National outbreaks of fake news and partisan “disinformation” have convinced many Americans to question the scientific consensus — such as the near-unanimous agreement among experts that human-induced climate change is real and a global threat and that vaccines are safe, effective and lifelong . savings.
While respectable media outlets do their best to monitor and refute such ‘merchants of doubt’, a group of researchers, led by a psychologist in Cambridge, think they can stamp out the viral spread of fake news and lies, just as we would any other infectious disease. – with vaccinations.
Their “mental inoculation” works on the same principle as actual inoculations – that is, exposure to a weakened version or fragment of a nasty infestation can enable a person to recognize and develop immunity to future threats. In their study, the researchers found that they could effectively “vaccinate” Americans against climate change misinformation by giving them information about the scientific consensus alongside a pre-emptive warning that some politically motivated groups are spreading lies about that consensus.
The inoculation method, published Monday in the journal global challenges, was effective regardless of participants’ political affiliations; Republicans, Democrats and Independents were equally likely to reject the disinformation when it was subsequently presented to them. And among those inclined to believe misinformation about climate, the researchers saw no evidence that the inoculation could backfire, making them more resilient to scientific facts.
The study didn’t look at how long the protection lasted — whether “booster shots” might be needed — or all the real-world scenarios where people might be exposed to fake news. However, the researchers are hopeful that the tactic can help depolarize issues and redirect public conversation back to scientific data and evidence-based policy.
“There will always be people who resist change completely, but we tend to find that there is room for most people to change their mind, even a little bit,” says Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist from the University of Cambridge and director of the Cambridge Social Decision Making Lab.
For the study, Van der Linden and his colleagues first conducted an experiment to uncover the most compelling and common myth about climate science. When surveying a nationally representative group of 1,000 volunteers, the researchers came up with this statement: “there is no consensus on human-induced climate change.”
This myth was based on a real-world “disinformation campaign” in 2007 called “The Oregon Global Warming Petition Project.” In that campaign, politically motivated actors claimed that more than 31,000 American scientists had signed a petition stating that there is no scientific evidence that man-made carbon dioxide emissions will cause catastrophic warming of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Next, the researchers recruited a diverse group of 2,167 volunteers from Amazon Mechanical Turk. The researchers concealed the purpose of the study and told each volunteer that they would be randomly asked about 1 of 20 possible media topics. But each participant was asked about climate change, starting with their initial thoughts on it, so that the researchers could gauge shifts in opinion for each participant individually.
For a group of just 338 participants, the researchers only showed them a pie chart indicating that “97 percent of climate scientists have concluded that human-induced climate change is happening” — which is true. Afterwards, that group reported an average 20 percentage point jump in their perception that there was a scientific consensus on climate change.
On the other hand, 392 participants were only shown a screenshot of the Oregon disinformation campaign. That group saw a nine percentage point drop in their belief in a scientific consensus.
A third group of 352 participants saw both, the accurate pie chart followed by the screenshot of disinformation. The two pieces of information “neutralized” each other, the researchers found. This resulted in no real change in their initial thoughts about a scientific consensus.
These findings largely supported what researchers already knew: Accurate consensus information has positive effects on people’s perceptions. But misinformation can have negative effects and negate positive effects.
Next, the researchers tested two “vaccination” groups. A group of 363 participants saw the pie chart next to a “general inoculation,” which is a brief explanation of the disinformation campaign (pictured above). The second group of 362 participants saw the pie chart next to more detailed information about the disinformation campaign (the image on the right).
This detailed information stated that 31,000 would represent only 0.3 percent of all scientists, a small fraction. In addition, many of the petition’s signatures were fake, including Charles Darwin, members of the Spice Girls, and characters from Star Wars. And finally:
“…nearly all legitimate signatories have no expertise in climate science at all. In fact, less than 1 percent of those who signed the petition claim to have any background in climate or atmospheric science. Simply calling yourself a “scientist” makes one even more not an expert in climate science, but 97 percent of reality climate scientists agree that human-induced climate change is happening.”
Then both vaccination groups were shown the screenshot of the disinformation campaign — and it didn’t neutralize the accurate pie chart information. Those who received a general vaccination saw a 6.5 percentage point increase in their belief in a scientific consensus. Those who got the more detailed inoculation saw a 13 percentage point jump.
(The remaining 360 participants acted as controls and only saw a word puzzle.)
Overall, the researchers concluded that “preemptively warning people about politically motivated attempts to spread disinformation helps promote and protect (“inoculate”) public perceptions of the scientific consensus.”
Global challenges2017. DOI: 10.1002/gch2.201600008 (About DOIs).