The Battle Against Misinformation—Project: Citizen Science

Do you have to be a scientist to understand global warming, cancer biology, and the way vaccines work? No, you don’t have to formally study science—but you do need to understand the science behind these topics. And if you want to separate the real facts from the “alternative,” science is your biggest and best asset. This is easier said than done when our Facebook pages are constantly saturated with misinformation , right? What resources can we trust to supply fair and balanced scientific facts in a time when that trust seems ill-advised?

Stephen Riffle, founder of Project: Citizen Science.

Stephen Riffle

Project: Citizen Science answers this call for trustworthy, accessible scientific information. The official mission statement describes the group as a multidisciplinary collaboration that aims to increase the public’s understanding of science—but founder Stephen Riffle prefers to describe the group in real-world terms. “To put it a little less formally, we want to use art and storytelling to bring science to the public,” he says. “We believe the majority of the public are bright and intelligent people. Science is riddled with jargon, however, which can really close it off to the public. We want to make it accessible and attractive so that hopefully, even if in a minor way, we can help spread an understanding of science.”

Riffle knows a thing or two about science—he is a scientist himself. While earning his Bachelor of Science in Pharmacology through UC’s Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology program, he researched the effects of chemotherapeutics on the cytoskeleton of tumor cells. Now as a fourth-year student in the Molecular & Developmental Biology Graduate Program, he studies how tumor cells behave and stay alive without oxygen. With all the time Riffle spends in the lab, you may think that the idea for Project: Citizen Science came to him there—but it turns out that a humble Facebook post was the real catalyst.

Riffle was browsing Facebook in the fall of 2016 when he came across a viral video. A police officer was testifying on behalf of an alternative-medicine doctor at a congressional hearing in the 1990s. In the video, the officer tells the gut-wrenching story of losing his own daughter to cancer, and says that this doctor should be allowed to practice. The problem, though, is that the doctor’s very expensive “miracle drug” has never been reported to be successful from any scientific organization, and has even been alleged to cause patient deaths.

“It’s a sad and compelling story that people were quick to share,” Riffle says. “But it’s far sadder knowing that the doctor being portrayed as the hero in this story is a predator of deeply depraved magnitude. There’s no good way to argue these points on Facebook, though. To do so is to be the angry scientist who is for some reason taking an adversarial stance against a guy who just lost his daughter. This dilemma is a symptom of a much bigger problem in society—scientists can suck at telling a good story . It was my hope that Project: Citizen Science could help mitigate this.”

Facebook is now the primary source of news for many people, and a lot of misinformation is shared through compelling stories that make it difficult to separate fact from fiction. Scrolling through your news feed, you can see articles stating that big pharma is hiding the cure to cancer, gluten is bad for everyone, scientists are still debating about the existence of global warming, and vaccines can cause autism. Articles can present these topics as facts without basing the information on any real scientific findings. This “clickbait” tends to play to our intuitions and fears, and is made easily accessible. But science can and should be accessible, too—we just need scientists who are readily available to explain it.

“In its most nascent form, science is the art of questioning and seeking answers,” Riffle says. “Therefore we want to allow people to question science. It’s okay to ask for the evidence behind evolution or global warming. We can’t all be experts, so to some extent it is good to have faith in others. I want people to have faith in scientific experts. But for them to have faith, I believe we need to reduce the amount of stuff we ask them to ‘just trust us’ on. If we can make information available to the public, then they can see the evidence for themselves and form their own opinion.”

To do this, Project: Citizen Science is starting with the internet—group members are producing scientific blogs that convey concepts and findings in general terminology, building Wikipedia pages and designing videos streamlined for social media. But the mission also extends beyond computer screens. They plan to host science-themed trivia nights at local bars, set up communication workshops where students can learn how to be creative and effective when talking to the public about science, and organizing events.

Last April, the group held their biggest and most noteworthy event to date: Joys of Critical Science Communication. Dr. Christopher Labos and Jonathan Jarry, hosts of the Body of Evidence podcast, flew in from Canada to present on how to identify pseudoscience, how pseudoscience begins, and what people in the scientific community and beyond can do to stop it from happening. The presentation was followed by a panel discussion featuring UC environmental health professor Dr. Erin Haynes, Chris Anderson from Science Over Everything, and a local attorney specializing in communicating the science behind brain trauma to courtrooms.

As Project: Citizen Science gains momentum, they hope to organize more events and workshops, establish an outreach group to put on scientific events at local schools, and build an interactive blog that allows readers to flip between scientific and general language.

In the meantime, how can you join in on the battle against misinformation? “Get out there and try to explain your research to people!” Stephen says. “Find out what works and what doesn’t work. A great way to do this would be to join Project: Citizen Science. We can help you learn and find opportunities to get some practice. Even if you don’t work in science and still want to get involved, we really need you! Scientists aren’t trained in storytelling, graphic design or public communication. Join up with a scientist and work with them to help communicate their topic.” 

Written by Dakota Wright, Graduate Assistant to the Graduate School Office