Misinformation in public debates on scientific issues such as vaccinations and climate change can be found all over the internet, especially on social media. In a new study, Sara K. Yeo, associate professor of communication at the University of Utah, examines why scientific misinformation is so difficult to spot and suggests that using humor may help fight the problem.
In the article, published in Proceedings of the national academies of sciences, Yeo and her colleague Meaghan McKasy, assistant professor of communications at the University of Utah Valley, argue that limited knowledge of science and the media, coupled with structural constraints such as fewer science journalists and declining numbers of local newspapers, reduces the ability to discern fact from lies. Readers also tend to use mental shortcuts – shaped by political ideology, religious values, and unconscious biases – to sift through the deluge of information, which can further complicate the ability to identify fake news.
“Disinformation is often presented or framed in a simplistic and emotional way,” Yeo said. “Consider online ‘clickbait’ as an example: such content often has captivating headlines that promote seemingly outrageous information. This encourages the use of mental shortcuts, which can make it difficult to detect and analyze lies.”
According to Yeo and McKasy, the strong emotions that arise from clickbait can interfere with the ability to process information rationally, but the effect of emotions on the detection and acceptance of disinformation is not straightforward. However, advances in research on emotion and hence humor, scientific communication reveal how they can be used as strategies to solve the problem.
Humor is omnipresent in everyday life and in human communication. Science is no exception – science jokes abound online under hashtags like #overlyhonestmethods and #fieldworkfail. In the age of disinformation, humor has the potential to be a defense against fake news, but according to Yeo and McKasy, there is a need to better understand how humor influences attitudes toward science.
“Funny science can draw attention to issues that may not be on the public agenda, and can even help draw attention to valuable and accurate information embedded in a joke. Humor also has an impact on how we process science information to form behavioral attitudes and intentions.
Additionally, humor is related to people’s rating of a source of information and it can humanize and make a source more likeable. Yeo’s recent research shows that scientists who use humor are seen as more sympathetic while still maintaining their credibility as an expert.
According to their article, Yeo and McKasy believe that there is no single or simple solution to the problem of scientific disinformation, but they believe that the best and most realistic approach is to use several strategies together.
“Understanding how emotion and humor shape public understanding of science is an additional resource that can help communicators tackle disinformation. Of course, strategies must be used ethically and how best practices are translated from the research depends on the communication objectives It is essential that we engage in a dialogue on the ethical considerations facing science communication in the age of digital media.
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Material provided by University of Utah. Original written by Jana Cunningham. Note: Content can be changed for style and length.