"We have to ask the deniers to start showing some evidence"

 Alexandre Lpez-Borrull

Photo: UOC

Joan Antoni Guerrero
Alexandre Lpez-Borrull, lecturer in the Information and Communication Sciences Department and author of Bulos cientficos: de la tierra plana al coronavirus


Bulos cientficos: de la tierra plana al coronavirus (Scientific Fake News: From Flat Earth to Coronavirus; Oberon, 2020) is the title of the book recently published by Alexandre Lpez-Borrull (Barcelona, 1974), a professor with the Faculty of Information and Communication Sciences at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) whose qualifications include a PhD in Chemistry and a bachelor's degree in Information Science. Lpez-Borrull takes a look at some of the major false scientific beliefs in history, while also examining the rumour-mongering and fake news generated by the coronavirus pandemic. The crisis caught the book's author unawares in the midst of producing his study. He believes that the pandemic is an opportunity for scientists to explain things more and better.

You had been working on the book for over a year when COVID-19 suddenly hit. Did it upset your plans much?

The initial idea was to cover issues that scientific communication and scientific journals had raised awareness of in social articles and that had then been shown to have been based on falsehoods as, from a scientific point of view, they ended up being refuted. When the coronavirus hit, we saw that it was worth adding a number of chapters in which we could discuss the principal fake news that had appeared in relation to the new virus, such as its origin and 5G. That allows us to go on to talk about another issue: the deniers. 

It's worth saying that one of the positive effects of the pandemic is this generation of interest in science.

Society looks to science for answers to the great uncertainties. Everything to do with explaining the science has become more important; society is more forewarned now. I think it's an opportunity for science to be at the heart of things when it comes to taking more reasoned decisions, both in terms of public management and everyday life. The fact that both the media and the public are discussing and talking about science is also an opportunity for scientists to come out and explain things more and better. That's why leading figures like Oriol Mitj, Antoni Trilla and Fernando Simn have emerged, as people follow and listen to them. It's good that society has leading figures who are scientists.

We have to be careful, though. In the book, you warn that what is taken to be true now can be refuted over time... From that point of view, is it fair to think of deniers as not being all there?

Science has mechanisms to evolve. If something ends up being true, it's because science will prove it. Deniers have to start showing some proof and evidence, and then we'll enter into discussion. But sometimes, what they do is give a very simple answer to a very complex situation. What we have to ask them is to provide some evidence that proves what they're claiming. I agree that no critic should be seen as a crank, but I do ask for groups that are critical to provide some evidence. If we're playing by scientific rules, we have to do it properly. 

But disagreeing with a scientist is practically impossible for anyone who doesn't have this knowledge. That's why people have to believe it, because they don't stand a chance...

This is a consequence of living in a technological society, which makes people end up trusting others because on their own not even the most specialized person can know everything. At some point, they will have to trust what someone else is saying. 

The book may help some readers discover things they thought to be true but that are in fact not true. Cold shock response after eating, for example...

In this case, what I do is put it in the context of the rumour and explain what is true and what's a lie. I was interested to see that there's an urban myth that spreads through cultural inertia, such as cold shock response. When you dig deeper, you see that cold shock response can happen at any time, not just after lunch. Even so, we allow ourselves to be led through inertia and find it hard to change our habits. This effect can perpetuate something that may be dangerous at any time. Some rumours are false, while others need some context. 

What are the common denominators of all these rumours and false information?

There are certain patterns that repeat themselves and make rumours go viral. There are some that are classic. But there are also other dynamics, such as people who don't trust official information. They're the ones who say the Moon landing was fake or that the Earth is flat. We're seeing that false information related to health can start up because there's a scientist who sees something differently, and they end up finding some celebrity to act as a spokesperson, and that's when the rumour does the rounds. They go viral on YouTube and Facebook. They're not new rumours, but the way they spread on social media is. We've had years to learn with social media, but everything is new and we're still learning to fight against all that.

What should we be doing in the light of this new situation? Are we ready for it?

People have to have a basis of scientific knowledge and make an effort. Also in terms of medial literacy, we need to be literate to recognize information sources, to be able to check and make sure they're reliable. Experts have been studying this phenomenon for a long time, and educationalists are slowly taking it on board. But we also need older people to learn to put the information they receive into quarantine before disseminating it. It's a question of digital skills in an information society. 

What aspect of the rumour-mongering about the coronavirus have you found most interesting?

The geopolitical aspect; for example, right now the vaccine is a new space race for the twenty-first century. The mix of geopolitics and science is important. Sometimes, depending on the country where you live, it's like sides have been created. Boris Johnson was caught unawares by the 5G issue when he had to decide whether Huawei would be the operator in the UK. Similar things go on with coronavirus, and they're exploited in the geopolitical space.

Another aspect you analyse in the book is the role played by politicians in spreading fake news. Trump has announced that all Americans will have access to the vaccine in a matter of months.

I like the way all sorts of companies have said that the vaccine doesn't care about elections and that they couldn't guarantee that there'd be one before the elections in the States, which has reduced Trump's expectations. If we mix public health and the needs of governments, there's a lot of political communication, a lot of emotional management, to the detriment of science. As we've seen, the language is different if the statements are made by the military, the politicians or the scientists. The discourse is contaminated by the political arena and can sully management of the crisis.

In Spain now, it's the scientists who are facing the public. The politicians have realized they had to take a step back...

A more technical figure puts people's minds at ease. A scientist who shows they know what they're doing offers greater peace of mind. That's not a weakness of the politician, but shows instead that you know how to surround yourself with the best team. It's good that scientists have stepped up to the plate and have this visibility.

Finally, do you think there needs to be legislation to stop fake news?

There has to be a joint approach by the state, social media and users' groups to understand everyone's rights and obligations. We need regulation that sets a threshold beyond which something ceases to be freedom of expression because it may cause panic, for example. We need to think about this; in Europe, this is happening. It's evident that a state's legal approach needs the platform to delete content actively instead of reactively. Everyone has their challenge and social media platforms are risking their future.