For the Love of Science: the Changing World and Fake News

By Sharlene Gandhi

Some say love makes the world go round. Others say ‘Get real, money makes the world go round’. Really science trumps both. Science, technology and engineering are the three musketeers who make trade, money and business (and maybe even love?) possible, and yet the latter gets all the glory.

Admittedly, this is probably because a lot of people switch themselves off when scientific discoveries are discussed. Science is far too complex for most of us to understand, so they don’t even try. Science isn’t considered a ‘sexy’ topic of conversation, not something you’d gabble for hours about with the geek-chic guy / gal who you have an embarrassing crush on; those conversations tend to be political, philosophical, artsy, with a general undertone of ‘what is wrong with the world’ / ‘what did we do to deserve this’.

The brilliant thing about scientific discoveries is that 99% of the time, they are positive! They are optimistic! They can make you smile and restore your faith in a world that otherwise might seem gloomy and fragmented. So, as part of our effort to explore and critique the world around us, we’re going to try to overshadow our dismal, political climate with some mostly-positive science and technology news with our new series, For The Love of Science.

As a business / languages student, I am not the most trusted source of news on science and technology. But what I’m hoping to do is ingest all the complicated information and spit it out in a more consumable format, and hopefully my general ignorance for science will help that.

So, I thought the best way to start would be to just do a quick Google of what has gone on in the science and technology realm. This in itself was harder than I thought. In 2016, we thought we’d discovered a new habitable planet orbiting the star closest to the Sun, and we named it Proxima B. Turns out we got ahead of ourselves and the winds are far too strong on Proxima B for humans to be able to live sustainably on the planet.

However, here’s some exciting news, particularly relevant in light of recent events. I did try to avoid Trump as much as possible for this piece / series, but alas, he’s wiggled his way into every inch of our lives. Scientists at the University of Cambridge have developed a ‘vaccine’ to combat against the recent phenomenon of fake news; by slowly exposing readers to doses of fake information, they can develop a resistance towards bogus claims, much in the same way that immune systems can develop resistances to certain strains of drugs. The experiment was carried out using climate change as a focal point, a topic that provokes heated discussion and division anyway. Apparently, warning people that their existing biases and political inclinations could inhibit them from seeing the truth also works a charm.

This is not your traditional jab-in-the-arm vaccine, but works very much in the same way. A vaccine can often include a weakened version of the disease one is being vaccinated against, in order to jolt the immune system into activity and create some sort of resistance against said disease. In much the same way, if people are forewarned that they are going to be exposed to some hard-to-believe information, they are less likely to consume it at face value. The full research paper can be read here.

In a political environment that is becoming ever more chaotic, tools like this can enable citizens to become smarter political advocates. Of course, there is every chance that telling people that their political views make them believe lies could backfire and push people even further into their beliefs. But if anything, it is worth a try if it means that we can slow the spread of misinformation, as well as the even newer phenomenon of claiming that the objective truth is, in fact, false (refer yourselves to the rather futile debate of inauguration crowds).

This Forbes coverage of the research emphasises that the ‘vaccine’ protects against both fake news and alternative facts. Fake news, without a doubt, needs to be eliminated. But alternative facts? Are they merely different interpretations of what happened and what the truth means, or two completely different projections of objective reality?

Food for thought. Science and tech would go a long way in beating back against misinformation.