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Science and industry can make dangerous use of fake news and alternative facts, philosopher warns

People should beware of ‘fake news’ or ‘alternative facts’ from big corporations and “eccentric” scientists — not just politicians and the media — according to a philosopher specialising in the ethics of science.

Professor Kevin Elliott, who was giving a presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Boston, said the public should find out if someone had a “significant vested interest that could skew their judgement” when reading about the latest supposedly stunning breakthrough.

And he advised people to trust the opinion of a major scientific organisation, rather than read too much into a single piece of research.

Large companies, he said, were also prone to misleading people about their products.

“The Volkswagen scandal is a good contemporary example of this, along with more historical cases such as the tobacco industry’s research around cigarette smoking,” said Professor Elliott, of Michigan State University.

There was uproar after it was discovered that the German carmaker had installed software to enable vehicles to detect when their emissions were being tested. This meant that VW cars were emitting many times the levels of pollution than they were allowed to under regulations in the US and elsewhere.

This kind of deception is sometimes given a cover of respectability by enlisting the help of particular researchers and journals.

“When it comes to big tobacco, the industry developed a whole playbook of strategies to help manufacture doubt among consumers about the health implications of cigarette smoking,” Professor Elliott said.

“They gave grants to researchers who they thought were likely to obtain results that they liked and developed industry-friendly journals to disseminate their findings.”

He said that most people had a healthy scepticism about claims made by people they know.

“In everyday life, we recognise that we should think twice about trusting someone’s decision if they have a significant vested interest that could skew their judgement,” he said.

“When reading the latest scientific breakthrough, the same tactic should be applied.

“My number one piece of advice though would be to see what respected scientific societies like the US National Academy of Sciences or the British Royal Society have to say about a specific topic.

“These societies frequently create reports around the current state of science and by reviewing these reports, people can avoid being misled by individual scientists who might hold eccentric views.”

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