Science in Black and White: Deception & Bias Online

Rapeseed field in Sweden. The European Union is evaluating GMO crops.

Rapeseed field in Sweden. The European Union is evaluating GMO crops.

Smoke and Mirrors

This is the third blog of the Science in Black and White series. Check out Science and Politics and Science and Public Perception, too.

Science is under covert attack online. As investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson points out, astroturfing is a thing that the public may not be aware of. Just how many people out there are hired to spread false information, purposely confuse other forum posters with copious but irrelevant information, or just generally spread their vitriol around until people lose patience and move on from a genuine query on social media.

I tested the concept of astroturfing on Facebook for an article about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) recently banned in a certain EU country. I wasn’t after a thorough analysis of the issue, but I was curious as to what type of responses I might receive. In the interest of clarity, I used basic biology terms.

My questions were as follows:

I am not saying GMOs are harmful in these questions, but I am challenging the premise that ALL GMOs should be accepted into the food supply without discussion. Our default setting really should be information-seeking critical thinker. Could it be that certain GMOs only temporarily solve our problems, or create others? Well hmmm. My personal opinion of GMOs happens to be that each should be considered case-by-case, based on the science, not a sweeping yes to all. Shades of gray.

What I witnessed was exactly the type of behavior I imagined from astroturfers. A lot of silent ‘crickets’, followed by insults once I politely pressed them to response with impartial sources. Afterward, I waded through a hundred or so other comments of the thousands found below the article. Sure enough, those same names that attacked me for asking questions showed up again and again to belittle discussion points or just berate people that were not praising GMOs.

As with many emotionally-charged issues, people are chided to choose a side because only opinions of total rejection or full support of the science will do. Complicated views are inconvenient and should be squashed quickly. I think not.

To understand the bigger picture and grasp how any decision regarding science impacts society, both positively and negatively, we need every available angle of the argument to gather all the facts. That also means recognizing and resisting strong personal biases (connected with convictions of personal identity) that may hinder our pursuit of hard evidence. At its core, science is neutral in nature and about the natural world. Not political and not religious. And perhaps more obvious, beliefs and intuition do not make something a fact. However, be aware that they can lead us to deepen our biases.

Empowered with data-backed information, we’re in a better position to draw educated conclusions or adjust our views on science issues. That way, people with different views—if seriously committed to finding optimal solutions—can influence the opposing side to thoroughly investigate and provide relevant proof.

I’ve previously written about how environmental messages can be very effective if they are crafted with real knowledge and understanding of the other side’s arguments. The same is true for science messages. Let’s make decisions about science based on solid evidence, not spin or assumption. I’ve not given up hope that facts can best shape our value judgements about science issues and pave the way for a progressively equal society for all.

We need to discuss the shades of gray of science, not fear new information, and not shy away from verifiable data that research provides. As non-experts, we’re not powerless. The answers are out there. It’s just a matter of taking time to understand these topics and give due consideration to the knowledge of the majority of scientists with a true interest in the science and not a political or corporate agenda. I, for one, support the application of science to better our world.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of her clients, partners, collaborators or any third parties.