Field of Science

Feeding the pseudoscience rumor mill

LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik has a piece this week considering how (or whether) journalists should address pseudoscience and its purveyors.  He, along with others — Keith Kloor/Discover and Julia Belluz/Vox most recently —  have worried whether reporting on pseudoscience gives it more credibility and visibility than it deserves, particularly when the people involved are not otherwise newsworthy. And since most of the information about new science reaches people through the mass media, journalists play an enormous role in the ecosystem by which the public, that is to say all of us, scientists included, learn about and then use, information about science.

There is a growing body of social science research suggesting that effective science communication needs to be more than just filling in facts.  The notion that simply pushing out correct facts is unhelfpful isn't new.  Andrew Noymer modeled the spread of misinformation using epidemiological methods, and in 2001 showed that the persistence of information in the public sphere is improved if you have people trying to debunk the myths.  (Op-ed here, full paper here.)

Emotion potentially plays a bigger role than fact.  Katherine Milkman and Jonah Berger have explored what makes online content go viral (full paper here ($), summary here), suggesting that information that tugs at our emotions, particularly ones that run deep — anger or anxiety or awe — is more likely to spread.  Vani Hari, known as The Food Babe, plays off both the anger (can you believe that they put yoga mat in your bread?) and the anxiety (you don't know what you are eating?).

The who, where and how of the presentation matter as much or more (see the Yale Cultural Cognition Project for some well designed work on this), not just about what people conclude about the science, but about what they think scientists believe to be true.  It matters not just what an expert says, but who we think the expert is - in the sense of what are their core values.

What should journalists do?  What should scientists do?  Should both groups ignore pseudoscience entirely?

It has me thinking about how and when I might tackle pseudoscience, either on the blog, or perhaps even more importantly, in my classroom.   Given the knowledge that it may in fact reinforce the circulate myth, doing so is not necessarily benign.  So what are my personal guidelines?

1.  What is the risk of a lack of understanding?  Can it kill you not to know?  (Don't mix bleach with pesticides - it will not only kill more bugs, but more people.)
2.  Is there reliable and understandable information readily available online?
3.  Do I have the expertise to address the issue?
4.  Can I back up any assertion I make from the peer-reviewed literature?  (It's not personal opinion, but careful reading.)
5.  Can I help people develop a stronger conceptual framework, so that they can be usefully skeptical on their own?  In other words, I should not only assert, but communicate basic principles of science.  

Additional questions I might ask myself before approach something about pseudoscience in the classroom:

1.  Does it illustrate a concept this course addresses?
2.  Do my students have the knowledge base and conceptual framework to debunk something themselves, if prompted?  

1 comment:

  1. It's certainly hard to know what's right. I feel like the ones who are professional science communication folks are providing conflicting information on the strategies.

    It's also hard to know if it will kill you. Let's take the FoodBabe example. The yoga mat thing is not deadly, sure. But that schtick led to stuff that is truly harmful. She was advising women to avoid the standard screening protocol for diabetes in pregnancy:

    See also: scaring people away from vaccines.

    So although the yoga mat BS is not so harmful on its own, it's a gateway to really harmful stuff.

    I think a question we never see asked is: what if you saw the next Andrew Wakefield coming today--what would you do? What is your responsibility? I think it's worth early pushback. And sometimes it should be harsh to prevent quackery from gaining a foothold or a following.


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