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Column: Bad science is just filth in the brain!

June 19, 2014 - 20:05 -- Bart G.J. Knols
Bear with me…. This complaint is not new, I know, but it is one that should be reiterated many times over: there is an extremely large gap in knowledge between researchers and the general public, and this is not good!
Certainly you must have come across people’s scientific ideas on trams, buses and trains (for those of us who do use public transport) or maybe at a dinner party or BBQ you are attending, or even, like I did, while waiting for your take-away food. The topics that come up more often are related to nutrition (it seems that the 5:2 diet is all the rage right now), the benefits of certain exercises (how billions of people are alive today without ever having done Yoga is perplexing to some) and more and more, the dangers of vaccines. In all of these discussions, give or take, the ‘science’ facts that are discussed are simply quick scans of a newspaper headline or maybe the first paragraph of the news article or worst, a facebook post on a friends wall that was read last night or this morning. Somehow, these quick, unreferenced, snippets of information get stuck in people’s minds and actually help set the foundations to very strong opinions. Usually, pathetic ones...

But let me explain why I rant about this and how it relates to malaria. 
While waiting to get my take-away lunch at a very busy hospital cafeteria in Melbourne I happened to listen to two mid-twenty year-old women enthusiastically discuss the dangers of vaccination campaigns, and of how hospitals make their patients take more x-rays simply to get more money out of them. I was stealthily disguising a shake of the head and a smile at the atrocities being said when a sentence struck me like a bullet (it went something like this):
‘(…) it’s like, you want to kill HIV but like the thing is, people say, like scientists and all, that HIV doesn’t exist. Like malaria and sh*t.’
Suddenly there was no more smile, no more patronising headshake, but only the building up of blood pressure and an immense will to scream. ‘How is this even possible’, I thought. I looked around. There were MDs and other researchers nearby, but no one seemed to take much notice of what had happened. One of mankind’s oldest companions, one of science’s most beautiful battles, one of nature’s most incredible organisms being dismissed like that, without a moment’s hesitation! I rushed to my office and Google searched blogs and forums on: ”malaria does not exist”. I had to try and find if there was any cause for concern or if that sentence had simply been part of a random naïve (albeit idiotic) conversation. Fortunately, there was not a lot of ‘internet credit’ to this theory but one page that came up on that search, and that was even mentioned on MalariaWorld’s news section (!), stated that a certain PhD from Ghana assured us that ‘Malaria is not caused by Plasmodium but instead by filth in the liver’.
Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, another question bothered me now: how is it that so-called PhDs from a corrupt institution are given so much credit? Would this happen if people knew how to question and interpret what they hear or read? Would this happen if science or even just scientific thought processes were more prevalent in the population? Can we one day see people mocking and sneering while reading the bogus science that so often is published in mainstream newspapers and blogs and social networks? Some researchers have dedicated part of their professional lives to trying to teach the public to interpret what they read and listen to but I think that we all should share the responsibility. I should, as should the other doctors and scientists in that cafeteria, have engaged the two girls and let them know they were wrong. I should have been able to explain to them what Plasmodium really is, what it causes, who suffers and why we should never forget it exists.
The food industry, the car industry and the fitness industry are fantastic at promoting their products and making them common knowledge (the amount of people who now talks about culinary techniques in Australia due to MasterChef is astonishing). Maybe we should take their example and start investing in more TV shows promoting sciencific thought. The TV series Cosmos is a good example of how we can try and do that, but audiences nowadays like interactivity, they like to connect to the show, to its participants. Maybe one day we can have a Big Brother-style show where scientists try to run labs and conduct their experiments while being watched by thousands. Whatever the idea may be, we have to decrease the gap that separates scientists from non-scientists, reasoning from gullibility. We do not want to have educated people in an educated country saying that malaria and HIV do not exist because ideas like these in the minds of retrogrades with power result in less aid and less funding for programs that live of those resources to help fight these pathogens. More importantly, we do not want to have a young mother in Ghana not taking her malaria-sick child to a doctor because she read that a preeminent researcher found that malaria is just filth in the liver that can be cured by detox diets…

Ricardo Ataíde is a Portuguese PostDoctoral scientist living in Brazil (but soon moving to Australia) working on malaria in pregnancy and mechanisms of pathology and immunity, which are his passions.  He loves doing fieldwork and the close contact with reality. Ricardo is a keen supporter of collaborative work, public discussion of ideas and the engagement of scientists with their scientific community as well as with the general public.