How we gathered an army of scientists to battle health misinformation

Ben McNeil
Oct 14 · 5 min read

As a career scientist, I’ve always been aware of the persistence of science misinformation, but I didn’t come to fully understand how it seeps into the public discourse until 2009. That year, I and 25 other climate scientists compiled a report called The Copenhagen Diagnosis; it was a summary of all the peer-reviewed research produced until then on the impact of climate change and the causes behind it. We presented the report during a widely-covered climate meeting attended by President Barack Obama and several other world leaders.

After the event, I saw a considerable uptick in the number of interview requests I received from journalists. And while some of these reporters presented our research responsibly, I quickly noticed a disturbing trend in which the article would place my quotes — which were informed by years of specialized education and research — right next to quotes that questioned the science of climate change. Those science “skeptics” however, were never actual climate scientists, just commentators with no subject matter expertise. Journalists would often abrogate their responsibility as an arbiter of truth and merely serve as a stenographer, presenting “both sides” as if they had equal merit. The experience was immensely disheartening.

The spreading of pseudo-science

In the decade since that Copenhagen meeting, the situation has only gotten worse. The rise of social media platforms allowed science denialism to fester and spread, almost like a virus. The anti-vaccination movement seeded fake science within the population via social media, leading to a resurgence in diseases that health experts once considered eradicated. We are exposed to volumes of pseudoscientific claims daily. From fad diets to cancer cures, we simply don’t have the ability to judge lies from the truth.

And the technology platforms don’t seem to have a solution. Last month, for example, Facebook caved in to the concerns from anti-abortion activists and senators who falsely claim that ‘abortion is never medically necessary.’ Meanwhile a recent article falsely claiming that NASA admitted climate change isn’t caused by humans has been shared 1.9 million times on Facebook. Lies and misinformation are winning.

Fact-checking at scale

In 2016, I began to form the first inklings of how to combat this misinformation crisis. It seemed clear that we needed an internet clearinghouse for fact-checking, one that was scalable and valued expertise over all other attributes. I started thinking about how we could begin using a more scientific approach to fact-checking, starting in health.

At the time, I was helping to run a platform called Thinkable, which aimed to help scientists raise money online to fund their research. When we were building Thinkable, we’d been able to manually verify thousands of scientists from across the world in hundreds of different fields of study. We had the idea to take a disputed question — for example: “Do vaccines cause autism?” — and then invite our verified scientists who are most qualified to answer it.

Would these researchers, doctors, and scientists actually respond? Or would they just delete the email and move on with their professional lives? There was only one way to find out. We quickly developed a question and answer tool that would allow an expert to easily log in and contribute. We purposefully only asked questions with true/false answers — that way so we could establish a “consensus” — and the expert could share a quick answer or contribute a longer detailed response.

To our surprise, not only did we receive great participation, but the vast majority of the experts who logged into the platform stuck around long enough to leave a detailed response to the query, often citing peer-reviewed research in their answer. After we’d collected about 200-odd answers, it became clear that our experiment had potential. There seems a palpable desire within the scientific community to correct misinformation in their fields.

The 343 people that made it happen..

The next question we had to answer is whether there was a real desire from the public for such a platform to exist. If we wanted to scale this system, then we needed to build a separate platform to host it. And in order to do that, we needed money.

So in March of 2019, we launched a Kickstarter. The pitch was simple: contribute to Metafact — the name we came up with for this project — and we’ll build a platform where anyone in the world can submit a question that top experts will answer. We were essentially applying the crowd-sourced models of Quora or Wikipedia and tweaking the model so that only verified experts could contribute.

Over the course of the campaign, we received nice endorsements from places like the BBC, Washington Post, and Poynter, and raised over $50,000 from 343 backers, beating our initial goal and securing enough seed capital to build out the platform.

Since then, we’ve been building out the Metafact platform, adding new product tweaks as we went along. We’ve designed the infrastructure so we can process questions and quickly distribute them to the experts we think are best qualified to answer them. To date, we’ve grown our database to over 11,000 scientists who have contributed over 2,500 answers to questions ranging from whether probiotics have any health benefits to whether cannabis helps relieve pain?

Metafact Members

Some questions are just too important to ask the internet. People need trusted answers to make better decisions and we are just beginning. This month, we debuted the Metafact membership program, which gives paying members access to our weekly expert consensus articles and monthly topic “Reviews” that dive deep into the answers given by hundreds of verified experts around the world on topics like vaccines, probiotics, and cannabis. Member questions are also prioritized and promoted to the expert community and members get to choose the review topic each month.

Fake news hurts democracy, but fake medical information is dangerous to all of us. Our goal is to provide a better way for people to question everything and extract the truth as verified by science. We are funded by members, so the growth of our membership program is essential for us to recruit more experts from the pool of ~10 million PhDs, MDs, and health experts across the world. This kind of scale will allow us to help people get verified facts from experts much quicker for everyone.

Nearly a decade has passed since that Copenhagen meeting that started it all. Back then, scientists like me were forced to rely on the existing gatekeeper models in media that stood between us and the public. That era is over. With science misinformation at an all-time high, it’s time for us to finally confront this problem directly. Metafact isn’t just a fact-checking platform, it’s democratizing science communication so that the information we consume is authoritative and verified. We want the Post-Truth era to come to an end — so let’s get going — join us.

May the facts be with you!

Metafact.io

Get facts verified by real scientists & experts

Ben McNeil

Written by

Climate Scientist. Founder of metafact.io - a new model for fact-checking that allows people to question everything and source answers from experts.

Metafact.io

Get facts verified by real scientists & experts

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