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Science Communication: how can it help against fake news?

Opinion | Researchers
Science Communication: how can it help against fake news?

Answering the question of how scientists' own science communication can educate the public and help in the battle against fake news.


‘Fake news’ is everywhere and where there is fake news there is fake science. It is far from a new phenomenon - even the 19th Century had the “Great Moon Hoax”[1] - but with the internet age, fake science has become more ubiquitous and potentially harmful than ever.

While fake stories of the past had limited reach beyond newspapers, meet ups and local rumors, with today’s tools like social media, fake science can go global in an instant cheered on by anti-science advocates who seek to sow doubt in science to suit their own agenda and worldview.[2]

Against this sea of misinformation, how can scientists push back the rising tide? 

Before answering the how, it is important to emphasize why we must fight fake science news. Because the consequences of doing nothing could be catastrophic. A lack of reliable information about, say, health matters can result in a rise of dangerous, avoidable illnesses and even deaths. Perhaps the most infamous example being the fabricated scientific study of Andrew Wakefield [3] that insinuated that the MMR vaccine causes autism. The continued dissemination of this fraudulent idea, especially through social media, has led to a global resurgence in measles [4] and also fueled the development ‘vaccine hesitancy’ throughout many countries. This example alone demonstrates how false information can alter public perception and attitudes towards even a well-established science. 

It is easy to feel that overcoming the mountain of fake science news is insurmountable for your average everyday scientist. However, scientists on the whole remain one of the most publicly trusted professions throughout the world (in the UK in 2018 - 83% of the public trusted scientists [5]) and this gives us a unique position that should be leveraged to help spread facts, not fiction. 

So how can scientists communicating their science help?

By communicating science publicly we put a human face upon a field that can be viewed as cold and aloof. Scientists are respected, but the public doesn’t understand much about what scientists do.[6] By using all of the social media tools of the 21st century, scientists can create persuasive content that reaches large audiences quickly to tell the diverse and colorful story behind the science and the researchers who carry it out.[7]

Playing the long game, it is vital for science communicators to focus on and advocate for the education of younger generations.[8] Scientists must speak out when they see false information and be proactive about inoculating young minds against fake science. Eventually, this will promote more scientific literacy in society at large as well as ultimate defence, i.e. the inability of susceptible individuals to critically examine the information before them and reach a conclusion based on evidence and reason. 

This type of early intervention is known as ‘pre-bunking’ and research suggests that it is more effective than debunking.[9] It is difficult to convince a person to change their mind when it is made up. 

Some quick tips for communicating science: 

  • Double check your facts. You can’t beat fake news by being fake news.

  • Present facts in layman’s terms as much as possible. 

  • Make the fact more compelling and interesting than the lie. Focus on the human story of the science. 

  • Point out the lack of rigor and fallacies of the fake fact as well as the techniques that are used to distort reality (e.g. fake experts, cherry picking, logical fallacies).

  • Emphasize the breadth and depth of scientific consensus that unpins current knowledge. 

  • Avoid hype. While confidence in scientists is high, hype run the risk of undermining science in the long term. 

  • Use visual tools and aides - graphics, audio and video content can be more powerful than words alone. 

Increasing scientists' involvement in the communication of science is vital to stalling the march of fake news. By generating real science news and communicating media content of their own, scientists can help to shift opinions and influence public behavior. Scientists are trusted voices and hearing more of those voices can prevent the harm being caused by the no-evidence, fake science news.

References

  1. The Long and Brutal History of Fake News.” Politico Magazine. Accessed 19th September 2019.

  2. ‘Science audiences, misinformation, and fake news’ Dietram A. Scheufele and Nicole M. Krause, PNAS, 2019, 116 (16), 7662-7669; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1805871115

  3. “Wakefield’s article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent” Fiona Godlee, Jane Smith and Harvey Marcovitch, BMJ, 2011, 342:c7452

  4. https://www.who.int/immunization/newsroom/new-measles-data-august-2019/en/ Accessed 20th September 2019. 

  5. https://wellcome.ac.uk/what-we-do/our-work/public-views-science-and-health - Accessed 21st September 2019

  6. https://www.britishscienceassociation.org/public-attitudes-to-science-survey

  7. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/pseudoscience-fake-news-social-media-facebook-twitter-misinformation-science-a9034321.html - Accessed 19th September 2019

  8. “Fake science and the knowledge crisis: ignorance can be fatal” Henning Hopf, Alain Krief, Goverdhan Mehta and Stephen A. Matlin, Roy. Soc. Open. Sci., 2019, 6 (5), https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.190161

  9. ‘Countering Climate Science Denial and Communicating Scientific Consensus’, John Cook, Oxford Research Encyclopedias, 2016, DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190228620.013.314

  10. “How can we use the ‘science of stories’ to produce persuasive scientific stories?” Michael D. Jones and Deserai Anderson Crow, Palgrave Communications, 2017, 3, Article number: 53


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