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Science & the Public


Science & the Public

You’ve probably been tricked by fake news and don’t know it

illustration of brain as marionette

Your brain is easily manipulated by fake news, because even facts you know are false can stick in memory as true.

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If you spent Thanksgiving trying in vain to convince relatives that the Pope didn’t really endorse Donald Trump or that Hillary Clinton didn’t sell weapons to ISIS, fake news has already weaseled its way into your brain.

Those “stories” and other falsified news outperformed much of the real news on Facebook before the 2016 U.S. presidential election. And on Twitter, an analysis by University of Southern California computer scientists found that nearly 20 percent of election-related tweets came from bots, computer programs posing as real people and often spouting biased or fake news.

If you care about science, that’s a big problem. As daily news moves past the election, the fake news machine isn’t likely to shut down; it will just look for new kinds of attention-grabbing headlines. Fake news about climate change, vaccines and other hot-button science topics has already proven to get clicks.

And if you think only people on the opposite side of the political fence from you will fall for lies, think again. We all do it. Plenty of research shows that people are more likely to believe news if it confirms their preexisting political views, says cognitive scientist David Rapp of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. More surprising, though, are Rapp’s latest studies along with others on learning and memory. They show that when we read inaccurate information, we often remember it later as being true, even if we initially knew it was wrong. That misinformation can then bias us or affect our decisions.

So just reading fake news can taint you with misinformation. In several experiments, Rapp’s team asked people to read short anecdotes or statements that contained either correct information or untruths. One example of untruthiness: The capital of Russia is St. Petersburg. (It’s Moscow.) Then the researchers surprised these people with a trivia quiz, including some questions about the “facts.” It turns out that people who read the untruths consistently gave more incorrect answers than those who read true or unrelated information, even if they had looked up the correct information previously. Troublingly, these people also then tended to believe that they had already known those incorrect facts before the experiment, showing how easy it is to forget where you “learned” something.

Whether someone can identify the capital of Russia may not seem important, but assertions involving incorrect scientific concepts (such as “brushing your teeth too much can lead to gum disease”) worked the same way in the experiments, and people used the incorrect information to make judgments. So someone who hears over and over again that “trees cause more pollution than automobiles do” might use that incorrect fact to oppose environmental regulations. In fact, I worry that just by me repeating that tired old line, you’ll remember it.

Even more alarming, we also pick up incorrect information from pure fiction, such as novels. Research finds that when we read fictional stories, we don’t just remember facts and plotlines. We use remembered bits of information to make deductions about how the world works, like a sorely misguided Sherlock Holmes.

And again, knowing it’s fiction doesn’t help. This means we now have a public unwittingly armed to assess fake news about GMOs using a genetics lesson gleaned from Jurassic Park.

Part of the problem lies in how our brain forms memories. For one, the more often a message is repeated (say on Facebook and Twitter), the more likely we are to remember it, an effect called fluent retrieval. That’s fine, but then our brains go one step further. “When we can remember something more easily, we’re more likely to believe it’s true,” says Rapp. This is one of the reasons that the social media echo chamber is so effective. Repeat a lie often enough, and it starts to feel like truth.

“I’ve had cases on my own Facebook feed,” says Rapp, “where people repeat a message they disagree with in an attempt to prove it wrong, and they accidentally amplify it.”

If you think you’ve never shared fake news, I have more bad news. We’re pretty bad at distinguishing fake news from real on social media, says Emilio Ferrara of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Ferrara published his findings of widespread Twitter bots in the run-up to the election in First Monday, a computer science journal focused on the internet.

He found that human Twitter users retweeted messages from bots at the same rate as messages from real people, “which means that the average user most likely retweets this content unconditionally,” he says. “It was an unexpected finding, because as an informed reader, I don’t retweet everything I see. But we see systematic lack of a critical ability to distinguish sources.”

Are we doomed, then, to repeat fake news until it becomes real in our minds? Rapp says no, but we’ll need to dust off the critical-thinking skills we learned in grade school.

First, we have to work extra hard while reading to not only remember a fact, but to remember that it’s false. “One idea is that when we encode problematic information as memory, unless we tag it as ‘wrong,’ we might accidentally retrieve that wrong info as real,” Rapp says.

In his experiments, people were better at remembering which facts were false if they fact-checked and corrected information as they read, or at least highlighted incorrect facts.

Explicitly noticing when something might be untrue, and then making an effort to fact-check it, can go a long way, Rapp says. That could be as simple as doing a Google search or checking a site like Snopes.com. Taking mental note of a story’s source and whether it’s reliable helps, too. In general, reinforcing correct knowledge in our memory as we read and compartmentalizing incorrect facts into a “not true” mental category can help keep our brains from becoming a murky fact stew.

In the end, the solution to the fake news problem lies in our own brains. While Facebook and Google try to block fake news with algorithms and starve it of ad dollars, the only way to really curb it is for readers to recognize it, and not share it.

Technology,, Science & Society

Obama worried about research funding

By Janet Raloff 11:25am, April 30, 2013
Barack Obama offered yet another argument about why the current federal-budget stalemate is so risky: “[T]he sequester, as it’s known in Washington-speak — it’s hitting our scientific research.” As things now stand, “we could lose a year, two years of scientific research as a practical matter, because of misguided priorities here in this town.”
Technology,, Humans & Society,, Life & Evolution,, Genes & Cells,, Earth & Environment,, Ecology

Antarctic test of novel ice drill poised to begin

By Janet Raloff 12:37am, December 15, 2012
Any day now, a team of 40 scientists and support personnel expects to begin using a warm, high pressure jet of water to bore a 30 centimeter hole through 83 meters of ice. Once it breaks through to the sea below, they’ll have a few days to quickly sample life from water before the hole begins freezing up again. It's just a test. But if all goes well, in a few weeks the team will move 700 miles and bore an even deeper hole to sample for freshwater life that may have been living for eons outside even indirect contact with Earth’s atmosphere.
Humans & Society

This snowbird is really going SOUTH

By Janet Raloff 9:30am, December 6, 2012
Many people of a certain age (like my folks) enjoy flying south to warmer climes when winter weather threatens. I’m also flying south this December — but not to warm up. As a guest of the National Science Foundation, I’ll be checking out summer in the really deep South: Antarctica. Temps expected at certain sites I’m scheduled to visit, such as the South Pole, threaten to surpass the worst that my hometown will encounter in the dead of winter.
Animals,, Humans & Society,, Earth & Environment

Epidemic of skin lesions reported in reef fish

By Janet Raloff 5:58pm, August 1, 2012
A British-Australian research team has just found coral trout living on the south side of the Great Barrier Reef sporting dark skin raised, scablike, brown-black growths. Although the authors believe they’ve stumbled onto an epidemic of melanoma — a type of skin cancer — other experts have their doubts. Strong ones.
Humans & Society

So long Weekly Reader . . .

By Janet Raloff 12:12am, July 26, 2012
I read with sadness this week that Weekly Reader is about to disappear. As much as I’ll miss the idea of the venerable Weekly Reader living on, I also have to admit to a bit of a love/hate relationship with it. This conflict developed shortly after I joined the staff here. As soon as I identified my affiliation, people frequently asked: “Science News — hmmm: Isn’t that the Weekly Reader of science?”
Technology,, Humans & Society,, Nutrition,, Earth & Environment

FDA bans BPA in baby bottles, cups

By Janet Raloff 5:51pm, July 17, 2012
From now on, U.S. manufacturers may no longer produce polycarbonate baby bottles and sippy cups (for toddlers) if the clear plastic had been manufactured from bisphenol A, a hormone-mimicking compound. Long-awaited, the announcement is anything but a bold gesture. The Obama administration decided to lock this barn door after the cow had died.
Humans & Society,, Earth & Environment,, Chemistry,, Body & Brain

Putting BPA-based dental fillings in perspective

By Janet Raloff 6:29pm, July 16, 2012
A new study finds that children who have their cavities filled with a white composite resin known as bis-GMA appear to develop small but quantifiable drops in psychosocial function. To put it simply: Treated kids can become more moody, aggressive and generally less well adjusted.
Humans & Society,, Ecology,, Other

Warning to bats: Cuddle not

By Janet Raloff 4:57pm, July 5, 2012
Ecologist Kate Langwig of Boston University and her colleagues want Eastern bats to listen up: No more cuddling — at least during hibernation. Just keep those wings to yourselves.
Humans & Society,, Earth & Environment,, Body & Brain

Ozone: Heart of the matter

By Janet Raloff 12:15pm, June 26, 2012
As reported this week, breathing elevated ozone levels can mess with the cardiovascular system, potentially putting vulnerable populations — such as the elderly and persons with diabetes or heart disease — at heightened risk of heart attack, stroke and sudden death from arrhythmias. Is this really new? Turns out it is.
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