Return to site

Fight the False

One of my least favorite parts about being a scientist is the pressure to publish. If you do not publish enough then you can lose your funding or your job. This kind of pressure has broken plenty of men and women who started out just wanting to do good research. It led them to falsify data or make misleading claims just to get something that would get published.

Unfortunately, plenty of these falsified studies make it into prestigious journals all around the world. Fortunately, we have people like Elisabeth Bik who devote themselves to finding these frauds. In 2018 she published a study of 20,000 research papers and showed that 2% of all papers were worth retracting over image falsification, just one form of falsified data. As computer software gets better, these fraudulent images get better too, but luckily, we have brilliant machine-learning scientists combatting them too.

With your untrained eye, can you spot the problem with these photos?

broken image

You don’t need machine learning for this one. These scientists were lazy and just went zoom Zoom ZOOM. It’s only a little ironic that the order of zooming spells out “BAD”.

broken image

The average reader, even if they’re a genius scientist, doesn’t often catch these fakes; we're not looking for them. The fraudulent papers then continue to circulate, and it begins to distort our views of that area of science and can screw up the research of others for years. One of the most prominent examples of this was from a research study in 1998.

At that time, Andrew Wakefield and 12 co-authors published a study where they claimed the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine could predispose children to developmental disorders. This study only had a sample size of TWELVE, had a very uncontrolled environment, and their conclusions were very speculative, but all of that was overlooked because the paper received wide publicity. Very quickly, their poorly done study caused parents to freak out and refrain from vaccinating their children for fear of the risk of autism.

In an almost immediate response, other studies were conducted and published, refuting this supposed link between MMR vaccination and autism. 10 of the 12 co-authors quickly retracted their findings saying “no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient”. The publishing journal also later disclosed that the original authors had financial interests that they failed to disclose. Even with all of that obvious evidence, the journal waited until 2010 to publish an official retraction. That is TWELVE YEARS for that false information to keep circulating around. This is why over 10 years after the retraction there are still so many people that think there is some sort of connection between the vaccines and autism, all because of one fraudulent study. Rooting out this misinformation earlier could have saved us so much trouble down the line.

This horrible spreading of misinformation is sadly not isolated to the world of science. This past year has shown us how easy it is for misinformation to get passed around in our social circles. Misinformation even gets circulated in our churches, and it’s nothing new. Today is the feast day of St. Ephrem (Ephraim), someone who knew all about misinformation in the church.

broken image

St. Ephrem grew up under the mentorship of the local bishop, leading to a life of teaching in the church. In his fifties, he settled in Edessa, a city rife with many different philosophies and religions all calling themselves the “true Christian church”. St. Ephrem spent the next decade writing hymns defending the true teachings. He knew the importance of protecting the truth, stopping the misinformation.

All of the Saints are role models in their own way, but St. Ephrem seems a particularly relatable one these days. Misinformation creeps into every little part of our communities, sowing doubt. It is imperative that we know the truth of our faith. We can’t all be doctors of the church, but it’s important to always be learning more. The more that you know, the better equipped you are to defend the truth.

Find what works for you. If you like to read, what types of things do you like to read? Do you enjoy dense theological documents? Then read through different encyclicals. If you like something a little lighter, read through some of the Pope’s homilies. (When he only has a couple of minutes to cover a topic, he can’t go too deep) Many of them have been transcribed into books. If you want something a little more classical, you can always read some older works written by church fathers, or like St. Ephrem, doctors of the church.

If you’re not into reading, or you don’t have the time, many of these books have been made into audiobooks that are great for listening to when you drive or while doing mindless tasks. If that’s still a little too dry for you, you can always listen to podcasts. There are a lot of good Catholic podcasts out there, but “Catholic Stuff You Should Know” is one that actually talks about specific Church teachings. They’ve been doing this for a long time and do a great job of speaking on specific teachings, especially ones that are misconstrued or hotly debated.

Whatever method you prefer, I encourage you to learn. Learn as much as you can. It is impossible to fight the overwhelming deluge of misinformation if you don’t know the truth. If we don’t work to fight against it, we are complicit in the spread of this false information. We are allowing it to happen and hurt our church. We must take this responsibility seriously. It is important.