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Interview with Dan Larhammar: “Disinformation can have severe consequences for human health and our economies”

Dan Larhammar interview, The concept of news. Folded stack of Newspapers on laptop

A group of European scientists (including Dan Larhammar) has made it their mission to raise awareness about disinformation, its mechanisms and its dangers. They belong to ALLEA, the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities. This organisation brings researchers from all over Europe together; in various working groups and projects they explore topics of high societal relevance seeking to improve conditions for research, provide the best independent and interdisciplinary science advice available, and strengthen the role of science in society.

One of ALLEA’s projects is called ‘Fact or Fake? Tackling Science Disinformation‘ and it is chaired by Professor Dan Larhammar, who is also president of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences: “Although disinformation is nothing new, it has become more common in certain areas during the past few years. Disinformation has already had, and will continue to have, severe consequences for human health and our economies. Especially regarding climate change, vaccines and COVID-19, disinformation is alarming. This is why we chose to focus on these three topics in our discussion paper, published in May this year.”

Professor Larhammar, could you briefly summarise the discussion paper?

Dan Larhammar: The paper presents an overview of the causes and mechanisms of the spread of disinformation. In it, we review several psychological mechanisms that contribute to disinformation propagation, such as confirmation bias and the ‘Dunning-Kruger effect’, which is the inability to recognise one’s own lack of knowledge.

With this paper, we want to raise awareness about these mechanisms to improve people’s ability to spot and resist disinformation. We describe ways to counteract disinformation and minimise the damage. We urge scientists to respond to disinformation and science communicators to check sources to avoid spreading unreliable information. In addition, policymakers must be aware of the abundance of disinformation and the various guises in which it presents itself.

What were the reactions to this paper?

Dan Larhammar: As the topic has gained enormous traction due to the so-called infodemic during the ongoing pandemic, both the project and the paper have been widely featured and received as timely and highly relevant in the media.

We also presented the paper at several conferences and some very interesting debates ensued. This has left me hopeful about having fruitful conversations on this topic across disciplines and about the scope to improve science journalism and science communication in general.

Even though our paper provides some insights, the discussions it provoked show us that we still do not understand our (digital) information ecosystem sufficiently, which has strong implications for our lives and future.

You examined the most prominent psychological, technical and political strategies to counter science disinformation, including inoculation, debunking, recommender systems, fact-checking, awareness-raising, media literacy and innovations in science communication and public engagement. Which of these are most effective against disinformation in your opinion?

Dan Larhammar: I am sure we need all of them. My hope is that these preventive measures will be efficient because that would minimise the spread of science disinformation. In particular, inoculation and increased awareness should stimulate critical thinking, which will be useful in many contexts.

What, in your opinion, are the most tragic examples of disinformation that you have witnessed?

Dan Larhammar: Anti-vaccine propaganda is probably the type of disinformation that has caused most deaths and suffering, together with the disinformation from the tobacco industry. In the longer term, disinformation that has delayed measures to reduce climate change may have far-reaching negative consequences.

What do you think of the EU initiatives on disinformation?

Dan Larhammar: All of the European initiatives on this topic are highly relevant and more than necessary to enhance consumer protection against disinformation. As disinformation is a challenge that is not limited to national borders, we need a joint European effort to safeguard our democratic principles and values.

I was especially delighted to see the new initiative to strengthen the industry’s Code of Practice on Disinformation. Without the simultaneous involvement of and checks by social media platforms and tech giants, the fight against disinformation will be a lost cause.

About your advice to establish a European Centre/Network for Science Communication and a European Code of Conduct for Science Communication. Any signs that this will happen?

Dan Larhammar: There are several committees and other ongoing initiatives around Europe discussing these ideas, including ALLEA. Considerable expertise and experience are already out there, especially in national contexts. Now the time has come to coordinate these efforts to mobilise, organise and streamline responses to disinformation.

Our committee has connections with many of these experts, so in a way, a loose virtual network already exists. Hopefully, a central network or centre could be formed and given a mandate and resources to reach out to people in general and to scientists and science communicators in particular to support their work to counteract disinformation. Such a European endeavour would also help to widen participation and further build capacities for science communication in the European Union, as well as in national contexts.

How do you see the future when it comes to disinformation?

Dan Larhammar: I am afraid there will always be disinformation as long as there are ruthless human beings and commercial and ideological interests. That is why we need to protect consumers by stimulating people’s science literacy and critical thinking.

Science is like democracy – it must be constantly defended because new generations come that take scientific progress (like democracy) for granted, and are unaware of the consequences and dangers of anti-science propaganda.

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