The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

How Science Will Explain & Fix Fake News

The instant, global spread of information through the Internet clearly benefits us as individuals and as a civilization. But the Internet can also be wielded to spread disinformation, a formidable downside of the technology that we’ve recently labeled “fake news.” Simple web publishing tools enable anyone to fabricate stories that appear identical to legitimate journalism, which prompts social media users—both human and robotic—to share them as easily as real news. Fake news, crafted to exploit us, wreaks havoc on our health, finances and politics.

Reality constrains the quantity of real news stories, but our boundless imaginations unleash a torrent of fake stories that now overwhelm our news feeds. Not only does fake news deceive us, it undermines our trust in legitimate news sources. This is the real catastrophe and, many believe, the objective of Russia’s fake news campaign leading up to the 2016 U.S. elections. Fake news threatens the institution of democracy itself, because an uninformed public cannot make sound governance decisions.

Fake news, crafted to exploit us, wreaks havoc on our health, finances and politics.

Many groups have tried to stem fake news through various fact-checking initiatives that have all failed, because they fundamentally misunderstand the problem. Some employ human editors, who cannot possibly keep up in any useful timeframe. More scalable schemes crowd-source the work, as though the public could possibly know what is happening elsewhere in the world. Others employ machine learning, as though reality follows some recognizable pattern. Others use automated reference-checking to verify facts elsewhere online, defying the very definition of “news.” Some internet media platforms necessarily publish “both sides of the story” side by side, serving up contradictory facts that guarantee misinformation and confusion. Some find the problem so intractable that their only remedy is to “educate the public” that news sources simply cannot be trusted, and that truth is a matter of opinion always “worthy of respect.”

Fortunately, examining fake news through the lens of science greatly simplifies the problem and points us to tangible, effective remedies. Just as we apply science to the critical study of history, journalism is simply the scientific investigation into the truth behind current human affairs. Just as natural scientists do, “ethical journalists” follow a methodology to encode objectivity, transparency, and best practices. (See the sidebar to review the Rules of Ethical Journalism.)

Violators are not real journalists; they fit the mold of pseudoscientists who sidestep or even flout the scientific method. They are the source of fake news.

It is critical to distinguish fake news from news that is simply wrong. The common fallacy that fake news and wrong news are the same leads to great confusion, as politicians hurl the term “Fake News!” to dispute one fact and therefore dismiss entire news teams. Scientists can be wrong without being fake, and so can journalists. Inaccuracies are inevitable— the key is to follow rules that minimize and correct them.

That’s why fact-checking is not only futile; it is also barely relevant. Instead of hopelessly chasing errors in each story that pops up, we should routinely and openly audit the journalistic practices of reporters and news platforms. Audits can be performed by associations like Newseum, or startups like NewsGuard that survey and monitor news reporting practices. Consider how financial audits that bring trust to stock markets certify the controls of a corporate Finance Department rather than the specific numbers reported to Wall Street. This is a more tractable and relevant approach to fixing the problem, helping us critically assess news in real time based on the source, just as we do in deciding which scientific articles to believe. A peer-respected author from a media outlet with disciplined editorial practices generates both credible science and credible news.

Although most people do not become professional scientists, we teach the scientific method to all students to develop critical thinking skills, appreciate scientific work, and reject pseudoscientific claims. We must similarly teach journalism to all high school students if we want a society that appreciates the difference between journalism and fake news, and has the tools to distinguish them. In fact, these classes can directly contribute to the solution, by openly scrutinizing reporters’ work on Wiki pages that everyone can see. Such a significant corpus of journalistic reviews would yield strong signals to the public.

Fake news will finally wane when major news distributors such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter adopt this scientific mindset. Historically complicit, these companies are now eager to escape the hot seat, but they first need to overcome their powerful institutional bias that truth is whatever their users click on. Specifically, they must transparently label journalistic audits on the news stories they stream, and incorporate the signals from these audits in prioritizing the articles populating our news feeds.

When we as a society understand and appreciate how journalism works, and when our news feeds prioritize content from real journalists, we will once again enjoy the freedom and security endowed by a well-informed democracy. END

About the Author

David Cowan is a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and a trustee of the Center For Inquiry. In 1995 he founded VeriSign to bring trust to e-commerce by authenticating the identity of web servers.

This article was published on May 1, 2019.


18 responses to “How Science Will Explain & Fix Fake News”

  1. David says:

    B.Barnes: while science is never settled and is not about consensus, your suggestion that evidence was moulded to fit a preconception about climate change is childish and not borne out by the facts. Speaking of facts, the authors of the article refers to “contradictory facts” which sounds suspiciously Ike Kellyanne Conway. A fact is, by definition, objectively true. If one detail is correct, the contradiction must be incorrect.

  2. Sara says:

    Study blames YouTube for rise in number of Flat Earthers… The interviews revealed that most had been watching videos about other conspiracies, with alternative takes on 9/11, the Sandy Hook school shooting and whether Nasa really went to the moon, when YouTube offered up Flat Earth videos for them to watch next.

  3. joe says:

    @Mike Cullen

    Exactly where did Robert Mueller provide “an unambiguous yes” to the question of whether “Trump did not collude (or coordinate) with the Russians.”?

    In the first volume of the report, Mueller goes to great lengths and pains to show the numerous attempts by both parties (Russian and Trumpian) to assist the Trump campaign. Largely due to the nearly comical ineptitude of Team Trump, direct and clear cut coordination was unable to be established. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.

    Have you been reading a few too many fake news articles? Or are you just trying to spread some here?

  4. Mike Cullen says:

    There is a nearly perfect correlation between the Newsguard approved sources and those who spent 80% of their news time the last two years pushing the Russia Collusion hoax. Many of the unapproved sources got it right – Breitbart for instance. Same with several other key stories in the last few years – hands up don’t shoot. There IS a scientific method to ID fake news. For easily known facts, like what percent of people got a Trump tax cut, survey people to see their estimate, correlate the correctness of their answer to their top news sources. For another example, ask whether Mueller said Trump did not collude (or coordinate) with the Russians. The answer is an unambiguous yes, but again the Newsguard sources have done everything possible to obscure this easily identifiable fact.

  5. Dennis Wilkinson says:

    Jon Salmi, yours is a good example of a strawman argument. If anyone has ever said that Global climate change is “settled” and therefore no further research is needed, I have not heard it. And no reasonable person says science is necessarily furthered by consensus. But if a large percentage of knowledgeable people shout out a warning, if is foolish to disregard it.

  6. Jon Salmi says:

    B. Barnes your comment is on point. I would just like to add that I am also very wary of those who say that Global warming, or any other science, is settled. This implies that there are no further discoveries to be made in the particular science. So why are any further government research funds needed? Also, many try to shut down contrary views by saying, e.g., that global warming has been proven so I do not need to argue with you. However, the fact is science works by disproof and has since Popper, 1934.

  7. ChrisR says:

    I can’t wait for the day when we have a benevolent overseer to shove all that tasty truthiness into my head.

  8. ChrisR says:

    That was in reply to Millard J. Melnyk , btw.

  9. ChrisR says:

    Well said. There is only one fake news detector – the one between your ears.

  10. B Barnes says:

    The name of this website is misleading (fake) since they clearly believe through past articles the myth that one there is a “consensus” of scientists who believe that without man use of fossil fuels there would be no global warming and two that science is advanced by “consensus”. True scientific findings are not arrived at by “consensus”. True scientific findings (skepticism) do not begin with a conclusion that man must have caused global warming and work their way backwards omitting any data that is in direct opposition to their conclusion on their way to forming a hypothesis. True scientific finding are arrived at through the use of skepticism throughout the scientific process that begins with a hypothesis. Naming your website is very ironic indeed. No skepticism to be found here…

  11. TruSkeptik says:

    I have to agree with those who find this article “naive”, although I am moved by its idealism and hopefulness. Unfortunately, only a very few human beings possess the kind of moral fiber, and in sufficient quantity, to motivate them to “do the right thing”. Humans are, as I have written many times elsewhere, “infinitely perverse” and would rather indulge themselves in what they self centeredly identity as “freedom” than in any other occupation. The current madness, in retrospect, was entirely predictable and its end is equally foreseeable, violent, filthy, bloody, insane and quintessentially “human”.

  12. Tpaine says:

    Millard, I commend you for hitting the nail on the head. The authors “appeal to Authority” betrays his naivete. Unfortunately, it’s not just Google and Facebook, it’s the Washington Post and the New York Times who can no longer discern news from editorialism.
    The author states “how financial audits that bring trust to stock markets certify the controls of a corporate Finance Department” I remember that
    the financial auditors during our last financial crisis were sometimes complicit and many had been captured by their own customers. Some went out of business. All failed to perform as expected. Non experts uncovered the Madoff scheme, not credentialed auditors

  13. Ken Farnsworth says:

    To Kathryn: “Fake News” wasn’t coined by the President. You give him too much credit. He simply appropriated it and applied it to real news that he didn’t like. The article was excellent.

  14. Kathryn W Kemp says:

    “…politicians hurl the term ‘Fake News!’ to dispute one fact and therefore dismiss entire news teams.” The phrase “fake news” was coined and has been made commonplace by the President, who deploys it against any negative reports onhimself or his administration. The near-omission of this important information in your article is an example of journalistic malpractice.

  15. Millard J. Melnyk says:

    Fake news will finally wane when major news distributors such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter adopt this scientific mindset.

    And the frog will survive the crossing when the scorpion finally decides not to sting.

    I’m continually amazed by our pig-headed refusal to intelligently vet information for ourselves and insist some ‘authority’ or ‘expert’ do it for us.

    ‘Fake news’ isn’t new. It was written into our childhood textbooks. It was recorded in our encyclopedias. It appeared every single day in every single newspaper and magazine. Just look back 30-40 years and see what the ‘authorities’ and ‘experts’ were saying then.

    You think that’s changed?

    The question isn’t which news is ‘fake’ and which is reliable.

    The question is whether we’re going to answer that question each for ourself, intelligently, or hang from the tit of someone else who feeds us ‘truth’ like a hungry fledgling, beak wide open, ‘Tell me! Tell me! Tell me!’. ?

  16. 123elle says:

    Yes and yes — but I actually worry more about people who are not paid to cynically disseminate false news, but rather do it out of honest belief and conviction.

    I’m thinking specifically about the legions of anti-vaxxers, many of whom are well-intentioned and educated people but who have lost their bearings and believe passionately in untruths.

    It certainly doesn’t help that we have a demented and irresponsible child in the White House who has no commitment to professional standards of public information but sprays out whatever he thinks is to his egotistical advantage, damn objectivity.

    Just as in the middle ages, many people are simply condemned to believing falsities, even throughout their lives. They are pretty much write-offs IMO. They can’t be talked around to trusting science rather than their own personal interpretations curated by quacks and gurus.

    The integrity of information, and the credibility of its authors will be constantly put to the test and called into question as time goes by. False equivalences will be aired in full public forum and, infuriatingly, many people will choose the side of fakery for personal reasons, for ignorance and out of simple contrariness.

    We must examine the credentials of those disseminating news and information on every topic. But the truth is that some people are naive, unintelligent and unversed in the scientific method. They will believe and spread fakery, and all we can do is hunker down and contest them on every point. We will never be able to fix them.

  17. Jerry Attrich says:

    People want to believe because they are naive. They have not embraced skepticism. To them the scientific method applies only to physics or chemistry. It’s like the kid asking if he can apply his new-found knowledge of algebra in his physics class, as if math can only be used for more math. A high-school class in skepticism would be great!

  18. Patrick Wright says:

    This article is incredibly naive. Fake news exists for two reasons: 1) people are paid to create it, and 2) some people want to believe it.

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