Critica Response to Online Science Misinformation Prize

How and Why To Enter Our Contest

Have you read something online recently about health and science that caught your attention as completely contrary to the evidence? It’s hard not to. Search for almost any health-related topic and you will find websites, social media groups, blogs, and chat rooms all making claims and recommendations that are simply wrong or at best, misleading.

         Most of the time, we raise our eyebrows, wait until our heart rate goes back down, and move on. But pause for a second and realize that thousands and sometimes millions of people are reading the same thing you just read and believing it. Worse, many people may take action based on misstatements they see online.

         In order to encourage journalists and others to attempt to counteract online misinformation about health and science, we recently announced a new annual contest: The Critica response to Online Science Misinformation Prize. The contest invites you to submit an example in which you have attempted to counteract online misinformation directly on the platform where it was originally posted. You can read more about the contest and submit an application HERE.

         Studies suggest that identifying “fake news” right at its source can dissuade people from believing online falsehoods. We believe this strategy can be applied to online misinformation and disinformation about health and science. It seems logical, although largely untested, that online misstatements should be counteracted as soon as possible to the time they are posted and on the same platform that they are posted. We are also aware of a great deal of data that show that merely providing corrective information is not always convincing.

 Therefore, we and others are attempting to develop strategies to engage people who are interacting online with people who post misinformation about science and health. We want to see what works to convince people to consider the scientific consensus on an issue, especially for people who are still on the fence and not entirely devoted to a false idea.

         Here are two examples of what we are looking for.

We recently came upon a posting on Twitter while researching what people think about the safety of their tap water:

“And they put chromium 6 in our water, which breaks down water pipes into lead anyway?!”

We understand that people are concerned about the quality of their drinking water when they see stories of confirmed lead contamination from places like Flint, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey. But there are two misstatements in the above post. First, no one deliberately adds chromium 6 (hexavalent chromium) to our water supply.  Chromium is a naturally occurring element, found in rocks, soil, and plants. It can also occur in drinking water because of improper disposal of industrial waste. EPA mandates an upper level of chromium in water below which no health harms are known to occur and also requires public water systems to test their water supply for chromium on a regular basis and to report any elevations over the maximal allowed level to the public. Second, the comment implies that somehow chromium 6 reacts with pipes to form lead. We are unaware of any such chemical reaction.

         When we saw this comment, we posted one of our own:

“Curious how that works—chromium 6 breaking down into lead? Can’t find that reaction in chemistry textbook; am I missing it?”

The original poster responded:

“Breaks down the lead in the pipes, releasing it into the water.”

As you can see, our first approach with this posted misstatement was to ask the poster to clarify the statement, rather than trying to challenge the information directly.  This is one of the elements that is part of the Critica Protocol we posted on our website last month.  How would you proceed from here? Could you develop a chain of commentary that engages more people and even convinces some to be open to the science, which tells us that for the most part Americans are not drinking dangerous levels of chromium or lead in their tap water?

Here’s another example.

We looked at the Twitter site @ProAntiVaxxer and found the following recent post: 

One of the best reasons to question vaccines is because the government is mandating them.”

         Then we commented:

I am new to this conversation and looking for information. Of course, in a democracy we should question everything our government does. Aren’t there some things the government mandates that we all agree are good, like having to go to school and not allowing minors to smoke?”

         At this point, we are waiting to see if anyone responds to our comment. This one is likely to be tough because it appears to be an extreme anti-vaxxer site that seems to be populated by believers. It may be very hard to convince the people who regularly post here, but consider another group who may be looking for information and wind up on this site: parents of babies who are becoming eligible for their first vaccinations. Many such parents may have doubts about vaccines but not made up their minds yet. If they go to a site like @ProAntiVaxxer they will generally see only unchallenged rants against vaccine safety and efficacy. But perhaps if they see some attempts at counteracting the misinformation, they can be swayed to consider what the science says.

         We hope you will submit your own attempts at counteracting online misstatements about health and science and enter the contest. Not only will you have a chance of winning the cash prize, you will be participating in Critica’s work to accumulate experience and data on how best to confront serious misinformation about science and health wherever it crops up.

Here are the official rules for the contest:

1.     Submissions should be responses to misleading or false information about science that has been posted on blogs, podcasts, social media platforms, or online editions of print and video media. Eligible entries for the Critica Prize are responses that challenge such false or misleading information. These responses may include comments made in response to the submitter’s original response, but chains of online dialogue should not exceed three pages per submission.

2.     Submitted responses must be consistent with accepted scientific consensus on the issue involved. They should be free of unsubstantiated claims, profanity, and personal attacks.

3.     Submissions should involve medicine, psychology, biology, epidemiology, or other areas directly involved in the science of human health and safety. Entries involving other areas of science such as physics or chemistry are beyond the expertise of the panel of judges for this contest.

4.     Submissions should consist of responses posted during the twelve months prior to June 30 of each year.

5.     Submissions must be in English or provide English translations.

6.     Submissions are due by June 30, 2020.

7.     Applicants for the prize must be 18 years or older.

8.     Submissions must be free of any copyright or other restrictions that would prevent them from being posted on the Critica website or included in other Critica communications.

9.     Prize winners must agree to allow Critica to publish on its website, social media platforms, and other communications a picture of the winner, the winner’s submission, the winner’s biography, and a description of the winner’s work.

10.  First prize will consist of a cash award of $1000.00. Second prize will be $750.00. Third prize will be $500.00. Prizes will be awarded in the summer of 2020. 

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