Fake news is in the news these days. It’s a problem because of the gullibility and credulousness of so many people. There are those who trust any source that gives the appearance of authority. And there is the ever-present problem of people believing anything that seems to confirm their biases, either supporting what they believe, or criticizing what they dislike. This is pretty bad but normally it wouldn’t be much of a problem. Just another case of liars taking advantage of fools. But this time around it is out there in such volume, and is said to have so much influence, that people are rightfully beginning to worry.
But that’s just the news. At worst, we might have to put up with foreign countries or malevolent corporations affecting democratic elections. Oh, and the disenfranchisement of voting citizens. And I guess the serious erosion of trust in democratic institutions and processes. But that’s just politics, right? There’s always been lying and cheating there. No, the really worrisome fakery is taking place in science. Just as there is an increase in fake news, so there is an increase in fake science.
We’re used to corporations and their loyal politicians invoking false or purchased science to protect their profits and privileges. From tobacco to fossil fuels, we’ve been repeatedly reassured that no one has proven that they’re harmful. So maybe people die, or the environment suffers, but that’s just business as usual. We’re used to it. There’s never been a question about the integrity of the scientific community. Just a few individuals who weren’t seriously troubled by their consciences. But now things have changed. Now people can pay to publish their fake science right in the scientific journals. Those organs which were once the barrier to false and frivolous claims. Which set the bar of credibility for those claims, and whose stringent rules of review ensured that most of what they published was worthy of our attention.
Still, everyone knew who the pay-to-publish journals were. It was easy to keep track of them and to treat their content with greater scepticism. And they were actually a good outlet for honest scientists who couldn’t make the cut at the traditional journals, if only because they don’t have enough space for everything. But lately it’s worse. Lately profits have overtaken the dissemination of knowledge as the motive for publication, and some of these journals have begun to publish everything in the quest for revenue. Now anyone with an axe to grind can publish “scientific” papers as proof. Smoking is good for you? Pollution is good for the environment? Creationism is science? Of course. It says so right in this paper published by this prestigious journal.
Okay, so maybe there are a few crooked publishers out there. Surely the legitimate ones will balance them out. Right? Don’t count on it. In Canada, two publishers of prominent and respected medical journals have recently been bought out by a fake-science-for-cash publisher. Oh, they’ve insisted that they will maintain high standards, but they’ve been caught out by a test paper submitted by the Ottawa Citizen. They presented a paper that made no sense, was highly plagiarized, and, to put it simply, was awful. It passed the fake journal’s supposed peer review and got published. I wonder if that review consisted of sending an invoice.
It’s hard to know if the paper you’re reading is genuine science or not. It’s hard to keep track of which journals are still honest. And this doesn’t just affect the readers of the journals. It’s also a problem for honest scientists who want to submit their work.
Fake news is a problem, my earlier facetiousness aside, but fake science is at least as much of a problem. We need to deal with both of them.