It’s a hard time for science and its credibility. Fake news and misinformation are everywhere and social media just amplified the problem since there is no longer a filter to the volume and flow of information. When you are constantly bombarded by news, it’s hard to distinguish which piece of information is reliable and which one is fabricated. But is this a new problem? Is this the first time in the course of history that scientists’ knowledge has been under attack? Not really! Do you remember when Galileo proposed his new idea about the earth rotating around the sun and the Roman church totally discredited it and labelled him as a heretic because the Bible said the opposite?
500 years ago the Church strongly opposed the authority of science, who is to blame now?
A recent report published by Elsevier in partnership with the non-profit association called Sense about Science found the root of the problem in the manipulation of science by the media. (1) In fact, about 75% of the scientists interviewed believed that deliberate misinterpretation by media and public discourse on certain topics are the number one problems that pose a threat to trust in research. They also believe that the high volume of information and the difficulty in sorting out with pieces of research is high quality and which one isn’t, might create confusion for the general public.
The opinion of scientists is very much valid when we look at the way the general public gets their information (or the lack of). For example, children get more information (83%) from the media than from any other sources. Without the necessary tools on how to critically analyse information from the media, they typically jump to the conclusion that the first or most abundant information they come across is reliable and ignore conflicting or less popular information (2). For most adults, media, particularly local television news programs, are the only steady source of information. Although these sources may improve their awareness of certain topics, they don’t provide these members of the general public with the appropriate knowledge to fully understand what’s going on or what the problem is about. (2)
How to solve the problem?
The vast majority of scientists, more than 80%, believe that explaining research in lay terms is seen as the best way to help people outside the research community judge the quality of research. This isn’t only about the research itself, scientists should also talk about how the research was carried out, which methods were used to get the data and which implications the piece of research might have on society. But this shouldn’t be a one-way process where scientists teach and talk about the research and the public listens to it. The general public should be actively involved in learning the basics of critical thinking and start making informed choices on their own.
So when you come across a piece of scientific information it is important to ask yourself a few key questions: (2)
- What is this piece of information is about?
- What ideas, values, information or points of view are overt? Which are implied?
- What techniques are used to carry out the research? Why did the researchers use those techniques?
- How might different people understand this message differently? What is my interpretation of this and what do I learn about myself from my reaction or interpretation?
All information has bias. I am biased, you are, everyone is. This is because we all have preconceptions, beliefs, different upbringing and values. So which questions you should ask yourself to assess the CREDIBILITY of a piece of information? (2)
- When was this piece of research was made? Where or how was it shared with the public?
- Is this fact, opinion, or something else?
- How credible is this (and what makes you think that)?
- What are the sources of information, evidence or ideas that support certain arguments?
And most importantly, who has paid the research? Do the authors claim no conflict of interest? Or is the research funded by oil companies to claim that climate change does not exist? Or is it a food company claiming that additional salts and sugar in beverage doesn’t pose a threat to one’s health?
Stay wake guys!