Behold the crap-fighting science warriors

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked by a reputable science institution to participate in one of their newsletters with a piece on the state of science journalism in the developing world. The piece I wrote is below. It was politely rejected because the science institution was worried it might be seen to be destroying bridges with countries it works with. We can have a separate discussion on bridges worth maintaining and those that are not. As a journalist, however, it is my duty to say things the way they are. Science journalism in the developing world is in danger for so many reasons. Below I explain a couple of them.

In February 2014, the Egyptian armed forces announced in a press conference that their engineering department achieved a “scientific breakthrough” by inventing a device that diagnoses and cures HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C virus, and a variety of other illnesses. The device, they announced, had a 100% success rate. Looking curiously similar to a metal detector, it purportedly worked by using electromagnetic waves.

This happened at a crucial time in Egypt’s post-revolutionary history. Only a few short months earlier, the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood government was overthrown. Shortly afterwards, Egyptian police massacred hundreds of protesters at a sit-in supporting the return of the Muslim Brotherhood to government. Egyptians had been living in instability and insecurity since the 2011 Revolution and the Egyptian army was positioning itself to appear as the country’s knight in shining armor. Media outlets in the country rallied to hail the army’s new breakthrough and a large number of Egyptians celebrated the success through social media.

This crap really happens from well-educated, well-travelled, well-connected people living in the 21st century—the Age of Information.

Voices of reason, fortunately, still do exist, although sometimes seeming as weak, in comparison, as the squeak of a mouse. An Egyptian virologist currently based at M.I.T. in the U.S. posted an hour-long video on YouTube, systematically and scientifically debunking the army’s claims. This video was, in turn, picked up by social media activists and a small number of specialized scientific media outlets focusing on the region. Eventually, after a few weeks, the government’s heralding claims of scientific breakthrough went quiet and the wonder-device disappeared into oblivion. No one was held accountable.

In a world waging with wars, terrorism, civil unrest, corruption, and huge propaganda machines, this sort of story is almost the norm in many parts of the globe and we can only expect more. The sad thing is not how many media outlets are willing to cheer for and support such stories. It is how many people out there are willing to believe them.

Fortunately, social media has formed an alternative platform for those with a bit of common sense. A small number of scientists in the Arab region are now resorting to social media, at their own expense, to communicate science, debunk common myths, and even address taboos. And they are gradually gaining audiences. A challenge will be finding ways to continue communicating as governments exert stricter controls over social media in many countries.

Small numbers of specialized science journalists in many parts of the developing world have had the privilege of being trained by world-renowned colleagues. But as long as the outlets they write for are unwilling to publish real science and to provide unbiased coverage of scientific happenings, that training is almost useless, frustrating journalists who know they should and can do better.

Is there hope for developing world science journalism? Maybe. I really don’t know. Journalism is part of a huge machine. If other parts of the machine are malfunctioning, it is also affected. But until that machine is fixed, there will always be the science warriors; finding every possible nook and cranny from which to serve their cause.


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