For those of us who follow climate science, it’s a well known fact that 97 percent of scientists agree that human activity has had an impact on the changing global climate. But we also know that there are plenty of people who refuse to acknowledge this truth, and that they have people constantly feeding them misinformation.
Amidst the current concern over fake news sites, which present lies and opinion as facts, a team of social psychologists have come up with a striking idea: creating a “vaccine” against fake news.
Vaccines work by introducing a safe amount of a disease to a body so that the immune system learns to fight it in case it’s ever exposed to the actual virus. The idea of the fake news vaccine is similar.
The researchers surveyed a group of more than 2,000 U.S. participants across the spectrum of age, education, gender, and politics, using information about climate change. First, they asked the readers what their position on the scientific validity of climate change. They then showed the participants factual and erroneous information on scientists’ beliefs about climate change.
Two groups in the study were randomly given “vaccines” against the misinformation. There was a general inoculation in the form of a warning that “some politically motivated groups use misleading tactics to try and convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists.” A detailed inoculation picks apart the Oregon petition, an effort to discount the validity of scientific consensus on climate change, by stating that some of the signatories are fraudulent and that fewer than 1 percent of the signatories have backgrounds in climate science.
The researchers found that the inoculation caused the fake news to become less effective in swaying participants’ beliefs about the reality of climate change.
In a study of readers without the psychological vaccine, people who were shown only fake science had a 9 percent chance of coming to believe it. But people given the vaccine were much less likely to buy into fake climate science later. These results were seen across readers identifying as Democrats, Independents, and Republicans.
“What’s striking is that, on average, we found no backfire effect to inoculation messages among groups predisposed to reject climate science, they didn’t seem to retreat into conspiracy theories,” said study lead author Dr. Sander van der Linden of the University of Cambridge in England.
So what does this mean? For those who write about climate change, there is a lesson to be learned, which is that it isn’t enough to just present facts about climate change. It’s also important to discuss the misinformation, even just enough to make readers aware of anti-science trends, to help prevent them from falling for those lies.