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Fake News: Lies and Half-Truths in Science

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable. -Mark Twain, revered American author

By Niyati Rana

Do you ever read the news and see one specific scientific study highlighted as life-changing or the sole reason why something terrible happens? If the answer is yes, then you may have experienced fake news without even realizing it. Even if the source is relatively well regarded and deemed reliable by the public, some of the details may not be accurate or over exaggerated in some way. This is especially true for articles with isolated statistics or articles on STEM studies and breakthroughs. One might think these studies are cut and dry influences than being full of understated fallacies. This type of fake news, otherwise known as  ‘junk science’ often features overexaggerated claims, faulty data, untrue assumptions, and irrelevant information. 

In general, junk science leads to widespread hysteria, which is extremely dangerous to a population’s scientific mentality. One of the most notable examples of the effect of ‘junk science’ is the anti-vaccine movement, created in part by the cavalier statements made about the harmful effects of vaccines on the human body. The movement began in the late 1990s when former physician Andrew Wakefield published now-redacted findings about the supposed connection between the MMR vaccine and autism in the Lancet magazine. Despite this study lacking proper scientific protocolmultiple trials to prove conclusions, different animal models used in experiments, and even human subject trials the damage was already done. People everywhere began to worry about the well-being of their children and even themselves. Were they at risk of autism? Had they been living with autism all their lives? The study’s conclusion uses cavalier language (the use of absolutes such as ‘all’ or ‘none’) to point out a clear connection between a commonly-accepted medical procedure and a devastating neurological condition. But how come no one caught on to this fallacy? 

Regrettably, due to a large gap in scientific knowledge, not many people understand the problems with faulty studies published and automatically assume anything in a publication is the truth. The gap in scientific knowledge is not quantum physics or molecular biology: it is down to simple scientific reasoning skills. In an SEI survey published in 2018, a striking 49 percent of Americans were unable to correctly define a scientific experiment, and a whopping 77 percent were unable to give the definition of a “scientific study”. Due to the lack of foundational science education, it makes sense that many Americans and people around the world fall into the trap of ‘junk science’. It is difficult to validate what one is reading due to lack of understanding. Caught up in the scientific jargon, people often do not realize the essence of the study or where some inconsistencies lie. What is to blame for this unfamiliarity with basic scientific topics? Is it an unwillingness to learn, a sense of fear that overpowers the need to analyze the facts, or is it simply a lack of access to knowledge?

Perhaps it is a combination of all three: the scientific readiness levels in each of the fifty states varies significantly, with the Deep South and Mountain States having lower education rankings and readiness percentages; Alabama, in fact, is ranked last in public education in the United States, with a lack of AP testing and course offerings, varying degrees of course difficulty, and adequate standardized testing resources available to certain parts of the state

Science taught in an average school setting is oftentimes filled with specific facts which lack real-world application. Moreover, schools generally do not teach scientific thinking and analytical skills, according to the “epistemic knowledge” of the human population. Epistemic knowledge is, in this context, levels of misinformation or information surrounding science in nonexperts or nonscientific individuals. Epistemic beliefs suggest that what people take away from their high school science classes is very minimal because of how long ago it was for most adults and how insignificant it feels to one's current livelihood. Knowing the genus of a specific type of Rainforest frog is seemingly unimportant compared to understanding how mergers and acquisitions work.  Likewise, some may assume that only people who are directly involved with the scientific community need to know science, leading to the false belief that others could not possibly know what so-called experts know. This creates an unwillingness to learn and surround oneself in the inner-workings of the scientific realm. But the real reason why people refuse to learn what experts know stems from their emotions

Philosophically, the holy trinityethos, pathos, and logosexplains everything in life. Pathos, the ability to appeal to someone’s emotional self, is what keeps many people from realizing the problems with these faulty conclusions in these studies. When people read something, especially of direct importance to their loved ones, they tend to worry. Like with early anti-vaxxers, humans typically  worry for the well-being of loved ones. We are all emotionally fine-tuned to care about some issue or another. We can disregard the facts,jumping to conclusions to try to do everything possible to protect ourselves and our family members from becoming the next case in the newspaper. So combined with a lack of education and an unwillingness to learn, emotion amplifies people’s morals and beliefs by persuading them to believe anything they read out of fear and anger, therefore creating the backstory for the penultimate reason why fake news exists and infects: naivety. 

On the other hand, we can stop in our tracks and do the one thing that cures this pandemic: spreading real, unbiased information that has been thoroughly proven. If we replace rumors with undeniable, undisputed facts, then half of the battle is won. We have already proven that 1) the rumors that  were previously affecting us are false and that 2) fake news is not a death sentence for the truth. Facts are key to stopping the spread of misinformation, no matter how popularized or widespread it has become. 

So the next time you come across an article in the news about “Jellyfish Pill Helps Memory Loss,” or something as eye-catching as that, inspect the information using things you already know, thinking back to some data analysis you used in your experiments in your chemistry class, and finding real information to (dis)prove any claims using your analytical skills. To fight the disease that is fake news, we do not need to become distinguished doctors or scientists, although that would be very helpful; we need to become detectives and examine strictly what is in front of us, making note of any inconsistencies we find. So, go ahead, put your detective hat on, take out your magnifying glass, find your Dr. Watson, and end this gruesome, deadly ailment.

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