'Fake news in science is old news, but they're not increasing'

Israeli education experts take a closer look at how "fake news," a term coined by US President Donald Trump, have also seeped into the science world.

July 10, 2017 20:32
2 minute read.
Fake news

Fake news. (photo credit: DR)


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Although Donald Trump seems to have introduced the term “fake news” into our vocabulary, misleading coverage of medical and scientific developments has existed since science began. However, there is no evidence that deliberate deception about science has increased.

That is according to 11 science education experts who spoke in Haifa recently at the Israel Science Foundation’s Public Engagement with Science Online – Science on Social Media research workshop at Technion- Israel Institute of Technology.

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The event examined public involvement in science, social networks, the phenomenon of fake news and ways to deal with it. Some of the questions dealt with included: Is fake news in science and health a new phenomenon?; should scientists organize and fight it and if so, how?; and what should the education system teach about science to help cope in the future with the abundance of online science and health information? The workshop was opened by Prof.

Dominique Brossard of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, chosen a few weeks ago as an honorary member of the most important organization in the field of media research, the International Communications Association. Brossard pointed to the rapid changes taking place in how the public is exposed to scientific information. These changes, she said, require scientific institutions and policy-makers to develop and adapt themselves to the changing reality.

For example, new technologies for genome editing, such as the incredibly fast and accurate CRISPR-Cas9, raise ethical, legal and social issues that require not only the updating of the public but also their participation in determining policy for using genetic editing. Although access to science is becoming increasingly challenging given the shrinking number of scientific publications, social networks are opening new opportunities for communication with the public, Brossard noted.

Recently, even social networks have developed sophisticated mechanisms that inhibit the spread of false information, she said.

“The education system must adapt to the new reality,” said Stanford University Prof. Jonathan Osborne, one of the world’s leading researchers in science education. Osborne pointed out some erroneous perceptions of science that have taken root in the public mind, despite the efforts of the education systems – and perhaps even because of them.

“Citizens of the future must understand that there is not one ‘scientific method’ but a variety of ways of scientific thinking, that science is constantly evolving and changing and that mistakes are common in science,” he said.

Osborne suggested emphasizing contemporary science alongside old science, failures in science alongside successes and peer review as one of the most important tools of the scientific community to prevent the rooting of mistakes. He noted that only in Britain is the peer review of the science curriculum emphasized.

Osborne recommended that this emphasis should be included in the curricula of other countries.

Prof. Lloyd Davis of the University of Otago, New Zealand, added that it is better to strengthen scientific coverage of reliable and accurate information instead of trying to fight fake news in an organized way.

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