What it takes to 'understand'. Looking for antidotes to fake news
12 March 2019
ERC President Prof. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Institute for Science and Technology for Humanity launch lecture series, Singapore
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To try and “understand” the world around us has been a permanent endeavour of mankind. It has also been a fantastic driver for developing Science. It often took great minds to get sufficient distance from the most immediate apprehension one can develop and to offer a radically different vision of a phenomenon, most of the time a controversial one when it was first formulated. It is however vital to state upfront how much Science is a collective enterprise with a multitude of contributors and transmitters.

The purpose of this lecture is to have a look at this process, to recognise its complexity but also to explore how it has been nurtured and sometimes perverted. Indeed the process by which knowledge about natural phenomena has been built, over centuries and across cultures, requires most of the time many steps and permanent checks, taking note of the development of new instruments and the availability of new information. At any given moment, an often under-estimated step is the elaboration of concepts that more often than not requires many attempts before being firmly established and accepted. They provide the framework for thinking, and without a framework it is just impossible to understand. They are rarely isolated from a global vision of the world, and hence are part of the culture in which one’s life is embedded. Recognising the richness of different approaches whilst creating the proper tool to make them compatible and understandable is one of the challenges mankind has faced and continues to face.

In order to make this fundamentally philosophical discussion more accessible, I propose to explore three examples of this process and to confront them with the ways they are disseminated in society and also challenged. In our “information age”, where news spreads instantaneously and ignore borders, these challenges have taken a new dimension. This is the context in which “fake news”, or disinformation, have become a major problem. The issue has reached the point of becoming a threat to the development of an informed society. Indeed, whilst the widespread availability of internet allows many more people to take part in the exchange, it also offers new possibilities for action to people who have an interest in manipulating the discussion. This is why having some solid methodological references at one’s disposal is fundamental. Schools are the natural environment to equip every citizen of the world with such tools. More precisely, widespread quality education is critical for a long- term sustainable development of the world. Discussing some issues in relation to measures that can be taken to win the ongoing battle against fake news will be a significant part of the conclusions of this lecture.

The three examples I chose because of their very diverse natures are:

  • The measure of the circumference of a circle and the number π;
  • The concept of energy, and its use in society;
  • Vaccination: success and challenges.

As you easily see, they resonate with different parts of Science, and their history, as well as their impact on society, have taken quite specific paths and have become universal in the end. Showing the variety of settings for the development of knowledge is also one of the objectives of this lecture. To get the process going, it is indeed indispensable to recognise this variety and the possibility for many actors in various positions to contribute.

Along the way, we will see how knowledge built in one area turns out to be pertinent in other areas in a process that is most of the time totally unexpected. We will also notice how new knowledge can come from the availability of new technical tools, showing the linkage between the abstract and the concrete.

The Measure of the Circumference of a Circle and the Number π

The question of evaluating the perimeter of a circle has been considered by many different societies going far back into history. The circle is such a natural figure having very attractive features. From a strictly material point of view, a stone sculptured as a cylinder with a circular basis is the easiest object to move around as one only needs to push it to have it roll.

To bring it back to our subject, the first question is: what does it mean to “measure”? It necessarily amounts to comparing different lengths. In the case in question, the answer is not so simple: how can one compare the length of an intrinsically bent object with that of straight ones? A solution can be to roll the circle on a surface and measure the distance covered when a marked point on the circle comes back in contact with the surface on which it rolls. Very early on, it was noticed that the value found for the ratio between the perimeter of a circle and its diameter was slightly over 3. A whole number like 3 is understood everywhere as integers are accessible in almost all societies: to come up with this notion one only has to repeat using a “unit”.

To say more one needs to have a more sophisticated notion of numbers than just “natural” numbers. More than 3500 years ago, one finds a Babylonian tablet proposing 25/8 (3.125 in our decimal notation) as an estimate for the ratio between the perimeter of a circle and its diameter. Babylonians used a decimal system with basis 60 and to get this value they needed two terms after the integral part in their system! The famous Rynd papyrus found in Louxor in the mid-19th century contains a value for π which amounts to 256/81 (3.1604 again in our decimal notation). Egyptians seem to have understood that, for a circle, the ratio between the perimeter and the diameter, i.e. twice the radius, and that between the area and the square of the radius were the same number π.

Now comes the natural question: what is the mathematical nature of the number π? It appeared explicitly in Greece some 2500 years ago, with a refinement due to Euclide two centuries later, in the form of whether it is possible to “square a circle”. This means constructing a square of the same area as a circle using only a ruler and a compass. Many solutions have been proposed, all incorrect, until it was proven in 1882 by the German mathematician Ferdinand VAN LINDEMANN that π is not an algebraic number (i.e. solution of a polynomial equation with integer coefficients), a fortiori not a number constructible from the unit 1 by ruler and compass that lead necessarily to special algebraic numbers. This fantastic achievement relied on the fact that π could be made appear in many other instances in mathematics. This includes the repartition of prime numbers, something that does not seem to have anything to do with measuring the perimeter of a circle. Note that the Swiss mathematician Johann LAMBERT proved in 1761 that π is an irrational number, i.e. cannot be written as a fraction. But I do not want to go further in this direction.

Still I want to recall the incredible progress made over centuries to get a more accurate value for π. Many improvements were obtained thanks to using more and more precise approximations. Both for the circumference and the area, the idea is simple, namely to replace the circle by regular polygons inscribed in the circle and tangent to it having more and more sides. Of course to achieve the calculations requires a lot of work and some in depth knowledge about the geometry of the elementary triangles forming the polygons. In this context, it is appropriate to mention the contribution of ARCHIMEDES who, in his essay “On the measure of the circle”, proved rigorously that indeed π is the number appearing both in evaluating the perimeter and the area of a circle. He also established that π lies between 223/71 = 3.1408 and 22/7 = 3.1429, hence getting the approximate value 3.14 that is taught today in all schools around the world. This is why 14 March is called “π Day”!

Further contributions were brought by the astronomers and mathematicians ARYABATHA in India and ZU ChongZhi in China. Approximately 1500 years ago, he proposed the remarkable value 355/113 = 3.14159292, providing 6 correct decimals. (Here 8 decimals are given because this exhibits the periodicity pattern appearing in the decimal expansion of every rational number.) In 1429 another fantastic performance was achieved by the Persian mathematician AL-KASHI, who provided 14 decimals.

Science came back to the Western world approximately at this time with contributions of Nicolas VIETE some 400 years ago: he proposed the first exact formula for π as the limit of a sequence of fractions involving iterated radicals containing only √2 .

It seems that the first formula expressing π as the sum of a series was inspired by analysis, the part of mathematics dealing with limits and series, and not geometry. It came from India. Indeed, a little over 700 years ago, first MADHAVA of Sangamagrama gave a formula for π as a limit of an infinite sequence; some 500 years ago Kellalur NILAKANTHA SOMAYAJI obtained a formula involving only explicit rational numbers converging much more quickly than previous ones: n correct decimals for π are provided by the 2nth term of the series. It is in 1705 that 100 correct decimals for π were obtained by the English mathematician John MACHIN. Shortly after, the Welsh mathematician William JONES started to use the symbol π for our number.

I cannot close this section without mentioning the great formula for π² obtained by the Swiss mathematician Leonhard EULER: π² is 6 times the sum of the inverse of the integers squared, bringing up again the obsessive question: how does this relate to the perimeter of a circle?

This odyssey about π shows how, over centuries, the concept of numbers has enriched itself, how the power of mathematicians has grown to go in depth into the structure of the numbers. Of course, in the days of powerful computers, the race for decimals of π has been transformed: presently billions of decimals are available for π.

There is one more aspect I want to touch upon here, in some sense related to fake news. The Bible contains an episode where the value taken for π is 3; actually, the number is not given much attention. In 1897, a strange event happened in the General Assembly of Indiana, USA. One of the lawmakers introduced a bill supposed to offer “a new mathematical truth” for free use in the State. Actually, it was related to an (necessarily failed) attempt to square the circle. After being approved unanimously by this Assembly, the bill was stopped in the Senate of the State of Indiana on the very day when it was supposed to be discussed thanks to the presence of a Purdue mathematics professor who immediately spotted the inappropriateness of such a bill.

This shows the need not only to observe the separation of power (judiciary, legislative, executive) introduced by MONTESQUIEU in order to preserve democracy, but also to make sure that the pursuit of truth by scientists is not distorted by political attempts to establish a new type of truth. As a revenge, in 2009 the US House of Representatives passed a bill that "supports the designation of a Pi Day and its celebration around the world; … and encourages schools and educators to observe the day with appropriate activities that teach students about π and engage them about the study of mathematics."

The Concept of Energy and its Use in Society

The second example is quite different in nature as it concerns a concept, namely energy that took a long time to emerge, although it is now completely central in Physics and in society at large. There are deep reasons for the slowness of the process. It indeed required that one realises that different phenomena were actually several facets of the same coin.

For this example too let us take a historical perspective. This is strongly suggested by the historian of Science Robert J. LINDSAY who, about the concept of energy, says: “One cannot hope really to understand its present state or its future implications without some appreciation of this history.”

The word “energy” appears in ARISTOTLE to express “what makes matter move or take form”. The struggle to explain the cause of movement lasted several centuries, and several quantities were considered in order to achieve that: the product of the mass by the speed, coined “quantity of motion” by the French philosopher and scientist René DESCARTES, was one of them; the “living force” was another one of them introduced by the Italian scientist Galileo GALILEI, the conservation of which was established for the collision of elastic bodies by the Dutch scientist Christian HUYGENS. A long lasting controversy on the “living force” initiated by the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm LEIBNIZ extended over a century. Even the introduction of the Fundamental law of mechanics by the English mathematician and physicist Isaac NEWTON in the late 17th century, relating the force to be applied to the product of the mass by the acceleration of point masses, did not fully clarify the situation for the motion of more complex media such as fluids for example. This is to say that even in the limited context of Mechanics the identification of the key concept took a lot of efforts and some false steps.

Although some attempts of developing steam machines can be traced back to 2000 years ago, it is the 18th century that saw the development of steam machines at a visible scale. This prompted in particular the Scottish engineer James WATT to establish some kind of a correspondence between heat and the movement produced. This was done in a somewhat systematic way for the first time by the German physicist Julius Robert VON MAYER in the early 19th century, who considered both the production of heat by movement and the converse. This was taken to a new level of rigour by James Prescott JOULE in the mid-19th century. He clearly established an equivalence between mechanical work (the product of the force applied with the displacement) and heat. He actually considered various forms of “energy”: mechanical work, heat, chemical, electric and magnetic versions. This led him to state that heat is not a substance, as was defended by some earlier, but related to motion. This gave a major blow to the “caloric theory’ introduced in particular by Sadi CARNOT that had been prevailing for some decades. It is interesting to note that, for James Joule, Science was mainly a hobby as he was managing the family brewery. It is now clear that heat is indeed a measure of the intensity of the erratic motion of molecules in a medium, and that the theory of thermodynamics, a major achievement of the 19th century, could be connected to a microscopic description of matter.

Of fundamental importance to present-day Science is the “conservation of energy”, that requires that energy be given a precise definition valid in its various forms. One can view this “principle” as the American physicist Richard FEYNMAN calls it, a quantitative version of the statement that energy is transformed from one form to another, without being created or destroyed. This versatility is precisely what made its identification such a challenging task, but also why it is a backbone of present-day Physics and more generally Science as the concept has spread to all Natural Sciences.

In 1905 another barrier was crossed by the Swiss physicist Albert EINSTEIN (actually he held several nationalities, including being an apatrid) when he developed the theory of Special Relativity and established the key relation E = mc², where E stands for energy, m the mass transformed and c the speed of light. This shows that mass is a form of energy. This was the basis for looking at nuclear reactions, when mass is transformed into energy, as possible sources of energy. Because of the value of the speed of light, nuclear reactions can produce enormous quantities of energy. This can take the form of fission, the spontaneous decomposition of some heavy radioactive atoms, or fusion, the combination of light atoms, such as deuterium, into heavier ones. The key issue for these reactions is to control them. For the fission this is precisely what happens in nuclear power plants. This has not yet been achieved for fusion.

When discussing energy issues, depending on the scale one is considering, many different units are used. The official one, adopted in the Système International is the Joule, but we all have heard of calories, of kilowatt-hour, of gigawatt-year (typically to discuss powerplants), but also of electron-volt, when phenomena at the atomic scale are discussed.

The previous discussion clearly touched on the fact that energy has not been confined to an object of interest for laboratories but has taken a dimension relevant for industry, and society at large. Steam engines have been key for the development of a number of activities in factories but also of course of trains. The installation of electric grids, providing to houses and factories an easy access to some sort of a universal energy source, made it a key factor for the development of modern societies.

As threats to the climate have appeared, exploring new energy sources has become a major and urgent challenge. They are due in particular to the massive production of carbon dioxide by cars, trucks and power plants using fuel to produce electricity. This is where we are brought back to the issue of fake news. This is not surprising because of the generalised use of energy sources by the population. Any change in this respect has necessarily a massive impact on the functioning of society, and affects a number of economic actors.

Of course I could go into the issue of climate change and the many attempts to challenge the need to take measures by climate change-sceptics in order to diminish drastically the production of carbon dioxide in the coming years. I will rather focus on the considerable difference between energy production and energy usage. As a customer, one’s request is that energy be available instantaneously when one needs it. Depending on the source producing the energy, its availability at a given time may vary considerably: renewable sources such as solar or windmills are clearly intermittent and not so regular. The main issue here is that the capacity to store energy is very far from the variations in the energy demand. This has a great impact on which energetic mix can be safely proposed and planned.

The public discussion on energy issues focuses much too often on what percentage of the energy produced comes from this or that source and not on the real problem, which is the response to the customers’ demands. On top of that, some sources have definite locations, think of hydroelectric generators or wind farms implanted in the sea. This makes the issue of energy transport a very important one, also in terms of the investments required. This part of the problem too is most of the time not properly presented. Currently, just to give an example, these are challenges Germany faces in the implementation of its strategy to close down all its nuclear power plants by 2022. To achieve this, it relies on importing electricity from neighbouring countries: France with its still massive nuclear production of electricity, or the Czech Republic and Poland that are still heavy producers of carbon dioxide.

Of course some advocacy groups with explicit economic interests in not changing the present policy invest in order to influence the public debate whilst blurring some issues. The problem is actually deeper. Clearly the issue of the energy policy is a complex one, ranging from truly technical questions both on the production and on the distribution sides requiring long-term investments to potential new possibilities that may appear from disruptive innovations. It is therefore very difficult for a person, who is not informed in detail of the problems, to speak authoritatively on such an issue. The only positive way out is that people in charge take pains to inform about the various dimensions of the problem and about the new possibilities and propose various scenarios highlighting their advantages and drawbacks. This can only be done through a close association between experts and some non-experts, who can identify potential misunderstandings and ambiguities in the communication to a wider audience. Communication between experts is a very coded exercise most of the time.

The lack of solid analyses can also be pointed out in reports by some governmental organisations. By way of example, the French Académie des Technologies just issued a critical note about the scenarios for the electric mix for the period 2020-2060 produced by the French “Agence de l’environnement et de la maîtrise de l’énergie”. This emphasises how important it is, on global issues such as this one, for expert groups to have the possibility to give an independent view on official communications. At the European level, such a group of “Chief Scientific Advisors” has been established with the duty of studying issues submitted to it, or most importantly that it chose to consider using a self-referral procedure.

Vaccination: Success and Challenges

Biology and Medicine are probably the two domains where the evolution of the level of understanding has changed most considerably in the last 200 years. Think of the concept of bacteria. It is only in the 18th century that Lazzaro SPALLANZANI, an Italian biologist and clerk, could establish that microorganisms could be cultivated in meat juice. He noted that the culture did not work if the meat juice has been overheated and kept away from air. He was one of the first to develop an experimental approach to Biology. His discoveries gave a very significant blow to the then prevailing theory of “spontaneous generation”. Still, this discovery remained a curiosity for some time without the understanding of the possible role of bacteria in illnesses as well as in some economic processes such as fermentation.

In this context the first works directly related to microorganisms were done in the mid-19th century by the French medical doctor Casimir DAVAINE. He proved that the sheep anthrax is due to bacteria and can be transmitted in a controlled way. In the same period, Robert KOCH, a German medical doctor, could go one step further and show, using images under a microscope, how the bacillus for anthrax can transform itself to resist in the ground and affect some more animals. He developed a methodology for microbiology. He is famous for having discovered the bacillus for tuberculosis and for cholera.

Louis PASTEUR was a French chemist, who was very interested in fermentations, in particular in relation to breweries. He believed that some contagious illnesses could be caused by micro-organisms. Responding to a request by the Ministry of Agriculture, he studied an illness that was spreading among silkworms, creating serious economic damage. This led him to identify a number of bacteria causing various kinds of illnesses. While working on the hen cholera, he noticed that animals can be protected if one injects an aged preparation of the microbe to them. This reminded him of the work of the English medical doctor Edward JENNER, about one century earlier, who, through injections of vaccine, a benign version of smallpox in cows, protected humans against smallpox, a major health hazard at the time. Since Antiquity it had been known that somebody exposed to the illness will not contract it again.

In fact, already some 1000 years prior, Chinese had developed a primitive form of vaccine to prevent smallpox, called “variolation”, in the form of an exposition to tissues from people, who had suffered from smallpox. This practice spread from Asia to some countries. This led the wife of the Ambassador of England to Turkey, who survived smallpox though severely affected, to spread the practice, beginning with her own children. This is reported by VOLTAIRE in his “Letters on the English” where he advocates for the spread of the practice in the whole of France, based on its success for centuries in China and in some Asian countries.

In the middle of the 19th century, vaccination was adopted in England over variolation because it was much safer. Louis PASTEUR led a spectacular demonstration to vaccinate a group of animals against anthrax leaving a control group unvaccinated. All animals that had been inoculated survived whilst almost all the others died. Getting to vaccinate humans against diseases that were not well understood was a step that he took only facing the absolute emergency of a child risking rabies. The attempt was successful, giving visibility to the practice. Vaccines against many other diseases caused by bacteria or viruses have been developed during the 20th century: measles, polio, diphtheria, tuberculosis and tetanus. In 1980 it was established that smallpox had been eradicated from the surface of Earth. In view of the death toll of this illness on humans over centuries, this was an amazing achievement of Medicine through meticulous, widespread and obligatory vaccination campaigns. The same is true for polio 20 years later for the Americas and Europe. Measles was also declared eliminated in the United States in 2000.

In order to better “understand”, it is important to ask how vaccination works. The immune system of a living organism remembers attacks it has been exposed to. They prompt it to develop some defence. In case of a renewed attack, it will be much faster to identify the signature of the illness, and respond to it more efficiently. The idea that Louis PASTEUR had of the reason why the aging of the pathogen would be sufficient to create such a moderate reaction to the illness was actually erroneous. He indeed believed that the next generations of the microbe had become tame due to interactions with the environment, when this property was in reality random, hence the cause of potential accidents. This scheme was in line with Pasteur’s adherence to the theory of Jean-Baptiste de LAMARCK, when today Darwinian evolution is accepted as the right model. We now know that the vaccination led to the production of antibodies protecting the living organism from all microbes having the same molecular structure. Of course vaccines against rabies are obtained today through genetic manipulation, which is a much safer way to produce vaccines.

So far I spoke only about the individual level. It is critical to also speak about the collective dimension, i.e. the fact that, if people do not get affected by a microbe or a virus, they will not spread them in their active form. Depending on the speed of propagation of a given germ, there are different thresholds for the portion of the population, which needs to be vaccinated in order to protect the whole population. In the case of measles for example, which is a very contagious illness, this threshold is about 95%. We are presently facing a situation where, after a drop in the percentage of children of a given generation vaccinated against measles, very serious outbreaks of the illness appear in many countries: for Europe more than 60000 cases in 2018, more than twice the number recorded in 2017, with a death toll at 72, also double that of 2017. Vaccinating against measles is clearly a collective responsibility for the very reason just explained.

The drop in the level of vaccination has been followed by a significant increase in cases of the illness. It is almost surely the result of an anti-vaccine movement that started from an erroneous piece of news claiming a link between vaccination and the spread of autism. Such a link has been repeatedly disproved by a number of studies done in several countries. Still a number of populist parties, joining some religious groups, which refuse human interventions on the human body, nurture their anti-establishment message with such disinformation. A corruption dimension has been added with the claim made that the opinions of medical doctors are biased through subsidies they are supposed to receive from pharmaceutical companies selling vaccines. The accusations can reach the level of a conspiracy claiming that these companies spread microbes and viruses to sell more of their products.

The root for such a campaign is of course much broader than the vaccination issue. It has to do with a claim for more freedom vis-à-vis the State, here the freedom for parents to decide whether their children should be vaccinated or not. As explained before, such a freedom in the end affects the freedom of others as lowering the vaccination rate creates risks for everybody. It is also connected with mistrust towards the elite and experts. Indeed, regarding this issue, in order to monitor the situation there is no other way but collecting data and comparing them to data collected in the past to see whether there is an evolution. This leaves again room to accuse the State for manipulating data to make them consistent with the policy it defends.

Still one must ask oneself why fantasies of that sort can find such an echo. The answer may be simple: in times where a poignant testimony weighs much more than a rational argument, a crying mother deploring the death of her child, supposedly victim of a vaccine, will always win against well documented statistics, even when they establish that vaccination prevents 2 to 4 million deaths each year, as estimated by the World Health Organisation.

The problem requires permanent attention as every new piece of Science that can be relevant for the issue becomes misrepresented. The new scientific understanding of the role of microbes in the body has been recently used to give a new line of arguments according to which vaccines would be unnecessary, or even worse that they interfere negatively with the human immune system. Dr Stephan GUTTINGER, a Swiss biochemist now working at the London School of Economics in the Philosophy of Biology department, studied these arguments with the support of the European Research Council, the EU research funding body I have the honour of chairing. Here is a quote from him: “To counter the propaganda by anti­-vaccine activists, the research and public health communities have to adjust their communication. Arguing that vaccines are safe and the most efficient public health intervention to combat infectious diseases is no longer just a question of providing more data on the safety of specific vaccines. It has to expand to discuss a broader view of human biology, the body's microbiomes and their role in health and disease to reassert that while not all bugs are bad, some are and vaccines help to protect us against these." The fight for a better and deeper understanding is clearly called for to attempt to get out of the vicious circle.

Looking for Antidotes to Fake News

As usual when one wants to deal with a problem, it is critical to consider its origin, short-term fixes and long-term measures that could tackle it properly. When it comes to fake news, we must first acknowledge that the problem is not a new one. One finds wrong information and rumours all along human history: some were just the consequences of negligence, others were deliberate attempts to manipulate people and became systematic propaganda tools. Of course, as mentioned in the introduction, with the easy accessibility and instantaneity of the internet, the problem has reached another scale. Almost everyone is confronted with a deluge of information, and to deal with it properly requires a lot of energy and also some method. The most comfortable attitude is unfortunately to give priority to any information that supports what one already thinks about a given subject. The result is exactly the opposite of the dream that some of the creators of internet had, namely to give rise to a connected world where people can share opinions. One must recognise that, for the moment, it leads to a more fragmented world, where discussing in depth rational arguments seldomly takes place. It also offers people, who have the means and the knowledge to manipulate information, the opportunity to intervene on issues that have an impact on society at large: political, societal. This is in the end creating the risk of changing the course of History, a risk that has never been higher than today.

The focus of the lecture was on the scientific side of the problem, namely to confront how scientific concepts and facts are established, consolidated and sometimes contested along with their use in society. This touches a very specific domain where fake news has indeed played a significant role.

I want to quote here Professor Jason REIFLER, an American political scientist, whose project has been supported by the European Research Council: “While some people may simply lack relevant factual knowledge, others may actively hold incorrect beliefs. This project is principally about misperceptions — the “facts” that people believe that simply are not true. What misperceptions do Europeans hold on issues like immigration, vaccines, and climate change? Who holds these misperceptions? What demographic and attitudinal variables are correlated with holding misperceptions? And ultimately, what can be done to help reduce misperceptions?

Misperceptions are an important topic for study because they distort public preferences and outcomes… The results of studies presently available are uniformly troubling — among those vulnerable to holding a given misperception, corrective efforts often make misperceptions worse or decrease the likelihood to engage in desired behaviours.

This ambitious project has three primary objectives…: [to] assess levels of misperceptions in Europe on three specific issues (immigration, vaccines, and climate change) that represent three different substantive domains of knowledge (politics, health, and science); … [to] examine a variety of approaches and techniques for combatting misperceptions and generating effective corrections;…[to] transmit the findings back to relevant academic and policy-maker audiences in order to aid policy design and communication efforts on important policy issues.” As you can imagine, I am thrilled to see how this research develops, as I am very interested in knowing some short term fixes.

Another contribution towards short-term solutions can come from institutions. From this point of view, the European Commission has taken a number of steps to better understand the situation and to tackle the matter. I want in particular to point to the Digital Economy working paper produced by the Joint Research Centre entitled “The Digital Transformation of News Media and the Rise of Disinformation and Fake News” published last year. Another piece of a similar nature is a communication to all European official bodies entitled “Tackling online disinformation: a European approach”. Recently, the European Commission issued a press release about the Code of Practice against disinformation, which was signed last year, and the first reports submitted by its signatories, including Google and Facebook. Whilst the Commission welcomed the progress made, such as the removal of fake news accounts, it also “calls on signatories [of the Code of Practice] to intensify their efforts in the run up to the 2019 EU elections.” These are some of the efforts made at the European Union level.

The only long-term fix is widespread education of better quality, in particular for what entails the understanding of Science, how it developed and how it functions. A number of countries have developed major efforts to make sure that the nature of Science is properly presented to children. Indeed Science is built on observations made possible by the development of ingenious tools and intricate interactions with sometimes counter-intuitive theories. Scientists have to be open minded enough to allow observations to change their minds. And these observations can serve as the basis for others to go further by pure creative thinking. All this very much resonates with the thinking of the European Research Council, as we try to help scientists thrive, wherever they are from, providing them with the means, the trust and the freedom to search for truth and pursue their scientific curiosity

On the basis of knowledge developed in many different cultures, it took centuries to arrive at a method of its own, the scientific method. Earlier approaches based on deduction, by which analysis of known facts produced further understanding, was replaced by induction - to abandon assumption and to attempt to observe with an open mind. The English philosopher Francis BACON played a major part in establishing and popularising this theoretical framework for Science, and many of his concepts are considered part of proper methodology today. The French astronomer André BRAHIC phrased it beautifully: “To understand the scientific method, one has to realize that progress comes from a continuous process of calling into question. A proposition is only scientific if it is falsifiable, in other words if anyone can verify it or invalidate it.” This is why “the history of scientific ideas is an excellent school of doubt, humility, rigour, honesty and the critical spirit, which are prime virtues in the service of a passion for knowledge.

We need children from over the world to be exposed in an active way to such a methodology early on to get “vaccinated” against fake news. The aim should also be to trigger their imagination and enthusiasm to be part of the global enterprise Science in order to improve the world we live in where the pursuit of knowledge needs to be respected and cherished.

I thank you for your attention.