Getting science right in the fake news era

Science journalist Carl Zimmer, who is speaking at Penn, shares what he’s learned about the dangers of misinformation and offers advice on weeding out the real news from the phony.

closeup of stack of newspapers

“Fake news” became a rallying cry in 2016, but the problem of propaganda touted as fact and of rigorous journalism being questioned by those with ulterior motives has much earlier origins. Science journalist Carl Zimmer, who has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and STAT, and authored 13 books about science, has seen legitimate science twisted and denied since the start of his career. But the problem has expanded in recent years, he says, as people get their news directly from social media, often without the filter of a trusted journalistic organization.

On Nov. 7, Zimmer will give a public talk, “Science Reporting in the Age of Fake News,” to kick off the Penn’s Fifth Annual Microbiome Symposium, hosted by the School of Veterinary Medicine’s Center for Host-Microbial Interactions and the PennCHOP Microbiome Center. In advance of his talk, Penn Today spoke with Zimmer about how fake news has affected the public’s view of science, how he tries to combat it in his own reporting and writing, and how consumers of information can try to ensure that what they’re reading and sharing is real.

Carl Zimmer
Carl Zimmer (Photo: Mistina Hanscomb)


When you say it’s the ‘age of fake news,’ when did that era begin? 

It became a common phrase during the 2016 presidential campaign when all of a sudden there were all sorts of fake stories popping up, produced by websites that sounded like they were actual newspapers or other journalism operations, but in fact they weren't. 

One thing I always like to stress is I’m not saying that fake news didn't exist before 2016. In my talk I’ll make it clear that the United States has been dealing with fake news, including fake news about science, since its birth. 

But I would say that certainly in science the issue of fake news has been growing for a while, whether it’s websites that claim to be offering information on vaccines, trying to get people to not vaccinate, or creationist websites, or websites that distort research on climate change. It’s been a growing problem in science, and I think it's continuing to grow.

It seems like there are two sides to fake news: The claims that legitimate journalism is fake, and then the actual fake news that is being deliberately produced and circulated.

Yes, in my talk I will explore the two ways that the phrase has been used. 

Kathleen Hall Jamieson at Penn has a phrase that I really like. She calls it viral disinformation, or “VD” for short, because it’s something you can pick up from other people and spread to other people. It’s not good for you, but it can be also stopped. I really like her formulation.

That’s one way that it’s been used, but Donald Trump and others started using the phrase to try to undermine legitimate reporting. If there was anything in the news that they didn’t want people to believe, they’d say it’s fake news, created by journalists who are just making stuff up.

It’s very much a rhetorical tactic that people use who want to raise doubt about climate change or vaccines or other hot-button issues. That’s dangerous as well because it encourages people to ignore the information they don’t want to hear. 

Can you give an example of how you’ve encountered this in your career?

The most recent case was when I wrote about a climate scientist who studies how the carbon dioxide we’re putting in the atmosphere is increasing photosynthesis. It’s a process nicknamed global greening. Some climate deniers have tried to use that as evidence that actually greenhouse-gas emissions are good for us and will produce more food.

The scientist I interviewed said that’s exactly the wrong way to think about global greening. It’s a sign that our planet is changing rapidly, and there are some very dangerous times ahead if we don't change things.

When I wrote a follow-up piece about his concerns, a commenter on one of these climate-change deniers sites just said, ‘Oh, more New York Times fake news.’ They said I should have talked to a real scientist. Of course, it was a scientist I spoke to!

Is there anything you can do to mitigate these problems as a journalist? 

What I try to do is make my reporting as transparent as possible. I try to show how scientists work, how they know what they know. I try to make it clear that science is provisional. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean we don’t know anything. Thanks to science, we know a lot. 

There’s room for improvement. Journalists can potentially learn a lot from social scientists and psychologists about what strategies are going to be effective, and which ones are going to make things worse.

The way people are getting their news is changing, with Twitter and Facebook. How has this influenced the spread of fake news? 

In the 1990s and the early 2000s, most people were getting news about science in newspapers and magazines and on television news. Things have changed a whole lot since then. Most of the science magazines are gone. Most newspapers have dropped science coverage. CNN got rid of its science team.

Places like The New York Times and Scientific American are still delivering a lot of science to readers, but they’re doing it mainly online. So the challenge now is that anybody can put together a website that looks just as professional as anybody else. That’s great and empowering. But raising two kids in this age, I have spent a lot of time helping them understand what is reliable news about science and what isn’t, because there’s just an explosion of stuff online that is nonsense.

The other big thing is that people don’t sit at the kitchen table anymore and page their way through a newspaper or a magazine.  Their friends share links with them. If your friends share something with you and they’re very emotional about it—‘You’re not going to believe this!’—then you’re going to be more likely to just assume that it’s legitimate and share that emotion with your friend. That can cause a lot of trouble when what friends are sharing is not true.

How old are your kids, and what are you telling them about navigating news online? 

My kids are now 17 and 14, but I’d say we started talking about the internet as soon as their teachers were asking them to go online to do research for class. That was in fourth or fifth grade. 

It was eye-opening for them to learn that there are people who make websites who don’t actually understand what it is they’re talking about, or are intentionally trying to mislead them. We’ve been showing them how to evaluate a website: If you’re looking up stuff about science and a group of scientists have put it together, that’s a good sign. If it’s a government website, that’s a good sign. If it’s a whole bunch of assertions without links to the evidence, that’s not a good sign.

It’s not easy. We grownups get fooled all the time. It’s a lifelong skill you have to develop.

Is there something you can point to that makes fake news about science particularly insidious?

One reason that fake news about science is so toxic is that it gives people a wrong picture of the world. I think that’s a really sad thing. If people start getting convinced that the Earth is flat, then they’re missing out on all the amazing work that astronomers have been doing for the past two centuries.

And it can have real-world impacts. There are measles outbreaks raging through Europe right now, and the main reason is there’s a group of parents who have decided that vaccines are dangerous for their children.

Here at Penn, you’re likely to find a lot of scientists in your audience. Is it especially important for scientists to hear about what’s happening with fake news in science?

 I think this is an issue that affects everybody. It’s very important for anybody who is reading about science in online news sources or listening to podcasts or hearing about it on the news. And it’s also important for scientists because they need to understand how their work is being perceived, how people are learning about what they do, and what are the ways that it’s being framed, or how it’s being in some cases distorted.

I don’t think scientists can afford to naively just go about their business in their lab or at their field site without thinking about these broader issues.

How can we be responsible readers with so much fake news circulating?

I think as individual consumers we all have to be more aware of all the misinformation out there and all the disinformation out there. You can’t just passively take in things and pass them along to friends saying, ‘Gosh, did you see this?’ If something seems to explain the world in a convincing way that fits in with the values you already have, it's very easy to get taken in.

I think we should also hold each other to task. If a friend is sharing fake news about science, we need to say, ‘You should stop doing that, and here’s why it’s wrong.’

Also, journalism is in a very difficult state right now, so if you expect to get all your journalism for free you're going to get what you pay for. If you want there to be good non-fake news about science out there you have to support it.

And finally, I think that we have to push social-media platforms to do a much better job of being part of the solution and not part of the problem. They take a very passive attitude, saying they don’t want to get in the way. But the fact is when people get worked up about some fake piece of news, they engage a lot online. And that's good for business. There’s something wrong there that needs to be fixed. That’s not something one person can do; that is going to take broader action to change.


Registration for Carl Zimmer’s public talk at Penn Vet is now closed. To register for the Microbe Research Symposium on the following day, Thurs., Nov. 8, please visit the Penn Vet website.