The Edinburgh Skeptics Society (ESS) is a non-profit organisation created in 2009 with the aim of promoting evidence-based scientific discussions and critical thinking, by having a lay-audience engage with speakers of diverse scientific backgrounds; from arts and humanities, to politics, biology, chemistry and beyond.
The spirit of this organisation is well captured in their slogan “respect people, challenge ideas”. They promote inclusiveness not only by actively seeking to include a wide range of viewpoints and backgrounds in their discussions, but also implementing a gender-balanced, relaxed atmosphere. An example of the activities that the ESS regularly hold are the “Skeptics in the Pub” talks, which run on the third Thursday of every month. Similarly, the ESS takes part in other activities such as the Science Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe.
In 2010 the ESS was first invited to the Fringe to take part in a show with a format similar to “Skeptics In The Pub” . This initiative is free of charge to increase inclusiveness. There are different talks every night and hence a wide range of exciting topics for discussion. Some of the questions listed for this year’s Fringe include: How useful are scientific problem-solving skills in the real world? Why does drug testing fail to catch organised cheats in sports and competitions? How have different private industries (healthcare, education, energy) lobbied to open the UK’s public services (e.g. the NHS) to more private operators?
I had the opportunity to attend to a talk given by Michael Marshall, the project director of the Good Thinking Society and Vice president of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. His talk was titled “Bad news: From PR to Fake news, why does the media fall for falsehoods?”.
His talk began with a simple but powerful question: how does fake news get into the media? We have all encountered these sorts of stories in media outlets, and there seems to be an ever-growing space for this type of news, both printed and online. The answer can be explained by three key aspects. 1) Ownership and moral stance of the media outlets, which affects the decision-making process of the news and headlines that are published every day. 2) Unrealistic professional expectations on journalists, who are required to produce large amount of articles in a short time, thus compromising the time that they can actually spend doing background research and checking facts. 3) Commercialisation of journalism and lack of impartial, unbiased newswires, which are the organisations that ultimately produce the majority of the news that we all read daily.
Perhaps one of the talk’s main points that caught my attention was that this fake news has strong “echoing effects” in society, inevitably creating a matrix of opinion that leads to hatred, division, intolerance, xenophobia, and misconceptions about minorities. Intriguingly, Michael defines the fake news phenomenon as “weaponized clickbait” for political and/or social purposes. This can negatively influence the very core of our democracy by, for example, biasing voters during events such as the Brexit referendum, the Scottish independence referendum, and general elections.
So, is everything lost? Not just yet. Michael concluded that these problems can easily be tackled by promoting laws that ensure that the editorial line of the media outlets is kept separate from advertising strategies, and also by promoting our own critical thinking, contrasting facts with other sources, participating in discussions and forums, and ensuring that we don’t participate in the “echoing” effect of the fake news.
This article was written by Juan Quintana and edited by Sam Stanfield.