By Jonny Lupsha, Current Events Writer
Misinformation on Facebook about COVID-19 vaccines plays a part in vaccine hesitancy. A recent study found that more than half the misleading information on the popular social media site can be traced back to just 12 individuals. New scientific discoveries lead to changes in recommendations for the public.
In a recent appearance, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., in speaking about the American public’s hesitancy to get vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, said that “Facebook is killing people.” He has since walked back his comments and clarified that they came from a recent study by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) that said 60% of the vaccine misinformation on Facebook had been traced back to just a dozen people. President Biden said that he hoped the staff of Facebook would work to prevent the spread of misinformation rather than take offense.
In the video series Fighting Misinformation: Digital Media Literacy, Tara Susman-Peña, Senior Technical Advisor at IREX, offered tips on assessing science and health news.
Medical and scientific news play important roles in our lives; however, not only do different sources of information conflict, even the same sources over time seem to express changed opinions. It doesn’t make things easy for tracking accurate information, especially in the era of multiple soundbites on climate change, COVID-19, and partisan politics.
“Part of the reason science and health news can be so confusing and frustrating is the very nature of science itself,” Susman-Peña said. “Scientific knowledge is always changing, and by its nature, it is uncertain; new discoveries are constantly rendering previous beliefs obsolete.”
Science and medicine often involve working with the best of what is known at the time. For example, the world has obviously moved beyond the use of leeches and shortened the list of scenarios in which a limb amputation is the best solution. Those extreme measures were used to heal the sick or save lives in centuries past, but advances in science, medicine, and technology have evolved to find safer, more effective solutions for illnesses and damaged limbs.
Arriving at a Consensus
In the digital age, the world can see science develop in real time. When the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, it marked one of the first times the entire globe kept its eyes on the medical and scientific communities around the clock, every day. As new information came in, many people saw it as a continuous failure of science, rather than a continuous adaptation and refinement of information based on new evidence.
“When the great weight of evidence favors a particular conclusion, there’s good reason to believe it,” Susman-Peña said. “The news media don’t always do a good job of explaining scientific findings or putting them in proper context. They also compete for the public’s attention with misinformation, which sometimes comes from parties whose interests are threatened by what researchers have found.”
The scientific method starts with asking a question about the universe, developing a hypothesis, then testing that hypothesis and comparing the findings to it. Even if all the evidence points to one answer, researchers who publish their findings appreciate that further testing by other scientists may prove the first finding to be inaccurate. If a researcher’s conclusion is further proved, things get very interesting.
“Even [when] research findings are widely accepted, scientists still often refer to knowledge they derive from them as theories,” Susman-Peña said. “Gravity, for example, is referred to as a theory, even though we all know that there’s only one direction an apple is going to fall from a tree. That’s because for all we know about gravity, there’s still more we don’t know, and things that we think we know could still be proven wrong.”
By its very nature, science undergoes advances as new knowledge is attained through the discovery of evolving substantiation.