Misinformation about science in the public sphere

Scheufele, Dietram A.; Hoffman, Andrew J.; Neeley, Liz; Reid, Czerne M.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

In early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic created an urgent demand, not just for scientific information and advice, but also for policy proposals that helped curb the spread of the virus while minimizing economic and other collateral societal effects. The research response has been unprecedented. After just 1 year, PubMed returns more than 100,000 publications, 10 times as many as for Ebola or Zika, and nearly as many as produced in 200 years of work on influenza.

Some saw the COVID-19 crisis primarily as a crisis of misinformation, following a longer trend of “truth decay” (1): that is, an array of confusing and conflicting messages that question facts, blur the line between fact and opinion, and dismiss formerly respected sources of information as merely political interests pushing a partisan agenda. The World Health Organization went so far as to warn against an “infodemic … an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it” (2).

But, of course, the informational environment surrounding COVID-19 continues to be highly complex. Since the beginning of the pandemic, science has moved at breakneck speed and under immense public scrutiny. Influential journals published studies only to retract them a short time later. And the scientific community was faced with the dilemma of having to correct misinformation they knew to be false with science that was emerging and would continue to produce new and sometimes contradictory findings in the months to come (3).

The lessons from COVID-19 leave science communication researchers and practitioners in a difficult spot. If we do not improve the scientific literacy undergirding our public and political discourse, how can we make sense of the challenging issues we face? We cannot set policy or make informed decisions as …

[↵][1]1To whom correspondence may be addressed. Email: scheufele{at}

[1]: #xref-corresp-1-1