Prof. Wim de Villiers, Vice-chancellor, University of Stellenbosch.
SESSION ONE: 09:30-11:00
The rise and dangers of pseudoscience and science denialism: Communicating uncertainty in science
Chair:Scarlett Cornelissen, professor, Department of Political Science, University of Stellenbosch; board member, CENSCOM.
Jacques Rousseau, co-author Critical Thinking and Pseudoscience – Why We Can’t Trust Our Brains, lecturer in critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town; founder and chairperson of the Free Society Institute.
Public distrust of science: The failure of facts in a post-truth world.
Public distrust of science frequently takes the form of hyper-scepticism, expressed in unfounded fears and moral panics, and amplified by a clickbait-driven media culture. In this battle for our attention, advocacy groups who care less for good science than for promoting their causes can win out over less sensational, but more accurate claims.
The attention economy, alongside problems such as “churnalism” and our psychological biases, can result in the “wisdom of the crowd” – as expressed on social media and clickbait-driven websites – drowning out the views of subject experts, and allowing for fearmongering and distrust of science to take precedence.
This presentation will discuss ways in which scientists and science communicators can help the public understand the reasons why we might be prone to be misled, and to introduce concepts that will make us better able to evaluate scientific claims in order to make more informed decisions.
Tom Zeller, award-winning journalist, The New York Times, National Geographic Magazine and The Huffington Post; executive editor Undark, a digital magazine exploring the often fractious intersection of science and society, the Knight Science Journalism programme, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
From big cats to climate change: Confronting public mistrust of science and journalism
Having spent more than two decades as a writer and editor covering the environment, climate change, energy, and related issues, most of it at The New York Times, Zeller has watched first-hand what appears to be the slow erosion of public trust in both science and the people who report on it. There are many theories about this, from the rise of the internet and the proliferation of alternative sources of information, to a slow-but-steady cultural breakdown in the perceived authority of science that reaches much further back. Zeller emphasises he is not a scientist, but here he offers a survey of some of his more interesting journalistic encounters with magical thinking, misplaced scepticism, and other artifacts of these trends — including one long night spent cougar-spotting amid a thin stand of trees in Connecticut. He will also provide some reflections on where journalism might turn from here.
SESSION TWO: 11:15 – 13:00
Health regulation, science in court and other protection mechanisms: Are consumers misled and left in the cold?
Are legal protections regarding health regulation, science in court and other protection mechanisms of the public worth anything?
The South African legal system, on paper, provides comprehensive protection to consumers under the all-encompassing Consumer Protection Act which prohibits misleading and/or deceptive statements regarding products whether on the product, in advertising, or even in person. In practice, however, consumers are sent from pillar to post with complainants being referred to the Advertising Standards Authority, the Medicines Control Council, and the Directorate: Food Control of the Department of Health, all of whom appear to do very little to protect the consumer from quackery and pseudoscientific marketing claims.
Harris Steinman, medical specialist, health scientist and lecturer, University of Stellenbosch; editor & publisher, CAMcheck, a South African consumers' guide to scams, pseudoscience and voodoo science.
Multiple Regulatory Organ Failure – Apathy of statutory regulatory bodies
Over the past decade, more than 250 complaints against scam products were submitted, inter alia to the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa (ASASA), Medicines Control Council (MCC), National Consumer Commission (NCC), national retailers and media houses.
Product manufacturers regularly co-opt health professionals and other “experts” to substantiate and defend indefensible claims. Complaints to statutory professional regulatory bodies often come to nought.
Steinman will present examples of rampant pseudoscience marketing, and highlight the failure of multiple layers of consumer protective mechanisms. He will argue that consumers are left in the cold and that a failure of ethics by inter alia the media and a lack of accountability by marketers of dubious products are unfettered and rampant.
Roy Jobson, professor and specialist clinical pharmacologist, Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, Tshwane.
An ASA-SAga, to MARS and back, and legal acrobatics
Between February 2002, when the Medicines Control Council’s (MCC’s) ill-fated so-called complementary medicines “call-up” was published, and February 2017, when it was finally rescinded, hundreds of thousands of medicines flooded the South African market. Most of these were not assessed in terms of quality, safety or efficacy – as mandated in the Medicines and Related Substances Amendment Act, 1965 (Act 101 of 1965), for all medicines being sold. This Act is often referred to as the MARS Act.
The MCC, despite being empowered to do so, failed to regulate the advertising of medicines during that time, having devolved that responsibility to the ASASA in the mid-1980s. With the huge number of medicines on the market following the 2002 call-up, the number of false advertisements increased exponentially.
When the legal profession allowed itself to be co-opted into defending illegal products, the merits of the claims made were sometimes not even addressed. The MCC’s regulatory authority was challenged by the industry through (legitimate) “appeals” – e.g. repeal of the law in 2009, and the famous Canova case. Subsequently the ASASA’s self-regulatory authority was challenged – membership issues and consequences – ultimately leading to a “business rescue”.
Jobson outlines examples from his experience of illegitimate medicines and misleading (pseudoscience) advertising.
13:00 – 14:00
SESSION THREE: 14:00 – 16:30
The media and pseudoscience: Reflecting science through a ‘dirty mirror’?
Chair:Wiida Fourie-Basson, science writer, journalist, Faculty of Science, University of Stellenbosch, Board member, South African Science Journalists’ Association & CENSCOM.
Is “muddling through” the best we can do?
Back in the 1970s, political scientists developed the term “wicked problems” for those social problems for which there exist “no solution in the sense of definitive and objective answers” (Rittel & Webber, 1973). More recently, Dave Snowden (2003) draws our attention to the fundamental difference between a “complicated” system – such as fifth generation jet fighters – and one that is drowned in “critical complexity”, characterised by “irreducible contextuality”, similar to the “butterfly effect” described by Edward Lorenz in 1972. This is how systems theorists and political scientists are describing the world we as journalists and scientists have to function in today. We thus must ask ourselves: will the “dirty mirror” become any less “dirty”? Experts tell us that everything is going to become more complex, more connected, and faster, with new technologies disrupting what we have come to accept as the norm, while, at the same time, large parts of the world will lag behind (Goldin 2016). Should we accept that this is the new reality, also in the field of health science, one which we will have to learn to “muddle through” or “dance with” the best we can, both as scientists and journalists?
Mia Malan, founding director and editor of Bhekisisa, the Mail & Guardian’s health journalism centre; CNN-MultiChoice African Journalist Award-winner, features category, 2016.
Pseudoscience and moralistic beliefs: Do the media amplify it?
Is HIV spread through promiscuity? Is sex work a choice or are all sex workers victims of their circumstances? Is it scientific to say abortion after 20 weeks should be illegal because a fetus of that gestational age will survive outside its mother’s body? Conservative groups regularly use distorted science to justify religious or politically right-wing beliefs. They distribute this information to the media through news releases, or write opinion pieces for publications with sympathetic editors or journalists without a comprehensive understanding of science. In South Africa and the rest of Africa, there are plenty of examples. Malan will explore such cases and look at ways to equip journalists to differentiate between actual and pseudoscience.
Elsabé Brits, author & multiple award-winner in science journalism, science and health journalist, Media24, former vice-president of the South African Science Journalists’ Association.
The pitfalls in science journalism
Is there such a thing as a “God” particle? Do we stereotype people with psychiatric illness? Are we the ones constantly looking for “the missing link” in palaeontology? Brits will address the traps when reporting about sensitive and specialist medical stories, evolution, astronomy, biology and palaeontology. What are the pseudoscientific and incorrect words, images and graphics science journalists should not use because they lead to myths and misunderstandings in science? And how do they avoid the many pitfalls?
Daryl Ilbury, science journalist & author of Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick.
Why pseudoscience is so dangerous in a disrupted media environment
Quackery and pseudoscience thrive in a disrupted media environment. Ilbury will paint a picture of the mainstream media under tremendous financial pressure to pander to popular appeal and feed their bottom line with click-throughs and an increasingly tabloid temperament. Newsrooms are dumping specialist science journalists – the gatekeepers for investigating claims of evidence-based health-care science – in favour of junior journalists ill-equipped to filter the feeds of dodgy science from research organisations with friends in powerful lobby groups.
Another major source of the fertile foundation for quackery and pseudoscience in healthcare sits in the psychology of a media consumer who has little appetite for critical thinking, and yet who feels empowered through social media rewarding emotional reaction over rational judgement.
So, what can be done? Ilbury will make some suggestions that will demand brave decision-making by media industry leaders.
Day 2 (21 November)
SESSION ONE: 08:15 – 10:45
Sense about science: Why evidence matters
Chair:Lizette Rabe, professor and head, Department of Journalism, University of Stellenbosch, author of Rykie: ’n Lewe, founder of the Ithemba Foundation, a non-profit organisation that focuses on the public education of mental health.
#What the covfefe? Evidence in a time of fake news, confusion and a Trumpian Twitterian dystopia
What is the “truth”? This eternal question occupying Homo sapiens from the first hominins who started to think beyond physical survival, trying to conceptualise a first primeval existentialism, has found a new challenge in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Suddenly the complexity of finding “the truth”, or “a truth”, has been compounded and compromised thanks to a certain technological determinism that seemingly reduces humankind to wisdoms not exceeding 140 characters. How can an unsuspecting – and, unfortunately, in too many cases, naïve – public distinguish between reality and a manufactured reality thanks to technology? If “truth” needs some form of evidence, how can this evidence be accepted? And, as part of the total confusion that subsequently reigns, what happens to “truth” and “evidence” when the supposed “leader of the West” thinks the Twittersphere is his personal soapbox to relieve himself of some unfortunate verbal diarrhoea – leaving an exhausted public asking, “What the covfefe?!”
Jimmy Volmink, clinical epidemiologist and dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Stellenbosch; founding director of Cochrane South Africa, former director of Research and Analysis of the Global Health Council in Washington D.C.
Evidence matters. But not all evidence is created equal
Medical treatments can have unintended, undesirable effects, and sometimes they may do more harm than good. To minimise these risks, treatment decisions should be guided by the best available scientific evidence. However, this is complicated. Evidence may be lacking because relevant research has not yet been carried out, and even where research studies are available, they may be of such poor quality as to render their conclusions invalid. Furthermore, the mere existence of reliable evidence does not guarantee that it will receive priority in decision-making. Evidence often competes for attention with factors such as beliefs, power, politics, economic interests and habits. Under the weight of these influences research evidence is often ignored or alternatively, studies are selectively cited (“cherry-picked”) to support firmly held opinions or theories. Evidence-based Medicine (EBM) emerged in the early 1990s as a systemic response to these challenges. Volmink will illustrate the value of EBM in making everyday decisions about health-care.
Michael Marshall, project director: Good Thinking Society, UK.
Challenging pseudoscience in the UK establishment
The Good Thinking Society promotes as charity science, and challenges pseudoscience; there is, therefore, no shortage of work for it in the UK when it comes to pseudoscience. Homeopathy, one of the most widely debunked forms of alternative medicine, continues to adorn the shelves of respected pharmacies and to receive funding by taxpayers to be provided by the National Health Service. In 2014, the Good Thinking Society began a campaign to investigate and contest NHS funding for homeopathy. Marshall will explain what has happened to NHS homeopathy as a result of the charity’s campaign, the strategy behind some of the recent successes, and what other actions the campaign has inspired. Marshall will also highlight how the organisation’s work with dentists and veterinary practisioners has supported the fight against quackery in those professions, and how Good Thinking has pushed back against misleading claims made by chiropractors, osteopaths, pseudoscience charities and more.
Simon Singh (Question & Answer session via Skype from the UK), award-winning author of Fermat’s Last Theorem, Big Bang, and Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial
10:45 – 11:00
SESSION TWO: 11:00 – 13:00
Is quackery harmless? Exploiting the desperately ill, the vulnerable and the ignorant
Chair:Keymanthri Moodley, professor & bioethicist, director: Centre for Medical Ethics and Law, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Stellenbosch; editor of Medical Ethics, Law and Human Rights: a South African Perspective.
A brief history of illegitimate HIV Cures in Africa: how will research participants interpret the C-word in future trials?
Africa has a rich and contentious history of HIV cure approaches that range from mythology, cultural beliefs and religion to alternate and traditional medications. “HIV cure” is an enormously powerful concept that has been strategically harnessed by political leaders in some African countries. South Africa is poised at the epicentre of the HIV pandemic and a wide range of illegitimate “cures” have been offered to vulnerable patients over the past three decades. Offers of similar rogue cures extend beyond South African borders to several other African countries. Some eminent scientists throughout the world have likewise challenged conventional scientific thinking around HIV/AIDS and advanced unconventional theories of disease as well as “cures”. The current discourse on an HIV cure is therefore value laden. In the recruitment of research participants for future HIV cure trials, considerable efforts will need to be made to engage with communities and potential participants to clarify misperceptions and facilitate understanding of and limits to potential cures.
Johannes de Villiers, author and journalist, lecturer: Department of Journalism, University of Stellenbosch.
The case of The South African Society for Parapsychology
Parapsychology, a pseudoscience that claims to provide laboratory studies of ESP phenomena like telepathy, telekinesis and clairvoyance, has been practiced in South Africa since the late 19th century. In the 1970s, the South African Society for Parapsychology was housed at the department of Applied Mathematics at the University of the Witwatersrand. Its members included renowned astronomer Arthur Bleksley and Red Cross chairperson dr. Bernard Laubscher. Although members of the society tried to limit their studies to the scientific method, the society’s very existence soon became an excuse for other, brazenly non-scientific individuals, including ghost hunters and psychic mediums, to justify their activities. This illustrates how the involvement of scientists in pseudoscience can be abused in apologetics by quacks and charlatans.
Celeste Naude, senior researcher, Centre for Evidence-based Health Care, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Stellenbosch.
From detox diets to death: exploring the consequences of nutrition quackery
An old saying goes: "A robber demands your money or your life; but a quack demands your money and your life". We are bombarded with unsubstantiated health claims and aggressive marketing messages, such as supplements offering “cures”, or pioneering diets that “guarantee” dramatic, easy weight loss. But most of these messages are not based on any scientific evidence, or on unreliable evidence. Potential harms from this form of health fraud are numerous. Harms become more important in the vulnerable who are desperate for anything that might help. Quackery is big business. Consumers spend billions looking for the next “miracle” treatment. Nutrition quackery is one of the most profitable types of quackery. It’s often poorly regulated, and people’s daily interactions with food likely influence their nutrition beliefs. Using a nutrition lens, this presentation will offer perspectives on the possible harms of quackery, where profit-makers and strong opinions exploit susceptible people using good marketing and public relations, rather than good science.
George Claassen, science journalist, director, CENSCOM, University of Stellenbosch, author of various books on pseudoscience and quackery.
The identikit of a quack: how a baloney detector can save lives
How does one distinguish between fact and fiction, and what measures would have prevented two terminally ill and desperate Springbok rugby players from turning in their final days to a prophet-swindler in faraway West Africa? Claassen will identify ten ways to read a quack’s DNA: It sounds too good to be true; evidence is offered camouflaged in anecdotes; quacks sidestep the peer evaluation method and address their claims directly to the media; quacks hide behind so-called conspiracy theories allegedly stacked against them, trying to scuttle their “discoveries”; the scientific effect that is at stake is always at the threshold of observation and cannot be observed by critics; the claims made by quacks must be true because it is thousands of years old; the quack is a loner who is not appreciated by the scientific community; quacks have to propose a new natural law to explain an observation; quacks always hide behind disclaimers to protect them; quacks use flattery and emphasise their victims’ unique individuality.
13:00 – 14:00
SESSION THREE: 14:00 – 16:00
Believing the unbelievable: When pseudoscience is camouflaged as evidence-based science
Chair:Mandi Smallhorne, President: South African Science Journalists’ Association & African Federation of Science Journalists, board member World Federation of Science Journalists.
Fact-checking science claims – Distinguishing the wheat from the chaff
For journalists, a mishmash of news releases from known and unknown sources must be sieved through each day for potential stories of interest. All well and good when a release comes from a relatively trustworthy source such as EurekAlert or AlphaGalileo, not so good when it comes from an unknown quantity. Yes, it sounds like solid science, but how do you assess that?
Smallhorne will briefly look at some basic tools that can act as filters and early-warning sensors for research that may not reach the necessary standards of both credibility and solidity.
Heinz Mödler, anesthesiologist, health columnist and author.
Placentophagia: Post-partum panacea or Kim Kardashian at her best?
Apart from an animal mother eating her placenta after she has given birth, humans refrain from this behaviour. Or rather, this was true before celebrities such as Tom Cruise and Kim Kardashian demonstrated the “advantages” of placentophagia (the eating of placenta) to their followers.
Today more and more people insist upon eating the placenta of their newborn. Numerous reasons are offered. Less post-partum depression, improved iron stores, nutritional advantages and better bonding with the newcomer are so-called beneficial effects mentioned.
Up to now no conclusive evidence exists to support this behaviour, and yet this pseudoscientific practice is gaining popularity under the influence of an ignorant celebrity culture.
Engela Duvenhage, co-founder and editor: Scibraai, award-winning science journalist.
Deciding between fact and fiction:Lessons from motherhood and science blogging
Scibraai (www.scibraai.co.za) is a pro bono social media platform through which a small group of committed science journalists and science communicators share news and articles about South African scientists and research findings. The goal is to celebrate and to popularise the work that South African researchers do, to increase scientific literacy, and to do so with integrity. Why did we decide on a science blog, and not a general “mommy blog”? Duvenhage will share some of the lessons that the Scibraai team has learnt over the past four years on how to avoid spending energy on endeavours that are factually not so convincing or sound. How do they decide which stories to cover themselves, or to share via third party entities? How do they ensure quality copy, even though they do not have a budget? How do they avoid quackery and pseudoscientific claims?
Rudi de Lange, professor, Department of Visual Communication, Tshwane University of Technology, Pretoria
The misuse of scientific information: A case study of misleading testosterone booster advertising claims
Marketers of testosterone and muscle-boosting products often advertise their merchandise by using superlative claims, images of hyper-masculine men and visceral graphics. They further use pseudoscientific text to augment and support their efficacy claims. These products normally appeal to consumers that suffer from muscle dysmorphia and those that seek to gain mass and strength. The proliferation of these products in retail stores, pharmacies, sport and health shops, attest to the rise in demand for these products. The advertiser of one such product claims that the product is capable of influencing a user’s luteinizing hormone and thereby increasing one’s natural testosterone levels. Their marketing material suggests that the product is science-based and that scientific journal articles validate its efficacy. De Lange will illustrate how the advertiser misleads consumers by (mis)using results that are statistically significant, but that have no clinical significance, ignoring studies that report non-significant results for the same active ingredient, and misuse graphics to claim efficacy for the product.
SESSION FOUR: 16:15 -17:45
Communicating accurate science: Scientists leaving the laboratory and engaging the public
Chair:Alex Valentine, professor, Department of Botany, University of Stellenbosch, science communication specialist.
Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, award-winning science communicator, professor & vertebrate paleontologist, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Cape Town, author of inter alia Famous Dinosaurs of Africa and Fossils for Africa.
Making science accessible: personal reflections of a scientist
As a dinosaur palaeontologist, engaging public audiences about her research is not arduous. This is because even though dinosaurs (except for birds) have been extinct for 65 million years, people are generally eager to know more about their lives and times. However, most people grapple with understanding the immense scale of geological time, and the concept of evolution, as well as, the nature of the scientific process. Compounding this in South Africa, is the uneven access to higher education and high-quality infrastructure, which impedes access to and participation in science. Negative perceptions and stereotypes around science are further major obstacles. Chinsamy-Turan will reflect on her personal journey in science engagement and how she has tried to navigate these challenges that deter scientists from reaching out to public audiences. She will also talk about some of the risks and rewards associated with public science engagement in South Africa.
Taryn Young, director, Centre for Evidence-based Health Care, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Stellenbosch.
Are researchers equipped to communicate their research?
Journalists play a key and leading role in deciding what messages the public receive regarding preventive, promotive and management health strategies. However, they often do not base these messages on best evidence. How can researchers play a role? Can journalists and researchers work together? Researchers tend to shy away from journalists – which may be due to not trusting journalists, as well as fearing misrepresentation and sensationalist reporting. Researchers also often put out complicated messages to journalists and do not clearly communicate their research findings. Young will reflect on the role of researchers and their capacity to engage with journalists.
Marina Joubert, science communicator & researcher: Science communication, Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology, University of Stellenbosch.
Why do some scientists step out of the ivory tower, while others continue to hide? Lessons learned from talking to South Africa’s most visible scientists.
A complex mix of factors influence researchers’ involvement in public communication about their work. South African researchers, in particular, are motivated towards or deterred from public communication by several unique drivers rooted in the country’s history, society and physical environment. Joubert will reflect on the influences that shape whether scientists step out to engage or not, including a brief discussion of the underlying reasons for scientists’ ambivalence regarding public science engagement. Finally, she will outline the rationale for a distinction between science promotion and science engagement.