Tent of Bad Science 1: Never Mind the B*ll@cks, Here's the Science
START - Start Talking About Research Today - was Trinity's European Researchers' Night event in 2020.
This project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 955428.
Jenny Daly: Welcome back to What Do You Want To Know, where we are bringing you a mini-series called the Tent of Bad Science. The tent was part of the programme at START, which stands for Start Talking About Research Today. START was Trinity College Dublin’s European Researchers’ Night event in November, 2020. We hosted four public discussions on topics like fake news, climate change, the importance of how we tell stories and power and protest, and we're sharing the recordings of those events with you now. Enjoy!
Michael Foley: Hello to you all. You're very welcome to the Tent of Bad Science which is the first of our public events. The tent is part of START 2020, which is curated by the Trinity Office of the Dean of Research, and it was funded by the European Union's MSCA action for European Researchers’ Night. You can find out more about START 2020 on tcd.ie/research/start. I'm Michael Foley, and along with my colleague, Sarah Bowman, we've put together the tent in order to stand up for research in the face of things like pseudoscience, alternative facts, and good old-fashioned lying in public. We're here in order to start a conversation about trust in science and about telling stories about science.
I work in patients and public involvement in research in the PPI Ignite Office, and what we try to do is we try to build trust with patients and members of the public, so that they'll get involved in research. But as well as that, we also try to be honest with them about the research and the impact that it will have. And I'd just like to say that here in the Tent of Bad Science, we want to have honest conversations about all kinds of matters based on the panellists’ perspective as researchers and scientists, but also as public communicators.
And I've told them that they can disagree and they can question each other and that they can interact with one another. But that's the point: we're not necessarily expecting to come up with one single wonderful answer at the end of this, we're trying to raise questions. We're trying to encourage people to think about things in a different way, and if we can get as far as there will be happy. So without further ado, I would like to introduce our three great panelists that we have for tonight's discussion. The first one probably needs no introduction at this stage. Professor Luke O'Neill, who's the Chair of Biochemistry here in Trinity, while his day job is researching issues like the molecular and cellular basis of information, we all know him as that bloke off the telly who's reassuring us that everything is going to be okay eventually. And while I've seen him in one of the newspapers referenced as a rockstar immunologist, he is the only person on the panel who has played guitar on stage at Electric Picnic.
Professor Jane Ohlmeyer is the Erasmus Smith chair of modern history in Trinity she's published extensively on early modern Irish and British history, and was instrumental in the digitization of the 1641 depositions, which she's going to be talking to us about a little bit later, because they're relevant to what it is we'll be looking at this evening. Up until recently as director of the Trinity Long Room Hub, she ran many events, including the popular Behind the Headlines series, which I'm sure many of you have enjoyed. And she's also working on a major new documentary series about the trivial topic of the entire history of Ireland. She'll have a lot of perspective in terms of how to communicate research.
Professor Richard Layte is the head of the department of sociology and is a research affiliate to the Economic and Social Research Institute. He's occupied part of that territory where public policy and research intersect. As a sociologist, he has endless curiosity about how societies work and he's particularly interested in how family backgrounds affect children's health and welfare even into adulthood.
I'm sure you are wondering what these three people have in common. What they do have in common, even though that they are working in very different areas is that they are all public commentators - and well-known public commentators - who are engaging with the public narrative around areas, apart from their own specific area, around research and around science. So that's what we're here to talk about. So let's get at it.
Luke, today, the title of the event was very much inspired by your recent book, Never Mind the B*ll@cks, Here's the Science. What were you trying to do with the book when you wrote it?
Luke O’Neill: Well, the book began when the publisher, Gill, Sarah Liddy in Gill who's the commissioning editor said, why don't you do a book on big questions and how science might be able to help us get through these big questions? That was the motivation. I never thought that word bollix would be in the title, by the way. I mean, last Christmas when I was writing the book, I finished it in January and the title was Isn't Science Great. And that was boring, you know? So the title came about by me over Christmas, having a bit of inspiration, I guess, and then never did I imagine COVID-19 would erupt of course, after the book was written, nor did I imagine that Donald Trump would recommend injecting bleach into himself.
So suddenly the whole fake science thing got more and more prominent anyway, even though it was there already. So it became all the more important then to emphasize what the book was about, I suppose, which was look, science is a way to look at the world. It's one way to look at the world, of course, not the only way, but if we deploy science effectively or as effectively as we can, it can be a real help to us. You see? And then the title, it was a great title to capture… I think the book is sold on the back of the title as much as the content at this stage. And then of course the topics in the book were simply ones that I was interested in. I didn't pick them for any other reason. You know, obviously vaccines is my big passion as an immunologist, but outside that then every other topic I had read a lot about, I was aware of issues around them.
Now I'm not a sociologist like Richard would be say, so I did chance my arm a bit going into certain topics that wouldn't be necessarily scientific, but again, I've got scientific training and I brought my scientific knowledge to bear, I suppose, on these topics. And they just interested me, I guess. And now of course, as we'll discuss, I suppose, what role does science play in things like this pandemic or any topic that affects humanity? Science is nothing special on one level. It's just another way we look at the world. Now we like it as scientists because it's reproducible. And to me, in fact, that's the hallmark of science. It's not so much that it's a way of knowing or a way of studying something. When you come to a truth in science, it means that that is true in every situation, anywhere in the world. And I'm only happy in my lab, not when I make a discovery - my lab is just here, by the way, behind me - I'm only happy when a group in Japan or China or America reproduces my work. Then I know this is more than likely true. Now, if six labs around the world find the same thing as me, we have to believe it's true, don't we, unless there's something going on. And one thing to mention while I'm at it you know, the notion of epistemology, that's a load of bollix! [laughter]
MF: You might want to explain what epistemology is!
LON: Well, that goes into the notion of how do we truly know something you see? And that's an important part. Of course, it's a philosophically important question. I didn't go into it in my book on purpose though, because the book is simply about reproducibility really, and coming up with something that’s reproducible. I could have had a chapter maybe on how the philosophical basis of knowing things is very important. I'm not downplaying it, but it's a separate thing from what my book is about really, you know. so everything in my book is reproducible in the sense that if I – say, I tried very hard to write about things that were true from a scientific point of view. In other words, what would I give an example of? Why don't we do vaccines? They work everywhere in the world and in the situation that you want them to work. They give the same kind of immune response everywhere. They protect against polio whether you take a vaccine in America or Europe or Japan or wherever it might be. So in other words, every little piece of the book would have reproducibility in it, and that's why it was a pain to write in some ways, Michael, because I have to make sure the reference to this was correct because I couldn't be talking about things that weren’t true in that sense, you know, and again, it's all independent lines of inquiry. Now what you do with that knowledge and that evidence is a separate matter, of course. I guess we will go into this, and as we mentioned earlier, the Irish government now has to make decisions around COVID, and science is one way to help them. But not the only way. I think we have to have other sources of information. Yesterday, I had a zoom or a team call with the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party, can you believe it? And like 50 of them joined, including the Minister for Agriculture and some of the senators and Jim O’Callaghan. I was amazed by this, that they all tuned in. And of course, there was dissenting voices on that – are we listening to NPHET too much; what about other aspects to this? And, and that's the exact problem governments have. They cannot just take the scientific medical advice in isolation. They have to take other things into account. I don't envy, you know, I wouldn't like to be a politician at the moment because the information is incomplete. You know, if you get it wrong, you're going to be in big trouble. You know, and even the science is incomplete. We want the science to be a hundred percent… we're in the middle of a pandemic! We still don't fully know enough about this virus to be able to say definitively whether things might happen. So it's certainly, shall we say, a very current topic the one you've chosen for us today, to debate along those lines.
MF: But I suppose on the other side of it and in writing the book itself, and probably in terms of, you know, I appreciate that, that, you know, you're, you're doing various events in order to talk about the book itself. And you're being questioned and grilled about it, but like all researchers, you have to define your terms, you know? So in terms of the bollix of which you speak, you know, like what did you have in mind? Was it about, you know, Trump suggesting that people inject bleach?
LON: No. Well, the book, the book is probably, what's the way to put this - incomplete. I don't list the bollix, remember, necessarily. I do here and there mention fake science, but I can't be bothered listing all these fake things, can I? I'm only talking about stuff that's true with evidence behind it, you know? So, so that, that, that was what the message was there, I suppose. I mean, I love that phrase, which everybody probably knows by now: it takes 10 times the amount of energy to counteract bullshit than to generate, you know? And so if you want to counter a piece of fake science, that takes lots of effort. It's very easy to put a one-line out that's fake, you see, and maybe one dodgy study done somewhere, you know, but to counter that takes a lot of effort because you've got to make sure and, you know, make sure that your side is fully reproducible and all that kind of thing.
So, so that makes it tricky. I do think overall though, and mind you, Richard brought this up earlier as well - you hope that people are reasonable. You see, it's a bit of it a blithe assumption. And when you lay out the science, anybody who is reasonable has to go with that science. If they choose not to, they're absolutely within their rights to say, I don't believe in that. People still think the earth is flat, for instance, that's within their rights, you know, and yet we know it's not! We didn't know the earth was round until science came in to tell us it was round scientifically, and then the evidence is there. So, so, so in many ways, what I was hoping to do in the book was lay out the evidence for things and let people decide. And the vast majority go – and I’ve had a lot of positive response to the book, by the way, where people go, I liked that chapter on euthanasia because it really helped me. It informed me, you laid out the arguments for and against, and as reasonable as you could, you know, and now I, I now have some, some, some comfort. And the mission of the book, actually in essence, Michael, was to give people a bit of succour in a very complicated world. You know, that's actually what I was trying to achieve, sort of. And maybe make them smile a bit and, you know, get them to keep reading, I suppose, is the ultimate mission. But what I've found is that, and COVID has told us this in spades, I mean, there's a massive desire for this. And if anything, COVID illustrates how science can be our best friend in a very difficult set of circumstances and gives people that level of comfort around things without being preachy or, or, or infantilizing them. That’s really important, I think, by the way. There are ways to do it that bring people with you and it's within their rights to say, I'm not going to wear a mask if they want, you know. I'm going to go here - it isn't in the book, this by the way, but I could lay out five, five scientific reasons why mask wearing is, is good. Right? And if you wish to deny that that's fine. You then change the narrative away from anti-masking to mask denial or, or vaccine denial. I hate the term anti-vaxxer - they are vaccine denialists, just as much Holocaust and we can discuss that if Jane wants [inaudible]. I mean, you're not anti-Holocaust, you're a Holocaust denier, you know, and that becomes a very important part of our discussion, I think as well.
MF: I think Richard, if I could bring you in on this, I suppose it is that idea about you know, that, that people choosing a different narrative and, you know, regardless of what we would consider to be the facts. And you know, what is it, do you think that really attracts people to that?
Richard Layte: Oh, okay. We have to, we have to start sort of graying some edges here, all right? So it's easy to think about there being truth, which everybody should accept, and then there being untruth, okay, which they should be able to, you know, be able to choose between. And the reality is that there's - of course not everybody has a scientific literacy that Luke does, all right? So not everybody has the kind of epistemological tools in their head, all right. They might have a weak, weak epistemology to be able to differentiate between truth or not truth. And so we have to see in some respects as a social process, and that's where the social scientists come in, you know, we have to be able to see how, how a sense of the truth about some, some factor comes in and this is where you get the room for conspiracy theories and all kinds of strange beliefs to start being developed.
Now, of course, this is nothing new. And Jane's going to tell us about this in a little while, okay. There is nothing new, in a sense, about there being alternative views about the nature of reality. For example, some people will not be surprised to hear that there's plenty of people in Ireland who still believe in folk medicine, okay, about things like there being healers, who, how they have inherited through say being the seventh son of the seventh son, a certain kind of cure. Okay. If I know one of these people, she can she, she comes from a near the border and her father has a partner who has one of the cures. Now, so, to many of us, okay, who have a sort of a scientific worldview this seems absolutely bananas. Okay. But nonetheless, it's, this is a sort of an example of, of how a certain way of believing can be created within a certain sense, a certain milieu. Right? So the first thing to focus on here is the fact that this is not new - as Jane's going to tell us, right. There have always been these competing narratives about how the world works. But as a sociologist, I'd have to say that we are increasingly distrustful about these kinds of scientific narratives they'll offer to us. And we've really good evidence about is, right. We've been following both interpersonal trust since the 1950s, and we've got institutional trust measures since the, since about the 1950s as well. And what it shows us is that over time we've become more and more distrustful of what people like Luke would say. And we’re particularly just distrustful of what are now regarded as elites, you know, who might be saying governments, all right. Or academics, or these people that seem to be in these kinds of rarefied situations. And what is, what is causing that is there is a, there's a sort of a long run process of what sociologists call of individualization, which is the way that people begin to be more and more sure about their, their individual analytical abilities, right?
They, they begin to see themselves and their own individualism and self-development, but also the world views as being pretty much ones that can be self-sufficient, and not necessarily, they don't have to take leadership from anybody else, right? This is a long-term trend has been going on, but you also have to realize that this is driven in part by the increase in levels of education within our population. So now something like over 60% of school leavers will be going on to third level. So we've got a, an increasing proportion of people that have third level education. They feel increasingly literate around issues around knowledge and what, what truth is. Okay. And they feel more and more equipped to be able to dispute this. And they, they not only feel more confident in this, and so they can, they don't have to necessarily trust others in this regard, right? But they have the, they have the internet at their disposal. They can go online and basically find out information about anything with a few keystrokes, which is not to say that they necessarily know how to interpret it, but they feel like they should know, okay. Now, as any doctor, any GP will tell you, that's often a very dangerous thing. When people come into the surgery equipped with, with their printouts, from what they found on the web, you have to go through a long list of, you know, obliques first. So there's a, this is not a new process. And there has been a sort of a long run decrease in institutional trust around science. Now what I would say, okay, is that there are more sort of short term processes, which are also feeding into this. So, on the one hand, you've got some political processes here that have been exploited.
People often are, can be easily dissuaded about something's truth, right, by just the sowing of a little seed of doubt, and politicians have cottoned onto this. So, you know, the whole idea of alternative facts - that's a fantastic phrase for telling us that, what you're often seen here is politicians. They just sew a seed of doubt about some science. So this is what you, see say Donald Trump does this or Donald Trump's supporters about climate change. So, what they do is they say, yeah, there's a, there are people that dispute climate science. Okay. And there indeed are people who dispute climate science, but they are of course, a very few and far between, and there's a much larger number of scientists who support climate science. Right. But just sowing the seed there allows it, gives them the space to be able to establish alternative facts.
And just that little bit of doubt couldn't go on and what this does is it, it feeds into certain kinds of biases that human beings have naturally. Okay. So, another phrase that's really beautiful is truthiness quite often, science gives us understandings of the world that seem contrary to what should, we would believe at a gut level. Now what's going on inside us. Sometimes science, if you like is non-obvious and sometimes it can be downright paradoxical. And so, so often we want to believe what's going on in our gut before we want to believe the science and the evidence. So there's really good examples there, you know, so things, things like vaccines themselves, all right. So they, they can be seen as risky things. And so at that little seed of doubt about something like the MMR vaccine leads mothers to not give it, not get their children vaccinated, but which actually, because they're worried about autism, okay, after a piece of poor science was released into the, into the public domain, and yet their children are then exposed to higher risk of measles, which can have long-term consequences for children. Right? So there's a, there's a sort of like a bias there based upon that, that, that sense of, that's kind of truthiness about it. All right. And the sense that it’s paradoxical there's also of course, biases around the availability of information. So people are often really concerned about aircraft and aircraft safety, and they, they believe that this is a really risky, risky endeavour to go on an airplane. When in fact, now it's a much harvest to get into their car every day and drive the work is just that the people, the availability of, of airplane crashes makes people think that the actual risk of airplane crashes and death in airplanes is much higher than it actually is.
So, there's an availability bias that comes up there, which is really important. And another one as well is the kind of a bias that comes from emotional issues. So, people are really bad, often, of being, being able to separate, like it's a sort of an element of truthiness about it as well, okay, which they feel very strongly about something. And that leads them to then be more likely to believe in linked ideas. And there's a beautiful example of this in the Q Anon, a conspiracy theory, I don't know if people have come across Q Anon it's it is like a it's, it's a really strange kind of belief system about conspiracies have started in the U.S. but has sped spread what's globally at this stage, okay. But it led to a belief that there was a conspiracy amongst the elites, which included the Clintons, you know Hillary, Hillary Clinton to, to actually, they, they were at the head of a conspiracy to abuse children.
Now, there was a desire there to believe that there was an elite conspiracy to begin with, okay, but there's also a built into that there's this worry about child abuse, and there's a kind of like a, a reaction to the emotional worry about child abuse. It makes people more likely to believe something that when you sit down and think about it actually is a really strange set of beliefs that come together. But it's a nice example of how there's a social process or sort of truth formation and, and belief that grows that grows kind of momentum. Right? So, the last thing I sort of want to point towards them is that you get these kinds of what we call informational cascades. And this, this is, this has always happened, right? It's, it's the way that gossip spreads. It's, it's the way that conspiracy always spread and Jane, again, might be able to talk about this a bit more, but it's been sort of turbocharged with the internet.
The internet is a fantastic medium for ideas to travel, but that doesn't mean that they're good ideas. All right. So they're that basic uncertainty that people have about the nature of reality - if they're receiving this same conspiracy from lots of different sources, we know from our, our, our sort of scientific theories around conformity and the, human beings being very susceptible to conformity in their social groups, if people are hearing the same conspiracy from multiple directions, they are much more likely to then adopt that conspiracy theory themselves, even when it flies in the face of good evidence coming from scientists, right. And then, and then of course, they're then forwarding on information about these conspiracies, which means it makes it much more likely that other people would adopt that information or that, that belief, and you get this kind of cascade or, of misinformation flowing through a population, leading to a conspiracy theory to be actually adopted, basically on social influence.
MF: Yeah. And I suppose at the heart of that, in terms of what you're talking about is the political benefit for some people in propagating that conspiracy. And actually, that's a really good place, I think, Jane, to bring you in on the conversation in terms of the depositions and they, how they were used. And maybe just for context, it might be useful to, to give people a little bit of context about the depositions themselves.
Jane Ohlmeyer: Absolutely, Michael and I, but before I even do that, I would just want to say, you said at the beginning, that we're coming from such different backgrounds, but actually I'm a historian and my method and Luke's method- It is about trying to find the truth. And it's about making judgments based on facts and on empirical data. So, so you know, I often think that we're not so far apart, some of the scientists and some of us in the humanities, but yeah, I want to take the conversation back in time and I want to, here we are in a moment of pandemic. And just to remind everybody that the world has seen many moments of pandemic going right back to the Black Death. But obviously in the early modern period, the wave on wave of, of plague. And very often that played was associated with the religious wars of the early modern period and these religious wars literally turned, I mean, Europe upside down as people battled for the hearts and souls of their populations. And Richard mentioned the internet and how, you know, turbocharged ideas, but actually in the 16th and 17th century, it was called the printing press -pamphlets. You know, those were, that was the Twitter that was the, the, the, the frenzy of information and ideas that were just being pumped into society. And these conspiracy theories, these alternative facts, fake news - it has a very, very, very long history, and it's that, that really excites me. I'm very interested in Ireland in the 17th century, in this moment of really global turmoil and Ireland, of course, was England's first colony. And actually as we deal with the Imperial legacies through things like Rhodes must fall, and black lives matter, it's very interesting to look at Ireland and the historical amnesia we have around issues of empire, but that's another conversation, but the depositions feed into this as well, because what happened in Ireland is we saw this very intense period of colonization, plantation, as England literally tried to make Ireland English, and try to introduce commercialization as, as well as Anglicization: the English language, the English courts, English dress, English architecture, anyway, the indigenous population of Ireland, which was predominantly Catholic, not happy about this.
And they rose in a series of major rebellions, but the most important and significant was the rebellion of 1641 when literally thousands of Catholics rose up and attacked their Protestant neighbours, and their Protestant neighbours retaliated with equal brutality. But it was, I'm going to argue, the darkest moment in Irish history when we saw ethnic cleansing and atrocity akin to what we would have seen in somewhere like Sri Lanka or Rwanda, or the former Yugoslavia. So this mass killing was accompanied by extreme violence, especially sexual violence: rape, genital mutilation. An addition to the violence though we had, I mean, propaganda like makes Trump seem team and the propaganda machine was all about whipping up anti-Catholic hysteria. And this brings me to the 1641 depositions because the 1641 depositions are an incredible archive that's in the Long Room in Trinity; we're probably looking at over 8,000 witness testimonies by people who were up in this major rebellion that engulfed Ireland in the mid-17th century.
And it is their account of what they saw - what they experienced at the hands, primarily of the Catholic insurgents. Obviously again, just want to emphasize the one-sided nature of these depositions because similar atrocities occurred against the Catholics, but they didn't have an opportunity to leave a record. And that's very important. The one sidedness of any archive obviously potentially distorts history and it means that these records are amongst the most controversial in Irish history, which is saying something, but it does not mean that they don't have value. And I'm going to come back to that, but in the, because this is the work that we've been doing more recently, but in the context of the 17th century, what these accounts of these barbarous atrocities did was feed, if you want, the Protestant propagandist mill and whip up anti-Catholic hysteria - not just in Ireland - in other words, encouraging others to behave in an equally savage way, but also in England and across continental Europe.
So it became, if you want, this anti-Catholic papist threat against the Protestant forces of Europe, and especially England, and then for centuries obviously Ireland was very much an English colony, a British colony, right through until Independence and these anti-Catholic myths became part of the identity of particularly the Protestant community living in Ireland, and especially in Ulster. And memories of 1641 were invoked throughout our history every time that Protestant community felt insecure, and any way we'll not go into the detail of that. The point I'm trying to make here is that history in the wrong hands is a very dangerous weapon indeed, and has been used by Protestant polemicists in an Irish context repeatedly over centuries. So here now, let's fast forward to Ireland is it peace. I'm a professor of modern history at Trinity, and I'm aware of this body of material, these 1641 depositions, which have been used in a very sectarian and a very negative way.
But yet we're very conscious that they have another story to tell they've been filtered by the propagandists, but actually other material in those depositions is of huge value to us as historians, as we want to reconstruct the social, the economic, the cultural, the military, the political history of colonial Ireland. But we haven't been able to use this material because it's so toxic because of the propagandists. So anyway, a group of us got together and said, what we need to do is we need to publish this material in its entirety and online so the world can actually see these, and above all can understand the context because - I was going to say, content is King, but context is God. It's so important that everything we do, we put in a context. Anyway, a group of colleagues got together, we teamed up with IBM; and the IRC, the Irish Research Council; the Arts and Humanities Research Council; we needed a million Euro to digitize and transcribe the depositions - we did so a decade ago. And thanks to Giovanna who's in the audience, we had a retrospective recently, and it was really fascinating to look back on the impact of a digitization historical process, a project, because it wasn't just that it spawned a whole literature of other scholarly research, which is hugely important, but we also took those depositions into the classroom to help young people understand the nature of evidence, and especially of biased evidence, and how to evaluate evidence as we looked for the truth and bear in mind, there are many truths here. But the other thing we did was it became very much part of the ongoing peace process in Northern Ireland. So, when we launched the depositions back in 2010, and I think Luke might have been in the room that evening, the then President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, did us the honour by launching them.
But we were very conscious that Mary belonged to one side of the community, obviously the Catholic community who had suffered so much on the foot of the atrocities committed, but we wanted that to be balanced by somebody from the Loyalist Unionist community, for whom these depositions were so much part of their identity, and we invited Ian Paisley, the late Lord Bannside, to launch the depositions alongside her. We made history that evening because I grew up in Belfast during the Troubles and never did I imagine in my wildest dreams that I would see somebody like Ian Paisley share a platform with Mary McAleese to talk about such controversial records that really cut to the heart of Irish identity, in both a positive and a negative way. So I suppose, and I'll wrap this up Michael, by saying that when it comes to the truth, there's never one truth; sometimes from history there are a number of truths., And I think we always have to be willing to bow to the past, but never to be bound by it because, and this is the beauty of being a historian:, as we discover new archives, as we develop new methodologies, we're able to look at that evidence at, through very different lenses, and come up with conclusions, and with new discoveries that keep our discipline at so alive in many, many of the ways that Richard and Luke have articulated as well.
MF: And I suppose, yeah, it's always worth remembering, what Hilary Mantel talks about - that the past isn't really the past, you know, that anything that's in the past is, I think, somebody described it as the deep present.
JO: The deep present.
MF: It's always, it's always the deep present. And so, you know, the depositions, you know, had a resonance, I think, you know, back when they were launched and still have a resonance today. Now I've had a quick look at some of the questions and bizarrely, I've a question that's perfect for each of you, really. The first one is: what would you say to the fact that 32% of the Irish population say that they would not consume a proven vaccine, according to a RTÉ One poll in October?
LON: It's not surprising really, Michael. And again, you need to be sympathetic and understanding of this. First of all, because people are frightened, let's start with that. And, and as, as Jane and Richard, both agree, fear is a massive factor for history, on socio, all our things really. So, they're frightened and that means there's going to be a certain amount of cautiousness. Anyway, secondly, it's a brand-new virus, even if you mentioned the word COVID to people that back off anyway, you know, whatever about a vaccine, so that's going to be a natural thing. And then we do have the, we know vaccines can be harmful. You gotta be very truthful about that. It's rare, but it does happen. And again, we have to say it to people: there's a risk here. It's a very low risk, but still, it's there and try and reassure them.
And then, but, but really what what's been happening now is we're, no more than we've just been saying: this is history repeating itself over and over again. When smallpox came out, the very first vaccine, there was a massive anti-vaccination campaign against that. Even people like George Bernard Shaw, horrendously, was against the smallpox vaccine, and yet the evidence was so compelling, that it was saving millions of lives and stopping disfigurement and all kinds of things. So it's always been there. I mean, there was even a campaign in the 19th century saying that the smallpox vaccine turns your child into a cow because it was coming off cowpox! This is truthful - there’re drawings of this, you know, so it's always been there. And, and again, it's, again, it goes back to the fundamental thing, we’re talking about the thing about – the dreaded thing called human nature in a way. I mean, people are going to be frightened, they're going to be cautious. And then it's a question of convincing them, really. Now again, how do you convince them? There’s two ways to do it: you, you show the science up to some extent and show, look, here's the safety data. And today Pfizer announced that it's a safe vaccine. (We haven't seen the data yet, but, but the data will come, and it will be shown to be safe. I predict. Right?) And then you hope that would resonate with them. More importantly, you prove it's saving people's lives and stopping harm and that the beneficial effect of this vaccine far outweighs the risk of it. And again, you're using data there. Previous studies on trying to deal with this issue have shown that doesn't really work because people stop listening, or I think as Richard said, there’s a level of, you do need some scientific know-how, and that mightn't be there.
And not, not because people aren't able, just ’cause it's probably bypassed them in their lives or whatever, you know? So again, it turns out the best way to convince people to use vaccines is through the trust thing about your GP telling you, so someone you trust saying they work, and you should use them as number one. Secondly, influencers may have be said yet again, they have a big effect here and the history of vaccines tells us that. The great example that I give, Michael, is in the 1970s, Roald Dahl, his daughter died of measles and he writes about it so eloquently. He himself could have vaccinated his daughter; he didn't. And he wrote about this and it was a massive effect on people. You know, the way he described it so emotionally: he said he was playing with his daughter one night, she was eight years of age, she suddenly froze when he's playing a game with her - six hours later and she's dead. And that was measles killed her, you know? So again, that resonated. The emotional, personal story part was very useful there. So, so, so in other words, I think ultimately you have to appeal to people's emotions, but that seems to be the best way to do it.
MF: And Jane, you wanted to come in on that?
JO: Well, I just wanted to get in here simply to underscore what Luke has just said. You know, the scientists will come up with the vaccine, but it'll be vaccine hesitancy, and this reluctance to take it that bedevils. And this is where I think taking an interdisciplinary approach to these sorts of problems is utterly essential because it's the sociologists, the social scientists, the humanists, the creative artists who really, people do things for emotional reasons. So, we need to go to people who understand human nature and who can actually play to that emotion. The example with Roald Dahl and his daughter with measles is a, is a great one. I think the creative artists here are so powerful. These guys make audible what later becomes visible. And I think it's at moments like this, that we need the visual artists, the creative writers to really come into their own.
I grew up in Belfast during the troubles and I didn't have words to articulate the trauma I was experiencing, but Seamus Heaney, you know, he could, he could give those words that I struggled to find. And I think, Luke, to go back to your point that it will be working in a very collaborative way that we're, as a community, able to build that trust. And at the end of the day, it's about building trust and appealing to emotion because we only do things for emotional reasons. And we see that with climate change, never mind with vaccine hesitancy.
LON: There will be a range, of course, and some will respond to the science, who are more that way inclined remember, but the majority will be in that zone we're talking about, I guess. And the one thing [inaudible] storytellers actually for this, because that's the great way to get the message across, you know, and I'm, I'm a firm advocate of that. I think it's, it's, I think we can do it. I think with this particular vaccine and this issue people will, I bet that will go up because, because we know it's been a nightmare for people everybody and hopefully the majority will believe that this is a way out of this to, to get back – get our lives back. And I think the devastating effect this has had on, on, on people's mental health, the usual things we hear - we don't know the consequences of this pandemic and we won’t know them all for years, you see, and the 1918 pandemic has taught us that you see. So, so it's a very interesting time actually if you're an academic, isn't it, let’s face it, and if you ever needed a university, now’s the time actually because university is the place where we have this range of know-how, range of passions if you will, and we can work together to, to help, help defeat this.
MF: Richard, you wanted to come in on that as well?
RL: I just want to just layer in a bit, a bit more sort of sociological sort of insight there on, on behaviour change okay. I completely agree, okay, that, that harnessing both the sort of utilitarian scientific brain on the one hand: so giving people evidence really helps; and then using sort of emotional cues really helps as well, and particularly empathy. So the Roald Dahl story is an empathy story, okay. And that's sort of, that's part of human wiring that we respond to empathy questions, not all of us, but most of us will have that kind of wiring there. What I should also say is there's a big bit of human wiring, which makes us quite susceptible to social norms, all right. So what you want to do is you, the vaccine has to be, there has to be there has to be messaging, which says that: the majority of people will be using this vaccine; the majority of people believe that this vaccine is the solution to the situation that we find ourselves in; the majority of people believe that if you don't use this vaccine, you are undermining our social- , our society, right? And then you use social norms, the subjective norm to establish an aspect that if you want to, you could even start layering on some social identity here, you know, that we as a people on this island, us Irish, you know - and that might be kind of a step too far, but you know, there are mechanisms around both social norms and social identity that, that really work well. And they feed into basic processes, group and individual processes that will, will change behaviours.
LON: And I guess, Richard, there’s empirical evidence they work, right. So that's the good thing as well, you can adopt these things and show that they've worked in the past. So, so we’ll do them again kind of thing.
RL: That’s it – there’s good science behind them.
MF: Sorry – yeah, go ahead.
JO: Sorry. I was just going to pick up on two points that came up with Luke, but going back to the Spanish flu, which of course it shouldn't be called the Spanish flu, the only reason it's called the Spanish flu is because there was little censorship in Spain. Obviously, it was American born, which of course, Mr. Trump wouldn't want us to be saying, -
MF: I’m sure he’s not listening it!
JO: Well you never know! You're never, you might get fired! Anyway, the point is that actually there was a hundred, I mean, the commemoration of the outbreak of the Spanish flu, there was a lot of very interesting - not, commemoration, not celebration, you can’t celebrate something like that - but interestingly, the people talking about it two years ago were saying, it's a matter of time before we have another epidemic on the scale of this one. That's the one thing history has taught us.
And of course, COVID-19 is what we're concerned about today. But if we're not very careful and we don't change behaviours, the reality is we're going to see these sorts of pandemics far more regularly - that was just, just to simply note that. But this current pandemic was predicted by colleagues back in 2018, historians. The other thing I just want to say is the importance of influencers, and this is where to give Luke such credit for how he has just gone out there - and the face coverings to begin with. So my mother, 86 years old, she wouldn't wear a face covering, we couldn't convince her to put a face covering on. And eventually Luke, I don't know what you said to her, but you convinced her but then she kept on touching it and she kept on wearing it over and over again. And then Luke came out with “treat your face covering like your underwear”. Well, I've never seen anything work as effectively. And the next thing I hear her telling all the other old ladies on the street, “Well, you know, my Jane's friend says you have to treat your, your face like your underwear” but again, it was just whatever way you were pitching it, it resonated.
LON: I did plagiarise that off someone else – that wasn’t mine!
JO: Well! But the point is that clear, effective communication, drip, drip, drip, dripping is so important. And this is where I think the universities should be coming into their own in these conversations. But to give Luke a lot of credit, but obviously colleagues from across Trinity have been phenomenal communicators over the past seven months.
MF: And I think the, the other part to putting this panel together is that you are all effective communicators and really that's something that we want to spread. You know, we want people who are engaged in research, people who are engaged in science to become better, to become better storytellers, to understand how to connect with people. As my colleague, Sarah says: no stories without figures, no figures of that stories. And I think it's, it's, it's very true. And at the same time, in terms of Richard, what you were saying, that idea of social proof of saying that we, you know, the majority of people are doing this, majority of people are doing, now, that is, is very powerful. And I think even Jane, when you were talking about the depositions, folding that into people's identity, you know, their identity of, of not just being Protestant, but being anti-Catholic Protestant was hugely powerful and, and very, it became a very deep-rooted thing for people.
LON: I've got a question, actually, for Richard, while I think of it - the social norm thing is a really good one, isn't it, and people want to conform and so on. Why do people break away from that if it's something like a vaccine or a mask wearing? Because you might do it for political ends, because you want to form a new political party and get people around you; you might do it because you get money from, you know, your YouTube video; there could be all kinds of selfish reasons, couldn’t there? But there's always a percentage of people, isn't there, who say, look, I don't go along with it. Now it's one thing if it's supporting a different football team, right, or whatever, but it's quite another if you're actually going to harm people, right. You know, you're actively going to harm people by saying, don't wear a mask or don't take a vaccine or whatever it is. So what is it about those people? Now, this is probably a huge question that we could be all day discussing but it just strikes me as a question. What, why, why does that happen? And is it normally, like, 10% say or something? I don't know.
RL: Yeah. It's an interesting one, isn't it? Of course, you pointed to one source of this, right. Which is the, the kind of political identity one. So in the U.S. for example, mask wearing has become mired in a polarization between Democrats and Republicans. And, and so often, to wear a mask is almost to sort of display your Democrat credentials, which goes down really badly, you know, with some groups. So that's a really unfortunate sort of effect that's happened in the U.S. but, but as you say, if we look outside of that, there, there, there's always a proportion of people who don't necessarily go along with social norms. Now, this, this is particularly a problem where there is a personal cost involved in, in following some form of behaviour, a social norm. Although there is a, there is a social payoff, you know, we call these social dilemmas that we, as a group, would all be better off if we all did this thing, but we as individuals have to bear a cost for this.
So, you know, it's like recycling, right? Recycling is a pain; you've got to do extra stuff. You've, you've got to sort of spend time separating out all your rubbish. And then you've got to do something with it, right? There's a, there's a personal cost involved, in which case I could just like throw it all into one big refuse sack, you know, and bury it in the ground, the way that we, we used to do with a lot of rubbish. And so it's, it's often difficult to try to manage the social dilemmas involved okay. So that the, the solution is often to have a sanction, okay. So you, the social norm has to be backed up with a sanction. Now, the sanction can be as weak as just, like, a bit of a dirty look. You know, people have got to know, in a sense, that it's accepted, okay, this is the, this is what's at the core of social norms.
There's a conditionality, alright. And conditionalities is – I only do this because I know you're going to do this, right. And other people then have to be able to be in a position to actually give some kind of negative sanction to people who are not going along with the social norms. So, sanctions are really kind of useful here and other people then have to be able to step in, to back up the sanctions. There's always to be a group of people that won't go along with it, right. And actually, it's really interesting. This is, this is called antisocial punishment, right? So, these are the people who will sanction the sanctioners. These are the people often in social dilemmas, when others are being sanctioned, they will go out of their way to chastise them and to have a go at them. That's a really interesting pattern that we haven't really got to the bottom of yet, but it seems to have its roots in some sort of social group membership, which is an interesting thing. But yeah, it's a difficult one and this is as a society we need to try to fix, you know, these are important issues that we need to be able to intervene with with, with, with intervention to work.
LON: Well, I guess we need to be mavericks, to be a bit different, often society advances because of the outsider idea, you know, the maverick, but that’s ok, that’s probably hardwired in us as a species, in a way, that a certain percent of people are going to be a bit different and then we can advance in a certain way say, but, but it's when they’re causing harm and that harm gets traction, and suddenly there's thousands of them on the streets say, this kind of thing. You know, it's a difficult one, isn't it? Yeah. It's hard to know. And not as used to, maybe the law comes in then to, to, to impose itself on people.
MF: Yeah, and Jane did you want to –
JO: Can I –
RL: Sorry, there's a very strong relationship, right? Between, between people where you have looser social norms and innovation and creativity, right? So there's always this, and in social groups, we do have a tendency, okay, to nominate some forms of behaviour as normative, and to have moral connotation, even when they are, in a sense, it has no implications to do any harm. As we really fascinating species, we can often elevate principles about how we live our lives, you know about using a knife and fork, for example, you know, that this somehow bestows moral goodness. And therefore, it's important that we will go along with it even though, actually, using your hands, as long as your hands are clean, it makes absolutely no difference. Right? So there, there is an issue there, as you say, that we, on the one hand, we do want people to in certain circumstances to go along with social norms – in quite a lot of circumstances it makes life liveable; it stops us all being uncoordinated and doing odd things. On the other hand, sometimes we want to have a little bit of looseness around our social norms. It allows our societies to develop, to change, you know, it gives us space to be, to become something new.
JO: Can I get, yeah, no, I just want to go in, because this is where I think the youth of today, I mean, young people are challenging, in a way, you look at the repeal of the 8th, you look at the whole climate movement. So much of that energy are coming from young people. And I just wonder when it comes to this conversation around vaccines, if we're not going to see a generational push here, because so many younger people have been robbed of their teenage-hood of, of, of a normal life on the foot of something like COVID, and that they'll create a pressure group for us to actually do things differently. I was just so struck in the repeal of the 8th. You know, you had really the grandchildren and I saw it with my, going back to my own mother. You know, my, my sons were like: Grandma, you know, you're not voting with the Church - you're voting because it's the right way to vote. And literally dragging her, you know to vote the way they wanted her to vote.
MF: Not literally, I hope, Jane!
JO: Well, not literally, but you know what I mean? There was no escaping –
LON: Several times and the good tradition of the North Jane!
JO: Early and often! In fact, she didn't even have a vote because she was in the North at the time. But, but, but, but the principal was there as far as they were concerned, you know, and I, I, I really wonder what generational leadership we're going to see on the foot of all of this, because they've been so badly affected.
LON: I worry about this, we all do this, this, this cohort because they are in a very difficult position. And, and I worry that they're being held back in their developmental process as well, because they can't, there was no Freshers Week, for example. I mean, simple things like that being denied them, I worry. Now the, on the other side of the, I get a lot of stuff off young people, and it's so heartening to read, Jane, honest to God! I mean, and they really are saying this rubbish about trying to shield the vulnerable will never work – it’ll harm them. In other words, they are speaking out more and more, which is tremendous, you know, and it gives you faith in the next generation in that sense, doesn’t it.
JO: It does Luke, and they did during the whole Black Lives Matter. You know, it was really heartening to see the way, in a Trinity context, it was really the students who were speaking out and saying, this is unacceptable. And it does, it gives us hope for the future. They’re, they are our future. They're the lifeline.
LON: And just to say quickly: the great one is Greta herself, the climate activists, because it took generations of scientists banging on about climate and nobody's listening to them. This young woman steps up and by God, that gets the message. Doesn't it? This tremendous example, I think about how a young voice in that way can make a huge difference too.
MF: And I think, I suppose for Greta Thunberg, it was also a reassurance for a lot of people that there was now a spokesperson who people were listening to. So I think it emboldened the movement as well. You know, it, wasn't just people who weren't listening to the subject.
LON: I'm curious about, I guess, back to our overarching, one of our themes, dry facts, all science may not get there, you know!
MF: And we're almost out of time considering everything that we've done so far. And I suppose one of the, the questions that was coming up was about, you know, how, you know, how do you tell what's true? How do you tell what's real? And with the few seconds we have left, would people like to give us their rule of thumb in terms of how do they judge the veracity?
LON: I wasn't knocking epistemologists - that's the first thing - I wasn't knocking them at all! It's a pretty important part of what we do. And there's the philosophy. I mean, the truth of the matter, in my case is this I'm a scientist first and foremost, that means I love discovery. I want to find stuff out - that's what a scientist is really. We're all scientists of course, in academia, but I happen to be an immunologist. I'm fascinated by the immune system, the utility of that as a soul, is a second question. But remember, if you discover something in the immune system, that's real and true. Now, what I mean by truth is reproducibility. That's what I define as true. That's one definition. You can then get a new medicine and, and, and, and, and, and help people, you know, and that won't work, unless what you've discovered is true.
So, if you make, like the latest vaccines that were made, is a very interesting case, in point, it was a German company, as we probably all know – [inaudible] that was a married couple, we all know their private lives. They were on the fringe, you know, the RNA vaccine business was seen as, as unlikely to work, it was toxicities, and not many companies were doing it, you know. They stuck to their guns, you know, and they published papers, some weren’t reproducible initially, actually. They eventually worked it out and got a great piece of technology. Their passion was cancer - it wasn't viruses. None of us thought this would work against the virus, you know, and then lo and behold, they give it a go and now we see this vaccine. That was all based on scientific truth. Like RNA exists, you know, it's a nucleic acid, it's the recipe to make the spike protein.
You can make it into a form that will go into a person's body and drive spike protein. And then you get an immune response with T and B cells and antibodies. And now we have these great vaccines, in front of us, you know? And so, it began with scientific truth and turned into something practical that was totally reproducible. And that to me is what keeps me in my, my, my, my, my, my passion in a way, because it's a great example of, from, from sort of A to Z in a way you see the whole thing playing out, it doesn't really matter then in some ways, if we worry about the philosophy of this, and I'm not knocking that again, but even still in this case, it's a really good example of a practical consequences of truth, I guess, is the way to put that.
MF: Jane, how about you?
JO: Yeah, no, very quickly as a historian, it's about the sources. So in other words, it's making sure that you're looking at the sources in their totality, whether they're written archaeological, visual, so you've got as holistic a basis for your evidence and your, any observation you make is evidence-based - sadly, I'm the queen of the footnote. However, I just would like to add one point following up on the Luke has said it is so important that we, as a community, fund basic discovery research across all disciplines, because here you had a scientist actually working on cancer, and it then translated into a completely different area. If they hadn't continued to do that, you know, we would be in a less, I mean, the word would be a lot less well off. And that's as true for my discipline as it is for Richard, as it is for Luke, that basic frontier discovery science, that's what all about. And if one message can go out from this today is increase the amount of funding for that. It's so important.
MF: Great! Richard, your rule of truth?
RL: I, I think that we need to, we need people to want to know about evidence, right? And to, to adopt what is essentially a scientific basis of “don't believe it until you've got some evidence to support it.” Now, doing that throughout your, through all the different areas of your life is often difficult, okay. ’Cause there are many things that we take on spec and go along with them. So what I think would really matter here, okay, is having really good public sector broadcasting, high quality journalism, having sources of information that we can trust that are not driven by other imperatives! Not, not driven by their need to sell him something, not driven by their need, in a sense to, to bow down to political influence - they're driven by looking for the truth and they can cause cross-question people to find out the truth and put them on the spot, and won't put up with people prevaricating and trying to stonewall them - high quality journalism, good public sector broadcasting. That, that might be absolutely crucial for giving people the information they require to be more discerning and to not be fooled by these, these, these types of anti-scientific, untruthfulness that often seem to support certain interests in our societies that are just looking for influence.
MF: Well, time is against us. And thank you so much to my panel of Prof Luke O'Neill, Prof Jane Ohlmeyer and Prof Richard Layte and to you, the audience, and have a good evening.
Jenny Daly: Thanks for listening! You can find links to a full transcript of the discussion and some other stuff in the show notes. There's also a recording of the event on YouTube if you want to watch it back. Thanks to Conor Reid at Headstuff for production assistance. And as always, you can send us ideas for future episodes via our suggestion box. We would love to hear from you! Bye for now!