Debunking Conspiracy Theories and Promoting Critical Thinking

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  • Name: David Robert Grimes
  • Number of lab members or colleagues (excluding PI): Just myself, with a few dozen collaborators across the world on different projects.
  • Location: Dublin, Ireland
  • Graduation Date: November 2011
    1. H index: 14
    2. Grants: 6
    3. Twitter followers: 19.5k

Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?

Hi! I’m David Robert Grimes, and I’m a physicist by training. I mainly work in cancer research, where I’m especially interested in tumor hypoxia, and improving our understanding of how oxygen drives tumor evolution and treatment response. I’m also an author and science writer, and my other research interests include meta-research, public understanding of science, and understanding why conspiracy theories and pseudoscience spread.

At the moment, I’m juggling a few projects – I spend a lot of my time consulting, trying to further public understanding of science and medicine. My first book, The Irrational Ape, came out recently, and that focuses on why we get things so wrong, and so it’s kept me fairly busy. I get bored easily, so have to have a few ideas on the go at once, ideally totally different from one another!

What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

As I tend to jump between different ideas, I’m not sure I have a very consistent back story! Like most scientists, I love a good puzzle, and there is a real pleasure in delving into a mystery to try and solve a little part of it, or to make discoveries that might signal the way for others to explore further.

Ideas come constantly, and then you just subject them to a little probing – the weaker ones you reject, but the stronger ones I try and plant in my mind, to see if they’ll grow. Sometimes inspiration comes from an unlikely source, or in a context completely alien to what one might expect: one of my works on modeling conspiracy theories came from playing with a weird thought; what IF scientists decided they wanted to cover something up? How would they go about it, and what would happen? Taking that devil’s advocate approach to the question, I found it was highly unlikely big conspiracies could endure.

Other times, ideas can even arise from off-hand remarks – when I started in cancer research, I jokingly complained to a colleague that cancer would be much easier to cure if all tumors were spherical. That offhand comment led to her telling me about tumor spheroids, which grow in an approximately spherical manner. But crucially, we found their oxygen dynamics were the ideal test-bed for some of our ideas, and they became a really important part of our work.

Equally, idle thoughts can be a source of inspiration – as I write a great deal on topics that some find contentious (vaccination, cancer treatment, 5G, and so on) I often get e-mails and messages from people insisting there’s some sinister conspiracy at play and I’m part of it. But as irritating and wrong-headed as these assertions were, they made me start thinking about how many people would have to be involved in some grand scientific conspiracy, and what would be the threshold number of corrupt scientists involved before everything fell apart – this led to some published work in 2016 demonstrating that these huge conspiracies would be incredibly unlikely to succeed, even if the people involved really wanted it!

Please describe the process of learning, iterating, and creating the project

A huge part of science is getting things wrong – we come up with a conjecture, and probe it. If it seems solid, we develop a hypothesis, and we test it. And frequently, that idea is wrong after examination, and we move towards an improved understanding. But in matters of science and society, that critical step often does not take place; people become enamoured with a wrong idea, and the consequences in everything from medicine to politics can be devastating.

Why we get things wrong is something that fascinates me, and was the inspiration behind my book, “The Irrational Ape: Why We Fall for Disinformation, Conspiracy Theory and Propaganda (releasing in the USA in 2021 as “Good thinking – Why Flawed Logic Puts us all at Risk and How Critical Thinking Can Save the World”) delves into the flaws in our logic, psychology, and understanding of media that steers us towards poor decisions, and how we can avoid them.

I didn’t initially intend to write a book – I was however contributing articles to newspapers around the world on different topics, from the anti-vaccine movement to nuclear power, and I started to see themes in why we fall for misconception; certainly in the era of social media, falsehood propagates at a dizzying rate, and I became curious about why this is – and why we’re so vulnerable to it! As humans, we prefer stories to dispassionate data – and I’m not different! So I started collecting real, incredible stories that each had a lesson in them about where we go wrong; two unsung Russians who saved the world from nuclear devastation, a murderous pope who manipulated his court with faulty logic, a doomsday UFO cult, the underbelly of conspiracy theorists online. These tales are fascinating, and in all of them, there are lessons for us.

I initially drafted an article on why we get statistics so badly wrong, which included stories about a tragically wrongful conviction of an innocent woman for murdering her children, how one observant statistician in world war 2 spotted a mistake that could have cost thousands of lives, and a positive result on an HIV test that’s 99.99% accurate means it’s only 50/50 whether we have HIV for most of us. A friend read the article and strongly advised me to write a book. He put me in touch with an agent, who liked it, and the genesis for the book came from there.

Please describe the process of launching the project

The book was bought by Simon & Schuster in the UK, and the first edition was released in September 2019. COVID, however, has made all of it even more important and a revised edition has just been released. We are incredibly vulnerable to disinformation, and the COVID crisis has laid this bare: a legion of people around the world believe COVID is a hoax, or manipulated, solely on the basis of what they’ve read online. But to understand why this happens, we have to appreciate the deep motivations that underpin this: the perverse reality is that conspiracy theories give some people an illusion of control, and offer a simple explanation for complex and nuanced events. But ultimately they’re very damaging – and if we’re to combat them, we need to understand why we make these kinds of mistakes. So as a result, I’ve been writing a great deal on why we get things wrong and appearing on media outlets around the world to discuss it.

Since launch, what has worked to make your project grow/successful?

I think the most important thing is to keep giving people relevant and helpful information and to gently combat the emergence of false narratives. This was the motivation for me to write the book, so putting that into practice seems integral to the process for me.

How is everything going nowadays, and what are your plans for the future?

Things are going relatively well, and considering the uncertainty of the world at the moment I have no right to complain. I’m balancing a few different projects, and passions. I’m still active in cancer research, and have just published a few papers on this recently, and I aim to explore further how oxygen shapes tumour evolution and treatment strategies. If that research can ultimately even save a few lives or open new avenues for treatment, then it’s very much worth it to me.

My other passion at the moment is meta-research: it is a sad reality that much-published science in the biomedical field is simply not reliable, and cannot be replicated. This isn’t a fringe problem: it’s estimated that up to 85% of biomedical papers do not stand up to scrutiny. This is a serious issue and one I’ve done some work on with John Ioannidis. We found that pressure to publish on scientists is a major factor that selects dubious results and that the fixation of journals on novel findings over diligent science leads to this sad situation. I was recently awarded a grant by the Wellcome Trust to explore this further, and am currently working on methods of ascertaining when inappropriate statistical conclusions have been employed, so we can spot questionable science earlier. I feel this is something very timely, and I hope such efforts will go some way towards stemming the tide of questionable science.

Finally, I am passionate about public understanding of science, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s never been more urgent to propagate clear explanations and to provide context for the public.

We’d like to know more about you, could you please let us know what is your morning routine like?

I admit, my morning routine is not at all a good one! It varies depending on what has to be done – sometimes I will wake early, and get straight into it – other times, I might work until the early hours of the morning, then not start work until the afternoon. This completely depends on my teaching load, deadlines, and other projects. I do intend to develop a better routine soon though, as I do appreciate they are probably useful! But of course, people work in different ways.

I don’t have many rituals really – I do enjoy walking and get at least 10km a day in, plus I cycle a lot too. I find my mind moves more freely when I’ve got a least some exercise, so I try to get a sea swim in too once or twice a week if the weather allows it. I am probably a night owl in most respects, though I find it pretty easy to adjust my sleep cycle. But I also seem to run on relatively little sleep, which is useful at times.

And how does a typical day look for you?

There honestly isn’t one – every day will look quite different, depending on the tasks at hand! There is always some admin to be done, emails to be sent, and problems to resolve – and usually for me, there’s a few hours put aside to write, or model, or work on problems. But the exact shape of that varies greatly

What does your workstation look like?

My desk is pretty basic – two monitors, a decent PC, a writing pad, and a menagerie of pens, board markers, and other assorted stationery! I use my whiteboard a great deal, so that gets covered in the day’s ideas quite frequently – and the day’s mistakes!

What secondary software and apps do you use daily?

Aside from basic office products, I use MATLAB and Mathematica for work pretty much every day, to make models and test them out. I use audacity to record podcasts, and some freeware video editing tools when I need them. I write my papers in LATEX usually and have moved to as my primary site to construct them.

How do you stay up to date on News and resources?

I have at various times an active New York Times, Irish Times, and Guardian subscription. That gets me through most of it!

Advice for other scientists who want to get started or are just starting out?

Never be afraid of making mistakes – but equally, don’t ever be slow to correct them. There’s no shame in being wrong, only in not correcting yourself when that becomes apparent. It is also better to do good science diligently than bad science quickly – good science takes time, and shouldn’t be rushed. There is unfortunately huge pressure on young scientists to become paper writing machines, but I would urge that for both their own mental health and to maintain the quality of published science, younger researchers don’t allow that artificial pressure to unduly influence them.

Thank you very much for your time, David. Where can we go to learn more?

Twitter: @drg1985


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