Science struggling against fake news and fact deniers

Flat Earth theories. Anti-vaccination conspiracies. Climate change denials. Such deeply held beliefs are impeding the job of unveiling and spreading verifiable truths, according to speakers at the international Worldviews on Media and Higher Education Conference in Toronto, Canada.

Educators and journalists who made up a panel on “Scientific research, ‘post-truth’ and fake news: What’s next?” warned of incessant efforts to deny the truth and also actively manipulate it with falsehoods.

Moderator Ivan Semeniuk, science correspondent for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, told the audience that scientific conspiracies are nothing new, but they have more currency today in the public realm than ever before.

“Something has changed, something significant,” said Semeniuk, reflecting on a professional career as a journalist that goes back to the 1980s. “And it’s having a huge impact on how we do our business, the business of bringing knowledge to light.”

Sandra Quinn, professor and chair at the University of Maryland School of Public Health in the United States, has watched the anti-vaccination movement’s activities and explained to the audience that she and other observers see two different types of activity.

“Misinformation is simply false or misleading, and it can happen accidentally,” she said, such as when medical rumours or second-hand accounts are passed around between friends on social media.

On the other hand, “disinformation is literally that deliberate attempt to mislead someone”, and is a bigger concern to the health sciences community. This includes fake news sites that promote the anti-vax agenda, and which look like legitimate media sites but fail to ask the critical journalistic questions of who, when, where, what and why.

Quinn spoke of such concerted efforts that were developed by the tobacco industry decades ago and are continued today by interested groups and individuals to deliberately undermine science by questioning the motives of scientists and the authenticity of their results. This has sowed confusion among the public, who may not know which sources are trustworthy.

Healthy scepticism

“Scientists are the very first people to question [research],” she said, before adding, “I believe in a healthy scepticism; I think that’s important. But we’re beyond the healthy scepticism point.”

Indeed, while Max Boykoff addressed the climate change denial community, he stressed: “I’m a fan of questioning authority.”

As director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research and an associate professor at the University of Colorado Boulder in the United States, Boykoff has watched as questioning environmental science has been overtaken by denialism, and detailed the three types he sees going on with climate contrarians that have muddied the factual waters.

“There is literal denialism, which is basically hands over the ears, ‘I’m not going to listen to what you have to say’. But there is interpretive denialism, which is a way of interpreting the same information in a different way. And then, thirdly, there is implicatory denialism.” That happens when individuals accept what science is saying but fail to do anything to deal with the issues or change their behaviour, he explains.

“There are many different pathways to knowing and I think with new ways of engaging through new and social media, there’s new voices,” said Boykoff, acknowledging the enhanced ability to communicate today, as opposed to in the pre-digital age.

Unfortunately, not all those voices are pleasant or polite and for those in the media who cover fake news, a prime concern is the rancour that accompanies those who perpetuate disinformation.

Jane Lytvynenko, a journalist with BuzzFeed Canada, has been surprised at the ways that conspiratorial communities have grown, and expressed concerns about how these communities are responding to those who would dare question the questioners.

“It is very difficult to cover this beat,” said Lytvynenko. “People who spread disinformation intentionally are extremely aggressive. They will choke off voices on the internet, they will get into arguments, they will work very hard to prove their point.”

These same disinformation disseminators are also loath to listen to anything that might contradict their deep-seated opinions and beliefs. “One of the difficulties is that the people who need the correct information most, [don’t] read it or see it. And when they do see it, they start painting you as a target, as an enemy, as a person to harass for a couple of days.”

Lytvynenko added that while a lot of talk centres on educating younger people about online and social media truths, this is not the only demographic to worry about, judging by studies that looked at Facebook.

“The older you are, the more likely you are to fall for disinformation,” she said. “And whereas there are a lot of initiatives on educating students, there are much fewer [for] people who are out of the education system already.”

The fear of being hounded and harassed may also help explain the reluctance of some academics to engage with the media. For instance, Quinn said that she frequently finds colleagues who have finished an important study or paper and do not want to talk to the media. She feels that this attitude has to change to make scientists and others more accessible to the public and counteract the voices of disinformers.

“Too frequently I think people are just scared and increasingly so today,” she said. “Part of this is because they don’t know how to talk to the media. And I think that it’s vitally important for those of us in higher education that our faculty get trained, that they get introduced to the media, not as an enemy, but as a potential partner.”