Information Literacy and Science Misinformation

Information Literacy and Science Misinformation

Joan C. Bartlett (McGill University, Canada)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2543-2.ch001

Abstract

Science and health misinformation is endemic; there can be profound consequences both for individuals and society when people make decisions based on such information. Information literacy skills provide one tool to help mitigate against misinformation. These skills include the recognition of a need for information, the ability to locate and retrieve information, and the ability to effectively use the information. Underpinning these processes are the concept of effectiveness and the ability to evaluate all steps of the process. These skills are essential if people are to be able to evaluate the sources of information, the process by which it was retrieved, and the biases inherent in its creation and dissemination. Thus, information literacy is one of tools that can be used to mitigate against misinformation.
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Introduction

We live in an era in which information is ubiquitous. It is everywhere, anytime, literally available at one’s fingertips with a swipe on a phone. Yet people are not necessarily well-informed. This is true in the areas of science and health, as in many other domains. Issues as wide-ranging as GMOs, nuclear energy, evolution and natural selection, antibiotic use, climate change, and vaccination are vulnerable to misinformation. These are issues around which there is considerable debate, for which there are strongly held beliefs against the scientific evidence, and which can have profound global impacts.

There are a myriad of factors which affect one’s understanding, or lack thereof, of science information and misinformation. Among these are an understanding of the scientific method, the different types of research evidence, the difference between hypothesis and theory, the weight of evidence required to support a scientific theory, that scientific understanding is dependent on the best available evidence, and that contrasting opinion and empirical evidence do not represent balance (e.g. Di Ventra, 2018; MacRitchie, 2018; Staddon, 2018; Swanson, 2015). For example, in colloquial use, the word “theory” tends to refer to a hypothesis, something speculative or yet to be tested; in scientific use, a theory is actually supported by a considerable weight of evidence, has predictive value, and has withstood serious attempts to disprove it (MacRitchie, 2018; Swanson, 2015). However, another issue affecting understanding of science is where people find information that forms the basis for their knowledge and understanding of scientific issues. This chapter is focused on the latter.

One issue is that the Internet in general, and social media applications in particular, make it easy for anyone to “publish”, thus bypassing the quality and reliability checks (e.g., peer review) that have historically existed around the publication of scientific findings. Opinion pieces, blogs and influencer postings are freely and easily available, while the published scientific literature is often hidden behind publisher paywalls, accessible only to those affiliated with universities and research institutes. This is often the case even for the results of publicly funded research. We also all subconsciously tend to seek information to confirm our knowledge or beliefs; this is compounded by the fact that current search engines preferentially display results that are consistent with previous browsing behavior. Thus, it becomes very easy to exist within a filter bubble of information that only includes information supporting a given perspective.

Misinformation is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (2019) as “wrong or misleading information”, while disinformation is “deliberately false information, esp. when supplied by a government or its agent to a foreign power or to the media, with the intention of influencing the policies or opinions of those who receive it,”; the main distinction between the two is the intent behind the information. Fake news is considered to be “news that conveys or incorporates false, fabricated, or deliberately misleading information, or that is characterized as or accused of doing so” (OED, 2019). The purpose of this chapter is to consider how information literacy skills can be one aspect of mitigating science and health misinformation, disinformation, and fake news (hereafter referred to collectively as “misinformation”). It will review the challenges to navigating the universe of scientific information and to recognizing misinformation. It will then discuss the evolution of definitions and frameworks of information literacy, as well as some examples of information literacy interventions to address misinformation.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Health Literacy: The ability to perform basic reading and numerical tasks required to function in the health care environment . . . to read, understand, and act on health care information.

Disinformation: Deliberately false information, esp. when supplied by a government or its agent to a foreign power or to the media, with the intention of influencing the policies or opinions of those who receive it.

Fake News: News that conveys or incorporates false, fabricated, or deliberately misleading information, or that is characterized as or accused of doing so.

Science Literacy: Includes elements such as the nature of science and scientific knowledge, scientific processes and methods, science concepts, principle and laws, and the ability to link scientific process to the universe around them.

Misinformation: Wrong or misleading information.

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