AAAS Kavli Lecture: Carl Zimmer on Science Reporting in Age of Fake News

Carl Zimmer gives the inaugural AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award lecture. He was Introduced by Howard Schneider, dean of the Stony Brook University School of Journalism.| Stony Brook University

There always has been fake news, even before the term was coined, but it has become baked into the way many Americans now get their information about the world, science writer Carl Zimmer said in the inaugural AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award lecture.

Zimmer traced the history of fake news – both humorous and disturbing – and its implications for public policy in an era when traditional structures for gathering, editing and distributing news about science and other topics are eroding. He spoke on Oct.12 before an overflow crowd at Stony Brook University on Long Island, the first of three venues this fall for the new AAAS Kavli lecture series.

The series, which brings winners of the distinguish journalism award to campuses for public lectures and classroom workshops, continues with talks by correspondent Richard Harris of NPR at the University of Texas on Nov. 2 and Paula S. Apsell, senior executive producer of PBS’s NOVA, on Nov. 10 at the University of Oregon.

Zimmer noted that this year is the 25th anniversary of reports by the tabloid Weekly World News about Bat Boy, a hybrid between human and bat whose genealogy allegedly goes back to the Mayflower and whose existence, need we say, was totally fictitious.

Citing a recent New York Public Library blog post, Zimmer touched on other examples of dubious news, including a July 7, 1800, report by the Albany Gazette on the death of Thomas Jefferson, an account it said was corroborated “by a gentleman directly from Baltimore, who says that the same account had been received there from Winchester, and that it was generally believed.” Many Federalist newspapers, it seems, wrote stories claiming Jefferson was dead as a means of discouraging people from voting for him in the 1800 election. Jefferson died in 1826.

Political angst over fake news is not new, either. Under the headline “Bill Aimed at Fake News,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on July 9, 1916 that a Kansas congressman had introduced legislation to make it unlawful for “any person, company, corporation, press association, news association or newspaper publication” to transmit false information or rumors bearing on the international relations of the United States and other countries.

Zimmer’s own introduction to the vagaries of fake news came as a young reporter in the 1990s covering the latest developments on evolution. His writing triggered some angry letters from creationists, including one who told him that “the god of this world, Satan, has blinded your eyes to the truth.” The percentage of Americans who believe that God created human beings pretty much in their present form within the last 10,000 years or so has remained reasonably constant, according to Gallup polls. In 1982, 44% of respondents agreed; this year, a poll found that 38% agreed.

Creationists formed a community of interest to reinforce each other’s beliefs and to deny what science was finding, Zimmer said. Other like-minded communities have formed in recent years, he said, to dispute the safety of vaccinations, to deny the reality of climate change and, yes, even to promote a claim that the world is flat.

The notion that the world is flat is “as fake as fake news can get,” Zimmer said. But, citing an account on Verge.com, he described just how readily today’s global digital network can spread such fake news.

“Somebody on some Reddit forum starts talking about evidence from the Flat Earth Society,” Zimmer said. The more discussion there is, the more upvoting there is on Reddit and the topic rises to the top on the site. Soon, journalists for mainstream publications like The Guardian and The Atlantic take notice and write stories about the flat earth flap. That news goes on Facebook, where it is shared even more widely. CNET posts an article about the flat earth phenomenon that gets 16 times more traffic than the average CNET post. LiveScience‘s story on the topic gets 11 times more Facebook engagement than the average LiveScience post. The Flat Earth Society writes Yahoo News to thank them for coverage, noting: “Every article like this spreads our message to more unaware minds.”

Zimmer said such coverage gets “baked in” to the digital landscape. A recent Google search on “is the earth flat” turned up a Popular Science story on 10 ways to tell the earth is not flat. But the second item in the search was “frequently asked questions” from The Flat Earth Wiki, a Flat Earth Society site. (And at the bottom of the search page, Zimmer notes, is an ad for The Flat Earth Society.)

This “corruption of basic scientific knowledge” has become more common in the past 15 years, Zimmer said, in part due to the decline of legacy media. New modes of getting information have become dominant: referrals on social media such as Google, Facebook and Twitter; a “frictionless distribution” of information, with fewer editors and fact checkers as gatekeepers; algorithms that automatically raise engagement with online content without evaluating the substance and correctness of the reports.

Consumers also are more likely to disregard stories that do not conform to their views. They share information from networks and people who think the way they do. Liberals share items from centrist and left-leaning sites. Conservatives share news from right-leaning sites.

A Pew Research Center study in June found that 74 percent of respondents say there is “solid evidence that the average temperature of the Earth has been getting warmer,” but there remains a wide gap between Democrats (and those who lean Democrat) and their Republican counterparts (and those who lean Republican).  Of the former, 92 percent say there is solid evidence for global warming, compared to 52 percent of the latter. Just 24 percent of the GOP respondents believe there is solid evidence that the warming is due to human activity such as burning fossil fuels, versus 78 percent of the Democrats.

The networks that drive information choices also include politicians who try to shape the way people learn about science, Zimmer said. As an example, he cited Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, whose committee Twitter account tweeted the link to a story on Breitbart that claimed global temperatures are plunging. The article on the hard-right news site was by a columnist who has made a career writing polemics against climate science. “It is a serious problem,” Zimmer said, when the head of the House science committee can publicize a story that is “a total misreading of the actual science.”

Nor is scientific misinformation limited to conservatives. Zimmer cited a tweet by columnist Paul Krugman of The New York Times saying there was a cholera outbreak in Puerto Rico in the wake of hurricane Maria. There was not. Krugman tweeted, “OK, cholera not confirmed” and admitted that he “got sloppy” in his reporting.

“The problem is that sloppiness has a way of sticking around,” Zimmer said. While he and several other science writers spent an afternoon trying to get out the word that there was no cholera in Puerto Rico, Krugman’s incorrect tweet continued to ricochet around the online world, garnering lots of criticism – some of it quite vile – by conservative commentators. Within eight days, there had been 32,777 retweets of the original Krugman tweet, compared to just 599 tweets and retweets on the absence of cholera in Puerto Rico.

Despite the volatility that can plague science reporting in an age of fake news, Zimmer remains somewhat optimistic about the future. “People are recognizing the problem,” he said. “They are starting to figure out that it doesn’t take care of itself.”

There are efforts to provide consumers more tools to assess the validity of stories, including a program at Stony Brook University encouraging undergraduates to take a course in news literacy that helps them critically evaluate the enormous amount of digital information they receive daily. Zimmer argued such programs should start even sooner, with children as young as eight. “Kids assume that whatever pops up on their phone is true,” he said. Stony Brook has started to move its program into high schools and middle schools, according to Howard Schneider, dean of the Stony Brook School of Journalism.

Zimmer also said that Facebook and Google “need to take far more responsibility for what is flowing through their channels,” with more editorial staff to evaluate the reliability of content.

Zimmer’s optimism has been reinforced by a recent Pew Research Center poll that found 41 percent of Americans are “very interested” in science and 45 percent are “somewhat interested.” Still, Pew also found that only 36 percent of U.S. adults get science news at least a few times a week. There is obvious room for improvement and news outlets and science communicators are looking for ways to better engage their audiences.

Mosaic, a British science news outlet, gives creative commons licenses on its stories, allowing others to freely reprint content. Other sites, including BuzzFeed news, are making serious investments in science coverage. Some news organizations also are going where their younger readers are, bringing content to sites such as Snapchat. 

Zimmer said it also is important for reporters to better understand their audience. “Our intuitions as reporters can be false,” he said. He noted the work of Dan Kahan, professor of law and psychology at Yale University, who has been studying how cultural values influence people’s beliefs and risk perceptions when it comes to disputed scientific matters. Kahan has found the higher conservative Republicans score on tests of ordinary science intelligence, the less likely they are to agree that global warming is mostly due to human activity.

“So you need to ask yourself, what’s going on,” Zimmer said. “How are people’s ideas of their self-identity and their understanding of science interacting?” He added, “We, as science journalists, need to understand that better so that we are not alienating people and so that we are actually finding ways to connect with readers more.”