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Science Communication

A scientist’s guide to addressing fake science

Paper: Thaler, AD, Shiffman, D., (2015).  Fish tales: Combating fake science in popular media.  Ocean & Coastal Management.  15:88-91. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2015.04.005

Image Credit: kropekk_pl, CC0

Image Credit: kropekk_pl, CC0

Social media has changed the way that scientists and conservationists can communicate with the public.  These days, anyone can promote an agenda directly with a public audience through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and other online platforms.  While these platforms can increase the reach of lesser known conservation and research efforts, they can also expedite the spread of inaccurate science.  Scientists are increasingly participating in, and facilitating public discourse online.  This begs the question: Do scientists have a responsibility to address fake science?   If so, what should their role be?  

Dr. Andrew David Thaler (the Editor-in-Chief of a popular ocean blog called Southern Fried Science) and Dr. David Shiffman (better known by his Twitter handle @WhySharksMatter) proposed the scientist role in the current digital landscape.  


Case study:  Fake documentaries

sharkweek vimeoRemember when Discovery Communications aired a series of fake documentaries a few years ago?  The first one was Mermaids: The Body Found.  The premise of the show was that mermaids were real and there was a government conspiracy to hide the evidence.  Other fake documentaries followed including two fake documentaries on sharks released during Shark Week.  Shark Week is an annual, televised, week-long event that features shark-based programming on the Discovery Channel and sparks large volumes of online conversation.  In these documentaries, extinct Megalodon sharks (specifically Carcharocles megalodon) were not actually extinct and preying on humans.  

These fake documentaries caused confusion with the public because they seemed so real and aired on a credible network.  Any disclaimers accounting for the fictitious nature of these shows were subtle and the shows had high production value and followed a familiar documentary format.  What made these shows even more believable was that they featured real science and current events, although they were mixed in with high quality CGI segments, fake images and actors playing experts, witnesses and government officials from real government agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the South African National Sea Rescue Institute.  While some argued that these fake documentaries served as harmless entertainment, they had real implications by creating distrust in NOAA, the primary government agency dealing with public education of and response to climate change.  Creating distrust in any government agency is a actually a significant concern as it undermines their efforts and initiatives on real issues.

In the beginning, responses to fake documentaries were not particularly organized.  However, after responding to several of these fake documentaries, an effective strategic response was achieved to not only elucidate the fictitious nature of the shows, but also seize the opportunity to lead into evidence-based science content.  Here is what the strategic response entailed:

i-think-this-might-be-photoshoppedA)  Articles were published that called to attention the show’s disclaimers and methodically fact checked errors and misrepresentations.  Since timing was everything, articles were posted as soon as possible, sometimes while the show was airing or even before the show aired when possible.

B)  The titles of the articles were worded to anticipate online searches and maintain a high position on search engine results.

C)  Colleagues or researchers with expertise in the subject matter and specific geographic region featured in fake documentaries were enlisted to write corrective articles.


Because of those efforts and support from scientists and science advocates on digital platforms, Shark Week mentions online began falling and even began garnering negative attention.  From 2013-2014, Shark Week lost around 9 million viewers.  The cherry on top of the science communication sundae, was that new CEO of Discovery chose not to continue fictitious programming referencing public opposition in 2015.


The scientist role and tools in combating fake science

For scientists or science supporters that want to get involved and play a role in combating fake science, Thaler & Shiffman have identified two different types of strategies: (1) build and nurture an audience which may not be practical for scientists due to the substantial time and effort needed or (2) become a trusted source for media fact-checking.  If both are possible, a scientist will be more effective and swift in dispelling fake science.

To measure the effectiveness of public engagement or conservation campaigns, the volume of social media posts and number of unique visitors to an online blog post can be indicators of success.  Search engine optimization results such as Google can also serve as an indicator of which sources of information have the most capacity to be accessed by the public and absorb online traffic.

Bottom line, Thaler & Shiffman advocate that scientists become aware of common misconceptions in their field and be ready to distribute correctional material to either their own built audiences or people that have built a large audience when they encounter fake science.  By doing so, scientists can play a vital role in working towards productive conversations that build a science-literate society.  


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