Dubious scientific claims go under the microscope

Initiative aims to help pupils dispute online misinformation

HIV is a genetic disorder, honey can prevent heart disease, anti-dandruff shampoos can cause gruesome skin injuries: the number of false scientific claims made on the internet is bewildering.

Even for adults, it is sometimes difficult to sort the online truth from the digital baloney. But students are now set to benefit from a "safety campaign" that will help them to challenge the increasing amount of dubious scientific information they encounter on social media.

The initiative will be launched in the coming weeks to encourage scepticism among young people and teach them the importance of demanding evidence to back up assertions, especially on Facebook.

The project is being run by the charity Sense About Science, which said that misleading claims on a range of subjects were increasingly being reported.

The unquestioning acceptance of information is also a huge bugbear for teachers whose students use Google to carry out research. Many complain that young people are becoming overly reliant on Wikipedia or similar sites and fail to query the veracity of the information they encounter.

The charity said it would be running workshops with 13- to 16-year-olds in order to develop a toolkit to help them question the information they were fed. It is now calling on teachers and pupils to provide examples of misleading claims being circulated on the internet.

Victoria Murphy, the Sense About Science programme manager who is running the campaign, hopes that the initiative will become the equivalent of the "stop, drop and roll" fire safety message taught in schools.

"Our work is normally with adults, but it has come to light that teenagers are becoming increasingly exposed to dodgy claims, particularly online," Ms Murphy said. "The most recent claim was that Head and Shoulders shampoo gave you skin rash, and showed a fake picture of a lotus flower seed pod over some human skin. It looked awful, but it was totally untrue.

"Some claims can be silly but others are quite serious, such as extreme dieting tips, and it is important that young people are capable of demanding proper evidence.

"The aim of the toolkit we are developing is to give teenagers the critical questioning skills that you need throughout life, particularly when on social media sites."

The teaching materials are expected to be ready for use in citizenship and PSHE lessons from September 2015.

Sense About Science's campaign is being backed by medical doctor and journalist Ben Goldacre, who has built a career on challenging scientific claims unsupported by evidence.

"People often talk in very worthy terms about how to make science relevant to everyday life," Dr Goldacre said. "To me the answer is simple: we are all constantly bombarded with dodgy claims in mainstream media.

"Evidence-based medicine and epidemiology - the tools we use to find out what's good for you and what's bad for you - should be on the mainstream school curriculum. They matter and they're interesting."

Dr Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, spoke in support of the project. "I think it's brilliant that Sense About Science are giving young people the tools to question and challenge the world around them," she said. "Encouraging young people to value and assess evidence can only be beneficial for the next generation of scientists, journalists, politicians and voters."

The Ask for Evidence school project is being supported by practical science and technology advisory service Cleapss and children's charity Kidscape.

If you would like to report a dodgy scientific claim found on the internet, email enquiries@senseaboutscience.org.uk

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