Combating fake news in science
“Dandelion root benefits can boost your immune system and cure cancer,” “Lead developer of HPV vaccines comes clean, warns parents & young girls it’s all a giant deadly scam,” “Asteroid Warning: Govt Preps Underground Bases” — These are just three of a multitude of fake science headlines circulating on social media recently. They may all be debunked, but will they have a lasting effect on society? The impacts of fake news and the post-truth era are the subject of discussions at the 4th European Conference for Science Journalists(ECSJ2017) on 26–30 June in Copenhagen, Denmark.
The definition of fake news is often blurry. “Fake news is usually a mixture of truth and falsity,” says Vincent F. Hendricks, director of the Center for Information and Bubble Studies(CIBS) at the University of Copenhagen. “The way it works is you’ll have some facts, and [they are combined with] some made up story that will be in accordance with your already biased partisanship,” he explains.
Although fake news is a relatively new ‘buzzword’, the problem of unchecked, misrepresented or untrue information has a long history. As the 18th-century political satirist Jonathan Swift wrote in The Examiner: “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.”
A global survey on the consumption of news published last year in a report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism showed that half of people use social media as a weekly news source, and for one in ten it is their main source of news.
This allows fake news to be created and shared easily, according to Jens Degett, president of the European Union of Science Journalists’ Association (EUSJA). “The kind of information that gets a lot of social transmission is the kind of information that makes a lot of noise,” he says. “Sometimes the truth is the first victim online.”
The proliferation of fake news makes it difficult for people to know what to believe, creating distrust in the media and allowing politicians to think they can say whatever they want and still get elected. Sofie Vanthournout, director of the Brussels-based campaign group Sense about Science EU, says that “There’s a risk that politicians will start to act as if people don’t care about evidence and they don’t care about science or experts.”
Misinformation on the web is a global challenge because it is potentially a threat to governance, according to Hendricks. “If used correctly, it [fake news] can be a very influential means for allocating people’s attention and setting the agenda for what sort of things would have to be discussed, say, in politics or climate or economics,” he stresses.
Vanthournout has seen first-hand how scientific evidence is sometimes disregarded in political debates. “Policymakers are interested in the evidence, but there’s a point where they can’t act upon the evidence anymore because public opinion is too strong,” she says, citing debates about GMOs, vaccines, and homeopathy as examples.
Yet misleading the public doesn’t need to be as extreme as intentionally producing fake articles for the purpose of getting attention or gaining political advantage. Decreasing levels of journalistic input into science articles affects the impartiality of news stories. “Lots of what we read about science is actually not neutral, it’s not put into perspective,” says Degett. He claims that much of what we read about science is thinly veiled marketing.
Another problem in science reporting is sensationalism, adds Vanthournout. “Whenever there is a new study, a lot of media have these big statements and big claims about what this means, and very often it doesn’t mean that,” she says. Vanthounout encourages journalists to be critical, not just of others, but also of their own thinking: “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 it shouldn’t be given more than that.”
Michele Catanzaro, a freelance journalist who coordinated an investigation that debunked the flawed use of voice recognition in courtrooms, believes that uncovering misinformation is not enough. “One has to understand why a certain piece of pseudoscience is thriving among the public,” he says.
Catanzaro also discourages branding things as fake news or pseudoscience too quickly. “People have applied the tag fake news to things I have written because they didn’t like it,” he says. He advises keeping an open mind, saying that the line between science and pseudoscience is often blurry, especially when there is not consensus in the scientific community.
Fair and balanced or false balance?
Journalists are encouraged to present all sides in a scientific debate. However, Vanthournout cautions against false balance: “At some point, we would consider something a scientific consensus, but you’ll always find somebody who disagrees,” she says. She suggests giving an indication of how strong the counterarguments are, and not presenting a debate as 50/50 if it is not 50/50.
For Hendricks, reinforcing the principles of excellence in journalism might be the answer for combating fake news. “Attention is important, but attention is not everything,” he says. “There’s a big job for journalism, getting back to the virtues of proliferating correct information because nowadays that seems to be scarce.”