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March/April 2018

Scientific Fake News: Who to Believe

With today’s vast quantities of information and news outlets, it is becoming increasingly difficult to recognize truthful reporting and sound scientific research, because research and data are being altered to sell products and manipulate perceptions.

One tack discredits scientists personally and professionally. These efforts make scientists less likely to publish due to fears of industry attacks. Integrity and transparency are essential for members of the scientific community. Once their reputations and integrity are questioned—whether valid or not—it is more difficult for these scientists to gain tenure or obtain the funding essential for research. This is one way that industry has found to silence scientists who might have been able to expose dangerous products and processes.

Leonardo Trasande of the Department of Environmental Medicine at the New York University School of Medicine warns, “Attacks on scientific norms are likely to continue unabated, be they on climate change, the benefits of vaccines, synthetic chemical exposures, ­or any other important public health issues. We cannot become numb and tune these attacks out.” This makes it even more important to check the news and science we read and listen to.

How can the average consumer recognize sound science and sound journalism in this era of misinformation? First, find your news from established news outlets. They are required to publish who funds them, thereby increasing transparency. Follow the money; it will let you know if there is a financial interest behind the message being spread. If the organization conceals its financial support, be cautious.

When a news article mentions a report or study, it usually includes a link to the source. Read the source document for yourself and decide if the article is accurately representing the information. Sometimes reporters are wooed by promises of access and exclusives from the big players and may not report unfavorable news out of fear of losing access.

Recognizing sound science can feel unfamiliar or beyond one’s educational level. We have been raised to trust “scientists.” But as consumers, we need to consider the quality of each published paper. The way that data are weighted and evaluated can have a direct impact on the study conclusions. It is also important that scientists clearly state how they came to those conclusions. Scientists must be held accountable for disclosing conflicts of interest—even the appearance of conflict.

An alarming increase in ghostwriting also is taking place. Research papers sometimes are drafted,
edited, or published without disclosing industry involvement. Sometimes papers, articles, and policy briefs that tout the safety of a product, concept, or chemical are arranged to be published under the names of friendly scientists to give the impression of independence. Communications are provided to academic professors who distribute them to regulators, policymakers, and other audiences without mentioning industry’s involvement.

Finally, some science outlets have been created with the outward appearance of independence, but they are actually funded to push industry propaganda. These groups have been formed by large corporations with the goal of creating doubt, producing biased results, and discrediting scientists. At first glance, they may appear to be legitimate. But upon closer inspection, they are not what they seem.

There’s fake news in science. The burden falls upon us to determine whether what we’re reading is empirically evidenced, transparent science or just a misleading sham.

Veterans Health Council staff member Maureen Elias is the recipient of many awards, including the High Ground Veterans Advocacy Award and the 2017 Bowie State University Presidential Student Leadership Award. Most recently, she was selected for the Class of 2017 #Hillvets100, which honors veteran-advocates who effectively lobby Congress.





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