The depths of Scientific misinformation and fake news




This issue of CEITEC-Connect will always be special.


It comes while we face an invisible but powerful threat: COVID19.


We hear every day that we should keep distance and wash our hands – the rules supported by WHO. Daily-news gives us new statistics and not so joyful information. But the social media is coming out with something else during these days.


Something even more dangerous than the Coronavirus itself.


Misinformation, pseudoscience and magical homemade remedies that should save us from getting infected and treat the virus if we are sick. Where does it come from and why?


We live now in what is known as the “post-truth” era, which can be described as the disappearance of shared objective standards for truth. While the term is used broadly in the world of politics, we can also align it with science. The World Wide Web makes it easy to lose standards for truth, and often, just a statement of belief is enough to convince the readers [1].




(adapted from https://medium.com/the-edict/the-predicaments-of-a-post-truth-era-f1c939b3435b)


The internet is full of people who believe that vaccinations are the leading cause of autism, and GMO causes cancer. You can find more in our previous articles [2,3].


Others think that essential oils added to your drink will let you lose weight. And what Facebook feeds us now is that drinking warm water and eating garlic will save us during the Coronavirus outbreak. [4]


And vodka! Lots and lots of vodka!


Well, there are even whole communities of pseudoscientists still believing in a flat earth and sharing that landing on the Moon was a spoof [5,6]. I also saw gossip of 5G networks causing Coronavirus.


Why is that?


One problematic area is the lack of understanding of scientific facts and processes. There is also of the absence of education and literacy, not enough data analysis and additionally - confirmation bias [7].


According to encyclopedia Britannica, “Confirmation bias, the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs. This biased approach to decision making is largely unintentional and often results in ignoring inconsistent information.


Existing beliefs can include one’s expectations in a given situation and predictions about a particular outcome. People are especially likely to process information to support their own beliefs when the issue is highly important or self-relevant” [8].


Unfortunately, the “post-truth” era thrives because of confirmation bias.






This tendency made people believe in a lot of pseudoscientific notions.


Our brains are made to rely on mental shortcuts, to help us judge the trustworthiness. That is why when something is repeatedly popping up in our news feed and becomes familiar; we start to believe in it, even if we know this news is fake [9].


Every day we are surrounded by fabricated videos, fake accounts and memes designed to manipulate public opinion [10].


My personal favourite is the news claiming that red spots in bananas are due to people who inject bananas with HIV-positive blood [11]. When I spotted it, I read it to my flat-mate. His reaction? “Yes, it was in the news, they arrested the man who was doing it, I’ve heard.”


But there has never been a real banana-terrorising person. Red spots are proven to be just fungal infection, and this news is a pure hoax.


Fake news spread quickly as when they are controversial and involve readers’ emotions [7]. We believe in them because other people tell us those are correct.



As Daniel J. Boorstin said, “The greatest

obstacle to discovery is not ignorance—it is

the illusion of knowledge”



There is no proof of vaccination causing autism, and warm water killing viruses [12].


But it is tough to perceive consequences we are not aware of.  


Because of “vaccine hesitancy”, you want to save your kid from autism, but you infect them with measles [10].


Essential oils will make you lose weight; simply by mildly poisoning yourself and due to your subsequent fight with diarrhea. These examples of pseudoscience in practice could be fatal.



So, why do we spread fake news then?


Sometimes people pass fake news because of altruism-they think they can help their friends and family [13].

Lots of misinformation appears as a natural human response to disaster events such as COVID-19 pandemic. Uncertainty leads to anxiety, which makes people try to come together and make sense of the situation.  We call this an act of collective sense-making, which very often ends as misinformation.


Evolutionary psychologists describe gossip as strategies people use to influence others [14]. Social media likes pseudoscience because it often influences people’s lifestyles and choices – e.g. diets and buying vitamin supplements. Pseudoscience is shareable, often easier to understand and grabs attention more than real science; hence, it churns more money.


Not only people or social media spread fake news.


Scientists and scientific journals do that as well [15]. Fake science is a real problem due to predatory journalism and the publishing business. The percentage of scientific articles retracted because of fraud has increased by order of magnitude since 2000 [16].


At this very moment, Coronavirus experts are bombarded with reviewing article submissions, which they are working through as quickly as possible [17]. Fast very often means bad quality peer review, and will result in the emergence of misinformation.






What can be done to reverse the post-truth era and stop this vicious fake news spread?


Unfortunately, debunking misinformation, unless done with tact and empathy, will often provoke those who believe in it and make them cling to the pseudoscientific anecdote even more.


Efforts are needed to stop the spread of false information via social media such as modifications to computer algorithms that favor ‘trending’ but fraudulent stories and development of tools that help identify false claims [10].


To cutback misinformation, we need worldwide media regulations, fact-checking and content moderation.


It is necessary to organise group action to address scientific issues of concern, such as vaccine hesitancy, public dialogue about gene editing or climate change agreements.


We need science communication activities such as the National Academies of Sciences Colloquiums and the commitment of science communicators more than ever [12,13,18,19].


To any reader – double-check the news reliability and source before you share it. And stay safe.



References

  1. Forsyth, M. G. (2019). "Post-truth era is destroying society and medicine." BMJ 367: l6932.
  2. http://connect.ceitec.cz/science-and-society/what-threat-does-the-anti-vaccination-movement-pose/
  3. http://connect.ceitec.cz/science-and-society/gmo-the-misunderstood-forbidden-fruit/
  4. https://www.motherjones.com/media/2020/03/want-to-avoid-spreading-coronavirus-misinformation-think-like-a-science-journalist/
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_landing_conspiracy_theories
  6. https://www.livescience.com/24310-flat-earth-belief.html
  7. Scheufele, D. A. and N. M. Krause (2019). "Science audiences, misinformation, and fake news." Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 116(16): 7662-7669.
  8. https://www.britannica.com/science/confirmation-bias
  9. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/misinformation-has-created-a-new-world-disorder/
  10. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.190161
  11. (https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/banana-injected-blood-hiv/)
  12. https://www.wired.com/story/youtube-misinformation-scientists/
  13. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/03/researchers-are-tracking-another-epidemic-too-misinformation#
  14. B. Guerin Language use as social strategy: a review and an analytic framework for the social sciences. Rev. Gen. Psychol., 7 (3) (2003), pp. 251-298
  15. http://theconversation.com/how-to-spot-bogus-science-stories-and-read-the-news-like-a-scientist-133828)
  16. Brainard J, You J. 2018What a massive database of retracted papers reveals about science publishing's ‘death penalty’. Science, 25 October 2018. 
  17. https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/journals-peer-reviewers-cope-with-surge-in-covid-19-publications-67279
  18. https://www.hindawi.com/post/science-communication-how-can-it-help-against-fake-news/
  19. CMAJ 2019 July 29;191:E847-8. DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.1095782



Written by Agnieszka Szmitkowska

Edited by Somsuvro Basu and Markus Dettenhofer  


Publication date: 30.04.2020