Scientific Misinformation

By Shang Chen
November 11, 2020 · 4 minute read

For many in the United States, the 2020 election is wrapping up. This is relevant to STEM as I feel that much of society has become familiar with the term 'fake news' in regards to mainstream media outlets. People, nowadays, are getting savvy at identifying possible misinformation from media outlets covering things like elections, but did you know that scientific misinformation is a real and arguably even more dangerous form of misinformation?

What is Scientific Misinformation?

While it may seem redundant, it might be worth defining what we consider to be scientific misinformation. Breaking it down, "misinformation" be broadly defined as information that is incorrect, possibly by accident. In the field of science, this can mean including misleading/false graphs in your papers to mishandling your method, resulting in systematic biases in your data. There is also a more insidious and purposeful form of misinformation that is known as simply "disinformation". Disinformation is used to denote a specific type of misinformation that is intentionally false.

Obviously, there are different layers to the types of misinformation you will run into while doing scientific research and I'm fairly sure that most people can recognize a paper that says 'Onions are the root cause of COVID' is probably satire or just complete garbage. Still, it's surprising how many seemingly reputable journals are actually full of scientific misinformation. What's more dangerous is that compared to mainstream media outlets, people are probably much less likely to fact check a paper they got from a journal titled North American Medicinal Scientists Association as compared to a news outlet like The Lone Conservative/Democrat. It's because of this inherent trust in scientific journals and the assumption that science cannot be falsified that can lead to the spread and diffusion of scientific misinformation.

How do I avoid Scientific Misinformation?

We don't expect you to be an expert in a field, especially if you are a high school student doing some preliminary research on a topic. Still, the main way you can avoid running into misinformation in the first place is by doing a substantive background check of the journals/organizations you are pulling your papers from. In the field of scientific research, you might run into the term 'peer-review' and for good reason. Peer-Reviews are essentially handing off your paper to other experts in the field and letting them do a comprehensive analysis of your data. They will ask questions like 'Is the research question testable?', 'How did they go about collecting data in a responsible and accurate way?', and 'Did they represent their results in a way that is faithful to their underlying datasets?'. In doing so, papers that are peer-reviewed are ensured to have a higher standard of quality and accuracy. Unfortunately, many publishers have realized that the process of peer-reviewing each paper is costly in terms of time and resources. It is easier all together to skip the peer-review process and churn out dozens of articles each week rather than a dozen a year. However, this oversight is dangerous to both the scientific community and the general public. As stated before, the average person is much less likely to fact check something they believe is a reputable scientific publisher and further spread the misinformation. Most reputable websites will outline the requirements for a paper to be published in their journal so be wary if you don't hear any mentions of peer-review.

What does Scientific Misinformation Look like?

To take a look at some real examples of scientific misinformation, I'll leave a link to this funny but powerful article:

https://www.the-scientist.com/critic-at-large/opinion-using-pokmon-to-detect-scientific-misinformation-68098

A brief TL;DR of the article is the author reached out to the American Journal of Biomedical Science & Research and successfully published an article titled Cyllage City COVID-19 outbreak linked to Zubat consumption". Now, while both the article and the publisher sound like real science, the reality is the article is filled with references to the popular handheld game series Pokemon and false claims by fictional doctors like House M.D and Nurse Joy. The paper even goes as far as to includes lines like “a journal publishing this paper does not practice peer review and must therefore be predatory" to make it obvious that the publisher did not make any sort of attempt of fact-checking the paper before publication.

Scientific Misinformation is a real and pressing issue within the STEM community and it is not only embarrassing but dangerous to be citing papers that are completely wrong in some cases. While there is no way to instantly tell if a publisher or paper is legitimate, so you need to do your own research and cross-reference the conclusions of any paper you are willing to cite and connect with your name.

Did you enjoy this article?

About The Author

Shang Chen is on the executive team of SciTeens and is studying Data Science and Economics at UC Berkeley. His hobbies include working out, cooking, and speedrunning video games. Feel free to reach out to him with comments, questions, and future article recommendations at Shang@SciTeens.org. Sources: https://www.pnas.org/content/116/16/7662 https://www.the-scientist.com/critic-at-large/opinion-using-pokmon-to-detect-scientific-misinformation-68098

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