Fake News Is Bad, But Fake Science Has Even More Harmful Implications

| DEC 19, 2016 | 5:29 PM
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The media has worked itself into a frenzy lambasting “fake news” for polluting public opinion. Yet while ABC and the Los Angeles Times take aim at sensationalist claims put forth by a few enterprising teens out of Macedonia, the pot is calling the kettle black.

Although fake news is the media’s villain du jour, fake science has a storied history of misleading the public, and tends to be far more impactful than manufactured headlines claiming Pope Francis endorsed a Trump presidency.

After coming under new ownership, the Journal of Clinical Research & Bioethics – a respectable sounding publication by any standard – began printing fictitious and heavily plagiarized material, for a price of course. And to the untrained eye, this “fake science” may appear just as credible as peer-reviewed literature.

It’s not just false data which contributes to 72 percent of Americans qualifying as scientifically illiterate. Even our most reputable outlets can be found guilty of publishing distorted or sensationalized reports on science and health which irresponsibly mislead the public. After all, exacerbating an audience’s perceived level of risk generates far more interest than adhering to the measured language of science. And clicks drive revenue.

Just last week, “endocrine disruptors” again swept international headlines with reports that infant teething products leach dangerous chemicals straight into our babies’ mouths. The only problem? The observed level of “endocrine disruptors” measured mere thousandths of already accepted exposure levels – far below any concentration which could have a foreseeable impact on human health. The fear-inspiring headlines make Mount Doom of a mole hill.

And a few months ago, the journal Addiction ignited the press with assertions that casual alcohol consumption causes seven types of cancer. Reporters eagerly constructed headline after ominous headline convincing the public that their libations would be the harbingers of an early grave. Yet most neglected to realize (or worse - intentionally omitted) the inconvenient detail that the evidence fueling such extreme health claims wasn’t evidence at all, but an article in the journal’s “For Debate” section – akin to an opinion column.

Readers taking the headlines at face value may skip their once weekly Merlot for fear of cancer, forgoing the well-established cardiovascular benefits of moderate consumption – namely lower blood pressure, and a reduced risk for heart disease and stroke.

Historian A. Bowdoin Van Riper emphasizes that popular culture “does more than formal science education to shape most people’s understanding.” And it should come as no surprise that professional science is losing the battle against misinformation when reporters show little inclination to investigate beyond the title of a press release.

Yet as easily as the scientific community points fingers at the media, it is not blameless in America’s scientific failings. We are notoriously poor communicators operating with a vocabulary which doesn’t translate well into layman's terms (just thank the people who put “ascorbic acid,” another name for Vitamin C, on food labels). And some among the ranks of the learned elite even do more harm than good.

Perhaps none offends as much as Dr. Mehmet Oz. Despite holding prestigious degrees from Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine, Dr. Oz lines his pockets and boosts his ratings on a foundation of junk science. In 2014, Oz’s proclivity for woo-medicine made him the subject of an uncomfortable U.S. Senate hearing, during which Sen. Claire McCaskill scolded, "[t]he scientific community is almost monolithic against you.”

“America’s most trusted doctor” now faces yet another lawsuit after suggesting olive oil importers were duping their customers with inauthentic products. While Dr. Oz’s defense rests on the validity of a “professional taste tester,” his audience is left needlessly doubting the authenticity of their favorite ingredient and may forgo olive oil’s own cardiovascular benefits if they stop buying it.

When those who are well-versed in the sciences fail to hold external sources to account, the human appetite for knowledge is satiated by low-quality information bubbling from fake and misreported science. We are left with a populace which treats GMOs and plastics like the next great taboo, contrary to the opinion of scientists and extensive government, private, and university-led research. Baseless fears then inspire misguided regulations.

The best minds of our time have developed nanoscale robots to fight disease, and 3-D printed functional organs. Surely our combined ingenuity can turn the tides of misinformation before every American is forced to live their lives in a (BPA-free!) plastic bubble.