Biosolids in the world of Fake Science

A Rockin’ New Year for Biosolids

“I won’t watch this!”

I am sitting with my son-in-law Mike on a leather sofa, and New Year’s Rockin’ Eve 2019 with Ryan Seacrist and Jennifer McCarthy is re-playing on the flat screen, three hours later in Lacey, Washington than when live on Times Square.  My daughter Laurel had joined her twin 7-year-olds in bed.

What was that about?!

“Jennifer McCarthy has set medical science back 40 years!” Who's McCarthy, I wonder to myself?

Wikipedia leads off its article with McCarthy is an American anti-vaccine activist, actress, model, television host, author, and screenwriter. She began her career in 1993 as a nude model for Playboy magazine and …. has become an activist promoting research into environmental causes and alternative medical treatments for autism.” Yup, all the credentials you to be an opinion-leader today in environment and health policy.

Like Laurel, Mike is a family practice physician in the state of Washington, one of 17 U.S. states that permits parents to refuse vaccinations of their children for non-religious reasons, and consequently it is third lowest in MMR rates of inoculation. An outbreak of 16 measles infections occurred in Clark County, Washington, in 2018.

Anti-vaxxers are an avoidable and urgent risk to our nation’s health. A 2019 Forbes article “Measles Outbreaks Show Why Anti Vaxxers Made WHO's 10 Global Health Threats” places “vaccine hesitancy” number 7 on its list of health risks.  Mentioning the Washington outbreak, the Forbes public health writer Bruce Lee says, “What were the parents of the 16 people thinking?”

How can it be that educated, attentive parents make such poor decisions based on “fake science”? Many notable scientists and medical researchers have been studying this issue. Harvard surgeon and author, Dr. Atul Gawande, in his 2016 New Yorker essay, THE MISTRUST OF SCIENCE, wrote: “scientific knowledge is not necessarily trusted…. Many people continue to believe, for instance, despite massive evidence to the contrary, that childhood vaccines cause autism (they do not); that people are safer owning a gun (they are not); that genetically modified crops are harmful (on balance, they have been beneficial); that climate change is not happening (it is).”

We in the biosolids industry confront “mistrust of science.” We can point to literally thousands of peer-reviewed science journal articles, and yet our “sound science” is disbelieved.  For sure we have our quack-worthy, conspiracy-theorizing “investigative journalists” like John Stauber of Toxic Sludge is Good For You and Mike Adams of Biosludged. We also have our “highly educated,” self-declared expert opponents -- the ‘Jennifer McCarthys’ of biosolids – e.g., Caroline Snyder and Lidia Epp. But importantly, some of our  industry’s most compelling opponents have been university and government scientists:   Murray McBrideDavid LewisHugh KaufmanRolf Halden and Robert Hale, to name a few prominent and/or memorable ones. The sound science of literally thousands of researchers is undermined by a handful of others.

Might the researchers and scientist working to confront the anti-vaccine activists have something to teach those of us who confront these and other anti-biosolids activists?

Opponents to biosolids share a key belief to vaccine opponents – they are opposing a mythological conspiracy. The article, 50 great myths of popular psychology: Shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior, discusses the attribute psychomythology: “One reason we’re so easily seduced by psychomythology is that it jibes with our common sense: our gut hunches, intuitions, and first impressions.” When it comes to biosolids, it is easy to associate bathroom activity with a “gut hunch” that biosolids is bad. After all, un-caring public officials, un-engaged regulators and profit-driven businesses cannot be trusted with the public welfare – a conspiracy!

Who believes fake news and fake science, whether about vaccines or biosolids?  According to the paper Belief in Fake News is Associated with Delusionality, Dogmatism, Religious Fundamentalism, and Reduced Analytic Thinking: “Exploratory analyses showed that dogmatic individuals and religious fundamentalists were also more likely to believe false (but not true) news, and that these relationships may be fully explained by analytic cognitive style. Our findings suggest that existing interventions that increase analytic and actively open-minded thinking might be leveraged to help reduce belief in fake news.” 

Those of us who are science minded may need to be reminded of how vulnerable “non-specialists” are to fake science, even those not conspiracy-minded.  According to Science, Skepticism, and Applied Behavior Analysis: “Pseudoscientific claims often eschew objective experimental evidence in favor of anecdotes or testimonials…. Scientific studies refuting pseudoscientific claims often are criticized and dismissed on grounds of poor methodological rigor or problematic design…. It also is common for proponents of a pseudoscientific claim to criticize individual studies or pieces of evidence in minute detail, while the confluence of multiple sources of evidence refuting the claim is ignored.”  Those of us who regularly track anti-biosolids claims will find these points familiar to us.

One influential young researcher of fake science is professor Brendan Nyhan, formerly of Dartmouth, and now University of Michigan. He wrote a seminal review article The challenge of false beliefs: Understanding and countering misperceptions in politics and health care. Here are a few nuggets from his article, which primarily addressed Anti-Vaxxer activity:

Motivated reasoning [reasoning that consistent with our predispositions] seems to be an especially important factor in the prevalence and persistence of misperceptions about controversial issues.
… individuals [are] more likely to choose to read false claims that are consistent with their partisan or ideological preferences or avoiding corrective information about those claims.
…anxiety can make people more likely to accept false claims
…humans are heavily influenced by their peers and social contacts….
… people with strong directional preferences may come to believe even more strongly in the belief or attitude in question when challenged
…[G}reater public knowledge or higher levels of education may not necessarily promote more accurate or open-minded views.
…misperceptions [that] are genuine and sincerely held … differ from ignorance in the sense that people often hold them with a high degree of certainty and consider themselves to be well-informed about the issues in question.
…the content of media coverage is not just balanced but actively misleading
…“balanced” news reports that do not adequately represent the evidence in a policy or scientific debate are common and can contribute to misperceptions’

Dr. Nyhan’s findings underscore the compelling nature of anti-vaccine messages, and we can see by analogy why anti-biosolids activists’ messages persist so strongly and why the media coverage is often hostile.

Perhaps all is not gloomy, in that objective-minded people are out there and we can work with them and persuade them. In the article Lazy, not biased: Susceptibility to partisan fake news is better explained by lack of reasoning than by motivated reasoning the authors conclude “…that analytic thinking is used to assess the plausibility of headlines, regardless of whether the stories are consistent or inconsistent with one’s political ideology. Our findings therefore suggest that susceptibility to fake news is driven more by lazy thinking than it is by partisan bias per se – a finding that opens potential avenues for fighting fake news.”

How can we fight against this fake science or overcome the “laziness?“ The Anti Vaxxer situation is so urgent, and so bleak, that The New York Times Editorial Board took up this very question this week (1/19/2019) in  How to Inoculate Against Anti-Vaxxers: The no-vaccine crowd has persuaded a lot of people. But public health can prevail. The editorial explains that “hundreds of websites [are] promoting their message, a roster of tech- and media-savvy influencers and an aggressive political arm that includes at least a dozen political action committees. Defense against this onslaught has been meager. The C.D.C., the nation’s leading public health agency, has a website with accurate information, but no loud public voice. The United States Surgeon General’s office has been mum. So has the White House — and not just under the current administration. That leaves just a handful of academics who get bombarded with vitriol, including outright threats, every time they try to counter pseudoscience with fact.” This situation, too, has a familiar ring for biosolids; for all of the hostile websites and social media, the number of biosolids advocacy sites seems meager. 

For countering the Anti-Vaxxers, the NYT Editorial Board’s advised these strategies:

Get tough -- enforce the regulations and policies;
Be savvy -- respond fast to rumors, and fight celebrity with celebrity;
Be clear -- the benefits need to be a constant refrain;
Know the enemy -- the negative messages are predictable and must be answered repeatedly and directly;
Know the audience -- many of those with concerns can become supporters, relatively few are opponents forever;
Enlist the right support – use normal people with positive messages.

Dr. Nyhan also summarized, again in his review article, those measures that research seems to indicate are effective in countering fake science. These include:

…corrective information may be more persuasive to skeptical groups when it originates with ideologically sympathetic sources …  or is presented in graphical rather than textual form
…providing an alternate causal account for events has been found to be more effective than simply refuting an unsupported claim
...promoting greater elite consensus … might reduce belief polarization more effectively than messages directed to the public.
…it is important to counter science politicization before it becomes entrenched.  

Thanks to Jennifer McCarthy, I see we can learn from the scholarship and experience of the communities opposing the Anti Vaxxers, and I see a clear path ahead for biosolids advocacy. We can’t shirk in our response to the negative articles, but in our response we need biosolids customers and scientists by our side, to help us tell the benefits of biosolids to soils and plants. If we can do that, we will have Rockin' New Year for Biosolids.