February 24, 2019

Science Communication in the era of "fake news"

Science communication becomes more urgent in era of “fake news”

Feel like science misinformation is getting worse? You’re not imagining it. A new article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) explores the trend of “fake news” in science communications. The article is an interesting read, especially for its examples of where science misinformation comes from (they note that one in four American adults admitted to sharing misinformation via social media).

Authors Dietram Scheufele and Nicole Krause of the Department of Life Sciences Communication, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, University of Wisconsin–Madison, have identified two major areas where scientists can fight back.

First, the authors push for a systemic look at how to tackle misinformation. There has been laboratory research into effective forms of scientific communication, they write, but few have studied communications in a real-life setting—“for instance, when individuals are faced with competing messages from interest groups or political actors.”

The need for better data on communication is becoming more urgent as social media booms, they write. Going forward, communicators will need to know how the public values news headlines, versus videos clips, versus tweets from friends.

Their next recommendation is to find ways to better inform low-income populations, which data show are less likely to be educated in science. “Newspapers, science television, or even science museums, for instance, tend to reach more educated and higher-income audiences,” write Scheufele and Krause.

This lack of education may play into another trend observed in lower-income populations: a lack of confidence in separating real and fake news. As the PNAS authors write: “A 2018 US survey commissioned by The Economist asked respondents about their ability to distinguish real and fake news; 83% of respondents with a family income of at least $100,000 felt ‘very confident’ or ‘somewhat confident’ that they could “tell real news from fake news.” Among respondents with an income of less than $50,000, that number dropped to 63%.”

Animal scientists have seen a similar trend in people living far removed from farms. Without first-hand experience and observations of aspects of animal health and production, it is difficult for people to evaluate conflicting claims in debates over issues like animal well-being or food safety, for example.

This issue is addressed in the ASAS Grand Challenges document on Science Communication: “Extremists are loud and aggressive voices of scientific misinformation and the public is confused and often accepts exaggeration, nuances, and misrepresentations as facts. Today more than ever before, animal science should be proactively communicated to the general public and policy makers by scientists.”

Like ASAS, the PNAS authors see this lack of science knowledge as a dangerous trend as the public and non-scientist policy makers appear poised to make big decisions in coming years regarding technology like artificial intelligence, genome editing and CRISPR.

Read the PNAS article here

Read the ASAS Grand Challenge on Science Communication