Science Fact vs. Science Fiction: Can You Tell the Difference?

A portrait of skepticism while reading information online.

(© fizkes/Fotolia)


Today's growing distrust of science is not an academic problem. It can be a matter of life and death.

Take, for example, the tragic incident in 2016 when at least 10 U.S. children died and over 400 were sickened after they tried homeopathic teething medicine laced with a poisonous herb called "deadly nightshade." Carried by CVS, Walgreens, and other major American pharmacies, the pills contained this poison based on the alternative medicine principle of homeopathy, the treatment of medical conditions by tiny doses of natural substances that produce symptoms of disease.

Such "alternative medicines" take advantage of the lack of government regulation and people's increasing hostility toward science.

These children did not have to die. Numerous research studies show that homeopathy does not work. Despite this research, homeopathy is a quickly-growing multi-billion dollar business.

Such "alternative medicines" take advantage of the lack of government regulation and people's increasing hostility toward science. Polling shows that the number of people who believe that science has "made life more difficult" increased by 50 percent from 2009 to 2015. According to a 2017 survey, only 35 percent of respondents have "a lot" of trust in scientists; the number of people who do "not at all" trust scientists increased by over 50 percent from a similar poll conducted in December 2013.

Children dying from deadly nightshade is only one consequence of this crisis of trust. For another example, consider the false claim that vaccines cause autism. This belief has spread widely across the US, and led to a host of problems. For instance, measles was practically eliminated in the US by 2000. However, in recent years outbreaks of measles have been on the rise, driven by parents failing to vaccinate their children in a number of communities.

The Internet Is for… Misinformation

The rise of the Internet, and more recently social media, is key to explaining the declining public confidence in science.

Before the Internet, the information accessible to the general public about any given topic usually came from experts. For instance, researchers on autism were invited to talk on mainstream media, they wrote encyclopedia articles, and they authored books distributed by large publishers.

The Internet has enabled anyone to be a publisher of content, connecting people around the world with any and all sources of information. On the one hand, this freedom is empowering and liberating, with Wikipedia a great example of a highly-curated and accurate source on the vast majority of subjects. On the other, anyone can publish a blog piece making false claims about links between vaccines and autism or the effectiveness of homeopathic medicine. If they are skilled at search engine optimization, or have money to invest in advertising, they can get their message spread widely. Russia has done so extensively to influence elections outside of its borders, whether in the E.U. or the U.S.

Unfortunately, research shows that people lack the skills for differentiating misinformation from true information. This lack of skills has clear real-world effects: U.S. adults believed 75 percent of fake news stories about the 2016 US Presidential election. The more often someone sees a piece of misinformation, the more likely they are to believe it.

To make matters worse, we all suffer from a series of thinking errors such as the confirmation bias, our tendency to look for and interpret information in ways that conform to our intuitions.

Blogs with falsehoods are bad enough, but the rise of social media has made the situation even worse. Most people re-share news stories without reading the actual article, judging the quality of the story by the headline and image alone. No wonder research has indicated that misinformation spreads as much as 10 times faster and further on social media than true information. After all, creators of fake news are free to devise the most appealing headline and image, while credible sources of information have to stick to factual headlines and images.

To make matters worse, we all suffer from a series of thinking errors such as the confirmation bias, our tendency to look for and interpret information in ways that conform to our intuitions and preferences, as opposed to the facts. Our inherent thinking errors combined with the Internet's turbine power has exploded the prevalence of misinformation.

So it's no wonder we see troubling gaps between what scientists and the public believe about issues like climate change, evolution, genetically modified organisms, and vaccination.

What Can We Do?

Fortunately, there are proactive steps we can take to address the crisis of trust in science and academia. The Pro-Truth Pledge, founded by a group of behavioral science experts (including myself) and concerned citizens, calls on public figures, organizations, and private citizens to commit to 12 behaviors listed on the pledge website that research in behavioral science shows correlate with truthfulness.

Signers are held accountable through a crowdsourced reporting and evaluation mechanism while getting reputational rewards because of their commitment. The scientific consensus serves as a key measure of credibility, and the pledge encourages pledge-takers to recognize the opinions of experts - especially scientists - as more likely to be true when the facts are disputed.

The pledge "really does seem to change one's habits," encouraging signers to have attitudes "of honesty and moral sincerity."

Launched in December 2016, the pledge has surprising traction. Over 6200 private citizens took the pledge. So did more than 500 politicians, including members of US state legislatures Eric Nelson (PA), James White (TX), and Ogden Driskell (WY), and national politicians such as members of U.S. Congress Beto O'Rourke (TX), Matt Cartwright (PA), and Marcia Fudge (OH). Over 700 other public figures, such as globally-known public intellectuals Peter Singer, Steven Pinker, Michael Shermer, and Jonathan Haidt, took the pledge, as well as 70 organizations such as Media Bias/Fact Check, Fugitive Watch, Earth Organization for Sustainability, and One America Movement.

The pledge is effective in changing behaviors. A candidate for Congress, Michael Smith, took the Pro-Truth Pledge. He later posted on his Facebook wall a screenshot of a tweet by Donald Trump criticizing minority and disabled children. However, after being called out that the tweet was a fake, he went and searched Trump's feed. He could not find the original tweet, and while Trump may have deleted it, the candidate edited his own Facebook post to say, "Due to a Truth Pledge I have taken, I have to say I have not been able to verify this post." He indicated that he would be more careful with future postings.

U.S. Army veteran and pledge-taker John Kirbow described how the pledge "really does seem to change one's habits," helping push him both to correct his own mistakes with an "attitude of humility and skepticism, and of honesty and moral sincerity," and also to encourage "friends and peers to do so as well."

His experience is confirmed by research on the pledge. Two research studies at Ohio State University demonstrated the effectiveness of the pledge in changing the behavior of pledge-takers to be more truthful with a strong statistical significance.

Taking the pledge yourself, and encouraging people you know and your elected representatives to do the same, is an easy and effective way to fight misinformation and to promote a culture that values the truth.

Gleb Tsipursky
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is an internationally recognized thought leader on a mission to protect leaders from dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases by developing the most effective decision-making strategies. A best-selling author, he wrote Resilience: Adapt and Plan for the New Abnormal of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic and Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back Into Politics. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training as the CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts, and over 15 years in academia as a behavioral economist and cognitive neuroscientist. He co-founded the Pro-Truth Pledge project.
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On left, people excitedly line up for Salk's polio vaccine in 1957; on right, Joe Biden gets one of the COVID vaccines on December 21, 2020.

Wikimedia Commons and Biden's Twitter

On the morning of April 12, 1955, newsrooms across the United States inked headlines onto newsprint: the Salk Polio vaccine was "safe, effective, and potent." This was long-awaited news. Americans had limped through decades of fear, unaware of what caused polio or how to cure it, faced with the disease's terrifying, visible power to paralyze and kill, particularly children.

The announcement of the polio vaccine was celebrated with noisy jubilation: church bells rang, factory whistles sounded, people wept in the streets. Within weeks, mass inoculation began as the nation put its faith in a vaccine that would end polio.

Today, most of us are blissfully ignorant of child polio deaths, making it easier to believe that we have not personally benefited from the development of vaccines. According to Dr. Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist and author of the bestselling book Enlightenment Now, we've become blasé to the gifts of science. "The default expectation is not that disease is part of life and science is a godsend, but that health is the default, and any disease is some outrage," he says.

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Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.