Barrett and Southwell Named to NASEM Committee on Medical Misinformation

Nadine Barrett, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, and Brian Southwell, PhD, adjunct professor in the Department of Medicine, have been appointed to serve on a National Academy of Science, Engineering and Math (NASEM) committee on Understanding and Addressing Misinformation about Science. 

Barrett and Southwell are two of the 14 members of the committee tasked with investigating misinformation and disinformation about science. At the end of the 18-month term, the committee will release a final report defining what science misinformation is, how it impacts communities and social groups in the U.S., and what research questions future work should address.  

“We plan to have the go-to report on how to think about medical misinformation and what its roles might be,” Southwell said. “We’ll uncover evidence, generate some good questions, and hopefully answer some.”  

An essay recently co-authored by Southwell for the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, defines scientific misinformation as publicly available information that is misleading or deceptive based on the best available scientific evidence and that runs contrary to statements by actors or institutions who adhere to scientific principle.  

That suggests this isn’t a new concept; snake oil salesmen, for example, existed a century ago ago. But the way information is shared today is vastly different than it used to be, thanks to the internet and social media.  

“What I worry about now is timing,” Southwell said. “I could send something to a person who could easily share it with 1,500 people in minutes.” And if that information turns out to be wrong, it’s too late to reel it back: it’s already out there. Editing and retracting sometimes can only fix so much.  

The flip side is that television, internet, social media, and the like also provide more opportunities to correct misinformation in the long run. “Many of the things that are outlandish or wrong tend to be corrected in the broader information landscape,” Southwell said. 

Barrett and Southwell also examine the role that structural racism and health disparities have with medical and scientific misinformation.  

“Health inequities and race disparities are also evident in who get access to the accurate and trustworthy information in a timely fashion,” Barrett said. “Through my research during COVID-19, it became clear from the community perspective that this was a problem that existed prior to COVID but was highlighted and underscored during the pandemic.” 

People who aren’t as connected don’t get new information as readily, so “the information-rich get richer and the information-poor get poorer,” Southwell said.  

A recently published paper co-authored by Barrett and Southwell provides key insights and recommendations to understand and address how misinformation may affect decision-making and impact health outcomes, and describes opportunities where multi-level interventions focused on misinformation may reduce health disparities.    

Barrett is the founding director of the Duke Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) Center for Equity in Research, co-director of equity and community and stakeholder strategy for CTSI, and associate director of strategy and equity within the Duke Cancer Institute. She is a health disparities researcher, expert equity strategist, and nationally recognized leader in facilitating community and academic partnerships to advance health equity and developing training and methods to address implicit bias and structural and systemic racism that limits access to high quality health care and biomedical, clinical and translational research.   

Southwell is a senior director at RTI International and a faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in addition to his Duke appointment. He also hosts the weekly public radio show “The Measure of Everyday Life” and is the author and editor of several books, including “Social Networks and Popular Understanding of Science and Health,” “Innovations in Home Energy Use: A Sourcebook, Misinformation and Mass Audiences,” and “Measuring Everyday Life.”  

NASEM provides independent, objective advice to inform policy with evidence, spark progress and innovation, and confront challenging issues for the benefit of society.