you’ve heard of fake news, but how much do you know about fake science?

While pervasive, deceptive fake news seems to be a new phenomenon for the public, the science world has been trying to battle their version of it for years.

mad data scientist

Everybody is talking about the epidemic of fake news and how to fix social media and journalism, often distorting the term in the process. To partisans upset by what an outlet published, anything that fails to echo their dogma is fake news, which is really not what we’re talking about when we invoke the seemingly nebulous term. You see, fake news is not just partisan slant or an op-ed desperate for hate clicks. It’s exactly what the term implies, outright lies to sell a narrative to a target audience, quoting sources who never said what they’re claimed to have said, making up sources, or claiming that what happened never did, or vice versa. So while you’ll hear this term a lot in the next few years, you’ll seldom see it used properly, much like the term “bias” was appropriated to mean that a source is lying just because it failed some ideological purity test in its interpretation of actual, verifiable events. But as people once again realize that literally anyone on the internet can get a very professional looking site and pretend to be a legitimate publication with lots of success and a small advertising budget on social media, for scientists, fake news have been a painful problem for many years.

Long before the influx of clickbait factories on Facebook and Twitter, reports that grossly distorted, or just plain lied about scientific research, to get clicks and eyeballs thrived in what are today too generously called science sections of news sites. And when I say distortions and lies, I’m not talking about free spirits rounding up or down willy-nilly, I’m talking about egregious errors or outright lies. Just for one example, The Daily Fail made up a story about an Australian astronomer detecting alien signals from a newly discovered rocky planet that may have been habitable. For another, countless popular science outlets claimed that a weird radio signal was proof of alien life when it fact, the paper they referenced threw in the idea just for completeness and almost immediately dismissed it as outlandish. Then, to follow up, many of the very same publications claimed the signal was actually coming from a microwave door opening before the timer was finished and laughed at the whole thing, while the actual research confirmed that it was a very real signal from very far away. Really, I could go on and on about this sad state of affairs, enough to fill almost 20 minutes worth of your time, kind of like this…

Now, while everything John Oliver said is completely dead on, he did miss a huge scourge on the scientific world that makes the terrible reporting about research in the media even worse: fake journals. Well, the journals are real, as in they exist as actual scientific publications, but their contents are what’s called tooth fairy science. While the first link talks about the thriving world of fake journals for alt med quacks, all of these predatory and questionable entities also exist for every field and have been a problem even back when I was in grad school, where our advisors would warn us not to submit to any old publication but be on guard for journals that will publish anything or ran by cranks, posing as legitimate research outlets. For example, six years ago, two cranks set up a journal to promote the surprisingly plausible hypothesis of panspermia — which does sound like a bad porn title, but is actually very real science — with asinine rantings and ravings in the guise of academic and peer reviewed papers. This journal is now long gone, but many others rose in its wake and have diversified and grown, promoting fraud, junk science, and conspiracy-mongering that’s very hard for a layperson to detect.

Even legitimate, studious scientists could be taken in by fake journals which maintain a thick patina of plausible respectability. They may be widely cited and highlight respectable sounding papers, but in reality, they’re propped up by cranks and publish junk science to give those cranks a PR boost. They’ll happily take real scientists’ papers and cash, quickly publish them alongside something totally outrageous, and use them to lure in more scientists. It’s a particularly nasty scam that damages reputations, drains funding, and goes to enrich and popularize pseudoscientific, asinine, or even dangerous ideas by sandwiching them in between real, high quality research. This is why any grad student trying to publish his or her first paper is sternly warned to run the target journals by an adviser to make sure that all the hard work which went into the research doesn’t end up living cranks’ pockets and tarnishing what could’ve been a promising scientific career from the start. And this is a predicament made worse by today’s extreme publish-or-perish culture which gave rise to the dreaded MPU paper. The pressure to publish quickly and in any passible journal that will accept you, is very significant.

It’s a little scary to think that the paper finally showing that we found a cure for a particularly nasty and aggressive type of cancer involving nothing more than a laser and two months on a vegan diet published in the very important sounding Global Oncology Research Journal is actually a tool for a quack to sell a bogus cure to desperate patients, claiming to have been published in a world renowned scientific publication, this may easily be the case. Consider that after all, the first word in peer review is peer, and if the process can fail spectacularly in a real journal, imagine what happens when all those peers are also quacks with snake oil to move out of their warehouses. And during times when anti-intellectualism has reached a fever pitch, and experts have become pubic enemies, you literally can’t trust anything you’re told without checking it yourself. Fake science has been around for almost a decade now, and when combined with fake news, the prognosis for how skeptical we will all need to be of everything we see and hear is rather disturbing…

# science // fake news / journalism / pseudoscience / scientific research

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