During the school winter break, I visited my family in Algeria, my home country, for the first time since the start of the pandemic. I gave two public lectures, one on scientific literacy in the Muslim world and one on pseudoscience, covering how it has spread fast and wide in recent times and how we can work to stifle it. The one striking observation I made was the high levels of both vaccine hesitancy, if not suspicion, and pseudoscientific information carried by many people.

Scientific literacy is the minimum knowledge of scientific facts and theories that we must have in order to understand various aspects of the world today, including matters pertaining to viruses, vaccines, genetics, antibiotics and many other areas of medicine, technology and the economy. For instance, many people asked me, or rather challenged me, about whether the messenger RNA vaccines (those made by Pfizer and Moderna) could modify people’s genes, with scary consequences (could they turn you into a crocodile, as per the Brazilian president?). The answer is a definite no, as the mRNA does not get into the cells’ nuclei and affect their DNA, but rather goes into ribosomes and instructs them to make proteins that can block the virus.

Complementing scientific literacy is a “science culture,” which is one’s appreciation and adoption of scientific methods and ideas and a positive attitude toward science and technology.

Various surveys from around the world indicate that while a majority of people — and even more so in the Muslim world — have very positive impressions and regards toward science and technology, levels of scientific literacy have remained rather low. This has manifested itself negatively in the case of COVID-19 and the serious need for widespread vaccination.

For instance, a Eurobarometer poll that was published in 2021 showed that while most Europeans have high opinions of science and scientists, there is an undercurrent of doubt and hesitancy toward issues such as vaccines and climate change, and this often correlates with some conspiracy beliefs.

It has also been my experience and observation that many people express reservations, and even suspicions and fears, about both the origin of the coronavirus and the vaccines that were “mysteriously” produced in record times and commercialized in billions of doses, with huge profits.

The Eurobarometer researchers found a clear correlation between low scientific literacy, pseudoscientific information on viruses, genes and vaccines, and acceptance or rejection of vaccination programs.

Every three years, the US National Science Foundation surveys the scientific literacy of the general public in various countries. The latest survey, conducted in 2018, included Canada, China, the EU, Israel, India, Japan, Malaysia, Russia, South Korea, Switzerland, the UK, and the US. The survey uses 10 basic questions, such as: Does the Earth go around the sun or does the sun go around the Earth? The center of the Earth is very hot, true or false? It is the father’s genes that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl, true or false? Even though the questions are rather basic, correct responses to each question vary from 16 percent to 78 percent, with general averages in each country ranging from 33 percent (Russia) to 72 percent (Canada).

In the Muslim world, a task force was formed in 2017 to explore and report on “The Culture of Science in the Muslim World: Past, Present, and Future.” It comprised a small group of experts on science, education and communication, and one of its works consisted of a survey it conducted online (in English, Arabic and Urdu) among 3,000 people on science literacy, the understanding of the nature and methods of science and attitudes toward science among the general public. The results of the survey confirmed a very high regard for science and technology among the public, but levels of scientific literacy were as low as the international levels mentioned above.

This low scientific literacy is compounded by social media, which is a fertile environment where pseudoscience and conspiracy beliefs spread virally (indeed, like viruses). I know a number of Arab virologists and biologists who have been working double overtime since the start of the pandemic to spread correct information on social media to counter and rebut misinformation and disinformation, but who are now despairing at the cancerous growth and spread of not just false information and beliefs, but hard resistance and nasty anti-science behavior online.

I should add that the monopoly of vaccines in rich countries and the bad distribution around the world has also had a negative effect on the pandemic. This allowed new variants to pop up, most often in countries where vaccine rates are low, to then spread to the rest of the world.

Officials, educators, media personalities and opinion makers must do everything they can to educate the public, assuage people’s fears and show that the pandemic is being handled fairly and rationally. Lives and people’s well-being are at stake, for years to come.

  • Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum
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