When it comes to fighting misinformation, the best defense is a good offense.
Communicate the science well in the beginning and knock fraudulent claims out with the facts. That’s the advice that Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Ph.D., has for people who work in the trenches of science communication.
Jamieson is Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and former Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. She was named a 2021 AAAS Fellow for her invaluable contributions to promoting factual discourse regarding public issues and developing the science of science communication.
The communications professor has studied the science of science communication for more than 40 years. But she says the widespread and systematic dissemination of misinformation about science is a recent phenomenon.
“So is the politicization of science. No one would have anticipated 50 years ago that the science of COVID-19 would be politicized in the way that it has been,” she says.
Jamieson is the author or co-author of 17 books. Six of them have won awards, including her 2018 tome, “Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President,” which won the 2019 R.R. Hawkins Award from the Association of American Publishers. The latest book she has co-authored, “Creating Conspiracy Theories: How Our Thoughts Are Shaped,” digs into the ‘why’ behind conspiracy theories that have shaken the public.
“The idea of this book is to explain, in cross-disciplinary detail, how it is that people have susceptibility to conspiracy beliefs and how their media consumption patterns in particular play a role in increasing the likelihood that they hold those beliefs,” Jamieson explains.
Understanding how communication functions in society is at the root of Jamieson’s work. That means acknowledging the effect that misinformation and political deception have on the voting public.
To combat misinformation, the communications professor and her contemporary, journalist Brooks Jackson, founded FactCheck.org in 2003. The nonpartisan website is designed to sniff out misinformation and debunk non-factual claims made by U.S. political players.
Built for the general public — and more precisely, for voters — the service holds those in power accountable. Since 2015, FactCheck.org has incorporated a fact-checking stream dedicated specifically to science called SciCheck. SciCheck focuses exclusively on debunking false and misleading scientific claims that politicians who want to influence policy have made.
Jamieson says that back when she and Jackson started FactCheck.org, they didn’t see the need to create a separate area for discrediting misinformation about science. But over the last seven years, SciCheck has proven its worth, disproving the fraudulent claims of senators, news anchors, and former presidents.
“There were attacks on science, and sometimes there were no responses,” says Jamieson. “And if something someone has said is a consequential piece of misinformation, you need to provide a correction and let the public know what it needs to know to draw appropriate conclusions.”
While much of Jamieson’s work today is focused on political communications, science has been a steadfast interest of hers throughout her life.
The AAAS Fellow grew up in Waconia, Minnesota, with a keen love of science, toying and tinkering with microscopes and chemistry sets in elementary school and, as she recalls, “basically endangering the neighborhood with amateur science experiments.”
For most of high school, she thought she would end up becoming a physicist. But her varsity debate talents launched her into philosophy and communications, which she pursued as an undergraduate who studied Rhetoric and Public Address at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Jamieson went on to earn both her master’s and Ph.D. degrees in communications at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Since then, Jamieson has gone on to receive numerous accolades from organizations such as the American Political Science Association, the American Philosophical Society and the National Academy of Sciences. In 2020, the National Academy of Sciences awarded her the Public Welfare Medal for ensuring factual integrity in public discourse.
As she continues her crusade against misinformation and deception, Jamieson is training doctoral students — the professors of the future — in the science of science communication. Staffing FactCheck.org with journalists who have high-level scientific backgrounds and who can contextualize scientific information for the public is another key part of the effort.
Even though the public has come across its fair share of conspiracy theories and misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has also learned an enormous amount of accurate information about the novel coronavirus and its variants, says Jamieson.
“Before January 2020, the public had zero knowledge about this virus,” she says. “Today, the public can tell you what delta is, what omicron is, and what the scientific community thinks masks do. It’s because the scientific community, the public health community and the journalistic community have overwhelmingly done a good job.”
So, should we be concerned about misinformation? Yes, says Jamieson, and we should be concerned that science is becoming polarized.
“The amount of disinformation that is highly accessible now is unprecedented in human history because we have access to the internet,” she notes. “But we also, as a result, have unprecedented access to good information.”
The secret to managing it in the future? Learning the lessons of the last two years to make sure that when we are confronted with the next challenge of our time, we remember what worked and remember what didn’t.