Three challenges of being a scientist in a storm of misinformation

ScienceViews 17. may 2021 4 min Associate Professor Lykke Sylow Written by Lykke Sylow

Being a scientist in the current storm of misinformation is challenging. We are pushed to promote our science but need to balance this with the correct interpretation of results. People and policy-makers want rapid scientific communication, but we can only survive as scientists if we maintain our scientific integrity. Misinformation can especially flourish unregulated on social media. In many ways, this is a perfect storm. We therefore need to take control instead of just leaning back and hoping that the storm will simply disappear.

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My job is to obtain scientific evidence. Scientific evidence is important, since policy and life choices rely on credible, accurate information. The spread and consumption of information that is either misleading or patently false is therefore a concern. Once planted, misinformation is difficult to debunk, as exemplified by the falsely proposed link between measles, mumps and rubella vaccines and autism. – misinformation that the World Health Organization now considers one of the world’s most pressing public health issues.

Nevertheless, on a daily basis, I and so many of my colleagues confront news and views that ignore scientific facts or misinterpret scientific evidence. In many ways, we are in a perfect storm of rapidly changing social media news environments, political polarization and societal debates in which scientific facts have a hard time competing with misleading claims.

People believe that scientists are divided

At the centre of the storm we find the social media. Information tailored by algorithms towards users’ pre-existing preferences and business models that incentivize outrage over facts on platforms such as Google and Twitter are well beyond the control of individual scientists. This is particularly frustrating, since science has long settled many of the debates on social media. Are COVID-19 and global warming real threats, and is the Big Bang really the best explanation for how the universe started? Should we get vaccinated? These are all issues with overwhelming scientific consensus.

Nevertheless, half of Americans believe that scientists are “divided” in the belief that the universe was created in the Big Bang. If the public is convinced that science is not settled, why would they weigh scientific facts more heavily than conspiracy beliefs or “alternative” facts, as some political pundits have called it, when making choices for policy or their daily lives?

CRISPR, GMOs and artificial intelligence are all areas of science that will require citizens to balance political and societal concerns with the best available scientific evidence. And societal debates will have less than ideal outcomes if the people affected by these technologies or guides are misinformed about what that best available science says at any given moment in time. For the COVID-19 pandemic or vaccines, such disconnects could become a life-or-death decision.

The scientific community cannot solve any of these challenges by itself. Solutions will require collaborations across policy, (social) science, public health and many practitioner communities. Where are such initiatives? At the same time, science has made avoidable missteps. In other words, we as scientists might inadvertently contribute to misinformation due to three major challenges facing scientists in communicating our results.

Challenge no. 1: balancing correct interpretation of results with the need for promotion

Scientists have strong incentives, such as the publish-or-perish principle, to promote their research findings. Like everyone else, scientists are also prone to confirmation bias, which occurs when authors favour evidence that confirms preconceptions or hypotheses while ignoring or slighting adverse or mitigating evidence.

In the long term, public trust in science might suffer if highly publicized single-study results do not hold up under scrutiny. Once some members of the public believe that scientific results cannot be correctly interpreted or trusted, scientific facts and unverified claims are difficult to distinguish for citizens and policy-makers.

This has been exacerbated by the increased reliance of the media on scientists as resources for newsworthy accounts of breakthrough science and concerns that exaggerations in press releases and other scientific communication can lead to misperceptions among public audiences about the reliable and actionable conclusions that can be drawn from larger bodies of work.

The faster science moves or has to move, the more renewed focus there will be on balancing correct interpretation of our data with highlighting potential impact to promote the results.

Challenge no. 2: schism between the need for rapid scientific communication and scientific trustworthiness

The speedy exchange of findings is essential for both scientific progress and policy-making. But as well learned during the ongoing pandemic, it has its pitfalls. During the emergence of COVID-19, science moved at breakneck speed to inform necessary policy choices but by necessity also produced results that either turned out to be wrong or were even flawed enough for them to be retracted from high-impact journals.

COVID-19 also highlighted the risks of preprint servers, especially in informing public and policy discourse. Preprints have greatly enhanced the speed of knowledge curation and sharing within science, but this function continues to be largely overlooked during the pandemic when results from non-peer-reviewed preprints became the basis of news reports. Preprint articles may still contain errors and often have undergone limited systematic scientific vetting.

The combination of low-quality preprints and a rapidly changing landscape of scientific findings, facts and uncertainties that are integral parts of research is a dangerous amalgam with tremendous potential to derail public debate and feed conspiracy theories.

Challenge no. 3: tackling the social media platforms as they take a leading role in how we seek information

Social media platforms have taken a leading role in our everyday lives and have changed how we obtain information. Misinformation flourishes unregulated on social media. A top false story promoting cannabis as a treatment for cancer generated 4.26 million engagements, as opposed to the 0.036 million engagements that were linked to the top (accurate) and debunking news story. Additionally, social media incentivizes selectively disclosing information, sharing mostly one’s own achievements and beliefs. And scientists are not immune.

Celebrity scientists with a significant social media following might therefore shape public discourse in ways that are consistent with their own research agendas or viewpoints but inconsistent with the broader scientific consensus emerging from the literature. In the long term, such “skewed observations” might well influence public perceptions of scientific consensus and ultimately shape which policy choices are seen as viable.

Of course, there is no magic-bullet solution for any of these pitfalls, but there are actions that scientists themselves can take to avoid the pitfalls of communicating uncertain science in increasingly polarized (mis)information environments. Especially during pandemics like COVID-19, we need to balance the realistic interpretation of results with the understandable desire for self-promotion. This also means that we need to optimize how we transparently document methods, statistical analysis and other study materials.

This makes it even more important

Ironically, we could also be more scientific in our efforts to better reach the public, which needs to be informed about our research. Individuals seek, evaluate, interpret and recall information in ways that support their prior beliefs and commitments. Relying on social science to help us think more carefully about how to connect our research to outcomes with values that people personally care about will greatly enhance the societal impact of our findings.

Finally, with or without peer review, rapid science clearly poses problems because low-quality scientific work will often shape policy discourses even after being flagged or even retracted by the scientific community. By being actively engaged with platforms such as Retraction Watch and PubPeer, scientists might help to reduce this problem and maintain or even build trust in science.

Trust in the scientific enterprise, of course, is an important prerequisite for accepting scientific findings as more credible than competing claims or even misinformation in public and policy debates.

Being a scientist in this storm of misinformation is challenging. It is frustrating, since misinformation and conspiracy beliefs are here to stay. This makes it even more important for scientists to avoid unnecessary pitfalls and tackle the challenges outlined here that we as a community do have control over, including scientifically rigorous journals, meticulous review processes and not exaggerating results.

This article is a rewrite of Lykke Sylows editorial in The Journal of Physiology in February 2021. Lykke Sylow is Associate Professor at the Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports, Faculty of Science and the Department of Biomedical Sciences, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. In 2018, the Novo Nordisk Foundation awarded a grant to Lykke Sylow for an excellence project for young researchers within endocrinology and metabolism. In 2020, the Independent Research Fund Denmark (DFF) has awarded Lykke Sylow Hansen an Sapere Aude research leader grant and an Inge Lehmann grant for researchers who have “a very special potential for research and research management at the very highest international level.

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