The environment is a place where fake news is thriving. A recent report by the House Science Space and Technology Committee shows a Russian group called the Internet Research Agency generated thousands of tweets and Facebook and Instagram posts about fossil fuels and climate change from 2015 to 2017. These were aimed at reinforcing the beliefs of people on the right and the left to influence U.S. energy policy. Peter Cormas teaches science education at California University of Pennsylvania. He studies and promotes scientific literacy which he says is key to wading through all of this information — and sometimes misinformation — coming at us. Kara Holsopple spoke with him recently to learn more. (Photo: Kathryn Hansen / NASA)
Kara Holsopple: Sometimes we’re being intentionally misled by Russian bots, sowing conspiracy theories on social media. Sometimes it’s a politician, bending or misinterpreting a scientific finding to defend policy. How can scientific literacy help people see through that?
Peter Cormas: A lot of people think of science as just the facts that are in a textbook. But science is any way to understand the world, and it’s based on observations. When we look at studies that deal with fake news or misconceptions, just knowing scientific facts actually might not be able to help you too much in determining the difference between fake news, misconceptions people have, somebody being dishonest about something, and something that’s true.
LISTEN: How to Become Scientifically Literate
KH: So what does scientific literacy look like?
PC: A scientifically literate individual will know some basic facts about science, like sixth grade science. The other thing to understand is how scientists do science. How they come to understand all those facts that you read about in textbooks. How a theory works. A lot of people, when they think of theories, they think of personal theories like, I have a theory that I’m going to have a great day today. That’s much different than a scientific theory which is informed by hundreds and thousands of scientists doing studies all the time. So when a scientist says that there is this theory of climate change, it is the end product of years and years and years of research, of reasoning, of talking to others. And that’s how I know that the theory is correct and strong and rigorous, from understanding how science is actually done.
KH: And so a regular person who is not a scientist can use those same kinds of principles?
PC: Right. These are all attributes of science that you can do at home. And they’re really good at combating fake news. Be curious. If somebody says something about climate change, go and read about it. You only need to read a few good sources to start forming some type of concept. The next thing is, look for evidence. Scientists make all of their decisions on evidence. They don’t base things on their gut. Another thing you can do is when you hear certain claims, use something called active open mindedness. What scientists do is when they make a claim, or they read something, they think about it from all different angles. They challenge themselves. And lastly, an important part of being a scientist is being skeptical. All scientists are skeptical. So question the sources that you’re reading. Question people. Ask them how do they know that.
KH: Do you feel hopeful that people will actually be more discerning about what they read or see when it comes to news about science?
PC: I see the change taking place with my students in my classroom. I think things are going to get better. Will we ever have a society that’s totally scientifically literate? I’m not sure if that will ever happen, but we need to have enough people that are scientifically literate so that we can get out of some of these problems that we have. A lot of the problems that you hear about in the news – gun control or the environment or fracking — we actually know a lot about these things. We have really good answers. But unfortunately, regardless of which side of the political spectrum you’re on, people don’t know those things. We have responsibilities about what we post and repost, and if we are not well-informed, we’re not going to have a democracy. Science gives us a shared reality because it helps us understand how the world works.
For a deeper dive into scientific topics and research, Peter Cormas recommends an online news site written by academics called The Conversation.