American Physical Society Takes On Scientific Misinformation
At the American Physical Society’s Annual Leadership Meeting, held virtually on Jan. 27, APS CEO Jonathan Bagger introduced an initiative called the Science Trust Project that aims to leverage the society’s membership in addressing the spread of scientific misinformation. “This project is rooted in our mission to diffuse knowledge to the benefit of humanity, and it’s also grounded in our values to uphold truth,” he remarked.
Explaining the project’s origins to the audience, Bagger said, “Many of you have asked APS to develop an activity to counter misinformation, a problem that’s been exacerbated by the broad reach of the COVID-19 pandemic. And it’s through your input and the input of numerous experts across the sciences that we have developed the Science Trust Project.”
The project’s co-leader, Callie Pruett, a senior strategist for grassroots advocacy at APS, told FYI that those calls from members built up throughout 2020 and 2021 in response to encounters with misinformation on social media and in their personal interactions. “I think that when you start seeing it in your own family, among your own friends, it really does reach that flash point where you say, ‘I have to throw my hat in. I have to do something,’” she said.
(APS is an AIP Member Society.)
Panel considers physicists’ role
Bagger introduced the Science Trust Project at the conclusion of a panel discussion on the problem of misinformation, which was one of four themed panels organized for the meeting. At the start of the session, an audience poll showed that 95% of respondents are either “fairly” or “extremely” concerned about misinformation and disinformation. More than one-fifth reported being a target of misinformation or disinformation in their own work, and more than 80% felt they should play an active role in countering disinformation.
The worries and calls for action were echoed by the panelists.
“I think it’s very bad,” computer scientist Christo Wilson of Northeastern University said. “We don’t actually understand the information ecosystem very much anymore. … And then you throw in bad actors who are weaponizing that ecosystem for their own ends.”
Neil Johnson, a George Washington University physicist who heads an initiative in complexity and data science, suggested physicists are well-positioned to build tools that aggregate data about misinformation into a “map” that tracks its evolution in public discourse. “And once you’ve got that, then you know where to go and intervene effectively,” he said, adding later, “I think it’s a unique opportunity for the physics community. … We should be the ones to map it out. And once you’ve [done] that, you’re then the basis for every discussion about policy, regulation, et cetera.”
Wilson pointed to social media as presenting a new and particular challenge in misinformation because it separates content from its producers. “I think that what’s really changed is the emergence of mega-platforms, which both enables things to spread, but also sort of obfuscates the origins and intentions of different actors,” he remarked.
That concern was echoed by David Helfand, an astronomer at Columbia University. He cited surveys showing increasing public reliance on social media for news, which he said reflected a demand for the kind of information presented on those platforms that would be difficult to counter by trying to stem the supply of misinformation. “It’s not a supply problem, it’s a demand problem,” he asserted.
Helfand also observed that many surveys report there is a high trust in scientists in the U.S. relative to groups such as politicians and journalists. However, he pointed out there are divergences within different segments of the population on more particular issues, such as whether scientists working in different sectors provide advice that is disinterested or in the public interest. (Helfand chairs AIP’s board of directors.)
This week, the Pew Research Center released a survey report showing that an increase in trust in scientists that occurred early in the pandemic has now been erased, tracking declines in trust in other professions. The same survey also showed that in the last two years confidence that scientists act in the public interest has dropped precipitously among Republicans, from 85% to 63%, while Democrats’ confidence has remained steady at about 90%.
Efforts focusing on training and communication
In considering strategies for countering misinformation and disinformation, the panelists focused on science education and public communication. For instance, Helfand, who specializes in teaching science to non-science majors, discussed efforts to convey attitudes of curiosity and skepticism, as well as an appreciation for uncertainty in college-level courses. He also suggested such efforts should begin much earlier in the educational process.
Sara Gorman, a founder of the nonprofit organization Critica, which promotes the use of science in decision-making for health and safety, said scientific communities should train scientists in evidence-based methods of countering misinformation, drawing from behavioral science and centering concepts such as empathy and identity.
Before launching the Science Trust Project, last summer APS convened workshops in partnership with Critica to train members to have empathetic conversations around the topic of vaccine hesitancy. Callie Pruett told FYI that more than 80 people attended one or more of the workshops and that attendees reported it increased confidence in their ability to engage on the topic. Following up on that effort, APS is developing a four-week workshop around the topic of climate change, which it aims to launch in April with around 30 participants.
The workshops teach participants ways to identify different forms of misinformation and to broach difficult misinformation subjects with friends, neighbors, family, and acquaintances. Although a specific misinformation topic is chosen to provide concrete examples for the workshops, the techniques can generally be applied to different types of misinformation, the organizers say.
“By pairing these two methods, identification and action, together, our members can begin to make a meaningful difference in their communities,” Pruett remarked.
Pruett said Science Trust Project leaders are currently focused on developing training sessions and fostering a community within APS around the issue of misinformation. If the next set of workshops is deemed successful, APS may expand its efforts and potentially partner with other scientific societies on them.