No Alternative Facts: Science in the Era of Fake News

How the once un-alterable reality of science is challenged by the 'fake news' phenomenon.

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Photo: Flixr, Creative Commons

“Climate change is a hoax.” “Evolution is just a theory.” “Vaccinations cause autism.”

These are just a few of the claims that have been made in recent years by those seeking to discredit decades — in some cases centuries — worth of meticulous scientific research. In recent years, more and more denunciations like these have been espoused by those in the highest positions of government and society. The result has been a worrying trend of public distrust in science. In a world where “alternative facts” and “fake news” abound, it has become difficult to know what is real and what is made up. We’ve become accustomed to a political and social landscape that changes on a monthly, if not weekly, basis, and we live in a time where spreading online rumours has be-come basic political strategy. Against this backdrop, science and objectivity are under attack as subjectivity and bias become the new norms.

The “fake news” phenomenon that has gripped the world for the past two years has lead to people being wary in distinguishing between whether the information they receive is true or a fabrication. The sheer vastness of information available through the internet and social media seems to have caused many to adopt a kind of tribal mindset, where people pick the “facts” they like and accept them as dogma, no matter what contradictory evidence later comes to light.

Although it has only been labelled as such in the past couple years, what we now call “fake news” is not an entirely new concept. Propaganda that distorts, embellishes or outright denies the truth has been around for centuries. But in the current era of social media, it has become a more salient force than it was in the past. Fake news has both sprung from and resulted in scandal and rumour in all parts of society, becoming a favourite phrase of the current US president.

But of all the drama that fake news has caused, the denial of science and the perpetuation of pseudoscience are most worrying, as they represent an attack not on a specific ideology or movement, but on hard scientific evidence and objective thinking.

Why has science come under attack? One reason is that many of us — particularly young people — no longer get our news from conventional newspapers or public broad-casters, who, while certainly biased, have fact checkers and are held accountable for blatant lies and contradictions. According to the Office of Communications, 63 per cent of people aged 18-24 in the UK get most of their news from social media rather than from established sources. On the internet, there are no safeguards against misinformation or outright lies. Indeed, websites focused entirely on fake news — often for political reasons — are booming in popularity.

This anarchy of information has been used opportunistically by political groups, social movements, corporations and governments to push their messages and influence internet users in the way they consume, vote and even act in their day-to-day lives.  This manipulation of information has also been used to influence people into distrusting science and to perpetuate myths of pseudoscience that may ultimately be even more harmful.

Fake news is particularly damaging to science because when it is attacked, it is not only an attack on scientists — it is an attack on objectivity, logic and reason. The unbiased, apolitical approach that science allows means that its findings don’t always align with what people — particularly those in positions of power — want to believe. A popular quote by Neil DeGrasse Tyson goes, “The good thing about science is it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” If those truths contradict what people — particularly those in positions of power — want to believe, it can make them want to suppress it.

The role of science in today’s world, then, is as a politically neutral voice of reason – something to which we can turn to when our arguments reach a stalemate, and when we need to solve the world’s great problems of hunger, poverty and disease, among others. It works because unlike political ideology or religious dogma, science has a universal set of unchanging rules called the scientific method. In order to establish something as a fact, one need only follow a simple procedure: think of an idea, come up with a testable hypothesis based on this idea, and test it by trying to disprove this hypothesis. If your hypothesis doesn’t hold up, it’s back to the drawing board. If it does, then you can accept it as a fact. Facts can be collected and integrated into theories that explain the way the world works. If new evidence eventually comes to light disproving an earlier finding, you replace it and modify the theory accordingly. The beauty of the scientific method is that it can be applied to almost any field, no matter how unrelated: from astrophysics to biochemistry, from sociology to ecology; all use the same basic concepts to further their fields. No analytical tool is as fundamental or universal.

Our entire society is based on scientific innovation. The medicines that keep us alive are synthesised through knowledge of biology and chemistry. The crops we eat are selectively bred, often genetically modified, and are grown using fertilisers and pesticides that allow for crop yields to be large enough to feed the world. And, ironically, the very medium through which science is disparaged owes its existence to science: all of our technology, from communication to transportation, is due to feats of science and engineering that are the culmination of millennia of scientific progress.

With science so inseparable from society, denying it has more than just philosophical consequences.

The current anti-vaccination movement, which was popularised on social media, uses pseudoscience to link childhood vaccinations to autism and other disabilities. Declining vaccinations in the US and Europe have already resulted in outbreaks of measles and other formerly controlled diseases that have killed dozens, and resulted in time, money, and resources being invested in curing a disease that could have easily been prevented with vaccinations.

An even more global issue that affects not only our species but nearly every species on earth is that of human-caused climate change. More than 97 per cent of climate scientists are in agreement that our planet is undergoing rapid climatic change due to the release of greenhouse gases by hu-man activities. But the public is much more reticent, with some polls showing that British and American public opinion is hovering below 60 per cent consensus that climate change is a serious problem. There is obviously a disconnect between the research that scientists conduct and publish, and the way in which is it relayed and received by the public. This disconnect has enormous implications: the con-sequences of ignoring the problem of climate change include natural disasters resulting in enormous economic costs, food and water stress, and all the associated social problems that go with a planet in environmental flux.

The consequences of dismissing science as “fake news” clearly have the potential to be catastrophic; how can they be prevented? Education is the first and last line of defence of scientific thought. Science only matters if it is understood, and to be understood by the public it must be communicated effectively. There is a common perception of science as something that is arcane and only comprehensible to those who have trained for years, gained a degree, and devoted their careers to research. The endless jargon of scientific papers and the perception of academia as elitist have helped perpetuate this view. The Pew Research Center in the US has found that in the past decade, people have generally become more critical of science, with nearly 20 per cent of adults believing that science has a negative impact on society, an eight per cent increase in fi ve years.

Effective science communication is essential to dispel the rumours that swirl around scientific research and to explain it to those who don’t have the time to decipher complex academic language. This is something that universities like St Andrews can take a leading role in – breaking down the barriers and tearing down the ivory towers that currently separate the world of academia and the “real” world. Both scientists and the institutions that fund them should make an eff ort to explain their work and its relevance to the world. Science is of little value if it isn’t appreciated by a wider audience than the ones afforded by academic conferences.

A lack of objectivity has led to societal decay in the past. In his critically acclaimed book Cosmos, astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan credited the decline of classical civilisation and the onset of the Dark Ages with the failure of the great thinkers of the time to popularise their discoveries. “Science never captured the imagination of the multitude. There was no counterbalance to stagnation, to pessimism, to the most abject surrenders to mysticism.”

What we stand to lose in the era of fake news is objectivity, and our best defence against the current backlash against science is a concerted effort to make it more understandable and accessible for all.

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