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Stand up for Science: How to Detect and Fight Misinformation

Scientist stopping the spread of misinformation

Internet, social media, and open access publishing had shattered the walls of science ivory tower. Now anybody can enter the tower and rifle through the books of an endless library.

On the plus side, this allowed communicating science to a broader audience. On the minus, the web is full of misinformation that spreads like wildfire and leaves similar consequences.

As a BiteSizeBio reader, you are a part of the expert audience. You may not want to spend a lot of your time contradicting the misinformation, but the least you can do is stop it from spreading by not sharing without checking it’s validity first.

What is Misinformation?

Before you can fight misinformation, you need to understand what it is. Misinformation comes under different guises. We’ll discuss the various forms below.

Misreported Information

What the news is saying is NOT what the science is saying – sensational headlines.

For example, the notoriously sensationalist British newspaper the Daily Mail had an article headlined “There are THREE distinct strains of the novel coronavirus in the world and while China’s epidemic was driven by an early mutation that quickly spread in the UK, the US is suffering from an original variation.”

The article is based on a PNAS paper [1] where they assigned “ancestral” genotype name A. Genotype B differs from A by two mutations: the synonymous mutation T8782C and the nonsynonymous mutation C28144T changing a leucine to a serine. Type C differs from its parent type B by the nonsynonymous mutation G26144T, which changes a glycine to a valine.

The virologists would understand immediately:

  • This is only one of the virus classifications possible;
  • These mutations are not sufficient to create distinct types of pathogenicity – and that’s what the general public cares about, because it may read that we need not just one but three vaccines.

Poorly Conducted or Disproven Research

With poorly conducted research, the conclusion of the article says one thing, but if you look carefully at the methods and results, this conclusion is not adequately supported. Perhaps they overstretched, or the sample size is too small, or the statistics were poorly conducted.

Andrew Wakefield’s paper in The Lancet about the alleged link between MMR vaccine and autism that launched the thousands of anti-vaxxers conspiracy theories is one such example. The paper sampled only 12 people. [2] Its data were not reproducible on large cohorts, and the article has since been withdrawn. The author has lost his medical license but is still quoted by the anti-vaxxers as the medical doctor.

If papers like this can be published in a peer-reviewed, reputable journal like The Lancet, you must be even more cautious about articles published in the predatory journals, which will publish anything for a fee.

Unsubstantiated Research

This type of misinformation is talking about allegedly peer-reviewed papers, that on further inspection aren’t actually peer-reviewed (or there is no paper at all). The rise in journal subscription fees has given rise to preprint servers where anybody can publish a manuscript. There is no peer review there, and anybody can view the papers with unintended consequences. For example, this preprint jumps from some computer modeling to a direct – and unsubstantiated – advice that ginger can cure COVID19. [3] This has resulted in ginger selling out in the supermarkets. [4]

Simple Steps to Identifying Misinformation

Now you know the types of misinformation, you can look out for them in the news and on social media. Below is a simple step-by-step guide to identifying misinformation that you can follow (and share with family and friends).

Where Is the Source?

The first step is to identify the source. Social media posts often don’t have sources, just rumors. Ask for evidence in peer-reviewed scientific journals and official documents of reputable organizations such as the Centres for Disease Control And Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). [5,6]

The mass-media often give their source in very vague terms as “a paper in PNAS”. However, a google search with keywords will usually identify the original paper. Then you need to ask:

Is It a Peer-Reviewed Journal? Can You Access the Article?

If it is a peer-reviewed journal that you’ve never heard about, a quick look at its impact factor will tell you a lot about the claims.

But the impact factor is not always a good indication of reliability. It is calculated by the number of papers that have at least that many citations, so it is more a reflection on whether work is novel and exciting. After all, Andrew Wakefield’s paper was published in The Lancet, which has a very high impact factor of 59.

Granted, bad journals usually have low impact factors, but low impact factor doesn’t necessarily mean bad journal. University College London have a handy guide with ways to determine if a journal is credible.

Are the Authors Work in a Reputable Research Establishment or Are They “Independent Researchers”? Do They Have Conflicting Commercial Interests?

These days the articles and media promotions are often associated with the promotion of a company or a product. “Independent researchers”, who are not affiliated with a research institution like a University, usually have no oversight and often no credible reputation.

Do the Fact-Checking

The British charity Sense about science has a guide to fact-checking. There are also fact-checking sites, for example, AFP and more that fact-check common stories in circulation.

What to Do When You See Misinformation Being Spread

If you see misinformation and you feel you want to or should address the issue, there are some steps you can take to ensure you do it in the best possible way.

  • Highlight the error to the person reporting it (after doing the above research).
  • Be polite. Remember that you have had training on how to spot misinformation, and to look for supporting data, many non-scientists have not.
  • Keep emotion out of it. Point to lack of source/ the unreliable nature of the source, or how the source does not support the statement.
  • Highlight reliable sources stating otherwise or clarify what the source is saying.

Make Sure You Don’t Spread Misinformation Yourself

If you don’t feel you want to or can tackle misinformation head-on, the least you can do is ensure you don’t spread it yourself.

  • If you have a PhD/other academic credentials, people inherently trust your judgment more – this is a responsibility. If you aren’t reasonably sure what you are sharing is reliable, you shouldn’t be sharing it.
  • Are you aware of the “confirmation bias”, according to which we trust more the information and sources that share our political views, not the most reliable data? Be aware of this when sharing information, and fact check everything, even if you believe it to be true.
  • Check sources thoroughly first. Even if it was shared by someone you trust, don’t inherently trust the information or that they have done due diligence. Always fact-check anything you share.
  • Think about why you are sharing this information. Is it useful to people? Will it help people? Has the sharing of this information supports a hidden agenda (other people’s or your personal agenda)?

Following the steps above will help you not only in your public life but in your scientific career as well, because having mastered the skill of fact-checking, you will become a better scientist. If you know anyone who needs a gentle reminder or introduction on how to fact check, make sure you share this article. Have any other fact-checking tips? Leave a comment below.

References

  1. Forster P, et al. (2020) Phylogenetic network analysis of SARS-CoV-2 genomes. PNAS. 117(17):9241-3. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2004999117
  2. Wakefield A, et al. (1998). Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children”. The Lancet. 351 (9103): 637–41.
  3. Utomo RY, et al. Revealing the Potency of Citrus and Galangal Constituents to Halt SARS-CoV-2 Infection. Preprints 2020.
  4. Why coronavirus is driving up ginger and garlic prices. Financial Times.
  5. Centers for Disease Control And Prevention. Accessed 22 May 2020
  6. World Health Organization. Accessed 22 May 2020
Scientist stopping the spread of misinformation

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