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By Maryland Today Staff 

While the world contended with a pandemic, social media platforms and other sources spewed billions of misleading health messages at users—more than 3.8 billion times on Facebook over the course of a year, according to one study—a dynamic that University of Maryland researchers and their colleagues say can lead to adverse public health outcomes ranging from mistrust in reliable information sources to deaths from disease.

Now, these risk communication experts in the Department of Communication and at the University of Georgia (UGA) are collaborating with researchers at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop and test messaging strategies that can help overcome misinformation during public health emergencies.

Supported by a three-year, nearly $225,000 award from the FDA, communication Professor Brooke Fisher Liu and Yan Jin, professor of public relations and Georgia Athletic Association professor at UGA, will develop and test message strategies concerning vital health information that can help keep people safe.

“Past research found a clear link between COVID-19 misinformation exposure and vaccine hesitancy,” said Liu, the project’s principal investigator. “Research also connects misinformation exposure to lower compliance with government health and safety guidance. In short, misinformation is just as great of a threat to public health as the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, but our knowledge is limited on how to combat misinformation.”

The researchers will be among the first to explore how public health misinformation can be corrected through strategic risk communication and what methods work best in thwarting misinformation. They will conduct two large-scale online experiments on how messages containing misinformation and various types of corrective responses are interpreted by U.S. adults.

“This project exemplifies the importance and promising future for more collaborative risk and crisis communication research across universities and with the government to provide theory-driven, evidenced-based insights to protect public health and safety,” said Jin, co-principal investigator.

Liu and Jin’s research collaborations date back to 2001, when they both studied in the graduate program at the Missouri School of Journalism. Now they are joined by graduate research assistants Tori McDermott from UMD, and Xuerong Lu from UGA.

In addition to the experimental results, the research team will also provide a targeted deep-dive analysis of previous research, and will recommend best practices for how public health agencies can combat health misinformation for current and future threats.

This article was adapted from a news release by the University of Georgia.


By Jessica Weiss ’05

Students of science in the United States are likely to recognize the names and discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo and Charles Darwin. Fewer may know of the many influential curanderos, cosmologists and agriculturists from across the Americas whose work has impacted science across the globe for centuries. 

Thanks to a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, a new project led by Professor of History Karin Rosemblatt aims to establish how Latin America’s popular, Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities were “never on the periphery of scientific developments.” 

“We aim to shift emphasis away from the discoveries of a few scientific geniuses and to foreground instead the many contributors to scientific work—porters, local guides, wives and family members, technicians, herbal specialists,” said Rosemblatt, who is also the director of UMD’s Nathan and Jeanette Miller Center for Historical Studies. 

The project, “Placing Latin America and the Caribbean in the History of Science, Technology, Environment, and Medicine,” will bring together senior and established researchers and graduate students in the field of HSTEM (History of Science, Technology, Environment and Medicine) in Latin America and the Caribbean. The network will secure ties among researchers in North and South America, produce publications that make their research widely available and provide training and mentoring to graduate students.  

Rosemblatt, whose research focuses on the transnational study of gender, race, ethnicity and class, has already coordinated a 13-person steering committee made up of scholars at different stages of their careers working in Latin America and the United States. The committee members specialize in different time periods, geographic regions and topics. They include: Miruna Achim (Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Cuajimalpa, Mexico City); Eve Buckley (University of Delaware); Marcos Cueto (Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Rio de Janeiro); Sebastián Gil-Riaño (University of Pennsylvania); Pablo F. Gómez (University of Wisconsin-Madison); Carlos López Beltrán (National Autonomous University of Mexico); Camilo Quintero (UNIANDES, Colombia); Megan Raby (University of Texas at Austin); Julia Rodriguez (University of New Hampshire); Carlos Sanhueza Cerda (Universidad de Chile); Elisa Sevilla Perez (Universidad de San Francisco, Quito); and Adam Warren (University of Washington, Seattle). Ana Luísa Reis Castro (MIT) will serve as graduate student representative. 

Next steps involve growing the network and building out a website. 

Through the materials produced by the network, teachers of students of all ages will also gain access to bibliographies, lesson plans, essays and collections of syllabi that allow them to cover a broader range of scientific endeavors and a more diverse community of scientists, Rosemblatt said. 

“We hope to convince other historians, students and the broader public that the Western scientific tradition developed in conversation with other, often colonized, peoples,” she said.   

Image: “Two views of Cabo Tres Montes” (Chile), 1891, via memoriachilena.cl


Support for research on constraints on movement, and on exceptive constructions.

Congratulations to Adam Liter and to Maria Polinsky, whose work has earned new support from the National Science Foundation. Adam has received a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant for work with his supervisor, Jeff Lidz, on “Subjacency, the Empty Category Principle, and the nature of constraints on phrase movement.” Masha is the recipient of a Collaborative Research Award on “Variation in exceptive structures,” on how languages express thoughts like ‘everybody laughed except you,' a project on which Hisao Kurokami has already begun to work. See the abstracts below.

Adam Liter and Jeffrey Lidz, BCS #2116270, Subjacency, the Empty Category Principle, and the nature of constraints on phrase movement

In general, it is possible to form a question by 'moving' a wh-phrase like "who” or "which boy" out of a seemingly arbitrary number of clauses, as in "Who did Allie say that Amy saw?", "Who did Alicia hear that Allie said that Amy saw?", and so on. In these questions, "who" is the logical object of "saw" yet appears at the beginning of the sentence. However, there are certain syntactic environments, commonly called 'islands,' in which question formation is not possible. A question like "Who did the book by delight everyone?"--whose intended meaning is 'who is the person such that the book by that person delighted everyone'--sounds unnatural to speakers of English, suggesting that it is not a possible question despite having a reasonable meaning. Some linguists have claimed that these constraints disappear when the offending structure is elided, such as in a sentence like "Amy said that the book by someone delighted everyone, but I don't remember who". Such sentences sound a bit more natural to speakers of English, but their status isn't entirely clear. This dissertation project will advance linguistic theory by using recent experimental techniques to ascertain whether such sentences are grammatical. In advancing the field, this project will also support education and diversity by training an undergraduate research assistant in these experimental techniques, scientific thinking, and statistical analysis.

Using behavioral methods, this doctoral dissertation project probes the link between speakers' reported judgments and their sensitivity to structure in questions with and without ellipsis. The goal is to determine whether the same principles apply to dependencies involving ellipsis as those that do not, with the longer term goal of identifying the computational principles governing syntactic locality. More generally, the project addresses the consequences of mismatches between reported acceptability and subliminal sensitivity to structure in acceptability judgments.

Maria Polinsky, BCS #2116344, Variation in exceptive structures

All languages are able to express universal statements, even though we realize that they are seldom literally true. Consequently, languages also have means of expressing exceptions to such generalizations, via exceptive constructions. English examples include "Everybody but Sandy laughed" and "Everybody laughed except Sandy". Linguistic means of expressing exclusion have received modest attention from philosophers of language and semanticists, whose focus has been primarily on English. Beyond that small body of work, little is known about exceptive constructions across the world's languages: how they are built, what their distribution is within individual languages and across languages, and how they compare to other constructions expressing comparison or contrast. This research project fills this gap as the first cross-linguistic investigation of lexical, morphological, and syntactic properties of the construction. Understanding exceptive constructions allows linguists to create better theories of language structure and to predict the range of variation in natural languages; it helps computer scientists build better parsing models; it gives language educators new dimensions that should be emphasized in language teaching, and it provides cultural anthropologists with additional tools to study societal (dis)similarities in the concept of exclusion. 

This research project employs methodologies from linguistic typology, theoretical syntax, and formal semantics to carry out in-depth investigations of exceptive constructions in a wide range of the world's languages. The project aims for maximum linguistic coverage by using sampling techniques of modern linguistic typology. Theoretically, the project addresses a range of questions that arise from the empirical findings. In particular, it analyzes the contrast between free and connected exceptives, phrasal and clausal exceptives, and coordinated and subordinated exceptives. The project develops diagnostics that reliably identify the different types of exceptives and identifies independent linguistic properties that correlate with these different types of exceptives in a language. Therefore, it allows researchers to predict the type of exceptive constructions in an individual language. Beyond developing a picture of exceptive structure cross-linguistically, the project has notable implications for current theories of ellipsis. The project provides data on low-resource and endangered languages and highlights the importance of linguistic diversity for a complete understanding of the human language system.



By Jessica Weiss ’05

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded a $100,000 grant to support the continued development of user-friendly, open-source software capable of creating digital texts from Persian and Arabic books. 

Matthew Thomas Miller, assistant professor in the Roshan Institute for Persian Studies in the School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, leads an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Northeastern University, Aga Khan University (AKU) in London and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities at Maryland. The Mellon Foundation has been funding the team’s work since 2019.

“We are honored that The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has again supported our efforts,” Miller said. “They have been global leaders in building open-source tools and open-access collections for the expansion in access to and digital preservation of cultural traditions across the world, and we are delighted to be a part of these efforts.”

The project, known as “OpenITI AOCP,” aims to enable the digitization of texts from the premodern Islamicate world—an enormous tradition stretching over 1,000 years. The tools being created by the project team will be free and open to use and will allow academics and the public to produce high-quality digital transcriptions of Persian and Arabic printed texts, from poetry to the Quran. 

“Premodern Islamicate textual production is a massive and understudied archive that remains particularly underrepresented in the field of digital humanities,” Miller said. “This democratization of access to digital text production will change the landscape of Islamicate studies.”

Thus far, the project team—made up of computer science and humanities experts—has successfully improved the accuracy of Persian and Arabic optical character recognition (OCR) tools, which are tools that transfer printed text into machine-encoded text, and have begun experimenting on Ottoman Turkish and Urdu. They are integrating those tools into a platform called eScriptorium. They also held a training session at the University of Maryland in 2020 for OCR experts from all over the world. And they taught a Spring 2021 Global Classrooms course, “The Islamicate World 2.0: Studying Islamic Cultures through Computational Textual Analysis,” on the basics of computational textual analysis as it relates to textual data about the Islamicate world.

Next steps include finalizing the open-source software for widespread use, as well as holding additional workshops and community building activities around the new tools. This latest Mellon grant will last one year. 

Earlier this year, Miller was awarded $282,905 by the National Endowment for the Humanities to support the project.

Image description: The introduction to George B. Whiting's Kitab fi al-Imtina‘ ‘an Shurb al-Muskirat, published in Beirut by American Mission Press in 1838 and housed at Harvard's Houghton Library (*98Miss168). Licensed for non-commercial use.

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