A group of children sit in a circle, decorated with party hats and giddy from cake and ice cream. The first child turns to the second and whispers a made-up phrase. The second child giggles, turns, and repeats the message to his neighbor. By the time the message has been passed all the way around the circle, it’s completely unrecognizable. The classic telephone game has twisted the original message into nonsense.
Breaking scientific discoveries are distorted through a similar game of telephone. On the journey from the lab to your Facebook feed, a scientific message is morphed by a series of exaggerations and misunderstandings.
Although scientific reporting has always been vulnerable to misrepresentation, the COVID-19 pandemic has put this process on a global stage. Information about the health crisis is time-sensitive, pressuring news outlets to report quickly and often without adequate fact-checking or context. The world has watched in confusion as single studies have spawned a whole slew of contradictory messages.
Alison Bernstein from the blog SciMoms calls this phenomenon the “Chain of Exaggeration.” As information passes through multiple sources, each step “amplifies fear, loses nuance, and loses context.”
The Chain of Exaggeration has real-world consequences far greater than the children’s game of telephone. Online misinformation has encouraged risky behaviors that go against recommended healthcare guidelines, as seen by the widely-spread but incorrect rumors that recovered COVID-19 patients can return to normal, non-social-distanced activity or that the virus can be self-diagnosed by holding your breath to test for lung fibrosis. A man in Arizona died after mistakenly believing that a bottle of fish tank cleaner contained hydroxychloroquine, the drug prematurely touted to prevent or cure COVID-19.
We are all unknowing participants in the Chain of Exaggeration each time we relay unverified information. To escape the telephone game of misinformation, it’s important to understand the journey that a scientific discovery takes from the lab to your Facebook feed. Instead of relying on clickbait, we can break the chain of exaggeration by turning instead to verified, accurate sources of scientific reporting. This information is critical at any time for making informed choices – but especially during a global health crisis.
The first phone call – a journal article
A scientific discovery first enters the world in a scholarly report called a journal article. Although the phrase “journal article” sounds a bit like a diary entry, these reports are actually highly detailed descriptions of scientific experiments and results.
The message that kicks off the telephone game is scientifically sound thanks to a process called peer review. This is a rigorous evaluation by a panel of experts called peer reviewers – researchers in the same field who have a lot of knowledge about the topic at hand. They use this knowledge to critique the manuscript and look for flaws in the experimental methods, analysis, and interpretations. While this process isn’t always perfect, it allows experts in the scientific community to weigh in on matters of rigor and accuracy before the work is published.
These journal articles are typically written with an audience of other scientists in mind. Scientific findings are complex and nuanced, and scientists communicate these results with technical language. Importantly, scientific journal articles clearly define the limitations and scope of the results. Scientists recognize that experiments done in a controlled laboratory setting don’t always mimic complicated human biology. This is why journal articles avoid words like “prove” and include important context that may get left out of downstream reporting. While scientific journal articles can be a great resource for all of us, many rely on other kinds of media for scientific news.
Dialing in the media – the press release
Press releases cross the divide between technical journal articles and the general public. Research institutions like universities write press releases to publicize their facility’s important work and convince news outlets to pick up a scientific story.
Press releases are written by the institution’s communications department in collaboration with the scientist who performed the research. These announcements summarize the scientific work and explain how the research impacts the world. Because scientists are involved in writing the summaries, press releases have the potential to be highly accurate.
However, even this first step can get it wrong. Communications departments are tasked with a big job: to make a flashy story out of technical science. Studies have shown that hyping up a press release by exaggerating the results leads to exaggerated news coverage. The good news is that this effect is usually limited to the headline. Online databanks of press releases like EurekAlert! can be a great introduction to breaking science, but watch out for exaggerated headlines and misleading advice, causal relationships, and interpretations.
Activating the phone tree – media news reports
A successful press release will push a scientific story into the media spotlight, where the spread of information (or misinformation) really picks up speed. Modern media outlets are competing for your clicks in a crowded online news environment. To gain an edge, some outlets sensationalize the news at the cost of accuracy. If the reporting is based on an exaggerated press release, then this step adds even more hype to the story.
This is also the first step in the game of telephone that doesn’t necessarily involve scientists. Journalists don’t always have a scientific background and may misreport the science. Scientific findings are often highly technical, and a single misused word or phrase can drastically alter the message.
A million voices – social media
Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to capture scientific nuance in 280 characters. Scientific communications rely on precise, detailed language to accurately communicate complex ideas. When this level of detail is compromised, the scientific message is more likely to be misunderstood.
Misinformation is further amplified with each click of the “Share” button. On social media, the same scientific story is the subject of thousands of simultaneous games of telephone. Unfortunately, the version that travels the farthest isn’t always the most factually sound. Social media posts are judged based on popularity rather than accuracy, meaning that we are more likely to share posts that play on an emotion, confirm what we want to believe, or come from a perceived authority figure.
Misinformed social media posts aren’t always the result of innocent misunderstandings. The internet is rife with predatory sites that intentionally misrepresent data in order to sell a product or promote an agenda. Regardless of the source of the misinformation, social media creates an environment in which it can be amplified and shared.
Hanging up the Phone – finding accurate information
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that it’s more important than ever to break the “Chain of Exaggeration”. We all have a responsibility to only pass on high-quality, accurate scientific information. In a global game of telephone, do you know how to cut out the static?
A good place to start is with the “news” or “highlights” section of research journals. Sources like Nature and Science are known for their high standard of peer-reviewed scientific journal articles. However, they also translate these articles into jargon-free, engaging articles for any interested reader. These reports are carefully researched to uphold the journal’s reputation for scientific accuracy.
News outlets, when chosen responsibly, can also be a source of scientific information. Some outlets are more diligent than others when it comes to fact-checking and careful reporting. Look for journalists with science backgrounds and articles that get input from scientists. National Geographic, Discover, Smithsonian, STAT, and others have a track record of high-quality scientific reporting.
Just like the news media, certain corners of social media also provide accurate and engaging science information. In fact, many scientists have recently started to combat misinformation through science blogs and websites. The field of “SciComm,” or science communication, gives scientists a chance to cut out the middleman and communicate directly with the public. Sites like Massive Science and Science Bites share breaking scientific findings in articles written and edited by scientists.
These sites are all worth browsing for your next scientific read. Before sharing anything you see on social media, take a few moments to verify the scientific facts and help to slow the spread of misinformation. Sharing factually incorrect news isn’t just careless – it can be downright dangerous when the subject matter is the health of someone on your friend list. Scientific and health-related news will play a critical role in shaping our post-pandemic world – let’s leave the telephone games to the kids’ birthday parties.
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