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Fighting Fake News with Art + Science

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

In the United States, adults spend more than 11 hours a day consuming media in some form. On the Internet alone there are over 1.8 billion websites with an average of 571 new ones created every minute. The continuous expansion of global information brings with it a perfusion of misinformation, propaganda and fake news. With roughly two-thirds of our waking time spent absorbing content, it has become vital that we become able to distinguish between factual information and fake news. Unfortunately, this is not something that we are very good at doing.

Humans are inclined to accept information based on emotionally held beliefs. This puts us at risk for accepting disinformation and pseudoscience where unscrupulous actors with ulterior political motives are able to pervert scientific outcomes. The difficulty in discerning between empirically based information and bogus content has led the public to question even essential scientific knowledge. The polarized and fragmented political nature of society further threatens evidence-based conclusions.

If we break this problem down we find that people do trust “science” overall, but it is the idea of science in which they have confidence. Trusting “scientists” as a whole is one thing; but trusting specific findings related to a particular issue, such as vaccine safety, evolution, or climate change, is another matter altogether.

Partisan beliefs and the increasing difficulty of knowing what is real and what has been fabricated means that scientific findings are at risk if they clash with a person or group’s economic or political agenda. We are particularly bad at determining the quality and truthfulness of a message when the issue is personally important. If disinformation fits our already established worldview, we tend to believe it. This cognitive bias has little to do with level of intelligence. The more we care about an issue the more likely we are to accept it, even when the message is completely false.

Additionally, citizens do not tend to understand the scientific process or how this process shapes the findings produced by science. Research shows that one in three Americans (36%) misunderstand the concept of probability; half of the population (49%) is unable to provide a correct description of a scientific experiment; and three in four (77%) are unable to describe the idea of a scientific study. Without this understanding, it is difficult to differentiate a sound scientific study from a poorly conducted one.

In short, no matter how clearly information is presented or how carefully and convincingly it might be framed, scientists can expect to encounter misunderstanding and misinformation that threatens to undermine the ability of otherwise open-minded people to accept the results. Further, when beliefs are very strongly entrenched, the presentation of corrective, factual information often doesn’t do very much and may even backfire, entrenching false views further. Social media presents a further complication. Social media is rife with information that is skewed, filtered and targeted making it easy for nefarious actors to exploit. Fake news is particular present around elections and political issues, and is spreading to an ever-increasing number of areas such as health, the environment, public security and immigration, where scientific knowledge is undoubtedly a direct target.

Multidisciplinary, systemic approaches are needed that can address the problem of misinformation and reach audiences that are often underserved by traditional channels for science communication. Art and science collaborations offer an accessible bridge for disseminating scientific information and helping people develop the capacity and inclination to discern veracity in daily encounters.

Both art and science are fundamental to our lives. They help us interpret and explore our world with keen curiosity and creativity. Collaborative opportunities between art and science are a pathway forward. By co- creating installations, multidisciplinary artists and scientists open up new contexts for the public to receive information via novel and compelling experiences. When evidence-based information is provided in an engaging way people can connect to persuasive stories, able to broaden perspectives and cultivate knowledge, less defensively.

Art + Science exhibitions can be a catalyst for social and political change, uniquely positioned to provide tools and platforms for presenting factual understandings of complex social issues in powerful ways that challenge misinformation. Immersive installations with evidence-based narratives can entertain, empower and educate the public all at once. The intersection of art and science provides opportunities to conceive new ways of knowing, thinking, creating and connecting. Linking evidence-based knowledge with immersive art installations can educate and mobilize people around salient issues leading to changes in attitudes, behavior, culture and policy.

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