Fake news under the spotlight

Health and science communication experts will gather in Stellenbosch at the International Summit on Quackery and Pseudoscience, to explore how science communication efforts by the media, scientists, health regulators and governments can counter the impact of pseudoscience and advance the use of evidence-based healthcare practices.

The summit will be held on Monday November 20 and Tuesday November 21, at Stellenbosch University (SU). It will be jointly hosted by the Centre for Evidence-based Health Care (CEBHC) of the SU Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS), and the Centre for Science and Technology Mass Communication (CENSCOM) of the postgraduate Department of Journalism at SU.

“Snake oil salesmen, charlatans and con-artists have long been known to prey on vulnerable people with health problems.

“People desperate for cure or relief from a dreaded disease, weight problem or the effects of ageing are easy targets, often willing to fork out large sums of money on any remedy offering some hope. The sad reality is that these treatments frequently turn out to be useless or even harmful,” says Professor Jimmy Volmink, FMHS dean.

“The summit is an effort to push back against these exploitative practices whose pernicious impact is being amplified through the Internet and social media.

“It will not only highlight the threat of pseudoscience to the well-being of society, but will also offer effective tools to help people assess healthcare claims and make sound choices,” he adds.

“This summit will bring researchers and journalists together to emphasise the joint responsibility for ethical and evidence-informed health reporting to better serve the interests of the public,” says CEBHC director, Professor Taryn Young.

“The media play a crucial role in communicating health research and other messages to the public. They can influence people’s perceptions about the safety and efficacy of health practices, and when the media relay pseudoscientific and unreliable messages, it can be harmful to people’s health,” Professor Young emphasises.

“Our vulnerability to step in the trap prepared by reckless and unscrupulous marketers of quasi-scientific health products knows no bounds,” says CENSCOM director, Professor George Claassen.

“This is enhanced by celebrities in the spread of disinformation of fake science, which often has a devastating influence on the wellbeing of the public.”

He points out that newspapers, the internet, social media and broadcast channels bristle with dubious statements by so-called quacks who make money because their victims are often ignorant or simply too naïve to distinguish truth from lies.

“We hope that the summit will lead to a much-needed change, enlightening the public and all the role players in the science communication process about the dangers of quackery.

“To quote the eminent South African-born UK developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert: ‘Science provides by far the most reliable method for determining whether one’s beliefs are valid’; the summit aims to re-emphasise the value of sound science communication and evidence-based healthcare,” says Professor Claassen.

In 1995, he developed and established the first science communication course in Africa at SU’s Department of Journalism.

He elaborates about the reasons for organising the summit. “Ignorant, uninformed or merely poorly informed people often make decisions that are harmful to their health, their interpersonal relationships, their financial affairs and how they should spend their money, and what the future holds in store for them.

“Unfortunately, this often takes place through dubious information and pseudo-knowledge, obtained from quacks, tricksters and swindlers who too regularly have a free pass in the media to propound their unscientific claims as if it were the truth.

“It is as if a ‘post-truth’ has fully dawned in the field of healthcare, with anyone’s claims to truth being accepted, the most recent iniquitous examples the anti-vaccination campaign, or faith-healers telling HIV-positive people to throw away their medicine.”

According to Professor Claassen, the summit hopes to create an awareness among the public how to recognise fake news, not based on any trace of evidence and distributed by charlatans and scam artists to sell their “health” products.

The summit will host scientists from the fields of communication, medicine, healthcare and the law, as well as other areas over which quackery and pseudoscience cast its shadow of ignorance and misleading claims.

Participants include author Simon Singh (via Skype), the UK’s Good Thinking Foundation’s project director, Michael Marshall; Jacques Rousseau, co-author of Critical Thinking and Pseudoscience – Why We Can’t Trust Our Brains; Tom Zeller, award-winning journalist, formerly of The New York Times and now executive editor of the digital science magazine Undark at the Knight Science Journalism programme of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Email gnclaassen@sun.ac.za, or call 021 851 3232 or 083 543 2471 for more information.