Is there a vaccine against fake news and misinformation?

Much of the media is taken up with how close vaccines are to bringing the Covid-19 pandemic to a close. But how about a vaccine against the blizzard of fake news and misinformation? Some social science researchers have experimented with “cognitive vaccines” but, says an article in PNAS, “researchers have found that this is not as simple as providing people with correct information and hoping it will supplant false beliefs”.

One disturbing feature of the fight against fake news which has become more evident after years of fierce debates over climate change, US election results and Covid is that a good grasp of science does not necessarily inoculate people against it.

In a recent article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign found that the mantra “trust the science” does not work. Paradoxically, they found that people who trusted science could be more vulnerable to being duped:

We identify two critical determinants of vulnerability to pseudoscience. First, participants who trust science are more likely to believe and disseminate false claims that contain scientific references than false claims that do not.

Second, reminding participants of the value of critical evaluation reduces belief in false claims, whereas reminders of the value of trusting science do not. We conclude that trust in science, although desirable in many ways, makes people vulnerable to pseudoscience.

They conclude that public officials need to urge people to be curious and critical.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge


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