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One of the most challenging and frightening things in today’s world is misinformation (or misinformation if it’s intentional). Social media has expanded people’s ability to quickly spread information, whether true or not, that stemming the tide is like trying to fit the Baltic Sea into a paper cup. This leads to a mistrust of traditional mediaforming a viscous cycle that feeds the disinformation beast.

Many people have a little training in how to make a difference between reliable and unreliable sources. Many scholars and scientists assume that their research will be used as they imagine. This volatile mixture leads to bad actors distorting science and facts for their dubious purposes.

Late last year, biomedical scientist and science communication expert Karl Bergstom published “Eight rules for combating medical misinformation” in Natural medicine. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he offered advice on how to help curb misinformation from research scientists in vaccines, epidemiology and medicine. “We have an obligation to provide clear and accurate information to a society hungry for such information,” Bergstrom wrote.

Earth sciences have a similar obligation because much of what we study has a direct impact on people’s lives: climate change impacts, natural disasters, land resources, water, and more. There are many reasons why people would want to misrepresent Earth science or spread misinformation about geological processes and events. As scientists (and science enthusiasts), it is our duty to oppose such abuse.

Eight rules for fighting misinformation

I took Bergström’s eight rules and modified them for the Earth sciences. Think of these as guidelines to help you prevent misinformation from spreading, but also to recognize it when you run into it in the wild.

1. Be aware of the information landscape in which you are releasing your work: If your research is on the effects of climate change, you might expect a quick response from those who mistakenly believe that anthropogenic climate change is not happening. They can prey on uncertainty, hesitation and doubt in your work to push their agenda. You need to make sure you put your work in the right context – and when reading research papers, think about what context the author is putting the work in.

2. Avoid creating hype around your work or making trivial claims about its importance: All scientists want their research to be appreciated and noticed. This does not mean that you should wave your arms or head to the end of the springboard to make statements that are only intended to attract media attention. If you study fault movement, don’t say it’s due to an earthquake. If you’re talking about a volcano, don’t just talk about the potential worst-case scenario. Don’t be too sure about your findings when all research is uncertain—one of the most difficult aspects of any research to report. On the other hand, you should always be wary of headlines that claim something huge based on new research. Rarely does such research fundamentally change our understanding of potential hazards or impacts.

3. Recognize that data visualizations are widely shared on social media and can be used for good or evil: We all make numbers to explain our work, but they can easily be taken out of the context in which we put them. Keep this in mind and make illustrations that can live on their own. Plotting specific temperature trends without enough context on the image to show long-term trends could mean someone could use it to “prove” the climate isn’t warming.

4. Where specific abuses of your findings are likely, take steps to prevent them: More or less, this means that you should always clarify your central finding at the beginning and at the end. This means that if your work shows that there is more magma under a volcano, you must explicitly say that this does not mean that a major eruption is about to occur. You might assume that anyone reading your research will know this, but as lay people digest your findings, they could easily go down a path you didn’t expect. As consumers of research and news, don’t jump to conclusions that don’t exist!

5. If you intend to publish a preprint, find out how preprints are received by the public and the media: For those of you outside of academia, preprints are copies of research papers that have not necessarily completed all the peer reviews and other editing required for full publication. These are great for quickly extracting information about comments or a need, but may not hold up to the scrutiny of other researchers after review. So when the media work with preprint findings, they may be spreading information that doesn’t pass full scrutiny. Peer review is the backbone of reliable scientific research. You can extend this rule to include “research” by non-specialists, such as quacks who claim to be able to predict the timing and location of earthquakes. Their methods are never peer-reviewed and would not reach the standard of professional science.

6. Take direct responsibility for any press release your institution issues about your work: This goes back to rule #2. Universities, companies or organizations want publicity, especially if they rely on public or private investment. That being said, don’t let your work be misrepresented. If you’ve found evidence of a past earthquake in your area, don’t let the press say that this might mean devastating earthquakes are more likely (unless it isn’t). Ultimately, you are responsible for how your work is presented to the public.

7. Engage responsibly with traditional media: Scientists aren’t exactly known for their love of public speaking. Many would prefer their work to speak for itself… but that may not always be the case. Talk to the media, answer their questions (no matter how basic you think those questions are) and get out there as a credible source. I often appear on cable news to discuss volcanoes because I believe it is important to have experts discussing volcanic hazards during an eruption. It may seem scary, but it’s a critical part of being a scientist.

8. Consider Social Media Engagement: In the current social media environment, even I shudder at the prospect of going on Twitter, Mastodon, TikTok, Facebook, or whatever. Yet it is full of people talking about storms, earthquakes, eruptions – many times spreading misattributed images or unreliable “forecasts”. The indisputable truth is that many people get their information this way, and most of these places are full of misinformation. It may seem like a futile effort to fight off armies of Russian bots or bad actors, but more people than you think are receptive. And if you’re a social media consumer, you need to be doubly sure you’re reading or watching reliable, trustworthy sources, not freaks or agenda-driven groups.

The long game

As Bergstrom reminds us, misinformation harms people both directly and by “aiding and abetting bad policy.” You may not feel susceptible to misinformation, but if our leaders are susceptible, then you can be affected anyway. Consider the people living along the coasts of North Carolina and Florida, where climate change-induced sea level rise could literally destroy homes and businesses. Or people in Oregon and California face bigger fires every year. The trickle-down effect on these populations will reach further than damage from storms or fires.

It will take both scientists and citizens to resist the dark ages of misinformation. Scientists must take responsibility for how their work is presented to the public, from how they write up their findings to how their work is discussed long after publication. Citizens must seek the skills needed to distinguish fact from fiction in traditional and social media—and resist the temptation to share before validation. It’s a job for all of us, but a job that must be done to protect ourselves and others.

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