2017 is definitely shaping up to be the year of fake news. The media moguls of the world have certainly always had plenty of political reasons to churn out dubious content, but it doesn’t seem that there has been the same kind of appetite for fanciful science journalism. That is, until social media came along.
Nowadays, websites like IFLScience have entered the scene and changed the way people absorb news about science. In the golden days of old, a leisurely browser might occasionally visit the website of their favorite publication and read whichever well-researched, curated piece of science news might have made it to the front page that day – but not any more. Since the advent of facebook and twitter, media outlets desperately compete with one another to be the first to break a story into your newsfeed, with seemingly little regard for the quality of content, as long as they are getting likes and shares. Many of the large newspapers and websites now expect an entire article to be written in less than 3 hours from the time a press release hits the net, meaning there is little time for interviews, research and corroboration.
Websites like Eurekalert, where many journalists pick up new stories (you need a special login to see them), aim to partially curb this behavior by placing an embargo on press releases, meaning that journalists have plenty of time to conduct interviews and do due diligence beforehand, since they can only publish a story after the allotted time has elapsed. The problem is, not enough outlets use Eurekalert or Journalists still don’t have enough time to do thorough research – many science-based articles seem to be the press releases simply paraphrased, with no real input or investigation from the Journalist writing it. What’s more, conclusions reached by one journalist are often simply replicated without investigation, providing they are good clickbait. This happened in July 2016 when a journalist at the telegraph reported that we were headed for a mini ice age, with many publications following suit, even though the astrophysics paper the articles were based on made no such claim.
It is interesting to note that many of the articles came out within hours of the original Telegraph article and faulty conclusion, suggesting that the editors were mostly concerned with getting their portion of the like-share-and-enjoy pie, rather than actually providing some decent, fact-checked and well written content. There are of course many examples of fake news like this hitting the internet all the time, for example, the recent claims that physicists have created negative mass (wonderfully criticised by Sabine Hossenfelder), or the countless tales of evidence for a multiverse.
The problem with such clickbait, over-hyped and often plain wrong headlines is that they are unapologetic-ally harming the general public’s understanding of science. To Joe Blogs, it seems that scientists prove a fantastical thing one week, only to disprove it the next, and that scientific ideas are fleeting thoughts of fancy to be easily accepted or dismissed depending on fashion. What is never portrayed is the levels of certainty within science – or rather the lack of certainty. Often, claims are made with far more certainty than any good scientist would assign, for example ”Cold Spot Anomaly Billions of Light Years Across Caused By a Collision With Another Universe“.
Frequently in physics, ideas are put out there that many in the community think must be wrong – often including those people who came up with the ideas (the AMPS firewall argument for example). This is almost never portrayed in the media, meaning the impression that most people get is very wrong.
The question is, what can be done about this problem? At the end of the day, clickbait makes money, and that’s what it’s all about for online science news outlets. However, you can make sure that the information they’re being fed is at least of a decent quality if you are a scientist. Firstly, you can make sure that whenever you publish a paper, take the time to talk to your university press officer (if there is one). Formulate a decent press release and, most importantly, make yourself available for comment. This last part is key – if journalists see that you are readily available for comment, they are more inclined to try and talk to you. If a project you work on has a press release coming out, try and make yourself available on that day (often, journalists will be told ‘just get the story out we can add the comments later’ if they can’t get hold of you). Almost as important as making yourself available is to make sure that the journalist you’re talking to understands just how uncertain you are about your result. This is crucial, since often you will notice that it is the researcher being quoted that leads to the most outrageous claims.