University-powered fact-checker aims to restore faith in science

Online platform boasting 11,500 academic experts answering public questions seeks backing for global expansion

March 26, 2019
March for Science. "Science is not an alternative fact" placard.
Source: Getty

As anyone who has ever googled their medical symptoms knows, online search engines can often act as a hindrance rather than a help in seeking out facts. Yet in an age of conflicting political narratives surrounding climate change, healthcare and other important policies, the ability to find trusted sources of information has arguably never been so important.

Enter Metafact: a crowdsourced fact-checking service bringing together more than 11,500 academic experts that could help end widespread public fears of “fake science and misinformation”, according to its founder.

The brainchild of Ben McNeil, a senior lecturer in oceanography at UNSW Sydney, Metafact works by allowing members of the public to pose a question. Academics can give a “likelihood rating” along with a more detailed explanation of the evidence, which generates a percentage score for each question to show the strength of scientific consensus on an issue.

“The result is a more trustworthy place for people to find quick and reliable answers for real-life problems from scientific experts,” Dr McNeil explained.

For example, one question states that “CNN reported that autism in the US is increasing”, and asks: “Is this true?” The 31 expert responses so far provide a mixed result, earning the post a label of “uncertain”. But readers are able to view in-depth responses from experts including Uta Frith, professor of neuroscience at UCL, who advises that “the observed increase in prevalence – that is, cases diagnosed as autistic – is a consequence of changes in public awareness and changes in the interpretation of diagnostic criteria, especially as they apply at milder levels”.

Since its beginnings in January 2018, the platform claims to have answered about 500 questions, with expertise across 350 scientific fields from some 500 institutions, among them universities and research centres including Nasa.

Although some fact-checking sites already exist (for instance, FullFact, Snopes and PolitiFact), Dr McNeil said little progress had been made in dispelling online misinformation. The group behind Metafact is now looking for public backing, with a view to expanding its reach using academic expertise from universities across the globe.

Asked how academics – who typically juggle very demanding timetables – might be incentivised to participate in such a project on top of their other engagement activities, Dr McNeil suggested that the interest already existed, in that scientists were keen to defend their work against the “fake news” narrative.

“Most academics are frustrated with the continuous stream of misinformation in the wider media and internet relating to their current fields,” he said. “They want to help do something about this and the widening disconnect between real science and the wider community.”

Answering questions on an open platform can also be “more efficient on their time” than writing a blog on the subject, he suggested, while at the same time reaching more readers.

“This way, the public is asking them to help [directly] which makes it easier for a more diverse array of experts to engage for the first time,” he said.

Currently, most of the activity on the platform involves the fields of science and medicine, he added, but it was hoped that the website could expand to include social sciences and humanities, hosting “discussions and debates” where no clear answer was known.

A study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last year suggested that false information spread six times faster than facts on social media platforms, fuelling expert concerns that average internet users had little in the way of trusted tools to verify information online.

With this in mind, Dr McNeil was sceptical about Metafact’s ability to eradicate the “fake news” culture, but said he was optimistic that the platform would restore public trust in expert opinion.

“I don’t think there will ever be a way for us to not receive bad or false information from the internet [but] what we hope to do is inspire a culture of critical thinking in everyone, so they can question what they read – not just consume it,” he said.

A crowdfunding page has so far generated about £12,000 out of a £26,750 target to support the maintenance and expansion of the website. While Dr McNeil said he had had conversations with government bodies, he added that “we are an open science platform without paywalls or ads, so need to find members interested to support us”.

“Government funding bodies and universities are moving heavily towards incentivising researchers to engage and drive wider impact than just publications. So we are working with universities and governments interested in collaborating with Metafact to help drive their impact/engagement agenda and incentivise a new way for researchers to drive real-world impact with the public.”

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Fretting about fake news? Ask an expert

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