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CBC's Bob McDonald offers tips on spotting fake science news

Universities are often reliable sources. Institutes, not so reliable, says host of CBC Radio's Quirks and Quarks

Can non-scientists tell whether a science news item is credible or fake?

Bob McDonald, host of CBC Radio's Quirks and Quarks for a quarter century and a regular contributor CBC TV’s The National, was at Algoma University Monday to kick off its new four-year Honours Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science program.

Holder of eight honorary doctorates from Canadian universities, the popular broadcaster and author took time with SooToday to address the issue of fake scientific news.

"I'm concerned about that, about this whole idea," he said. "It's so easy for anybody to have an opinion and put out their agenda, whether it's a corporate agenda or a religious agenda or a political agenda, and make it look like science."

"That's why I think there's now a challenge before the scientific community to speak up about that, and have a forum to speak convincingly to the public."

McDonald told us there are ways to separate the wheat from the chaff in science reporting.

"One is to check the source and see what it is. If it's a so-and-so institute, anybody can start an institute and put themselves in it as the president and even give themselves a degree. Do a little search on what that institute is. If it's coming from a university, you can be pretty sure it's going to be good."

"Another flag, to me, is when you see a statement that says: 'well, I believe.' Or 'we believe.' Belief is not how science works."

"Science is based on evidence that builds towards facts and maybe will get to dogma. But that's a long way to go. And it's open-ended. So you don't say we believe this. You say this is what we know so far. That's the scientific method. If somebody says they have all the answers, or if they say something like 'God did it,' that's belief."

"Anyone is entitled to their belief, but it's not science. Science doesn't ask the question why. Science asks the question how. It's purely mechanical. How do things work? We don't know a whole lot about the universe. It's an ongoing process. So if it's from some obscure institute and it's somebody with an opinion, that's not necessarily science."

The climate-deniers

"The problem with a lot of these fake news [sites] is they're very good at it," McDonald says.

He cites climate-deniers as examples.

"They were well funded. They were well spoken. And they were very good at manipulating information to make it look like there was doubt in the scientific community. There's always uncertainty in science, but they would capitalize on that and confuse the public."

"Their only purpose was not to make people say climate change isn't real, it was to delay the process. They made it look like there was a debate in science. There isn't. There's a scientific community that has no debate about climate science, then these opinion people on the other side who are not necessarily qualified, saying we don't agree with that. 'I've got a Ph.D over here who doesn't agree.' It was manipulation of the public mind, putting doubt in the public mind."

"It was like the O.J. Simpson trial. What got him off? Reasonable doubt. It wasn't whether he did it. That was no longer the issue. It was reasonable doubt."

"So the climate deniers took advantage of that. They placed doubt in the public mind, They were selective about the data that they used. And they used name-calling. They tried to use scandal: 'these people are all crazy scientists.' That was effective."

"And the scientific community didn't respond to that.... Scientists aren't in that business. They're not marketers. So maybe we need a little more marketing of science."

Do we need a Snopes to debunk dubious science news?

"Maybe we do. I don't know. On our show, we let the science itself stand. We don't editorialise. We just let it stand on its own."

Donald John Trump, 45th president of the United States

What grade does McDonald give the new U.S. president on science issues?

"Maybe a D at this point? Mostly on environmental science. But give it time, that's just the president. He can only say this is what I want, but it still has to go through Congress and the Senate. So we'll see whether common sense prevails down at those levels before this stuff actually becomes law."

"Right at the moment we have a showman as president of the United States who is manipulating the media with his tweets. He can say anything and everybody goes crazy about it. That's not politics. He's not behaving like a politician. He's behaving like a dictator. I'm hoping that the system in place will make common sense and a true democracy proceed."

"They haven't been very good to environmental science. They have a person, Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who sued the Environmental Protection Agency 14 times over regulations that were against pollution, mostly against the fossil-fuel industry. He's from Oklahoma. So now he's the head of it. The new budget has already put cuts there. Scott Pruitt was asked directly: do you believe carbon is responsible for global warning? He said no, he doesn't. This guy's the head of the Environmental Protection Agency? What's going on there?"

"Just recently in the NASA budget, they cut the education department and they cut a number of upcoming satellite missions that were looking at the planet, looking at atmosphere of the Earth. They've been cut."

"So there's blinding that's going on right now. There's a closing of the mind. This idea of building a wall, it's the closing of the American mind that really bothers me when we have a globalisation happening. Environment is a global problem. If you have that kind of blinkers on, not wanting to look at the problem, and just get on with business as usual, make America great again which is an industrial giant, then that's dangerous. I'm concerned about that."

McDonald still sees a potential silver lining, for places like Algoma U with its new environmental science program.

"I think this is an opportunity for Canada. We can import some American scientists who are no longer either employed or happy with their situation. We're in a position now to export our brain power that we have here to come up with some innovative solutions to climate change. Not only do environmental science here, which we're really good at, but do the research on alternative technologies and alternative energy. Forget what the Americans are doing. Why don't we lead the world in that? We've got the brain power here to do that."


David Helwig

About the Author: David Helwig

David Helwig's journalism career spans seven decades beginning in the 1960s. His work has been recognized with national and international awards.
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