An unbelievable amount of information is available to us in the modern age. With technological achievements such as cellphones and the Internet, the masses can access massive amounts of varied and in-depth knowledge. While it seems as if there is an endless amount of possibility associated with this glut of information, there is a very real negative linked to it. Just as easily as information can be disseminated, misinformation can be spread just as well.
I notice this with online science articles that grab your attention on Facebook newsfeeds, otherwise known as “clickbait”. What they say is often misrepresentative of the core scientific principles being studied by their cited sources. For example an article title might be “NEW MIRACLE WEIGHT LOSS DRUG DISCOVERED!” but the study actually found that a very small portion of the clinical participants showed a miniscule decrease in their total body fat. Sometimes the only way a person can differentiate between the scientific reality and the bogus front donned by these articles is by reading the paper behind it.
However, many victims of scientific scam do not have the energy or the know-how to properly navigate and interpret such papers. The “clickbait” sites know this and prey upon it; however, so does the mainstream media that provides news to the masses. Just the other night my mom was contemplating if she should have a glass of wine with her dinner, as she had just heard resveratrol was in some way good for you. Just as she made up her mind to do so (not a tough decision to make as an Italian-American), the 6 ‘o-clock news came blaring on with two very serious looking anchors. Their top story? “Wine: the Devil’s Poison”. Alright, I admit I may be exaggerating a little bit, but my point is that the media loves to sensationalize any and everything. Now we have the issue where people do not know what to believe because they have heard two embellished sides of a story. If the true nature of the scientific studies was emphasized (which is often that there was not conclusive evidence to absolutely decide anything) sensationalism would not have escalated to the level it is at now, and we would still have the same conclusion.
The question is, now that there is this culture of misinformation, how do we fix it? Well I would not expect the clickbaiting and sensationalism to stop, so an effective strategy would be to assist the masses to recognize that it is not representative of actual science and assist them in the acquisition of actual knowledge.
The reason science is so susceptible to misinformation is because many people are afraid of it. I am sure such people have some traumatic experience tied to science, or at the very least, remember how difficult it was. This difficulty associated with science makes it seem like it is an ivory tower that cannot be accessed by the common man and discourages people from investigating the things that make the science news headlines. If they didn’t find science difficult, they would be a Nobel Laureate twelve times over. Science is inherently challenging, but we should try to make it seem less intimidating to everyone.
The ivory tower mystique surrounding science can be traced to its jargon. Nucleophilicity. Pathophysiology. Quasars. All of these terms are extremely well known and relevant to people in certain fields of science, but to the majority of people, they are nonsense words. Even if one is practiced in the art of reading jargon in a particular field of science, it is a totally new ballpark when switching scientific fields. A biologist will probably have the same struggle reading through a paper on quantum mechanics as the next person, except for the very important fact that they enjoy scientific inquiry. Jargon is tedious to sift through, even if one enjoys science. Imagine trying to stir up motivation when, in your mind, science is equated to the same level of misery as cleaning Mr. Brown’s obscure rock collection with a mixture of oxalic acid and your tears while he hovers over your shoulder making sure you clean them well.
Scientific papers are tough to get through especially if one does not have the training needed to dissect the pertinent information. Even abstracts, the supposed summary of the paper, can be tough to get through. They contain the standardized lingo characteristic of scientific literature, as abstracts must also pass the reviewers scrutiny. The average person does not want to read through the formalized verbiage of abstracts.
In order to correct the culture of misinformation and mystique surrounding science, scientists need to provide a straightforward, lay-language explanation of their research and its significance to other fields of science and the world in general. Any good scientist will want to make sure that their research is easily understood and accurately represented to the public, and one way they can do that is by creating summaries of their papers that bring science down from its ivory tower. Commitment to honest, unbiased reporting of research by scientists instead of journalists will put a stop to the sensationalism of science news and create a culture of understanding surrounding scientific investigation.
The opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of Boston College or the Boston College Biology department, and are solely the opinions of the student author.