Scientists can vaccinate us against fake news!

The pursuit of truth is at the very heart of scientific research. This puts scientists in a challenging situation during a time when “post-truth” is the most recent Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Year.

This is a time where the focus is not on rationality or coherence but on sensationalism, regardless of the cost. In this era, “ fake news ” is in. It consists of deliberate misinformation from phony sources spread through traditional print, broadcast news media or online social media to meet a specific agenda.

If you’ve ever gotten a flu vaccine, you probably know the somewhat counterintuitive way it works: Your body gets a small dose of inactivated virus, so that if and when the real thing invades, your defenses are already up, prepared to quash the infection before it starts. Misinformation can be sticky, spreading and replicating like a virus.

According to a study published in the journal Global Challenges, a similar principle may help boost people’s immunity toward a different kind of plague: fake news.

Additionally, People have the tendency to search for, embrace and recall information that supports our own pre-existing beliefs and hypothesis. In some instances, the more you try to persuade people in the anti-vaccine movement, the more convinced they become that they are right. Therefore it is challenging to convince people to listen to scientific data that shows a different perspective. Parents have the inherent desire to protect their children; by playing on their emotions, Wakefield’s lies are heard more than statements by public health officials supported by decades of robust research.

However, the question on everyone’s mind is how to deal with this issue? Unfortunately, there is no algorithm that can block the misinformation and no government alone can keep their citizens safe from misinformation and other digital threats. However, many initiatives could have positive and tangible outcomes, but only if carried out in collaboration between the various stakeholders.

Ultimately, these are challenging times for scientists and the principles that guide the industry. How do they effectively pursue the truth and communicate their findings to the public in an increasingly post-truth world?

How do they promote evidence-based decision-making in an era when leaders shoot down inconvenient truths as “fake-news”? How do they create trust between scientists and decision-makers?

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