A man reads a newspaper at a reading corner in a police station in Temanggung, Central Java, on Jan. 1, 2020. (Antara Photo/Anis Efizudin)

Opinions Should Never Be Dressed Up as Scientific Fact: Indonesian Media and Disinformation

BY :NELLY MARTIN-ANATIAS, SHARYN GRAHAM DAVIES

FEBRUARY 25, 2020

If Indonesia wants to be a country truly supportive of quality, honest and dignified research, its media must stop giving space to writing containing opinions dressed up as scientific fact.

The Indonesian government is encouraging quality research, and Indonesian researchers, both in Indonesia and abroad, are becoming increasingly visible. The research of academics such as Merlyna Lim, Muhamad Ali and many others are becoming highly cited internationally.

The media has an important role in promoting the scientific work of Indonesian researchers, ensuring this research becomes well-known in academic circles and, importantly, in the wider community. Indonesian media should promote articles that are supported by empirical data and valid evidence.

The Indonesian government, through the Education and Culture Ministry, is encouraging research, and collaboration with foreign researchers, to create quality research. But when the media publishes articles, including opinion pieces, that contain logical fallacies (such as erroneous generalizations, claims without evidence, misinterpretation), we as scholars must weigh into the discussion to provide a corrective and promote Indonesian research excellence.

We are weighing in here to build Indonesia's reputation as a country committed to research excellence and a country that will highlight when errors of opinion have been published.

We want to provide a correction to an article published by Republika on Jan. 10, 2020, entitled "Reynhard: Repeated Patterns" by Ihshan Gumilar. This article contains the writer's personal opinion presented as a scientific fact. The article has errors and if left uncorrected the public will remain misled.

Ihshan is a doctoral student at the University of Auckland (UoA) in New Zealand. Shortly after his opinion was published, the university asked Republika to remove its name. Students are allowed to express personal opinions but not using their university affiliation.

The university also noted that writers are committing academic fraud if their opinions are unfounded or not accompanied by reason or evidence, and if they are speaking outside their field of expertise.

The university has stressed that staff and students must respect UN policies relating to human rights. At a time when Indonesia is growing its academic reputation, the publication of articles such as Ihshan's is damaging.

He presents a number of unsubstantiated opinions and here we mention two. Claim 1: Without giving a clear or coherent reason, Ihshan connects the sexual crimes committed by convicted rapist Reynhard Sinaga with sexual orientation. This link is clearly mistaken and baseless and Ihshan offers no evidence to support it. Claim 2: Ihshan misinterprets scientific research to support his opinion.

For instance, Ihshan cites an article by Sylva and colleagues published in 2013 to support his claim that increasing numbers of crimes are committed by gay men. But after a careful reading of the Sylva article, we could find no mention of such a fact.

Ihshan has either accidentally or on purpose misinterpreted this article. There is no evidence presented in Ihshan's article to support his assertion that gay men become rapists, or that the heinous crimes committed by Reynhard were caused by his sexual orientation. For Ihshan to claim that neuropsychology has discovered such a link is preposterous and dangerous.

Instead of being presented with evidence and a robust argument, readers are assumed gullible enough to take Ihshan's opinions as fact. A very similar case also occurred a while ago.

We support freedom of speech, something now possible in Indonesia in the Reformasi era. But Indonesian media must have the integrity to uphold its code of ethics and ensure writers clearly distinguish personal opinion from scientific fact.

To be seen and treated as a country with intellectual power, Indonesia's media has a responsibility to publish robust research so that people can have access to the development of science.

Nelly Martin-Anatias has a PhD from University of Wisconsin-Madison and Sharyn Graham Davies a PhD from the University of Western Australia. Both authors are affiliated with the Auckland University of Technology (AUT).

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