Science Literacy and Current Events: The Burning of the Amazon

Author: Elizabeth Kovacs, Duquesne University Quark Intern

Upon signing up for the Duquesne Quark internship, I was asked what I hoped to accomplish during this semester. While I was looking forward to becoming more familiar with the peer review process and enhancing my writing skills overall, science communication was on the forefront of my mind. As someone who has always had a deep interest in the sciences and ample years of studying college-level science under my belt (changing majors will allow for that), I don’t often think about how science is perceived by those who are not as science literate. When I read a textbook, come across an article, or see something posted on social media that has to do with a scientific study, I automatically think about where this data came from, how old the data is, and the validity of the source relaying the information. However, I understand that this is simply not the case for many others who are exposed to scientific information online and in the form of social media.
Recently, this difference in science literacy and lack of fact-checking has become glaringly obvious to me as many reports about the fires in the Amazon have circulated online. While I am no expert on the situation, I repeatedly saw articles being shared online and through social media that seemed to be assumptions based on little factual evidence. Many individuals who I would have assumed to be at least somewhat science literate such as astronauts, politicians, and climate change advocates tweeted and made claims about the amount of oxygen that the Amazon rainforest produced for the rest of the globe to make use of. A false claim that the Amazon rainforest singlehandedly produces 20% of the world’s global oxygen supply circulated, resulting in panic that while the Amazon continued to burn, those of us in North America would somehow be left with one fifth less oxygen than we need.
While the Amazon rainforest is a massive green space and is an undoubtedly essential ecosystem, this claim not only overestimates its net oxygen production but also does not take into account the basics of cellular respiration. Plants do not simply take in carbon dioxide and continually expel oxygen, but also use oxygen to power cellular respiration when sunlight is not available. The Amazon, which includes many shaded areas because of the density of trees and plants, is not exempt from this and also consumes available oxygen when there is no sunlight. A quick internet search could have provided factual information about the net oxygen production in the Amazon as well as globally. It also would have provided many of the actual, evidence-based reasons that preservation of the Amazon is essential for life.
The oxygen production is not the only falsely circulated claim surrounding the burning of the Amazon. I saw many tweets claiming things such as “this is what is REALLY going on in the Amazon-and this is what you can do to help.” Many of these threads indicated that the fires were started in relation to forested land being sold for cattle grazing, which is not false. However, these threads also indicated that what Americans should do to help is either halt red meat consumption or drastically decrease it. While Brazil is the global leader in beef exports, its supply mainly stays in Brazil itself or is exported to China, with a smaller amount being exported to the United States. The majority of Brazilian cattle products being sold in the United States are not ground beef or a steak, as suggested by many on social media. It is more relevant in leather products and processed, canned red meat products. Limiting red meat consumption in the United States will have a positive environmental impact overall, but may not have any direct correlation on the burning of the Amazon.
These falsities have been shared on social media thousands of times, reaching thousands more unknowing people. Unless those individuals have done their own research, it is likely that they too fell into the cycle of believing these assumptions without factual evidence to support these claims. Without scientists and others who are science-literate entering the discussion, individuals will continue to retain these false assumptions and perhaps even pat themselves on the back thinking they are helping the burning of the Amazon when their energy is misguided. It is so important for science-literate individuals to join the discussion and emphasize the many reasons that preserving the Amazon is important, such as ecosystem services, biodiversity, and respect for indigenous populations.
Throughout this internship, I hope to become better at recognizing false and misguided scientific information where I see it. I hope to better understand not only those with lower levels of science literacy than me, but also those individuals who have the potential to be very science literate but do not get their scientific information from reliable sources. Everyone has the potential to be science literate, so I believe that learning what constitutes valid scientific information and reliable sources is half the battle. While social media is beneficial for many reasons, I believe that it can also be harmful to scientific topics and events, as evidenced by the discourse surrounding the burning of the Amazon. I hope to increase my science literacy and improve my skills in writing for audiences of varying scientific literacy in order to join the discussion on issues such as these and educate others.

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