Battling clickbait science

I was sorely tempted to headline this post “Alien megastructures discovered in Ballard,” but that would have meant sinking low into the sort of clickbait science that concerns Dr. James Davenport. Davenport, a research scientist at the University of Washington, gave a talk about the topic at the most recent gathering of Astronomy on Tap Seattle.

Davenport described himself as a big fan of science, and noted that to be such one needs to be OK with failure.

Dr. James Davenport. UW photo.

“Being wrong is just nature telling you, no, try again. Come up with a better idea, a better explanation for how the universe is working,” Davenport said. “If you love science, you have to love the struggle and you have to love truth.”

Davenport believes that it’s important to communicate about science, but often that leads to misconceptions or outright lies. Sometimes the misinformation is silly stuff, like trying to pump up the hype about a lunar eclipse by calling it the super blood wolf coyote Moon. Sometimes it’s just wrong. An example is what now seems like the annual return of social media posts announcing that Mars is going to appear as large as a full Moon in the night sky. This particular hoax may date back to 2003, when Mars actually was closer to Earth than it had been in some 60 thousand years. The falsehood was based on a nugget of truth, and Mars was an especially good target for astronomers that summer, but if you looked up it was still just a bright red dot in the sky. When someone doesn’t see that giant Mars they might conclude that science is stupid.

“Little by little we chip away at your interest, your excitement, your enthusiasm, your belief, and your trust in science as an institution,” Davenport lamented.

Outrageous headlines

You’ve probably read many stories for which you found that the headline had little to do with the actual content. The purpose of the headline is to make you look. Davenport noted this phenomenon related to media coverage of Boyajian’s star, which brightens and dims in odd and unexpected ways. Scientists kicked around a lot of possible explanations for this observation. Maybe it’s a weird dust cloud or passing comets or debris from an asteroid collision. Someone even suggested a Dyson sphere or some other sort of “alien megastructure.” This grabbed the attention of the headline writers, and articles in Scientific American, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, Discover magazine, and others featured headlines about the possible discovery of alien megastructures, though the articles essentially said, “probably not.”

“There’s real science here but oh, golly, we need to be careful about reporting it,” Davenport said. “We have an obligation as scientists to be really careful and I worry that we’re not.” The truth about Boyajian’s star has yet to be figured out.

Where’s the rigor?

Another challenge for science communication is that there are some sites out there that are not exactly rigorous. For example, Davenport shared the following tweet from a site called Physics and Astronomy Zone.

You probably know that Pluto has not been reinstated. The tweet links to an old article—from April Fool’s Day. Also attached to that article are a slew of links to “stories” about the gifts men really want, amazing rebates for seniors, alien DNA in marijuana, and lots of other nonsense. It’s pure clickbait.

“This is a machine to get you to click on things, to get your eyeballs on things, to get you to engage with things so they make a few pennies,” Davenport said. “They do that a million times a day.”

There’s a lot of churn there. @zonephysics has more than 900 thousand Twitter followers.

“This is a huge impact for nonsense,” Davenport said. “Where is the celebration of truth?”

Few legitimate scientists have nearly so many Twitter followers. Neil deGrasse Tyson has more than 13 million, and Bad Astronomer Phil Plait has more than 615 thousand. As of this writing Davenport has 2,917. Seattle Astronomy has 2,135.

What to do

Davenport figures there are three things we can do to battle against the spread of pseudo-science and downright rubbish:

  1. Communicate about science; don’t leave it to pseudoscientists spread misinformation
  2. Share and intervene. Point out bunk when you see it.
  3. Get the help of technology and tech companies to figure out how to weed out bad sources and find a way to remove the incentive for clickbait.

“We need other solutions besides just eyeball time equals dollars equals the only thing that matters on the Internet,” Davenport said. “We need tools that help us optimize for things beside just eyeball time. We need tools that help us figure out what’s the most efficient way to get knowledge across. What’s the most efficient way to help us identify bad actors who are spreading misinformation and intervening when people are trying to share that content.”

There’s some heavy lifting ahead.

“We need to do science outreach. We need help from everyone to spread truth and identify falsehoods. And we need the help of technology,” Davenport concluded. See below to watch his entire talk!

Astronomy on Tap Seattle is organized by graduate students in astronomy at the University of Washington. They’re taking a break in December and their next event will be held January 22, 2020.

###

Please support Seattle Astronomy with a subscription through Patreon.