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How scientific communication can spread misinformation

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

Social media is the common target when we think about misinformation, but a recent paper1 by the University of Washington highlights how scientific papers, and indeed the news articles written about them, are not immune from criticism either.

Attention is at the heart of the problem, as it’s fundamentally a scarce resource, so there is an inherent incentive for scientists, universities, and journalists to hype things more than is justified.  What’s more, the authors highlight that most researchers today get their information and access the literature through search engines and recommender systems that can create a filter bubble.

What’s more, they argue that the COVID pandemic has exacerbated the situation as the inherent uncertainty around the virus created an urgency for answers into which spurious claims could be thrust forth.  Conspiracy theorists are generally far happier to put forth instant answers than scientists are, while those with agendas can cherry-pick data from the flood of papers that have been published during the pandemic.  What’s more, journalists were not always treating pre-print papers with the caution they deserve.

Strong results

Despite those concerns, the authors believe that science has come through the pandemic well, not least in its ability to generate a high number of vaccines and sequencing of the virus’ genome.

Nonetheless, misinformation remains a risk, and the authors argue that a crucial strategy for overcoming it is to better teach the public about what science is and is not.  What’s more, they suggest that scientists themselves could do a better job of engaging with the public.

Generally, the authors believe that the rise of preprints is a positive thing for science as it shortens the gap between research being conducted and results emerging.  This has obviously been beneficial during the pandemic as time has been of the essence.  It is not without costs, however, as the peer-review process is usually removed in the rush to print.   While peer review doesn’t guarantee rigor, it is an invaluable safety valve to ensure robust results enter the public domain.

Journalists also need to be somewhat wary of pre-prints so that they’re not contributing to the spread of unreputable science.  The authors argue that in such circumstances, additional work in investigating the author, lab, and institutions behind the results can pay dividends, while also ensuring that any papers are clearly marked as being not peer-reviewed.

Article source: How Scientific Communication Can Spread Misinformation.

Reference:

  1. West, J. D., & Bergstrom, C. T. (2021). Misinformation in and about science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(15).

Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and Work.com, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

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