Mar 8, 2018

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

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1. The fast and far reach of false news

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

False news spreads faster than true stories, and it's because of humans, not bots, according to a new study published today in Science. Our preference for novel news, which is often false, may be driving our behavior, researchers from MIT report.

The bottom line: "It's important to avoid temptation to shift the blame elsewhere and focus on these non- human and foreign actors. Even if we solve bots and the foreign interference problem, it wouldn’t solve the problem of online misinformation," says Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, who wasn't involved in the research.

The details from the study, which is one of the first large scientific ones to actually analyze false news:

  • Researchers looked at how roughly 2500 contested news stories — determined to be true or false by six fact-checking sites — spread on Twitter between 2006 and 2017. Through 4.5 million tweets, they found that false stories — especially political ones — traveled faster, farther and deeper into the network than the true kind.
  • They examined users' timelines over 60 days and found they were more likely to tweet information they hadn't seen before. And, this novel information was more likely to be false than true.
  • They then went back and, using a bot detection algorithm, removed bots from the analysis. Surprisingly, MIT's Soroush Vosoughi says, bots weren't the reason for the difference between true and false news — they spread them equally.

What's next: Coming up with ways to intervene and dampen the spread of misinformation, Vosoughi says. One possibility would be an indicator of how much a person is contributing to a "healthy" discourse on a platform.

Read the full story here.

2. Global warming brings big changes to Gulf of Maine

Erin Ross writes: The Gulf of Maine is getting warm — quick. From 2004–2013, sea temperatures there rose faster than almost any other location on Earth.

Why it matters: The Gulf is home to a number of endangered species, and the fisheries there bring in several billion dollars per year to the U.S. and Canada, but the Gulf’s future hangs in the balance. Researchers are scrambling to understand what the warming water means for the people and animals who rely on the ecosystem, particularly as the changes there provide a glimpse into the future of coastlines around the world.

The impact: Humpback whales, endangered right whales, several sea birds, and crucial food species like bluefin tuna migrate into the Gulf of Maine. But climate change has caused some fish populations to collapse, threatening the animals who call the Gulf home, and the people who make a living on it.

The bottom line: When we talk about warming waters, we often talk about shifting populations. Questions revolve around whether or not species will move north fast enough to survive rapidly warming waters. But the recent warming in the Gulf reveals something dramatic: even if animals like right whales follow the cold water north, the habitats they’re entering may not be able to support them.

“You’re not just sliding game pieces north on the map. The Gulf of Maine is really special.”
Andrew Pershing, The Gulf of Maine Research Institute

Read the whole story here.

3. Axios Science stories
  • Jupiter: NASA's Juno spacecraft found patterned clusters of giant cyclones at the planet's poles, winds that extend deep below the surface and a gaseous core that behaves like a solid. "In almost every field, our ideas of what Jupiter was like are largely incorrect," the mission's leader, Scott Bolton, told me.
  • Disconnect: The key takeaway from a new global survey is that some people are unsure how much science has had an impact on their daily life, Erin reports.
  • Smoking: A report finds the "tobacco epidemic" continues to grow, particularly in developing countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa that lack tobacco control laws and have low taxes, Eileen Drage O'Reilly writes.
4. What we're reading elsewhere
5. Something wondrous

Common blue butterfly. Photo: Andia / UIG via Getty Images

Erin writes: Get close to a butterfly and you might notice something surprising: they sometimes smell really good. Male butterflies release pheromones to attract females, and those smells are actually detectable and pleasing to humans.

“They have really distinct smells, some more noticeable than others,” says Nicola Chamberlain, an entomologist at the Journal of Visual Experiments. “I have definitely smelled them and enjoyed them, some more than others.”

Tweet from Butterfly Conservation's Andrew Cooper

Yes, but: Butterflies don’t always smell delicious. Caterpillars are prey for a number of species, so some, like the papilio caterpillar, have stinky defenses.“They have these little red antler horn things that they inflate when pissed off, and they release a horrible smell. It’s amazing. You’d never wanna eat that,” Chamberlain says.

Alison Snyder