Fighting back against fake science news

Did you know that a glass of red wine is equivalent to one hour at the gym, smelling farts prevents cancer and plants are to blame for global warming?

It’s hard to believe (literally) the absolute rubbish that passes as science news. To the truth seeking institution of science, fake news — “catch-all term encompassing propaganda, misinformation, disinformation and hoaxing” — is (yet another) massive hurdle to effectively communicating science to the public. I’ve had conversations with many scientists who feel like they are hitting their heads against a brick wall. They feel frustrated, powerless and fearful of how fake news can damage public understanding and perceptions of science. Fake news is undermining scientific credibility and eroding already fragile public trust and confidence in science.

The root of it all is self-interest — whether it’s fake news created to intentionally mislead people into believing false information to advance economic or political interests; to sow public doubt on issues; or as clickbait to make a buck. Much of the fake news about science is what Jens Degett, president of the European Union of Science Journalists' Association, describes as “thinly veiled marketing”.

So, what can we do to combat fake science news? Are there any quick fixes or long-term solutions? I say, both.

Sexy science

Most sensationalism we see in science news is actually a result of exaggeration in press releases to gain the attention of the media. Too often, results from small studies get distorted and blown out of proportion — given more significance and reported as fact when they are incremental and likely not replicated. Sofie Vanthournout, director of the campaign group Sense about Science EU puts it nicely:

One study is like a brick in a wall, and what is interesting is the entire wall, but every individual brick is just a brick, and shouldn’t be given more than that.

A few years ago, Professor Petroc Sumner and his colleagues looked at exaggeration in science news and press releases1. They examined 462 biomedical and health science press releases from 20 UK universities and found a strong association between exaggeration in science news and press releases. Of all the press releases they examined, 40% of them exaggerated advice, 33% exaggerated causal claims, and 36% exaggerated inference to humans from animal research. Not surprisingly, when they looked at the associated news stories they found most of them (58-86%) had similar exaggerations — compared with exaggeration rates of 10-17% in stories when the press releases were not exaggerated.

Is it really necessary to make science results sexier to get the media’s attention? According to Sumner and his team, the answer is no; there’s little evidence that exaggeration in press releases increases the uptake of news. If that’s the case, then an obvious quick fix to the spread of fake science news is increasing the accuracy of academic press releases — spread the truth by telling the truth.

The best way to increase accuracy is to better involve scientists in the process of writing press releases and communicating their own work to the media. This should include the “stodgy and grumpy”2 process of science, not just the shiny, sexy findings. As Carl Sagan suggests, if we communicate “… only the findings and products of science – no matter how useful and even inspiring they may be – without communicating its critical method, how can the average person possibly distinguish science from pseudoscience?”2

Fake news detectors

Some experts are coming up with technological solutions using machine learning and artificial intelligence to combat fake news. For example, Niall Conroy and his team propose an automatic fake news detector that evaluates how true and reliable the content in a news article is. It does this by analysing the language patterns used in articles and looks for liar ‘leakage’ — discrete language patterns that betray the liar, in spite of them strategically controlling what they are saying. It also analyses an article’s network-based behavioural data — the credibility of its source, social network and linked data3.

Ironically, we seem to instinctively turn to technology to solve the problems itself creates. Technological solutions may help in the short term, but new ones will quickly outsmart them. Conroy and his team do caution that this type of technology is designed to “augment human judgement, not replace it”, and I whole-heartedly agree.

Scientific literacy to the rescue

Humans need to become better fake news detectors by analysing, evaluating and thinking critically about the science content they consume. The best weapon against fake science news is education and scientific literacy. People who are less educated tend to be less able to differentiate between true versus false headlines4. and “science illiteracy easily leads to false beliefs. Ignorance breeds gullibility”.

At the heart of scientific literacy is understanding how science operates and how scientific knowledge develops. It’s understanding that science is self-correcting and therefore provisional and tentative; that science is based on evidence and probability and therefore uncertain. Science is a truth-seeking endeavour that helps us reduce uncertainty or be less wrong, but “whatever we know now is only our best approximation of the truth”. Having confidence in scientific knowledge is reasonable while realising it may be dropped or changed in light of new evidence. Understanding this — the essence and nature of science — makes spotting the bullshit easier.

Scientific literacy comes from doing science, rather than just learning about science. Yet, science education still mainly focuses on passive acquisition of science knowledge rather than active involvement in the process. As I mentioned in a previous post: “You can’t really understand science unless you experience it yourself — and you don’t get that experience from high school science, or even a university undergraduate degree for that matter”.

The long-term solution relies on changing education (formal and informal) to effectively produce scientifically literate citizens. In a world of politicised science and 'scientized'* politics (where scientific knowledge is used as the rational basis for decision-making) scientific literacy is not only the solution to combating fake news, it’s essential for the overall well being of society.

1 Sumner P, Vivian-Griffiths S, Boivin J, Williams A, Venetis CA, Davies A, et al. (2014). The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study. BMJ. 2014;349:g7015.

2 Sagan, C. (1997). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, London, Headline Book Publisher.

3 Conroy, N.J., Rubin, V.L., and Chen, Y. (2015). Automatic deception detection: Methods for finding fake news. Proceedings of the Association for Information Science and Technology. Vol 52, 1, pp 1-4.

4 Allcott, H. and Gentzkow, M. (2017). Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election. Journal of economic perspectives. Vol. 31, 2, pp. 211-36.

*Coined by Daniel Sarewitz in: Sarwitz, D. (2004). How science makes environmental controversies worse. Environmental Science & Policy. Vol 7, 5, pp 385-403.

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