Disseminating Scientific Truth: Keeping Fake News Out of Science Writing

Disseminating Scientific Truth: Keeping Fake News Out of Science Writing

Fake science news has been around for a long time. Let’s take a little stroll down memory lane, shall we?

Remember when Dr. Andrew Wakefield published his infamous paper in 1998 that claimed a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism?[1] And then remember how Jenny McCarthy latched onto that study like nobody’s business? And she went on talk shows and advocated against autism—even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the UK National Health Service, the US National Academy of Science, the Cochrane Library, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all researched Dr. Wakefield’s study and found no connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. Dr. Wakefield’s paper was even withdrawn from the journal that had published it, and he lost the ability to practice medicine.[2]

So, what relevance does that have to us? It has everything to do with us. Just this year, Scientific American published an article about the need for the leaders of our country to be informed about scientific facts. One of our reporters dug up Tweets from President Trump in which President Trump spurned vaccinations. It was from August 23, 2012, and it read, “Massive combined inoculations to small children is the cause for big increase in autism….” And Scientific American published the article because it’s scary that the leader of our country even believes in discredited science.

And so, we must ask ourselves another question. What is the role of science writers and editors in disseminating accurate news and working to disprove fake news?

A recent study found that when people are exposed to more fake news than hard news, they are more likely to believe fake news.[3] So we need to become better at questioning what we’re reading. If we see an article saying that chocolate is the cure for acne, we obviously want to examine the research. Check to see if there was a control group, if the methods were sound, if there’s other literature to back up the research, and if the analysis of the data was performed correctly. If anything is amiss, we should be writing an article on why the study is amiss. And then, we should contact the journal that published the article, suggesting they remove the article from their publication.

With science writing, we need to check the credibility of the research we are reading. In a case study published in Publishing Research Quarterly, researchers found that in cases of fake scientific research, articles were published with misspelled authors’ names, no author, or fake names. Of the fraudulent research articles that were published, most were published by non-peer reviewed journals that simply charge a fee for publishing services.[4] Beyond checking the authors’ names, we also need to research the credibility of the journals. While it would be easier to just accept research at face value, we cannot take that risk—especially when people are skeptical about what science has to offer.

What’s difficult about science writing is that sometimes well-meaning journalists misconstrue the facts because they misunderstood what the study said. We need to find science articles that are transparent[5] about what research says — even if that means there is no significant link between the consumption of chocolate and the severity of acne. Science writer Anita Makri said, the job of science writers is not “about manipulating or persuading the public to accept decisions.” Rather, the articles are written to help the public make its own decisions based upon facts.

Fake science news is not a new thing, but it seems to be a greater problem nowadays because of social media. With untrained journalists and writers that are unfamiliar with science jargon,[6] it’s understandable why “fake” science news is written and then easily disseminated. An article from Telecommunications Weekly, cited life sciences communication professor Dominique Brossard from the University of Wisconsin-Madison speaking at the 2017 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Brossard said that people often buy into fake science news simply because it speaks to their hopes.[7] So don’t fall prey to the click bait. Look for the truth.

When you look at scientific research to incorporate into science articles, be careful to double -check the credibility of the study, and then make it’s being reported on correctly.


[1] “Measles and Mickey: Don’t Let Politics Get in the Way of Science.” University Wire,Jan 27, 2016. https://search-proquest-com.erl.lib.byu.edu/docview/1760594965?accountid=4488.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Meital Balmas, “When Fake News Becomes Real: Combined Exposure to Multiple News Sources and Political Attitudes of Inefficacy, Alienation, and Cynicism,” Communication Researh vol. 4, no. 3 (2014), 430–454.

[4] Aceil Al-Khatib and Jaime A. Teixeira da Silva, “Stings, Hoaxes and Irony Breach the Trust Inherent in Scientific Publishing,” Publishing Research Quarterly vol 32, no. 3, (September 2016), 208–219.

[5] Anita Makri, “Give the public the tools to trust scientists,” Nature vol. 541 (January 19, 2017), 261.

[6] Donna L. Halper, “How To Be A Skeptical News Consumer,” Skeptic vol. 14, no. 4 (2012), 36–39.

[7] “University of Wisconsin-Madison; Communications Expert Explains how Science should Respond to Fake News.” Telecommunications Weekly (Mar 08, 2017): 137. https://search-proquest-com.erl.lib.byu.edu/docview/1873527561?accountid=4488.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.