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Good Practices

Antidotes to fake news

JÚLIA CHEREM RODRIGUESOne of the burning topics at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held in February 2016 in Boston, was the spread of fake news on the Internet. A lecture given by Kevin Elliott, an ethics professor at Michigan State University, showed that science has long been aware of fake news, which came to the forefront of political circles in the United States after the last election campaign. Elliott cited the slanted studies the tobacco industry commissioned for decades to mask the harmful effects of cigarettes on health, in addition to recent cases, such as the emissions tests that Volkswagen manipulated, discovered in 2015.

A good antidote to fake scientific news, according to Elliott, is to be somewhat skeptical when the entity responsible for the research has a direct interest in a favorable outcome. To be completely safe, and to learn what science has to say about a specific problem, it is best to consult the thematic reports that scientific societies customarily produce. “This is how to avoid skewed interpretations,” Elliott says.

The presentation by Dominique Brossard, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, suggests that in disclosing scientific facts, the line between outright fraud and the effects of poor journalism is indeed a thin one. She says that false information is disseminated to mislead and influence people, citing a study she performed with a student from Yale University about bizarre news published in a sensationalistic tabloid sold in US supermarkets, such as newborns that weigh 15 kg and attacks by aliens and giant insects. According to the study, most of the information is fabricated. Some is from unusual yet real stories, but readers are unable to separate the two.

Poor scientific journalism produces questionable situations. Brossard mentioned a study that reverberated on social networks. According to the story, caffeine allegedly prevents cancer, but the study was based on a test that included just 10 individuals. “Journalists are not trained to gauge the validity of a study. They try to emphasize the human side of the news in the headlines, such as: ‘New studies give hope to families of Alzheimer’s victims,’” she says, according to the EurekAlert news service. Because it produces expectations, it fans out over social networks.

Brossard suggested three strategies to address the problem: the first is to ask scientists to agree to better explain what they are doing and help journalists evaluate scientific findings; the second is to involve scientific institutions in monitoring social networks for fake news that pertains to their research and to provide clarifications when needed; the third is to persuade Internet search tools to delete references to scientific works that have been retracted.