There’s been a lot of talk about fake news but what about fake science and its impact

Editorial cartoon climate change deniers Political and Editorial Cartoons (via Pinterest)

Many scientists have been grappling with a very depressing question: is Donald Trump the ‘’most anti-science’’ president the US has ever had?  Trump has rejected various scientific conclusions which are supported by overwhelming data and scientific consensus, including global climate change and the lack of an autism-vaccine link. Trump has already begun to cut funding of the division of NASA responsible for much of the world’s climate research. He recently signed executive orders erasing many Obama-era climate policies making it more difficult for the US to meet emission reduction roles.  It has been reported at the Department of Energy’s climate office that employees have been informed ‘’not to use the phrases ‘climate change,’ ‘emissions reduction’ or ‘Paris Agreement’ in written memos, briefings or other written communication.” Published science and scientific expertise has been removed from United States Government decision making tables. Trump’s war on science and his forceful and almost proud ignorance about anything science related will not only do considerable damage within the US but around the world.

Science has always had to overcome the onslaught of misleading information but since the US presidential election race it has become more widespread and cunning through the use of social media developing new types of attention-grabbing headlines. Fake news about climate change, vaccines and other contentious science issues have been shown to be successful click-bait headlines.

Fake news is not a new phenomenon. Science has had its own fake news problem – pseudoscience – and the stakes are equally high. Pseudoscience is a range of shaky claims strongly lacking in evidence and generally medically related. It’s ‘’fake science’’ that quite strategically is meant to appear as real science. People are mainly familiar with pseudoscience being used to sell dubious services and products. Pseudoscience can usually be quite easy to recognise through its emphasis on confirmation over refutation, on physically impossible claims, and on terms charged with emotion or false ‘’sciencey-ness’’. Sometimes pseudoscience contains small grains of real truth to boost its credibility. But usually these small grains are half-truths and it’s the false half which they tend to leave out making what they’re selling pointless and ineffectual.

 Snake oil salesmen have been peddling false cures since the beginning of medicine, and now websites such as Info wars and Natural News flood social media with dangerous anti-pharmaceutical, anti-vaccination and anti-GMO pseudoscience. The scientific community has attempted to curb these peddlers but with only limited success.

The issue of distinguishing science from pseudoscience is very old. It’s usually referred to as the ‘’demarcation problem,’’. This term originated in the mid-1900, the logical empiricists a group of philosophers put forward a solution to the demarcation problem. It outlined how a statement was only scientific when you could confirm that it was true. A lot of what is considered fake news contain no sources and would definitely fail this type of verification process.

Verification is at the heart of the scientific method and it can easily be used to point out fake news: ‘’check the sources, such as witness or footage, and confirm both that they exist and that the article has been honest in its representation of the material’’. However, 20th century philosopher Karl Popper highlighted how anyone could make claims appear scientific by making vague statements and cherry picking verifiable evidence. Popper proposed that the fundamental means to determine if a claim was scientific was not whether it could be verified, but instead if it could potentially be shown to be false. Popper used Astrology as an example where there was a seemingly high number of correct predictions but pointed out how even a stopped clocked is right twice a day. The predictions were so non-specific that they could always be reinterpreted until they appeared to be true; they were unfalsifiable.

Even though there have been decades of research to overcome the demarcation problem, a very recent and popular climate change story was a debunked claim that ‘”tens of thousands of scientists declare climate change a hoax.”

Back in 2009 a server at the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia (UEA) was hacked releasing thousands of emails before the Copenhagen Summit on climate change. Climate denialists who used the term ‘’Climategate’’ to describe the incident argued that the emails showed global warming was a scientific conspiracy, that scientists had manipulated climate data and attempted to suppress critics. The controversy focused on a small amount of emails with climate ‘’sceptic’’ websites picking out particular phrases taking the emails out of context and presenting a negative spin on what was merely an honest deliberation on an exchange of ideas. For example, in one of the emails climate scientist Kevin Trenberth said, “The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t“. This was however part of a discussion on the necessity for improved monitoring of the energy flows used for short-term climate variability, but was flagrantly misinterpreted by critics. Eight committees investigated the allegations and published reports, finding no evidence of fraud or scientific misconducts. There was a huge media circus when this story first came out however after the scientists were vindicated following investigations there little to no coverage in the media, it appeared that accusations are more news worthy than vindications. This fake controversy has left people to this day to be suspicious of climate scientists and their research. 

It seems the problem now is that the line between real science and pseudoscience has only become more uncertain. Attempts to spread fake science has become more sophisticated and cunning.   A recently well respected publication the Journal of Clinical Research & Bioethics came under new management and began printing fictitious and heavily plagiarized material. This ‘’fake science’’ tricked people into thinking it was a credible peer-reviewed literature. Even outlets that are quite respected have published distorted or sensationalized reports on science and health misleading the public.  Exploiting an audience’s fears and aspirations generates far more interest for example through click bait than communicating through the measured language of science.  Solving the problem of fake news is more than just differentiating between what’s true or what’s not but also stopping fake news from spreading.

A major aspect of the post-truth world is how people prefer to seek news that backs their ideological beliefs, rather than news which is backed by accurate and reliable sources. Similar to what comedian Stephen Colbert’s political pundit alter ego coined back in 2005 the term ‘’trustiness’’ as he describes it “we’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist“.

Extensive research has shown that people are more likely to believe news if it confirms their pre-existing political views. So, don’t assume that only people with opposite political views from you are deceived by lies, think again, it happens to all of us. This problem occurs because of how our brain forms memories. For example, the more often a message is repeated on Facebook and Twitter, the more likely you will remember it, an effect called fluent retrieval. Furthermore, this means our brains are more likely to believe something is true when we remember something more easily. This is why the social media echo chamber has been so effective. When a lie is repeated enough, people start to believe it’s true. This puts scientific facts at a disadvantage because interpreting results and research from experiments which is often quite detailed and confusing is quite difficult not just for the lay public to comprehend but other scientists too.

Political commentator Scottie Nell Hughes described how: ‘’People that say facts are facts, they’re not really facts … Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts’’. This statement only really applies to certain areas of belief, such as politics, one could say that different opinions are equally valid there is no certain truth. While questions on policy can be backed up by evidence and data, but fundamentally they usually boil down to subjective individual preferences and opinions. However, in science this is not the case. A scientific theory or argument is either supported by evidence and data, or it’s not. Opinions are not equally valid.  Sadly, when it comes to science, we can’t pick and choose our own truths. Scientists and science journalists have been responsible for tackling the countless amounts of post-truth reports and in the current Trump era they will definitely have their work cut out for them.

Scientific scepticism needs to be practiced. Scientists should be open to challenging themselves and other scientists critiquing their work when necessary in order to improve their understanding. Yet this isn’t the case when people who claim they’re sceptics but who are just in denial particularly when it comes to climate change.  These so-called sceptics eagerly criticise any evidence that demonstrates activity of man-made climate change and yet believe any argument, op-ed, blog or study that discredits global warming.

Historian A. Bowdoin Van Riper emphasizes that popular culture “does more than formal science education to shape most people’s understanding.” It’s plain to see that professional science is on the losing side of the fight against misinformation when the media has little incentive to investigate more than just the title of a press release. However, it’s easy to point the finger at the media but we in the scientific community need to realise that we aren’t blameless. Scientists are infamously bad when communicating our points to the public in terms which they understand. The science community should be able to combine their ingenuity to turn the tides of misinformation. If we want to win the information war it’s vital that comprehensive and detailed scientific information can be translated into an understandable format in the hope of influencing the public and to change working policies for the better.

Modern institutions and policy makers need to effectively tackle misinformation or risk being judged harshly by history for bringing in a new era of mass deception. When people who are scientifically literate fail to probe external sources, it enables low quality information generated from fake and misreported science to manifest. This increases support for campaigns like denying climate change, anti-vaccine agendas etc. which go against the opinion of scientists and extensive government, private, and university- led research.

Sites, particularly Facebook and Twitter, need to be more equipped in tackling the fake news issue. Social media outlets are now facing a new epidemic of viral hoaxes placing the western democratic process at risk.

People need to realise that scientific facts can’t become politicised, physical laws don’t change, the universe is indifferent it doesn’t care if we lean towards liberal or conservative ideology and it has no obligation to make sense to us.

 

References

http://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/3/31/15136266/5-ways-trump-gop-disparaged-science-this-week

http://www.forbes.com/sites/emilywillingham/2012/11/08/10-questions-to-distinguish-real-from-fake-science/2/#54507ceb6ee7

http://uk.businessinsider.com/scientists-fake-news-and-disinformation-pseudoscience-2016-12?r=US&IR=T

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2016/dec/05/fake-news-tries-to-blame-human-caused-global-warming-on-el-nino

http://ijr.com/opinion/2016/12/262717-fake-news-bad-fake-science-has-even-more-harmful-implications/

Conor Mulvihill
About Conor Mulvihill 2 Articles
Conor has a biological science bachelor’s degree from Maynooth University along with a masters in international relations from DCU. He worked within the Irish Environmental Network and was responsible for raising awareness about environmental issues and writing articles for their news site Greennews.ie Greennews.ie.

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