Not being part of the rumor mill

I had something happen today that made me stop and think. I repeated a bit of ‘knowledge’ – something science-y that had to do with a celebrity. This was a factoid that I have repeated many other times. Each time I do I state this factoid with a good deal of authority in my voice and with the security that this is “fact”. Someone who was in the room said, “really?” Of course, as a quick Google check to several sites (including snopes.com) showed- this was, at best, an unsubstantiated rumor, and probably just plain untrue. But the memory voice in my head had spoken with such authority! How could it be WRONG? I’m generally pretty good at picking out bits of misinformation that other people present and checking it, but I realized that I’m not always so good about detecting it when I do it myself.

Of course, this is how rumors get spread and disinformation gets disseminated. As scientists we are not immune to it- even if we’d like to think we are. And we actually could be big players in it. You see, people believe us. We speak with the authority of many years of schooling and many big science-y wordings. And the real danger is repeating or producing factoids that fall in “science” but outside what we’re really experts in (where we should know better). Because many non-scientists see us as experts IN SCIENCE. People hear us spout some random science-ish factoid and they LISTEN to us. And then they, in turn, repeat what we’ve said, except that this time they say it with authority because it was stated, with authority, by a reputable source. US. And I realized that this was the exact same reason that it seemed like fact to me. Because it had been presented to me AS FACT by someone who I looked up to and trusted.

So this is just a note of caution about being your own worst critic – even in normal conversation. Especially when it comes to those slightly too plausible factoids. Though it may not seem like it sometimes people do listen to us.