Fish tales: Combating fake science in popular media / by Francisco Blaha

What role should scientist play in correcting bad science, fake science, and pseudoscience presented in popular media?  His is an interesting question placed by Andrew David Thaler and David Shiffman in a recent paper in Ocean & Coastal Management where they discuss effective social media strategies for scientists who want to engage with the public on issues of bad science, pseudoscience, and fake science. 


Based in two cases (fake documentaries and bad reporting) they identify two tracks that scientists can use to maximize the broad dissemination of corrective and educational content: that of an audience builder or an expert resource.

Finally, they suggests that scientists familiarize themselves with common sources of misinformation within their field, so that they can be better able to respond quickly when factually inaccurate content begins to spread.

Of course this an topic that interest me and is partly why I starter this blog, not all is perfect in the fisheries world (far from that) but there is a lot of people trying to do the right thing in a very complex scenario where geopolitics, inequality, social injustices and pure greed intermix each other. The fisheries situation in east Africa is not the situation in the Pacific, the one in the south Atlantic is not the one in NZ. Generalisations and reader winning clickbait type headlines don't help.

Hence, I liked this article. I just quote some of my favorite passages, but a usual nothing beats reading the original!

In an era of mass media propagation, the potential to disseminate scientific discoveries to a curious and literate public is unprecedented.

Scientist and science advocates have the ability to bypass gatekeepers of traditional media to grow and nurture their own audiences. This presents a powerful pathway for conservation scientists to reach critical stakeholders and increase attention on key environmental and conservation issues. This also provides a means to increase ttention for less popular conservation issues, including both regional issues and impacts that are not generally tailored for mass appeal (i.e. ocean acidification: Upwell, 2015).

The potential reach of these attention-driving tools for conservation outreach is tempered by the ability for bad science, pseudoscience, and fake science to spread widely through the general public (here we define “bad science” as unsound conclusions drawn from valid premises; “pseudoscience” as sound conclusions drawn from invalid premises; and “fake science” as unsound conclusions drawn from invalid premises). Unfettered by the limitations of accuracy and rigor, these stories can, as Francklin would say, “fly, as it were, on the wings of the wind”. Bad science, pseudoscience, and fake science can often spread so effectively that, even when corrected, as in the case in the now-retracted Lancet paper which sparked the modern anti-vaccination movement, the false information will remain within the unchecked pool of common knowledge

As practicing scientists find themselves more frequently participating in public discussions through social media and other platforms of digital dissemination, we must address a central question: What role, if any, should professional scientists play in challenging misinformation in the popular media? Tied to this question are three more pragmatic concerns:

  1. How can scientists effectively engage with popular media?
  2. What tools are available to scientists who want to reach a broad audience?
  3. How can scientists measure both quantitative and qualitative success in online science campaigning?

Measuring success
There are a few metrics of success that can provide active social media campaigners with an understanding of the effectiveness of their outreach efforts. The volume of a conversation on Twitter can be measured by several third-party services. Unique visitors to a blog post serves as a quantitative gauge of the degree of public interest. Placement in Google search results is more qualitative, but is an effective indicator of what content the public is using to inform their decision making. We entered into the multiyear campaign will the goal of making fake documentaries presented as factual natural history programming less economically viable as a stand-in for educational programming. To that end, decrease in viewership and increase in negative sentiment served as the best metrics of success for this campaign. In early 2015, citing the backlash against these programs, the new CEO of Discovery Communications announced that their new programming would not include fake documentaries (de Moraes, 2015).

In conducting these campaigns, we have identified two strategic tracks that scientists who wish to address the promulgation of bad science, pseudoscience, and fake science through popular media can utilize to further public education in their chosen fields.

Track 1: the audience builder
One of the obvious conclusions of this work is that in order for science and conservation messaging to successfully disseminate through social media, there needs to be active scientists with prominent, mature audiences. This approach, though often regarded as the gold standard for measuring long-term social media success, is neither effective for everyone nor often the best pathway for most practicing scientists. Generally, scientists on social media develop a niche audience specific to their discipline, resulting in smaller, though more engaged following.

Developing a large, active, and sustaining (that is, one that continues to grow linearly) social media audience represents a considerable investment in time and resources. Success in audience building can have tremendous payoff in terms of public outreach and broader impacts, but it may come at a cost to other aspects of a scientist's career. Scientists interested in pursuing this track should consult and for strategies to establish and grow your audience.

Track 2: the expert resource
Ensuring that experts in their field are not only aware of potentially problematic popular media, but have access to tools to broadly disseminate correctional media is as important as audience building.  This highlights one of greatest strengths that practicing scientists can bring to the media landscape: they already have the background knowledge necessary to rapidly and thoroughly respond to misinformation as the story is breaking, effectively increasing the speed of those slow and solemn steps towards the truth. It is not necessary for the expert to have nurtured their own massive online audience; they only need to know who the key audience builders are and either direct those individuals towards the best content or produce content that can be shared broadly.

When audience builders and expert resources collaborate to create compelling, sharable content that directly addresses misinformation, be in it the form of fake nature documentaries, viral news stories of dubious merit, or pop culture pseudoscience, they can effectively harness the enhanced public attention to disseminate their knowledge effectively through social media. Scientists, particularly those working in fields where they commonly encounter bad science, pseudoscience, and fake science, should maintain a reasonable cultural awareness of the current zeitgeist and be prepared to reach out to key audience builders when the tide of misinformation needs to be stemmed.

Looking back over almost three years of social media campaigning against a particular popular media phenomenon, we see a clearly defined role for the practicing scientist to engage with the proliferation of bad science, pseudoscience, and fake science: it is to ensure that the best available knowledge reaches the largest possible audience. There are many strategies and tactics that one can adopt to achieve these goals, and we have highlighted one case study here. Scientists can work to develop their own audience, if that is a pathway that appeals to them, but, more critically, scientists should be aware of the bad science, pseudoscience, and fake science that affect their field. 

By understanding what kinds of misinformation can spread rapidly through popular media and knowing who the ley audience builders are with relation to their field, the practicing scientist can position themselves to reach out to key influencers and maximize the dissemination of expert content.

I (personally) like to think that in fisheries we have to be both an audience builder and an expert resource, which enable us to respond quickly to misinformation and capitalize on the initial increase in public interest.