Misinformation about outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics is a decades-old problem that has been exacerbated by the rise of the internet and the widespread use of social media. Some false claims may be addressed through sound scientific analysis, suggesting that scientists can help counter misinformation by providing evidence-based, scientifically defensible information that may discredit or refute these claims.
This how-to guide provides practical steps that scientists can take to assess mis- or disinformation, determine whether and how they should address it, and effectively communicate the corrective information they develop.
is defined as the unintentional spread of false or misleading information that is shared by mistake or under the presumption of truth.
is defined as false, misleading, distorted or isolated factual information that is spread deliberately with the intention to cause harm or damage.
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A critical aspect of identifying and addressing inaccurate and misleading scientific information is determining whether a particular claim needs to be addressed, and indeed could be addressed without inadvertently amplifying and propagating mis- or disinformation.
Whether claims are associated with particular scientists’ work or institutions, or refer to particular events such as outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases or other biothreats, the initial set of questions to determine if a claim should be addressed is the same.
Could the claim cause significant harm or damage to public health, national security or other social systems, either directly or indirectly through influencing individual behaviors?
Can scientific knowledge or analysis counter a particular claim?
Does scientific knowledge or data exist to provide accurate and defensible scientific information to counter a particular claim?
Could addressing a particular claim amplify it, resulting in greater, rather than reduced harm?
Address the Claim, if the following are all true
If one or more of the above statements isn’t true, judgement will have to be used to determine whether or not to address the claim. The flowchart below provides additional guidance.
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In consultation with your institution, communications networks, and other experts, you can work through the framework above to determine whether to address the claim. Although the consequences you identify may not be at the community, national, or international levels, they may be still be significant, particularly if they present a specific danger to you, your family, or your organization. This chart provides examples of situations that have occurred, the actions taken by the scientists, and the results of those actions.
Although some scientific inaccuracies may be addressed by experts from a single field or discipline, more likely, you will need to identify scientists from other disciplines—referred to as ‘domain experts’—who have the knowledge and expertise to address certain aspects of the inaccuracies being circulated. The relevant domain experts will not only be able to help correct inaccuracies, hype, and misleading scientific information, but also will help to develop messages for communicating the correct information and its associated uncertainties.
What scientific information is needed to address misinformation claims?
What life, social, and computer science skills and expertise are needed to address scientific inaccuracies and counter associated misinformation claims?
Do the domain experts within your trusted scientific network have the appropriate skills and expertise to address the inaccurate information?
What domain expertise exists outside of your network but is needed to address the inaccurate information?
Do the identified experts have strong scientific credentials (e.g., publication record, scientific expertise, reputation, scientific excellence awards, and leadership positions)?
Are scientists from all relevant disciplines and sectors been involved in your collaborative team for addressing the inaccurate information?
Once you have identified the appropriate expertise, the next step is to work with your team to define your approach for addressing scientific inaccuracies.
What is the source of the inaccurate and misleading information or resulting misinformation claim?
What is the credibility of the source of the inaccurate and misleading information or resulting misinformation claim?
What is the reach of that source?
Has the inaccurate and misleading claim been referenced in other sources?
Has the claim been repeated elsewhere?
What scientific inaccuracies and associated claims already are being addressed? What still needs to be addressed?
What approach will you use to correct scientific inaccuracies?
What resources are needed to correct scientific inaccuracies or build the scientific foundation to counter particular misinformation claims?
Communicating the correct information accurately and effectively is just as important as producing accurate, defensible information. Institutions often have communications and public affairs offices to support scientists’ efforts in reaching audiences beyond the scientific community, especially policy-makers, journalists, and lay and religious leaders in the broader public. If your institution or network has this type of office, you should work with it to determine how to communicate corrective information. Regardless, training in science communication and public engagement and/or collaboration with professional science communicators will help to ensure that the corrective message has the intended effect.
Who are the primary and secondary audiences?
Have you been working with a science communication expert on your team?
Is your approach to communication based on mental models? (Knowledge deficit models have been shown to be ineffective at communicating science to various audiences.)
What are your communication goals?
What uncertainty is associated with the correct information? How is uncertainty described for information for which little or no scientific consensus exists? How has uncertainty been captured in the corrective message?
When developing your message, avoid jargon. Effective science communication stays away from jargon or unfamiliar words and uses terms that make sense to a broader audience. If scientific terminology must be used, explain it in more commonly understood terms.
When creating your message, use framing messages to connect scientific information to cognitive schemas that matter to your target audience.
When developing corrective messages, use charts, graphs, images, and other visuals to avoid jargon and make an audience comfortable with a topic.
When developing messages for non-technical audiences, highlight the correct information rather than the misinformation.
When developing the message, discuss the broader contextual impact of the misinformation claim and corrective message, which may help audiences understand why addressing the claim is important even if they may not understand the scientific processes behind the counter-argument.
This interactive guide is based on the work of an expert committee convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The committee was tasked with evaluating how to engage scientists in Southeast Asia in working collaboratively across scientific disciplines and sectors to identify and address inaccuracies that could fuel mis- and disinformation. Although this study focused on a scientific network primarily in Southeast Asia, scientists in other parts of the world may find that much of the study and guide are relevant to their own situations and contexts. The committee developed two primary consensus products: a report, Addressing Inaccurate and Misleading Information about Biological Threats through Scientific Collaboration and Communication in Southeast Asia; and a how-to guide for scientists on which this website is based.