“Trust the science; follow the scientists” has become a familiar refrain during our past year of living dangerously. It is the admonition of world health organisations to shifty politicians; it is good advice for all whose lives have been battered into disruption by Covid-19. But another insidious pandemic has been creeping up on us. The World Health Organization calls it the “infodemic”. It includes those endlessly forwarded emails from ill-informed relatives, social media posts, and sensational videos full of spurious “cures” and malicious lies about the virus and the pandemic. The disinformation isn’t all the work of internet trolls, conspiracy theorists and “alternative” medicine peddlers. Some actual scientists have been caught in acts of deception. These are people who undermine whatever faith the public has left in science, and who sabotage the credibility of their scrupulous colleagues. One of the worst cases of fraud was Dr Andrew Wakefield’s bogus 1998 research paper linking vaccines to autism, which endangered the lives of countless children before it was debunked and its author struck off the UK medical register. In this 700th anniversary year of Dante Alighieri’s death, we should reserve a special place in his Inferno for those who profit from turning the truths of Mother Nature into dangerous lies.
Science has definitely had its moment in the sun, with the global effort to quickly create an efficacious and safe vaccine. Researchers have benefitted from the glow of community support and trust. But it has also shone a light on cheats and charlatans and their dangerous tricks.
In the infamous Piltdown Man hoax of 1912, amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson presented bone fragments from an English gravel pit to palaeontologists as the fossils of a previously unknown species of early human — a 500,000-year-old “missing link” between ape and homo sapiens. The remains were the crown of a modern human skull fitted to an orangutan jaw with filed-down teeth. But it took 41 years before the forgery was finally proven in 1953, over which time it led palaeontology down many false pathways and time-wasting controversies.