What can be done to stop misinformation in and about science?

Discover Science lecturer on Feb. 22 will discuss the institution of science

Portrait of Jevin West.

Jevin West is an expert on misinformation.

What can be done to stop misinformation in and about science?

Discover Science lecturer on Feb. 22 will discuss the institution of science

Jevin West is an expert on misinformation.

Portrait of Jevin West.

Jevin West is an expert on misinformation.

Science is a global institution that has been around for thousands of years, and it has changed significantly over the past century. Jevin West, an associate professor in the Information School at the University of Washington, will visit the University of Nevada, Reno campus on February 22 to give a Discover Science lecture on the health of science as an institution and some of the challenges it faces, and will provide some solutions.

“If you care about science and you also want to be a good consumer of science information, this talk is for you,” West said.

Science in the 21st century

Misinformation and disinformation have been featured in headlines more frequently in recent years, but what is the difference? According to West, disinformation is incorrect information shared intentionally, and is intended to cause doubt or ignorance. Misinformation is accidental and could be a result of misinterpreting data, inaccurate data collection, or other mistakes.

“When I say something's misinformation, really what I'm talking about is information that is counter to the consensus in science,” West said. “It doesn't mean that the consensus is always going to be right. That might change.”

When interacting with people who believe misinformation, West likes to ask them how they came to their conclusions. Science utilizes the scientific method to derive conclusions about certain questions or phenomena. As scientists use the scientific method to build conclusions, they also generally produce results that align with the scientific consensus. However, different methods may yield different results, so it’s important to be critical of how researchers reached their conclusions. Nonetheless, the scientific method is generally understood to be the best way to discern truths.

New information technologies pose threats to science, as it becomes easier to spread disinformation and falsify data. However, those same technologies have accelerated scientific discoveries, with machine learning that speeds scientific analysis, connects research articles and identifies potentially falsified data and with increased access to and participation in citizen science.

Science is bent, not broken

Many of the modern challenges science faces lie within science itself.

The reproducibility crisis revolves around the fact that many large-scale studies that are taught to students in classes like Psychology 101 have not been replicable.

“Now, that doesn't mean science doesn’t work,” West said.

Many scientists are working on solutions and preventive measures, such as pre-registering results so that publication bias is limited.

“Publish or perish” means that academics need to frequently publish papers if they want to receive tenure, which safeguards their career (and their income).

“When your career and the mortgage that you have to pay on your house depends on it, people do respond to those incentives,” West said.

Those incentives, or the threat of job instability, can lead scientists to falsify data.

Predatory journals, which claim to perform peer review, collect open-access fees from scientists without conducting peer review.

“I think the biggest thing is to make sure that the public understands the social side of science,” West said. “It's run by humans. It's a social process and understanding that social process will help you appreciate the beauty of it, but also the stickiness and messiness of it.”

Externally, science faces more adversaries, particularly due to the politicization of science.

“There are forces and influential individuals and organizations that are casting doubt on science,” West said. “And that's really problematic because science relies on the trust of public.”

People also use scientific jargon to sway others into thinking something is true when it’s not, or into buying a product that doesn’t have scientific evidence to back its claimed efficacy. These instances are disinformation in action.

While the external challenges facing science are pressing, West thinks resolving internal issues is more important.

“As someone who works in science, we should clean our own house before we try telling others to clean their house,” West said.

Science as an institution

West isn’t worried about sharing the internal challenges science faces with the public. He believes it will help build trust in science.

“Science is still one of the most trusted institutions, despite some of the drops that we saw in the pandemic,” West said.

In fact, many communities don’t distrust science at all, they just don’t trust agencies or organizations. Trust in science is still relatively high compared to trust in journalism, medicine, the military and politicians.

Ensuring the public understands that science is built to change and evolve is critical. During the pandemic, the public was exposed to the underbelly of science. Conversations between scientists about mask effectiveness and vaccine safety took place in the largest public square, the Internet. People saw scientists argue and change their minds, and they watched it in real time. For people who aren’t experts in the scientific method, that was unnerving. For scientists, it was part of the process.

“I would hope that people change their mind given new empirical data on something,” West said.

Funding for science generally comes from the public, which is why West encourages people to engage in science.

“I feel I’m lucky to be in this world of science that’s funded by tax dollars, and [the public] should have every right to be able to engage with that literature,” West said. “Science is not owned by someone who has a Ph.D., so everyone can engage in it.”

West also believes scientists need to initiate engagement with the public.

“I know it's simple to say and hard to do, but it has to be done,” he said.

West said that the importance of science journalists, with strong foundations in science communication, are critical to that mission.

“Ultimately, we really rely on science to deal with some of our biggest challenges in the world,” West said. “It’s one of the greatest human inventions of all time. How can we maintain this institution and be aware of these changes that are occurring so that we can continue to facilitate its ability to understand the universe and the world in which we live?”

About the lecture

During his visit, West will speak to communities across campus. West’s expertise is showcased by his role as co-founder and the inaugural director of the Center for an Informed Public at UW, aimed at resisting strategic misinformation, promoting an informed society and strengthening democratic discourse. He is also the co-founder of the DataLab at UW, a Data Science Fellow at the eScience Institute, and Affiliate Faculty for the Center for Statistics & Social Sciences.

The Discover Science featuring West is free and open to the public. It will take place on Feb. 22 at 7 p.m. in the Redfield Auditorium, on the first floor of the Davidson Mathematics and Science Center, with a reception to follow. Registration for the lecture is required and is available via Eventbrite. Free parking will be available in the Gateway Parking Complex.

The last Discover Science speaker of the semester will be Al Sacco Jr., a chemical engineer who flew on the 1995 Columbia Space Shuttle Mission, who will speak on April 25. The Discover Science Lecture Series, founded in 2010 by then-Dean Jeff Thompson, aims to bring top scientists from all over the country to the University of Nevada, Reno campus.

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