Pseudoscience is just as bad as fake news

Photo by Rami Al-zayat

Millions of Americans see hundreds of thousands of scientific posts on social media over the course of a year, presumably augmenting their scientific understanding of the world. Users – such as those who want to profit off of customers purchasing homeopathic medicines –  can post anything they please on the thinly filtered world of the Internet, as American citizens learned from the broad spread of fake news on social media during the 2016 election. Considering that Americans consume massive amounts of media every day – some reports show that the average person spends between five and nine hours a day looking at a screen- it is essential people vet the quality of information they are absorbing every day.

Fake news, our President’s favorite offense and defense to all allegations, is not nearly as prevalent or influential as news stories with a nugget of truth doused in misleading headlines, gross oversimplification of facts and biased coverage. The primary vehicle for the sprawl of deceptive information is none other than social media; incidentally, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are where the majority of American users of social media read the news.

While unfounded conspiracy theories have entered mainstream media and the White House, the scientific realm remains an arena where the public is broadly misinformed on key issues like vaccinations, medications and genetically modified foods. Because most Americans have tenuous foundations in chemistry, biology and neuroscience, it’s easy to manipulate the masses with enticing headlines like “Pasta leads to weight loss” after a series of questionable studies funded by the Big Pasta Lobby, or hyping up unproven medical treatments, like taking CBD oil to “cure cancer.”

“Social media is a double-edged sword. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, and even Tumblr with their large audience and ease of access, can be great platforms to promote scientific literacy, and educate the public on scientific concepts – but only if the information provided is factually accurate,” Rayne Constantine, an influential science blogger and scientist who goes by the title “Insufferably Intolerant Science Nerd,” told the Signal.

Science pages have increased in presence on social media pages, particularly Facebook, in the past few years. But as Constantine expressed, many of the top ten popular science pages on Facebook have been established to market pseudomedicine. For example, David “Avocado” Wolfe has been long-criticized for promoting dangerous naturopathic medicines with little medical consensus backing his theories up and for encouraging his followers to forego vaccines, a practice linked to the rise in measles and polio in the developed world. Twelve out of the fifteen most popular posts from science pages on Facebook in the first half of 2017 were from David Wolfe, according to Pew Research. Another top page is mindbodygreen, a news platform that has independently been classified as a conspiracy theory-promoting website.

Research has shown that people who consume conspiracy theories and scientific misinformation at high rates on social media are doing so in a narrow network. Often, people seek information that is consistent with their existing knowledge, leading to “confirmation bias” and, at the extreme, ideological echo chambers. Recent studies have also shown that when people are exposed to a tidbit of information frequently, the claim seems more plausible even if it’s untrue.

“The advent of social media has been a blessing and a curse, because it’s made it that much easier to tune out things that challenge your bias and tune in to things that comfort your bias,” Dan Broadbent, a popular science blogger who goes by “A Science Enthusiast,” said.

Scientific misinformation doesn’t only stem from notorious pseudoscientists or conspiracy theorists. Journalists on reputable news platforms can also struggle with accurately interpreting studies and conveying the results in a way that is accessible to the public. One example is how multiple mainstream outlets last year misunderstood the results of Phase II of testing male birth control pills, claiming that men abandoned the study merely because the pills caused acne and mood swings. In reality, men were experiencing adverse side effects, such as severe depression, that violated the Food and Drug Administration’s updated, more stringent guidelines. Comparatively, when the female birth control pill was tested in the 1960’s, the FDA guidelines were more lax.

In addition, scientists have observed that mainstream news outlets distort and sensationalize scientific research to make readers more interested.

“We’ve all seen misleading headlines about “the latest cancer cure” or some other nonsense that tries to dumb-down the research into something the general public can understand, but too often it’s insulting them by saying something that simply isn’t true just to get clicks,” Broadbent said.

Other times, users can simply feel exploited by the scientific world. They can feel disillusioned by the pharmaceuticals industry, for example, and seek ways to remedy their ailments without resorting to paying hundreds of dollars for prescription drugs.

“If you look at how pseudoscientists operate – they all have a terrible health-based origin story that ends with them rising up and becoming informed about the world around (them) and how they were inspired to tell their audience what Doctors/Big Pharma/NASA/Scientists “Don’t want you to know,” Constantine said. After Constantine underwent heart surgery and subsequently had health struggles, she witnessed this firsthand.

“Everyone around me had their version of a magic cure for all my issues. See a naturopath, see a chiropractor, eat less meat, eat more meat, become vegan, go gluten free, find Jesus, stop eating carbs, stop all medication for your heart and use essential oils, it was the vaccines (retroactively) making me ill, and my personal favourite – stop being gay,” Constantine recalled.

When someone backs up their claims in a way that evokes powerful emotions, those claims are more likely to circulate than undramatic truths, according to Peggy Korpala, a research assistant who holds a Master’s of Public Health in Health Behavior and Health Education and runs a variety of science education platforms.

“An example of a “scientific” story full of emotion and drama, would be the chemtrails conspiracy theory, where people believe that the government is using planes to drop biological agents on people at random,” Korpala said. Korpala recommended science educators to consider users’ preferences for excitement when communicating scientific information.

There’s historical context for distrust in large scientific institutions. Phrenology, to name one, is a long-discredited scientific practice in the 19th century that was intended to determine someone’s disposition and mental capacities by studying the size and shape of their head. While this theory may seem generally innocuous, phrenology was largely used to justify slavery and white supremacy.

Yet, since the 19th century, American scientific communities have made leaps and bounds in establishing ethics boards to ensure their research is soundly conducted without harming humans and that evidence is sufficiently reliable. The Belmont Report, the Constitution of scientific research, delineates that research should not harm participants, that participants should be clearly informed of the projects that they are involved in and that the research should somehow benefit them. Science is dynamic, rather than static; ethics in research is constantly improving, like the scientific ideas research aims to develop.

“Building better lines of communication between scientists and the general public will go a long way to shifting away from the perception of science (and scientists) as a confusing, foreign, elitist industry filled with stuffy academics who are just out for profit. If we want to more people to not only gain scientific literacy, but also understand the value of science – we need to start from the ground up,” Constantine said.

Ultimately, it’s important for people to know how to spot dubious sources of information to avoid being falsely informed. Experts recommend straying away from pages that solely use anecdotal evidence, ones that use the “ancient wisdom” trope, ones that make claims on the existence of conspiracies and ones that are trying to sell you something. Per Rayne Constantine, it’s also useful to ask “your friendly neighborhood scientist” if you don’t understand something.

“Knowing how to spot “fake news,” knowing how to determine the source of information and how that may lead to bias, and knowing where to find reliable information are very very valuable skills,” Korpala said.

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