This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. You can read the original article here.
In a world that’s increasingly dependent on science and technology, civic society can only function when the electorate is well informed.
Combating fake science is an urgent priority. And consequences of fake science are no joke. In subjects like health and climate change, misinformation can be a matter of life and death. Over a 90-day period spanning December, January and February, people liked, shared and commented on posts from sites containing false or misleading information about COVID-19 142 times more than they did information from the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.
Educators must roll up their sleeves and do a better job of teaching critical thinking to young people. However, the problem goes beyond the classroom. The internet is the first source of science information for 80% of people ages 18 to 24.
One study found that a majority of a random sample of 200 YouTube videos on climate change denied that humans were responsible or claimed that it was a conspiracy. The videos peddling conspiracy theories got the most views. Another study found that a quarter of all tweets on climate were generated by bots and they preferentially amplified messages from climate change deniers.
Technology to the rescue?
The recent success of machine learning and AI in detecting fake news points the way to detecting fake science online. The key is neural net technology. Neural nets are loosely modeled on the human brain. They consist of many interconnected computer processors that identify meaningful patterns in data like words and images. Neural nets already permeate everyday life, particularly in natural language processing systems like Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s language translation capability.
At the University of Arizona, we have trained neural nets on handpicked popular articles about climate change and biological evolution, and the neural nets are 90% successful in distinguishing wheat from chaff. With a quick scan of a site, our neural net can tell if its content is scientifically sound or climate-denial junk. After more refinement and testing we hope to have neural nets that can work across all domains of science.
The goal is a web browser extension that would detect when the user is looking at science content and deduce whether or not it’s real or fake. If it’s misinformation, the tool will suggest a reliable web site on that topic. My colleagues and I also plan to gamify the interface with a smart phone app that will let people compete with their friends and relatives to detect fake science. Data from the best of these participants will be used to help train the neural net.
Sniffing out fake science should be easier than sniffing out fake news in general, because subjective opinion plays a minimal role in legitimate science, which is characterized by evidence, logic and verification. Experts can readily distinguish legitimate science from conspiracy theories and arguments motivated by ideology, which means machine learning systems can be trained to, as well.
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” These words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, advisor to four presidents, could be the mantra for those trying to keep science from being drowned by misinformation.