Editor-in-Chief of Science writes about misinformation and science

In my opinion, this is a very important message from H. Holden Thorp, the Editor-in-Chief at Science. He makes a key point that I think needs to be emphasized strongly, here on Peaceful Science and everywhere else. I would put it this way: we are mistaken, even deluded, if we think that people believe anti-scientific nonsense because scientists don’t do a good enough job explaining it to them. Here’s Thorp’s last paragraph:

The scientific community is losing the battle against this digital leviathan of misinformation. A well-reasoned and highly placed op-ed on this topic is not going to move the needle, no matter how well it is crafted to adhere to the best practices in science communication. Neither is a perfect trade book, television appearance, or speaking tour by a scientific leader. The only way to win this fight is to harness the same sophisticated tools in the name of science that are being used to tear science down. With social media companies afraid to challenge the misinformation machine, even when their own platforms are being misused, the task is daunting. But we can at least move on from the idea that if we could just find those perfect, persuasive words, everyone would suddenly realize that facts are facts with no alternatives.

Should we write about science, and invite non-scientists to read and wonder and enjoy? Of course. Should we do this thinking that we will thereby undo the damage done by networks and systems devoted to falsehood? No. Should we ignore the fact that these networks and systems are parasitic on aspects of our society (free speech, religion, association) that are bedrock values? No.


Well, there are evidence based guidelines to tackle this problem… AAAS: Scientists in Civic Life: Facilitating Dialogue-Based Communication

The answer is “trust.”

The Science piece is about misinformation. It’s not about misunderstanding. So I think you are wrong that “dialogue” and “trust” are solutions to technologically enabled, psychologically sophisticated misinformation-creating and -disseminating systems.


Possibly. I suppose we’ll see.

“10 Bizarre True Facts about Evolution. #6 will shock you!”

“Why is this climate change denier building a secret basement?”

These were just my first thoughts. My second thought is innoculation from a young age. My younger son likes this show on Disney+. We watch it together and talk about how to figure out whether someone’s telling the truth, or is a reliable source of information, and how to find reliable vs unreliable sources.

I don’t want to use the same weapons as the leviathan. I want to find a way to break the weapons.

One point I completely agree with:

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I have the same gut feeling but I think that’s only a mid- to long-term strategy. Thorp might be (correctly) pointing to the urgent problem we have right now. And neither he nor I is suggesting that the “weapons” be used the way the propaganda networks use them (i.e. as “weapons”). He is calling them “tools” and he’s right to do that.

I really do think your missing how the AAAS guidelines help us here…

I think you are assuming that dialogue etc. are the only way to solve “the problem” and I think you are assuming that there is just one “problem.” The question just isn’t whether the AAAS guidelines are good or smart or evidence-based or whatever. In fact I think they’re great. The question is what to do about the specific problem of deliberately-created and technologically-amplified misinformation. These problems are very different in scope, in urgency, and in underlying cause. This probably explains why Thorp, the EIC of the journals of the AAAS, wrote what he did despite the fact that the AAAS created and published the guidelines you are citing.

The problem that Thorp is addressing is the one that the piece below is wrestling with. It’s not about religion (not directly), it’s not about culture (not directly). It’s about how lies travel through social media.

We’re not choosing between one or the other, Joshua. That’s a mistake.

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Have you had a chance to step carefully through that document yet?

Are you talking about the AAAS report? I read it in full in 2018. There’s not really a “list” to step through, unless you refer to the principles at the end. I’m sorry, but that doc and those principles are just not about the urgency of misinformation networks. Dialogue and trust-building are essential in the long run but I and many others see an urgent and emergent viral problem that you aren’t addressing for some reason. Maybe you don’t think that’s important, or maybe you think it is exactly the same as the issues addressed in the civic engagement effort.

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