New report: Responding to disinformation

14 June 2021

Dan Larhammar

Dan Larhammar calls on researchers and research communicators to engage with and respond to disinformation.

Hello there Professor Dan Larhammar of the Department of Neuroscience, and also chair of the All European Academies (ALLEA) Scientific Committee on Disinformation. You’ve been involved in producing the "Fact or Fake report? Tackling Science Disinformation" which was published in May.

Is it really possible to protect the sciences from disinformation and still maintain our openness and respect our democratic principles?

“We are careful to point out that freedom of expression must not be restricted. In addition, it would be difficult to distinguish satire and parody from pure disinformation. Instead, we focus on how we can respond to the spread of disinformation, how the public can be warned and be made aware. Researchers and experts have a great responsibility when it comes to responding to disinformation. When it comes to minimising its spread, everyone has a responsibility, especially journalists and communicators whose professions are about spreading information – they must carry out thorough fact checking and source checking.”

The Internet and social media are democratic, in that everyone – or at least a great many – can use them. But how can we know what is fact and what is fake? Are there any tips, aids or quick shortcuts?

“In the case of alternative medicine pseudo-science, there are some general signs that can be used to identify disinformation (lack of logic, presence of spelling errors, etc.). However, it’s a matter of making an effort to do thorough fact checking and source checking, ideally with independent expert knowledge, before deciding to share the information. In addition, the source of the information should be checked, whether there are commercial or ideological interests behind it.”

The report highlights three areas where the problems of scientific disinformation are described and discussed – climate change, vaccination, and pandemics. What kind of false information is being spread in these particular areas?

“The common components of disinformation are distrust of the experts and science, allegations of conspiracy, and cherry-picking of data that appear to prove the person’s own theory while ignoring contradicting evidence. Each area has unique features, such as anti-vaxxers’ belief in a study revealed as research fraud, and their inability to evaluate statistics.”

How will ALLEA work to counter the spread of scientific disinformation?

“We call on researchers and research communicators to engage with and respond to disinformation. We propose that expert groups collaborate to be able to respond to disinformation even more quickly and more effectively. We also call on decision-makers to ensure that claims are subject to fact checks so that any special interests, commercial or ideological, can be identified.

Ulrika Hurtig