Carl Zimmer discusses role of fake news in science

Photo by Anna Braman ’21   Carl Zimmer, a New York Times science journalist and writing professor at Yale, spoke on campus on Tuesday

Photo by Anna Braman ’21

Carl Zimmer, a New York Times science journalist and writing professor at Yale, spoke on campus on Tuesday


“Fake news consistently undermines the notion that what you’re reading has some basis in reality,” science writer Carl Zimmer said to the Mount Holyoke community at his talk on “Science Reporting in the Age of Fake News” on Oct. 23.

Hooker Auditorium was packed to the brim with students and community members, filling almost every seat and spreading along windowsills, stairs and into the corners of the space. Zimmer stood at the front of the room, his steady voice accompanied by a slideshow presentation as students’ fingers tapped across laptop keyboards.

As a science writing professor at Yale University and a columnist for the New York Times, Zimmer spoke about his own experience as a science journalist, while also examining the history of fake news in American news media. Cosponsored by the Odyssey Bookshop and the Mount Holyoke Science Center, the event also promoted Zimmer’s most recent book, “She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity.”

Zimmer first spoke on the way fake news manifested in the 2016 election, but soon transitioned into his own field of expertise. He referenced “Mermaids: The Body Found,” the popular 2012 Animal Planet special that was presented as a documentary. The program even spurred a sequel in 2013; “apparently there was more evidence about mermaids that needed to be shared,” Zimmer said as the crowd laughed. His main point in mentioning the special was to show that many news sources value the sensationality of their stories more than factuality.

He also discussed websites that publish complete fabrications on topics like vaccines or climate change. One column he wrote for the Times, which interviewed a scientist studying Global Greening — the increase of plants with the intention of converting excess CO2 in the atmosphere — was later taken down by a blog which launched a three-part series attacking the ideas presented by the scientist who was featured.

But Zimmer also emphasized that fake news is not a new phenomenon in American media. He said that when it comes to fake news, no one was better at spreading it than P.T. Barnum, a 19th century showman and businessman. Zimmer characterized Barnum as someone who purported to bring science to the public eye, and went on to describe him as a combination of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye “coated in a layer of B.S.”

In a specific instance, Barnum convinced news organizations and the public that his museum was in possession of a mummified mermaid. The mermaid in question was really a monkey skull plastered with a fish body, but Barnum used techniques parallel to those seen in fake news today to support the illusion. “He understood how to use the press to get people to believe that something obviously fake was real,”said Zimmer.

As a journalist who began his career in the 1990s, Zimmer personally witnessed the rise of the internet and how it has impacted his industry. He said that no one imagined the revenue that the internet would eventually take away from newspapers, thinking specifically of classified ads moving to Craigslist and social media becoming a huge platform for other advertising. Currently, 1300 communities lack local newspapers, and as a science writer, he also noted that when scaling back news operations, science sections are often the first to go.

Zimmer transitioned to a hot button topic in the current political climate: vaccines. Despite repeated studies that vaccines are not correlated with autism in children, there is a faction of people that continue to believe they pose a threat, “There is a hard constituency that will not accept any evidence to the contrary,” he said.

Zimmer also pointed out that Russian bots have played into the discourse on vaccines with the hashtag #VaccineUS. Accounts that have now been confirmed to be bots sent out messages that were both in favor of and against vaccines using sharp and divisive language. “This is a very savvy way of dividing people and also very dangerous,” said Zimmer.

Still, Zimmer tried to end his lecture on a positive note. He explained that the digitization of media has also helped journalism get back on its feet, pointing to the millions of digital subscribers to the New York Times and new media companies like Vox. He emphasized the importance of digital literacy in browsing the internet.

Shannon Seigal ’19 was in attendance and found Zimmer’s talk to be timely and informative.

“I appreciated that the speaker tied in the history of fake news — or viral disinformation as he also referred to it — to what we’re seeing so frequently today,” said Seigal. “He also ended with practical tips for media producers and consumers as to how to avoid and deal with fake news, which I found very helpful.”