Information is everywhere. Every day, it bombards us from our computers, phones, and televisions. We are a “plugged-in” society, seemingly always engaging with the endless stream of think pieces, factoids, and breaking news reports that cross our feeds. Much of it concerns the major issues of the day, and many of those issues are rooted in scientific or technical information that the reader may or may not completely understand. Unfortunately, misinformation around these topics abounds in our current digital landscape. Bad-faith actors take advantage of commonly held notions about what constitutes a reliable source of expertise to spread misleading or outright false ideas. The prevalence of science-related misinformation is troubling and presents a series of challenges for scientists, science educators, students, and the public. How can we address these issues and give people the tools they need to spot misinformation?
First, we need to define misinformation. The American Library Association (ALA)’s Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) identifies it as one of several types of false information. Misinformation is outright false information, while malinformation is factual information which is spread with the intent to cause harm. False information spread with explicitly malicious intent is disinformation. Misinformation could be satire and parody intended to mock, maliformation could involve taking a provocative comment made by a public figure out of context, and disinformation might be a made up, false, slanderous statement shared to damage someone’s reputation. Other examples of misinformation are crafted to look like they were created by a reputable source, when in fact they were not. Misinformation can come in the form of text, images, audio, and video recordings.
While one can doubtless find misinformation on almost any topic, misinformation related to scientific problems, policies, and research is especially abundant. It also extends beyond popular media. A report published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) discusses the perils of misinformation within scientific research itself, “from hype and hyperbole to publication bias and citation misdirection, predatory publishing, and filter bubbles.” The risk is greater for particularly topical issues. In some instances, those sharing the data present it in ways designed to trigger an emotional experience in the reader, as opposed to an engagement with genuine facts.
Our society is highly dependent on science and technology, and yet the abundance of misinformation makes understanding these topics more and more of a challenge every day. How can we learn to recognize misinformation when we encounter it? How can we tell reputable, reliable sources from those designed to mislead? One thing we can do is promote information and media literacy education. The Internet is a wonderful resource in that it makes a vast amount of information accessible to anyone, but much of what we see online has not been fact-checked. In 2022, a Stanford University-based research group released a report, Science Education in an Age of Misinformation, that discusses the perils of the online information landscape. The amount of knowledge available has, in the words of the authors, “expanded from a pond, to a lake, to an ocean of information that continues to grow exponentially.” There is far more information out there than any single person can reasonably be expected to know. The authors of the report stress that it is alright to not know everything, and that trying to learn everything is not the solution to the problem of misinformation. Instead, they advocate for education on the process of science itself. The actual work of “doing science,” they argue, is often misunderstood by nonspecialists. For example, the image of a lone scientist working in a lab, following the rigidly-ordered steps of “the scientific method,” is misleading. There is no single “scientific method,” and scientific knowledge is not the product of a single person. Instead, scientists work together to reach consensus. The work is inherently collaborative, from the initial research through to the peer review.
Scientists and educators across disciplines also make the case for careful consideration of sources. Often, people only evaluate online sources at a basic level. Unfortunately, the things that people think of as indicators of reliability are not always what they seem. Websites ending with .org are generally seen as more reliable than those ending in .com. In reality, the latter is not inherently more trustworthy than the former, and some unreliable organizations have potentially taken advantage of this misconception in order to spread misinformation. As “competent outsiders,” we need to look beyond the surface level of the sources we consult and ask the right questions. Does the individual or organization that produced this information have relevant expertise? Does the author have good standing within the scientific community, and is their record one of integrity? What are their credentials and experience? What is the consensus among experts on the issue in question? These questions help the reader evaluate information, determine its reliability, and form ideas based on facts.
Misinformation seems inescapable, but we do have the tools to resist it. Education on information and media literacy is essential, as is a working understanding of how scientific knowledge is acquired. Science is a team effort, not the work of the mythical “lone genius.” The forming of consensus and the process of peer review are important components of the work. We do not need to be experts in every scientific discipline in order to distinguish reliable sources from unreliable ones. Instead, we should strive to become “competent outsiders” who appreciate and understand the scientific process. If we can do this, then we will be well-equipped to navigate the information we encounter.