Science Struggling Against Fake News and Fact Deniers

University World News

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. Read more …

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