The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Math appointed Nadine Barrett, assistant professor in the department of family medicine and community health, and Brian Southwell, adjunct professor in the department of medicine, to the Committee on Understanding and Addressing Misinformation about Science this past December.
The 14-member committee is responsible for monitoring the scope of science misinformation and brainstorming ethical intervention methods to limit its spread. At the end of an 18-month term, the committee will release a final report detailing the impact of science misinformation and laying a framework for future directions.
Southwell and Barrett also recently co-authored a paper that explores how misinformation affects decision-making and health outcomes. In it, the pair recommend opportunities where intervention with an eye towards misinformation may reduce health disparities.
For nearly a decade, Southwell has thought about misinformation, which he describes as a “complicated factor.” He joined the committee to help people dissect the rising prevalence of misinformation in everyday life.
“It’s most respectful to people in audiences to acknowledge the wide information environment and all that’s out there,” Southwell said. “I think part of the role that we could play is not just tell people what to do, but to help them navigate this complicated information environment.”
He described the ability for social media to spread misinformation, combined with how quickly people can share misinformation online, as “problematic.” Our open media environment with minimal censorship exacerbates this issue, according to Southwell.
“There's a beauty to having an open information environment, which I think is important … in a democratic society,” he said. “The challenge with that then is that people are likely going to run into misinformation … There aren’t necessarily people approving what gets posted on the internet.”
Southwell has an extensive background in misinformation communication that he hopes to bring to his new appointment. He currently serves as the senior director of the science in the Public Sphere Program in the Center for Communication Science at RTI International, a nonprofit research institute. Southwell has worked with the USDA to observe how people react to inaccurate claims, as well as authoring a book titled “Misinformation in Mass Audiences” in 2018. He also hosts a public radio show called “The Measure of Everyday Life” which focuses on social science research.
Barrett is the founding director of the Duke Clinical and Translational Science Institute Center for Equity in Research. She is a “health disparities researcher, expert equity strategist and nationally recognized leader in facilitating community and academic partnerships to advance health equity,” per a release. Barrett also works to address implicit bias and systemic racism that limits access to quality health care.
The Chronicle reached out to Barrett for an interview but she was out of office.
With a background in social psychology, Southwell suggests that people aren’t drawn to misinformation because it is false, but rather because it appears useful to them. He advises Duke students to “slow down and breathe” when coming across potential misinformation.
“When we encounter something online … that seems too good to be true, pause for a moment. It’s amazing what just a little bit of triangulation, a little bit of searching, can do,” Southwell said.
Southwell also encourages students to practice patience and empathy.
“In your own social networks … you might have people who are espousing ridiculous or misleading ideas,” he said. “I don't think you should necessarily have patience in the sense of accepting what they're saying, but realizing that they're human beings too, and that they maybe have good reasons for why they believe something.”
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Andrew Bae is a Trinity sophomore and an associate news editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.