to be true according to one’s intuition, opinion, or perception without regard to logic, factual evidence, or the like.) And if the statements are not true, why do some people still believe them? Perhaps because of fear.
We fear what we don’t know. In the past, we have looked to experts to mitigate our fears. Scientists, researchers, and inquirers of truth would tell us what we should and shouldn’t worry about. They told us that certain things were known and could be analyzed and therefore were not something to be feared. Scientific facts could be tested and found, through scientific inquiry, to be good, bad, or indifferent in terms of our well-being. Scientists were able to put our minds at ease since they were the ones looking at and working on the unknown for us. Through their research, they provided us with evidence of the truth and fact-based knowledge and their plans for handling the risks that we feared which would then mitigate our anxiety. We listened to them. We believed them. We trusted in their expertise and advice. Over time, our world became a safer, cleaner, healthier place to live. There were still some unknowns, but we had confidence that science – and, to an extent, our government – would figure out what to do and how to keep us safe going forward.
Unfortunately, that confidence has been shaken. In today’s digital age, we are now dealing with a new paradigm when it comes to scientific evidence and the public’s perception of it.
Today, the general public is applying the kind of debate that was once a mainstay of studies in the humanities to science. In fact, the very definition of “paradigm” has morphed from being used to describe a theory of science to describing any profound non-scientific change.[ii] Scientific facts have become suspect and often, when fueled by a negative multi-media blitz, the object of debate and derision by non-scientists. Through social media, public opinion can now gain rapid acceptance and belief despite lacking the support of scientific inquiry. Since the general population now gets much of its news and information from social media - which lends itself to hype and an often misleading array of “factual” bullet points - the public tends to believe those who can catch their attention or instill the most fear and suspicion. Facts be damned. “Truthiness” reigns.
This shift in trust from science fact to pseudo-science opinions has reached critical mass. You have only to open a paper or magazine or turn on your TV or computer to find numerous examples playing out in our society of popular opinions outweighing scientific facts: 15 years ago it was Year 2000 computer failure, recently we questioned the safety of vaccinations, and, in our sector, the safety of the beneficial use of biosolids. The deniers and doubters are often given as much voice and, therefore, perceived credibility as the scientists. How did this happen? What can we do about it?
The cover of the March 2015 issue of National Geographic is headlined “The War on Science.”[iii] The subtitles highlight very real debates in today’s media: Climate change does not exist. 9/11 was staged by the US government. The moon landing was faked. Vaccinations can lead to autism. Genetically modified food is evil. To that list we could add: Recycling biosolids is a health hazard. The lead article in this issue, entitled “The Age of Disbelief” by Joel Achenbach[iv], describes a real-time, frightening scenario in which people who THINK they are well-informed formulate their own beliefs based on what is easily and readily available online and through the media. The Internet’s “University of Google”[v] and its infinite store of data, scientifically based or not, has made it possible for people to research their own sources of misinformation (often unsupported by scientific inquiry) and find “experts” to back their fear- or suspicion-based theories. This can not only make them doubt scientific evidence, but can incite them to become very vocal about their viewpoints. As Achenbach said in the article, “Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts.”[vi]
Overall, the democratization of available information by the Internet is a good thing. It has resulted in more transparency in our society about government and social institutions. However, in the field of science, the public seems to want to believe what they hear from celebrities and from other dubious purveyors of unscientific “research” instead of listening to the scientists who have done actual research. True science is rooted in fact. We can’t deny facts just because we’d like to believe something else. But that is what the Internet has allowed people to do. And if enough people read and disseminate this pseudo-science, it reaches a point of consensus in public opinion which is then widely accepted as truth. But it is not truth. It is “truthiness.” The dangers of popular consensus vs. fact is evidenced in our sector by the influence of groups such as the United Sludge Free Alliance. Consensus does not prove scientific fact. Quite the opposite is true. Verifiable scientific data far outweighs popular consensus. But, sadly, the truth is often drowned out by the media blitz of the deniers and doubters in what has become a popular social media pastime. This “hobby” of scientific doubt not only undermines scientific facts but also the very real need to plan for our future based on those facts.
These doubters have an agenda. They are savvy in the ways of social media and how it can help promote their viewpoint. Scientists, on the other hand, do not have an ulterior motive to their research. They only want to find the truth and prove it to themselves and their peers. A scientist’s primary concern is not whether the public agrees with them but whether their work can be reproduced through the rigorous process of proof called the scientific method[vii] and be accepted by their peers – their equally well-educated peers. The application of the scientific method to the exploration of truth in any field roots out uncertainty and doubt and replaces it with reproducible peer-reviewed evidence. But scientific facts are not static. The quest for knowledge is never-ending in science. One proof or discovery often leads to more questions that beg to be answered by further scientific inquiry and testing. And so it goes. But just because there is a question raised does not negate the facts to date. Could the conclusion change in the future? Of course – if the FACTS disprove it. Not the opinions.
How can scientists, and those who know the facts, deal with this? One way is to educate the public about scientific thinking. Years ago, venerated institutions of higher education acted as the “gate-keepers” of scientific information, conducting research and controlling what was disseminated to the public. Today, many people are finding “truth” in unscientific places and putting as much weight on these claims as once was done with peer-reviewed reports generated through actual scientific research. In true science, we would dig deeper to see if those who profess to be experts are indeed what they say. Do they have degrees? Can they back up their claims with data and reproducible studies? If they can’t, we dismiss their claims. If they can, we take a closer look. Sometimes we don’t want to believe what is being proved, but if the facts support the claim, we must. But not everyone thinks like that. In today’s society, people reject what doesn’t fit into their own belief system and instead seek out “evidence” online that agrees with them.
In his article, Joel Achenbach spoke of the “science-communication business,” communication being the key word. Most people will not take the time to evaluate all the scientific evidence about an issue that they have heard about through social media. Nor does the general public seem to be able to distinguish between scientist and charlatan. If you spin a story well enough, you can sow the seeds of doubt about the truth and that is often all someone needs to turn away from the evidence. The louder doubters tend to win over public opinion to their side. Therefore, HOW you tell your story and get your message across is key to developing a following of believers. Facts just don’t cut it in a culture used to “infotainment.” Facts are dry, clear-cut, and true…but boring. So how will you get across the truth that biosolids are safe? One recommendation is to use a speaker that the audience trusts.
The National Geographic article cited studies that found that if you trust the speaker, you will be more likely to believe what they say. We must create an affinity for scientists and the scientific community – and for biosolids and the biosolids sector - before the public will believe and trust the facts. While the studies also warned against science communicators moving in the direction of advocacy (this may polarize listeners and detract from the facts), it was recommended that we get our message across in a straightforward, no-nonsense way from a trusted source. Think about who is delivering the message. Can the audience relate to them? If they can, they will be more likely to believe what they have to say.
The findings of Achenbach’s article also corroborate a major WERF study undertaken in the early 2000s by the North East Biosolids and Residuals Association (NEBRA) focusing on public perceptions of biosolids and how to work with the public[viii]. The study delved deeply into social science and provided understanding of the various reactions to biosolids recycling. It became clear that our profession needed to do a better job at working with communities in which we operate, adapting to meet local needs, focusing on the highest quality management practices, and communicating in ways that work for local people.
We must not take the claims of deniers lightly. Deniers and others with agendas tend to be louder and more insistent than scientists and focus their energy on spreading doubt. They don’t have to win with facts, but rather by creating doubt and delay. That’s usually enough to make people, who would have supported the scientists, back off and begin to doubt the facts. These pseudo-scientists are really public relations experts. In an NPR interview, Robby Kenner, the director of the documentary “Merchants of Doubt,” spoke of public relations firms whose policy it is to create doubt about scientific evidence not rebutting the facts, but rather by attacking the scientists themselves. And these public relations firms are good at what they do. It’s hard for scientists to compete at this level. Scientists believe that, since they have facts on their side, people will believe them. After all, they speak the truth! But it’s how they relate the truth that’s the issue. Scientists and those of us in the biosolids sector need to get better at selling the facts. In the social media world of hype vs. honesty, hype wins. This is a broader societal issue but it can have a profound effect on our lives and on the mission of those in the biosolids field who are trying to promote beneficial use. Therefore, we in the biosolids sector must learn how to believably tell our story through trustworthy messengers in order to disseminate the truth about the beneficial use of biosolids and to combat the hype of the opposition.
For example, in the biosolids sector, groups like the United Sludge Free Alliance see themselves as protectors of society. They sow doubt about the safety of beneficial use of biosolids and the public doesn’t take the time to research facts but rather reacts to negative sound bites and fear-mongering. Again, people tend to fear what they do not know. The deniers and doubters claim that the government and/or scientists are hiding the truth from us all. In today’s culture, it has become cool to disbelieve scientists. “…science doubt itself has become a pop-culture meme[ix]” and this plays into the public’s fear of being ostracized from their community. Peer pressure is powerful and if most of our peers become trendy doubters and deniers, so may we. We must engage the public by becoming part of their community so that they will accept the facts from someone they perceive to be trustworthy.
The problem of communication is an ongoing concern within the biosolids sector and must be addressed at all levels. How does this translate to individual wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) operators? How do we give scientific facts a voice, and a voice that will be believed? Here are some suggestions:
First of all, be sure to always make biosolids management decisions based on sound scientific concepts.
Biosolids Managers should then work locally to develop personal relationships with the community and encourage questions from the residents in the area that they serve.
Don’t hide the fact that a WWTP exists in the community. Instead, work to improve the image of the facility. We need to make the public like us. These plants exist to protect the health of the public.
WWTP managers are on the side of the residents. They, too, live in the community. They are concerned about everyone’s well-being.
Enlist the support of professors, firefighters and township supervisors in your area. Inform them about the beneficial use of biosolids. SHOW them. Conduct tours of the treatment facility and the farms where the biosolids are applied. Let them talk to WWTP operators and to the farmers who use biosolids on their crops.
Be open and transparent. Encourage questioning and tell the community that you’ll do your best to get answers to things you don’t know.
Know the historical perspective. Biosolids have been used for centuries. WWTPs became necessary for health reasons when populations began to concentrate in urban areas. They were built to protect water quality and public health. They continue to do so today but with the added benefit of safely recycling the never-ending resource of biosolids.
Of course there are unanswered questions in the field of biosolids research. It is no different than any other field of scientific inquiry. Questioning is the hallmark of a scientist. Don’t deny it. Be transparent. Acknowledge the unknowns (without dwelling on them) and be open about considering if extra testing may be needed. Perhaps we must conduct more long-term testing of biosolids in areas of farmland application, for instance, as well as the short-term analyses that are used before application to reassure the public of their safety. Explain that safety groups within the PADEP and USEPA are working in these areas. Scientists keep open minds and so should we. Our truth is based on the facts we have now. New data may change the way biosolids are applied or reused but - for now - we can only proceed based on facts. And that is the message that we must convey, honestly and with conviction, to the public.
Those of us in the biosolids sector must keep the focus on the facts, rather than let the public be swayed by deniers and doubters who have a personal agenda and the backing of public relation and social media gurus. Don’t fight their fight. Don’t engage at their level. Stick with scientific evidence that backs up your facts but, at the same time, work to develop relationships and the trust of the community until they are able to hear and believe the truth – biosolids recycling is a safe and sustainable method of handling this renewable resource.
[i] FROM DICTIONARY.COM: Truthiness [troo-thee-nis] noun. Coined by Stephen Colbert.
the quality of seeming to be true according to one's intuition, opinion,or perception without regard to logic, factual evidence, or the
like: the growing trend of truthiness as opposed to truth.
[ii] [FROM WIKIPEDIA: A paradigm shift (or revolutionary science) is, according to Thomas Kuhn, in his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), a change in the basic assumptions, or paradigms, within the ruling theory of science. It is in contrast to his idea of normal science. According to Kuhn, "A paradigm is what members of a scientific community, and they alone, share" (The Essential Tension, 1977). Unlike a normal scientist, Kuhn held, "a student in the humanities has constantly before him a number of competing and incommensurable solutions to these problems, solutions that he must ultimately examine for himself" (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions).
Once a paradigm shift is complete, a scientist cannot, for example, reject the germ theory of disease to posit the possibility that miasma causes disease or reject modern physics and optics to posit that aether carries light. In contrast, a critic in the humanities can choose to adopt an array of stances (e.g., Marxist criticism, Freudian criticism, Deconstruction, 19th-century-style literary criticism), which may be more or less fashionable during any given period but all regarded as legitimate. Since the 1960s, the term has also been used in numerous non-scientific contexts to describe a profound change in a fundamental model or perception of events, even though Kuhn himself restricted the use of the term to the hard sciences.]
[iii] Joel Achenbach, “The Age of Disbelief”. National Geographic, March 2015. Vol. 227, No. 3.
[iv] Ibid. p. 30
[v] Ibid. p. 47
[vi] Ibid. p. 34
[vii] Merriam Webster Dictionary. Definition of SCIENTIFIC METHOD: principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses. .
[viii] Beecher, Ned. “Public Perception of Biosolids Recycling: Developing Public Participation and Earning Trust.” North East Biosolids & Residuals Association (NEBRA). 00-PUM-5.
[ix] NPR interview with Robert Kenner, March 6, 2013
MABA: Biosolids Research Update, March 2015. William Toffey.
“Merchants of Doubt” documentary. Robert Kenner.
MABA: March 2015 Research Summary. Dr. Sally Brown, University of Washington.
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