A Word from the Board
March 2022

Science vs Emotion
By: Jeni Masi, Secretary

During the past couple of years the world was forced to modify their lives due to SARS-CoV-2 (aka COVID-19). Because changes were sudden and drastic, we needed information to understand what was going on. Unfortunately this need for information created a space in which conspiracy theories could grow and propagate very easily and very fast, and scientists were (and still are) having a hard time refuting these theories. Some of the recent conspiracy theories related to the natural sciences are:

  •  Is COVID-19 caused by the 5G network?
  •   Is COVID-19 the product of a secret Chinese bioweapons program? 
  •   RNA vaccines contain ingredients that can track our location
  •   Global warming is a manipulative hoax 
  •   Vaccines are the cause of Autism in kids 
  •   The pharmaceutical industry is suppressing the cure for cancer. 

There is no evidence that either of these claims are true, and I have witnessed many scientists trying to use scientific evidence to discredit them, and in return memes are used to discredit the scientific evidence in public forums or even legal proceedings.  Objective information matters less than emotional appeal. These theories give believers someone to blame for their perceived predicament.  

I am not going to talk about any of the above theories, a simple online search can tell you more about each one of them, but they made me remember my own experience responding to some conspiracy theories and I would like to share some of those with all of you. 

During my first year as a PhD, I had the opportunity to participate in a few seismological field campaigns in Venezuela. These campaigns involved selecting sites to place the seismometers, install them and do their maintenance every 3 or 4 months. 

Seismological sites were usually rural areas, and the seismological stations would look like this: a plastic drum buried at about 2m deep that contained the seismometer that was connected to a second plastic drum buried at about 1m deep containing the seismic digitizer and a battery that are connected to a solar panel, a very simple setting. 

 During the trips to select the sites and to install the seismological stations landowners were willing to cooperate with the studies and were very helpful throughout the process. It was during the maintenance trip where things got interesting, partially due to the political situation.  

When we arrived to some of the stations, we heard the following complains (conspiracy theories) from the land owners:

  • The Solar panels are sending information about the activities of the city/town to the US. We had to explain in detail that the panels were providing the energy so the digitizer could still record the information captured by the seismometer.
  • The livestock was not reproducing properly, and the breeding had several mutations and not surviving due to the radiation produced by our equipment. We had to explain that the digitizer is basically a hard drive that store information, and that the battery is a conventional car battery like the one used in their cars. No radiation.  In order for them to believe us we had to buy a battery in their local shop and take with us the one we had initially used. 
  • The seismometers are recording devices used by the US government to spy their houses. So they would do “normal” chores close to the stations, most notably laundry on top of the top drum, which resulting in flooding (and damage) of the equipment. At this point we did not believe that we were communicating effectively. 

In all these cases we were blamed for their perceived situation, and even though we tried to explain, it was very hard to change their perception, as they lacked the tools and education to have and understand the full picture and separate their current situation and feelings from objective information. 

I believe that scientific organizations in conjunction with social media have a unique opportunity to engage with users in our community. We can use social media as a tool to learn, connect, and communicate about topics of interest, and to provide the necessary tools that support our message in a clear and objective way.