Funny Science May Be the Solution for Fake News

June 22, 2021
Hello SciCom Team

A recent article titled “Emotion and Humor as misinformation antidotes” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). This research review compiles findings from a bunch of super cool studies, and since it’s highly relevant to our work here at Hello Scicom, we are here to break it down for you.

  1. The Misinformation Takeover

There are a million different ways we can take in the news.  You may have tried all of them: clicking to your local TV news station, tuning into a good ol’ fashioned radio station, subscribing to a news app on your phone, or finding the best people to follow on social media.  Having this many choices for receiving information may seem like a great way to diversify your sources, but unfortunately, it has allowed us to pick and choose where we focus our attention.  This has rolled out a red carpet for misinformation and falsehoods to waltz on into the newsroom.  More specifically, this has made reporting science a tricky game.  If you should dare to believe them, scientific studies themselves have suggested that science is harder to report because of the rise of misinformation.

“But why?!,” nerds in lab coats around the world cry to themselves.  After all, science has saved so many lives this past year and throughout history, but there is still so much work to be done to garner more trust in our scientists.  A 2018 opinion survey showed that 44% of U.S. adults said they had “a great deal of confidence” in the scientific community. While this is considered relatively high, we should definitely be aiming to bump that percentage way higher.  Let’s talk about what is getting in the way.

  1. U.S. Adults Struggle to Distinguish Misinformation

Are you ready for a tough pill to swallow?  In a survey conducted in 2016, 25% of adults in the U.S. said they shared inaccurate information on social media. Yikes!  That’s 1 in 4 people!  It may even be a higher percentage because many people would never admit, even in an anonymous survey, that they could ever be wrong.  But there are a couple of reasons that people have trouble distinguishing real science from fake science.

Are you ready for another big, huge pill? In the past ten years, U.S. adults haven’t gotten any better at scientific knowledge. In 2018, U.S. adults got a 5.5 out of 9 correct on true/false questions about basic science facts.  That’s a D-minus! U.S. adults should be kicked off the football team for that grade!

But science knowledge is only one ingredient to a misinformation-fighting soup.  The second major ingredient is an understanding of the scientific process.  Remember that day in lab class when your teacher went over all the steps of the scientific method and you weren’t listening because you just wanted to make beakers explode with chemicals?  That day was very important. According to a 2018 survey, only 43% of adults were paying attention on that day in lab class and correctly responded to questions that measure understanding of the scientific process.

The third ingredient to that delicious anti-fake science soup is media literacy –– this one is all about understanding where information is coming from. Who is delivering your news? What is their social, political, or historical relationship with this news? Are they a credible source? These are the important questions that the United States adults should be asking.

The changing news industry has also made science reporting difficult. With so many people turning to social media and quick-hit news publications, and the fall of respected newspapers , science journalists are often underpaid and have to produce work more quickly. This has led to oversimplified reporting, which affects the kind of information people are consuming.

  1. Where our Brains May Fail Us

And there is something that can ruin our misinformation-fighting soup: Our brains love shortcuts. Science can be complex for our D-minus level brains, and our brains like to simplify complexity to save us energy. Our biases love to influence those shortcuts, allowing our emotions and religious or political ideology to have a say in our comprehension of new information. When misinformation is wrapped up in a little, emotional bow, as it often is, it’s very easy to take in. Research shows that emotions like anger can make us more vulnerable to misinformation.

This is tricky since science is often presented in a cold, highly rational manner, which is, frankly, no fun.  Certainly not as fun as the meme that tells us that vaccines are here to microchip us with velociraptor blood and put us on the black market on Mars!

If science is going to compete with that, then perhaps it’s time that science communication reckons with the fact that emotion does matter in almost all human decisions and actions.

  1. Why Do Emotions Matter?

Emotions are “subjective feeling states” that guide our responses to all things in the world. For example, the feelings evoked from the old ASPCA commercial featuring images of sad puppies set to Sarah Mclaughlin’s “Arms of an Angel.” This undoubtedly made practically every living person want to move to a house in Nebraska and adopt 1,788,937 abandoned doggos.  If emotions can do that, they certainly influence how we perceive scientific information.  Imagine reading research that shows that putting a small drop of someone’s healthy poop in your stomach could help treat your irritable bowel syndrome?  You may feel disgusted, intrigued, or horrified. Maybe all those feelings will make you wage an online war against fecal transplants. Or maybe you’re calling your doctor right now to ask when the next piece of healthy poo is available.

So, emotions are fantastic. But emotions can also impact our ability to process information. And when our processing ability is impaired, our brain jumps to shortcuts, which make it a lot easier for us to accept misinformation. But we need more evidence on how emotional appeals can help our intake of science information.

  1. The Role of Humor

What about humor?  Humor is related to emotions, afterall. When someone places a whoopie cushion just right underneath the booty of an unsuspecting party, it feels pretty amusing.  Comedy has a great effect on our current world. Almost 30% of U.S. adults say they learned something about politics from comedic, satirical shows like The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live.  Humor has also had some recent stardom in scientific studies.  There has been some inconclusive but hopeful research with suggestions that funny science may be more effective than misinformation.  There certainly needs to be more research in this arena, but the current findings are important indications that humor is highly valuable!

The ha-ha’s might also play a larger role in science when it comes to evaluating sources. Think about it: In 6th grade geography, were you paying attention to Mr. Garner, the teacher, or Jody, the class clown? Be honest. You were paying attention to Jody because she made you laugh, and that made you feel good. Research has shown that funnier people are rated more positively than others, and likeable communicators are more likely to influence and persuade audiences. Imagine if all the class clowns became teachers: We could be the smartest country in the world!

While cracking innocent science jokes encourages people to engage with more science content, sarcastic and satirical science humor may have a different effect. Research has shown that in the political news, satire has been taken at face value or has negatively impacted the view of the subject at hand. It is easy to see how satire could actually perpetuate scientific misconceptions, but there is more research to be done around satire, trust, and science communications.

We’ll Keep Crackin’ Jokes!

If there is anything we have learned from this absolutely nutso-buttso year, it is that science communication is imperative to our societal well being.  Science has saved so many lives this past year, and throughout history, but there is still so much work to be done to garner more trust in our scientists.  While researchers continue to investigate the relationship between humor and science communications, as well as the ethics surrounding persuasive science communication tactics, we must also continue to communicate science and battle misinformation.

Here at Hello SciCom, we are going to keep on making science funny so we can triumph over fake news and gather more people aboard the science train. Choo choo, mother cluckers!