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Fighting scientific misinformation

Scientific misinformation is a threat in many respects: for health, the environment, the development of a sustainable and equitable future, and for the culture itself. Whether it be intentional or not, this phenomenom is not new, but it has taken on a new dimension with the COVID-19 pandemic, for several reasons.

First of all, the way information is conveyed has changed. In the past, it was experts and journalists who selected and steered the feed. Today, via social networks, anyone can select, disseminate and distort news according to their predilections. The quality of this news content is often dubious since it is often spread for reasons of entertainment rather than as a search for the truth.

This is why conspiracy theories have never had so much success: social networks flourish on outrage and shocking explanations. What’s more, these theories tend to persist, since false news information often receives lots of “likes” from people who ignore or reject the opinions of others who try to get back to the truth. Very often this kind of behaviour is not caused by the story itself, but more by the fact that people tend to imitate others.

So it may well be that people believe scientists less and less. Fear increases the need for information and each scientific advance is pored over, while scientific methods are poorly understood by the layman. Researchers are currently trying to understand the virus’ mechanisms, and that takes time. But at the moment, people find it difficult to accept when a scientist admits he “does not know” or “our research is ongoing”. The prevailing climate may push certain scientists to release inaccurate news or predictions.

In addition, research is currently taking place in a context of enormous pressure, which has itself led to more errors and retractions of articles than usual. Some politicians, in the United States, Brazil or the UK for example, have fueled controversy, thereby discrediting science. Today many journalists are ready to print scientific information that may be wrong since it has not been peer-validated (for example, by using “pre-prints” freely available on the BioRxiv and MedRxiv sites). It must be noted too that the complexities of science foment distrust and may lead to errors of interpretation in the public domain.

Finally, this pandemic has also led scientists to get involved in politics, an area in which their competence is questionable. A scientist must above all remain neutral, which is difficult in the present context. To convince people to get vaccinated, the scientists firstly need to convince the politicians, who make the final decisions, and are themselves facing social and economic constraints. Scientific opinion is not always taken into account as much as it should be. And certain ideologies, those of an ultra-conservative nature for example, regularly use anti-climate change or anti-vaccine rhetoric.

Fighting misinformation involves firstly clarifying for the public at large how the brain deals with information, what kind of biases we hold, the possibilities of exaggeration and over-amplification of news, and how we can sometimes be convinced by unfounded theories. The public needs to learn how better to sort through information since overload is a real problem, given our limited abilities to assimilate material. The fight also involves finding a common language so that scientists, journalists and politicians can work effectively together to deliver clear messages to the people. Making complex scientific information more digestible is a real challenge, and for this reason journalists are increasingly trained in data sciences. This discipline has today become a cornerstone of scientific understanding.

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