From scientific evidence to information warfare

Do facts and scientific evidence matter in policymaking?  For those of us with a strong belief in the scientific process, the answer seems like it should self-evidently be ‘yes’. But the situation is not always so clear — there are many areas where the science is or has been contested — smoking, dioxins, MMR vaccines, and climate change to name but a few.  In some cases, vested interests have sought to obscure or mislead in the hopes of delaying regulatory action.

These examples lead to difficult questions, for example, when should we limit the dissemination of incorrect or even dangerously misleading information?  Much as freedom of speech does not extend to crying ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre, Big Tech has begun to try to limit the dangers posed by misinformation. Some have decried these efforts censorship whereas others claim the actions are too little or late.  In the current crisis, social media giants have begun flagging or even censoring information that might undermine public health guidance.  For example, Twitter seeks to address content that goes directly against guidance on COVID-19 from authoritative sources of global and local public health information

Individual researchers have also sought to combat disinformation. One arrow in the quiver is better risk communication.  For example, this week Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter launched the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication‘s new website RealRisk, which is designed to better convey risk information.

Other Cambridge faculty are also busy seeking both to combat and measure such disinformation efforts. Dr Sander vander Linden in the Department of Psychology and colleagues recently released the Debunking Handbook.  In 2017, he helped create the Bad News game designed to ‘pre-bunk’ misinformation to help ‘innoculate’ against fake news, More recently, he and colleagues produced the Go VIral game designed to combat.misinformation on COVID-19 that can pose a threat to public health.

What about the purveyors of false facts? Some  ‘misinformation’ is put out by deluded fantasists and conspiracy theorists who, for example, believe in the link between COVID-19 and 5G phone masts or bizarre QAnon theories.  But in other cases, disinformation is now recognised as a potentially useful weapon.  The US State Department commissioned a report on Foreign State-Sponsored Disinformation in the Digital Age although it is noteworthy for only briefly touching on the 2016 election and on US-sponsored disinformation, Just today, The Times ran a story claiming the Russian Government was seeking to create disinformation to undermine the Oxford-led vaccine.

  1. Thinking of your own country or sector, how well do you think scientific evidence is reflected in policy making?
  2. How convinced are you by the threat posed by misinformation or disinformation?  Is the situation particularly bad in 2020 (or at least since the advent of the internet) or is the problem a perennial one that simply adopts different guises?
  3. What mechanisms do individuals, firms or states have in combatting misinformation? Which approaches do you think are most effective in combatting misinformation or disinformation?  Please try out some of the ‘games’ — how useful do you think these will be in combatting intended or unintended misinformation campaigns?