Agnieszka Szuster-Ciesielska fights anti-science every day.  “I had to become immune to hate and threats.”

As individual scientists, we may not be able to compete with a celebrity or conspiracy theorist exploiting conspiracy theories, but together we can be a force that is hard to defeat. Science cannot exist only in universities, says the professor. Agnieszka Szuster-Ciesielska from UMCS.

Roman Peter: You are a biologist and virologist, conducting research and lecturing at the university. At the same time, it popularizes knowledge, explains complex processes in an accessible way, explains the importance of research results, and fights misinformation. What prompted you to do that?
AGNIESZKA SZUSTER-CIESIELSKA: – I have been teaching virology, immunology and cancer biology for more than 25 years. The challenge is to do it in a way that is understandable, interesting, and encourages self-exploration. It is important to arouse students’ interest and stimulate discussion. I think I made it. So I started to feel tempted to get out more with my knowledge and experience. I decided that I owe something to those who are not so lucky to be associated with science.

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Is spreading science more than a hobby or is it hard work?
Scientists should share their knowledge. For this, you need not only a wealth of information, but also the ability to convey it, erudition and a sense of the needs of the listeners. And, of course, passion will not work without it. However, it is also a lot of work. Research the latest literature, properly interpret research findings, and find out what science deniers are currently raving about. You have to be very precise, because opponents will catch every mistake. For me personally, the comments and questions my followers have been asking are very inspiring. On the one hand, it shows that my posts have been read, and on the other hand, it indicates which topics I still have to return to.

Well, you run a Facebook profile. Followed by 19 thousand. People. For comparison: the profile “Hidden Remedies – Jersey ZibaAlready 399,000, and Pawlikowska’s beta – 437,000. A larger number of followers means immeasurably greater reach and influence potential. How do you compete with them for penetration of material information? Is this possible?
I think it’s a complex psychological problem. In my opinion, most people are looking for easy answers and simple solutions. And the science is more complicated. Even if we try to describe the search results in an accessible way, the mention of putting a toothpick under the nose [rzekomo] Avoiding a heart attack seems easy to understand. Hence these domains and the potential for dissemination of misinformation and malicious content. I’ve talked many times with fellow communicators about what can be done to break through this wall. Unfortunately, apart from a reliable, up-to-date message, maybe not much. Because the content we share is not erotic, does not give the impression of secret knowledge of the “what the doctor won’t tell you” type and reaches people who really care. Well, first you have to know something.

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An additional opportunity to take an interest in science was certainly the epidemic that broke out three years ago…
It clearly demonstrated the gaps in basic knowledge about viruses, vaccines, immunity, and healthcare. So I turned to people who wanted to understand and know more.

But at the same time, those whose aim is to mislead have awakened…
True. Anti-science groups, which oppose vaccinations, not just against COVID-19, are becoming active. Their goal was to reach people who were skeptical and afraid. A lot of malicious information has been created in such a way as to create the appearance of professionalism and reliable data. As a scientist, I could not agree to the selection of content according to the thesis, distortion of research conclusions, reference to dubious sources, manipulation and misinformation. It was the moment when I decided to not only spread knowledge, but also start fighting the information epidemic.

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This battle is very difficult. The Internet gives an unprecedented opportunity for anyone to express themselves on any topic. For example, Beata Pawlikowska recently scored a movie about treating depression. It gained popularity among her fans, but faced immediate criticism from professionals. After his dismissal, Pawlikowska began asking questions about freedom of speech. Well, how are you? Was the pressure you were experiencing really a gag?
However, freedom of speech has its limits, beyond which the message can be simply harmful and even dangerous. Freedom of expression cannot be used as a cover for disseminating unreliable information. The case increases when we are talking about a person who, due to his profession and esteem, can reach a large audience. These people should be subject to the responsibility of expressing themselves in a special way. I remember there was a post presenting the methodology for reconstructing the genome of the smallpox virus. It was met with great disdain for scholars. This shows that limits to freedom of expression and the flow of information must be set.

The problem is that people who speak truthfully may also face various attacks. Especially when they, like you, are confronted with the statements of specific people from environments hostile to science. It should cost a lot of nerves, especially when there are insults and threats. Doesn’t that move you?
It’s not simple. Such attacks can discourage public speaking. At first, I also had a problem with them, I took everything very personally. It has hardened over time. Positive feedback on my activities and even support from complete strangers helped.

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Also from the academic community? Some scientists can accuse others of so-called supporting glass. The late Carl Sagan, an astronomer, was not even accepted into the National Academy of Sciences in the United States for his promotional activities. Do you face such sorrows?
exactly the contrary! I am highly favored not only by the camaraderie, but also by my immediate superiors and the authorities of Maria Curie-Skłodowska University. They often received unpleasant messages in my case asking to “intervene”. And I can always count on their help and care. Recently, on the initiative of prof. Zbigniew Pastuszak, Vice Chancellor of UMCS, we spoke with Prof. Krzysztof Filipiak, Doctor of Love. Tomasz Dzieckowski and Dr. Bartosz Fiałek on the hatred that currently affects scientists and doctors. It is important to notice this problem and to talk about it out loud.

But still, such hatred can discourage young, ambitious and talented people from spreading science …
However, I will encourage them to spread knowledge and fight anti-science. Without their participation, denialists would gain the upper hand. Do we really want this? The result will be harm to everyone, to public health. We may not be able to compete head-to-head with a celebrity or conspiracy theorist exploiting conspiracy theories, but together we can be a force that is hard to defeat. Science must exist in the public space, not just in universities.

Despite everything, it is amazing that in the 21st century people like Jerzy Zięba can gain such publicity and such a large audience. There are many scammers on the Internet who offer their services in the field of so-called alternative medicine, of course, at exorbitant prices. On the other hand, accessing reliable information is very easy, and you don’t even have to leave your home. However, many prefer to entrust their health to those who do not have the core competency to speak of. Is this a crisis of power?
Unfortunately yes. The doctor, the lawyer, the scientist are the people of public trust. Each of their slips is widely commented on, transmitted to the entire environment, and is extremely harmful. In these professional groups, as in any other group, there are also black sheep. This is especially evident in the case of doctors, where a group of so-called independent doctors and scientists, causing enormous damage to the entire environment. The second example is the Ordo Medicus Foundation, which also connects doctors and scientists, which widely spreads misinformation and devalues ​​people who preach reliable knowledge. In times of crisis of confidence, many people turn to it.

Because it offers conspiracy theories and alternative solutions and undermines confidence in the achievements of modern medicine. They prey on the ignorance and fears of others. It seems to me that people have an innate suspicion and vulnerability to feelings that are very easy to perpetuate or even arouse and use for their own purposes. And that’s what scammers are all about. This can be seen very clearly in the United States, where opponents of vaccination provide misinformation and at the same time offer supplements that are supposed to offset the harmful effects of vaccines. This is a huge business, on the order of millions of dollars. In Poland, we also have “doctors” who provide various holistic treatments, including treatment of diseases such as cancer, schizophrenia, autism, and multiple sclerosis. Some of them have made a name for themselves by spreading misinformation during the pandemic. All this suffers from patients who, after the failure of such “treatments”, report to a real specialist too late.

Read also: “He was a good doctor.” He doesn’t believe in vaccinations, he could lose his job

It may be useful to educate children and young people about these dangers. Teach them critical thinking?
During school education, we learn “separately” different phenomena in different areas. It’s like colored dots on paper. As you develop, you need to learn to combine them in order to see the world in a more holistic way, to understand the processes that govern it and the changes that are taking place. It is often interdisciplinary in nature, and therefore it is of great importance to instill students and students with effective movement in different fields, which sometimes seem distant. Classes with students prove that not all of them have such competence from school. Therefore, as lecturers, we must encourage these young people not only to gain knowledge of the program, but also to seek answers to more difficult and complex questions. On the other hand, we must encourage them to express their ideas boldly, because only in this way do they acquire the ability to actively participate in the discussion and critically consider the reality that surrounds us.

And what about the early stages of education? Shouldn’t the school explain what the scientific process is, why, and how it works?
I believe this is the role of experienced teachers for each subject taught in schools. I don’t know if separate lessons should be devoted to this, because the scientific process looks different in the case of the humanities and exact sciences, although of course there are many points of contact, such as logic. But wouldn’t these lessons be boring? It is better to use practical tools. For example, during classes, a good way is to ask questions like: how do we know this, how can it be explained, how are you going to prove it, why is this thesis wrong. By the way, we will teach a critical approach. It is also worth introducing modern technologies of the type Design thinkingThis really opens the mind.

In the end, will science and reason triumph or conspiracy theories and misinformation?
I’m sure science will win. As we can see from history, disinformation has never gained much advantage. But it does teach us a lesson about what needs to be done to make people immune to it. Did we do it? This lesson continues.

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a. Agnieszka Szuster-Ciesielska – Polish biologist, virologist and immunologist, academic lecturer, deputy director of the Institute of Biological Sciences at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University. An uncompromising scientific celebrity.

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