Want to know how to navigate the facts in a post-truth world? Ask a cancer researcher
The diplomats, civil servants and administrators who now have to uphold integrity in a world where facts come second to narrative should turn to cancer researchers for advice. We’ve been working in the post-truth era for decades.
Cancer is dangerous, scary, and sadly it’s all too often still way out of our control. And where there’s fear, there are conspiracy theories- and the cancer landscape is riddled with them. From outlandish cures and unlikely preventative measures to outright bonkers myths about scientists already knowing the cure for cancer, the real, genuine, truly hope-giving progress made by cancer research has become clouded and distorted. It’s been blurred by a muddled mess of half-truths and outright lies.
As a cancer research charity, we try to stand as a haven of truth against these alternative cancer facts. We engage with supporters online, on social media and even reply to the occasional letter we still receive, helping them wade through all the bobbins out there. In the post-truth world, cancer is cured by asparagus, or vitamin C, or cannabis, or caused by an accumulation of never-defined toxins or biologically impossible levels of acidity- which can, of course, be rectified for a fee.
This world is a world driven by heart-breaking desperation, misguided hope meeting misinformation, and - the lowest of the low - cynical exploitation of desperate people for money.
We've been here before
This is not a new story. The UK’s 1939 Cancer Act, was put in place to prevent people advertising unproven cures for cancer. But in this age of international connectivity, the Cancer Act can only go so far.
The Facebook algorithm in my feed has obviously clocked my line of work, so I get sponsored posts served up to me every now and then that promise miracle, and utterly implausible, cancer cures. They are slickly professional and they look frighteningly legitimate.
So why is this a problem? People should be allowed to make their own choices about their own bodies. Because the choice that people make is only as good as the information they used to make it.
So fundamentally flawed information leads to fundamentally flawed decisions. I care so deeply about this because not only can people be confused, but they could be ultimately hurt by this misinformation.
Rational objectivity becomes lost, and whoever is the most believable, or whichever option offers the most appealing outcome is favoured, regardless of the chances of that outcome being achievable, or even real. And the unscrupulous, for whom facts are malleable and have a price-tag, will always find the happiest ending an easier sell. Sound familiar?
Hiding the cure?
For me one of the most maddening, persistent and infuriatingly widely believed myths is that there is already a cure for cancer and the millions of us who work in the field - across academia, charities, hospitals, government and industry, right across the world - are conspiring to suppress it simply so we can continue to draw our monthly pay cheque. I find this utterly ludicrous. The implicit insinuation that those of us -all of us - working in cancer research stay silent every time somebody we love is diagnosed is simply abhorrent, and not worthy of a civilised response.
Sadly, this relentless slew of misinformation also undermines the need for scientific research. Why donate to cancer research if the answers are already there?
So how do we counter these insidious, incessant fabrications surrounding the field of cancer research?
We, as cancer research charities, can continue to be the voice of truth. We have a responsibility to our supporters and the public who fund us to talk about the research we fund in the most open, honest way we can. To continue to act as a place of refuge, where people with tough decisions to make can come for support, to find out about the genuine, real ways that cancer research has improved the lives of so many people. Today, in this new world, this ‘honest broker’ part of our role is becoming more important than ever.
And we must keep striving to do better. Responsible journalism is now more critical than ever. The recent media hyperbole surrounding Nutella, roast potatoes and burnt toast show how far we all still have to go in ensuring new cancer research is given a free and proper hearing. Introducing fundamental ethical values to paid-for advertising on social media would also help. In this age of information, it’s crucial we ensure our kids grow up with basic training in critical thinking; in analysing the reliability of evidence and its source. And perhaps we should hang on to those experts after all.