Vaccinate public against science misinformation, researchers urge


If the battle for hearts and minds over climate change is to be won, simply being right is not enough. Andrew Masterson reports.


The actions of then-EPA chief Scott Pruitt generated many protests, such as this one on New York in June 2018.

The actions of then-EPA chief Scott Pruitt generated many protests, such as this one in New York in June 2018.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Setting up an information-based “inoculation” program may be an effective way of combating the deliberately misleading messages of the fossil fuel industry and its representatives, researchers say.

In a detailed essay in the journal Nature Climate Change, Justin Farrell and Kathryn McConnell from Yale University, and Robert Brulle from Brown University, both in the US, explore strategies that scientists and advocacy bodies can employ to ensure evidence, rather than ideology and financial self-interest, once more informs environmental and climate policy.

Key to this approach is the brutal realisation that there is no value in climate scientists and advocates simply repeating that the evidence is overwhelming and irrefutable, even though it is. It is not sufficient to have faith in the ultimate triumph of the good guys.

“It is not enough simply to communicate to the public over and again the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change,” the authors write.

“Nor is it ultimately effective to repeatedly engage in scientific debate with industry-funded scientists … or political pundits, hoping to debunk their spurious findings so that the public will finally see the light.

“Because, paradoxically, the partisan divide on climate change grew most rapidly at the very point at which the scientific community became virtually unanimous in its conclusions about the reality and risks of anthropogenic climate change.”

Climate change contrarians, and policy based on their industry-funded positions, at least in the US, are very much in the ascendant. Farrell and colleagues cite examples such as the decision by then-director of the Environmental Protection Authority Scott Pruitt to dramatically cut research – a position publicly advocated by coal industry lobbyist Steve Milloy, who called it “one of my proudest achievements”.

Milloy and Pruitt are just two of a host of people who in recent years have come to exert enormous influence on US policy – but dismissing them as hopelessly compromised buffoons, the authors caution, is a mistake.

“Many, especially climate scientists who have seen the evidence of warming first hand, wondered how we had reached this point,” they reflect.

“How had these once fringe actors, who tended to be overlooked and at times even laughed off as irrelevant bloggers, managed to embed their ideas so deeply into mainstream US politics?

“And how, over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, did half of the American public — and the large majority of the Republican Party and its supporters — increasingly lose trust in, and become so antagonistic towards, robust scientific facts with such dire consequences?”

Farrell and colleagues quickly answer their own question, taking two approaches. First, they note a growing body of research that finds that evidence-integrity is only one of a range of factors that condition whether scientific studies are believed. Matters such as a person’s religious and political beliefs, ideas about the role of scientists, and trust – or absence thereof – in mainstream media outlets weigh heavily.

Second, they outline the careful and controlled strategies employed by the fossil fuel industry, the parliamentarians who accept funding therefrom, and the web of PR agencies and lobbyists paid by them to sow discord, division and uncertainty into the public discourse.

Much of this, they note, revolves around, pushing “scientific misinformation [that] can seem to be so accurate and reliable, or even part of a legitimate ‘grassroots’ movement”.

This is achieved, in large part, “via various communication channels, including academic journals, policy papers, press briefings, steering the media towards ‘false-balance’ coverage under the guise of presenting ‘both sides’ of an alleged ‘scientific debate’, personal attacks against prominent climate scientists and advertising to reach targeted audiences”.

Taking the need to counter this activity as self-evident, the writers explore four inter-related strategies.

Two of these, perhaps not surprisingly, involve using legal and political avenues – the first to expose, and thus devalue, the ties between industry and climate change contrarians, the second to better highlight positive developments such as large corporate and advocacy bodies divesting themselves of fossil fuel industry holdings, for either economic or ethical reasons.

The third approach, linked to the first two, revolves around financial transparency. It works on the assumption that exposing the complex financial arrangements between fuel companies and lobbyists will lessen the impact of the messages delivered.

The fourth, though, takes it start from public health policy and, if it works, has the potential to be self-sustaining. The writers term the strategy “public inoculation” or “vaccination”.

The idea – backed up, they say, by some small-scale studies – works “against misinformation by exposing people to a dose of refuted arguments before they hear them”.

“Similar to how a vaccine builds antibodies to resist a virus a person might encounter, attitudinal inoculation messages warn people that misinformation is coming, and arm them with a counter-argument to resist that misinformation.”

One approach to this, the writers suggest, involves making sure people hear that particular climate change contrarian messages – and messengers – are funded by coal corporations before they encounter them.

Early research, they note, has found that this method works on people from a wide range of backgrounds, and might thus be effective in breaking down political or religious opposition.

However, they add, these are early days in the attitudinal vaccination business.

“Inoculating the public may be an especially promising strategy for heading off misinformation campaigns before they take root, but future research on inoculation is needed to assess whether or not — and precisely how — this practice can be extended beyond experimental settings and applied more broadly to build up resistance to misinformation within large segments of the public,” they write.

Farrell and colleagues conclude that they are “hopeful” their suggested quartet of strategies “will prove to be successful in the long run”.

Many people, disheartened by current policy directions in the US, as well as in several other countries, including Australia, might feel that such hope is more quixotic than rational.

The writers, however, present their case with a sense of urgency, and a confidence that their approach will produce results “not only for turning the tide on the critical issue of climate change action, but also for preventing future cases of large-scale manipulation from taking root”.

  1. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-018-0368-6
  2. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0175799
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