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Study: to beat science denial, inoculate against misinformers' tricks

Posted on 8 May 2017 by dana1981

After receiving misinformation from the anti-vaccine movement, including its founder Andrew Wakefield, immunization rates plummeted in a community of Somali immigrants in Minnesota, causing a measles outbreak among their children. It’s a disturbing trend on the rise in America that shows the importance of immunization and the dangerous power of misinformation.

A new paper published in PLOS One by John Cook, Stephan Lewandowsky, and Ullrich Ecker tests the power of inoculation; not against disease, but against the sort of misinformation that created the conditions leading to Minnesota measles outbreak. Inoculation theory suggests that exposing people to the tricks used to spread misinformation can equip them with the tools to recognize and reject such bogus claims.

The study focused specifically on misinformation about climate change. The scientists wanted to determine if inoculation could boost peoples’ resistance to false balance in the media, and efforts to cast doubt on the 97% expert consensus on human-caused global warming.

The two issues are connected – in climate stories, journalists will often present arguments by climate scientists and climate deniers with equal weight, creating the perception of a 50/50 split when in reality, 97% of experts are on one side, as elegantly illustrated by John Oliver in this clip with over 7 million views from his HBO program Last Week Tonight:

In one experiment, before showing people a media story with this sort of climate false balance, the study authors first provided a group with information about the 97% expert consensus, and delivered an “inoculation” explaining the misleading effects of false balance media coverage.

They found that in the group that was only exposed to the false balance story, average perceived consensus, acceptance of human-caused global warming, trust in climate scientists, and support for climate policy all fell. When subjects were first inoculated against false balance and told about the expert consensus, these factors instead all increased. The authors concluded:

In sum, the effect of false-balance media coverage had the greatest effect on perceived consensus among the various climate attitudes measured. However, a consensus message presented with the false-balance message was effective in increasing perceived consensus, thus neutralizing the negative influence of the misinformation. In addition, we found that an inoculation message was effective in neutralizing the effect of misinformation on perceived consensus.

In a second experiment, they exposed participants to consensus misinformation via the infamous Oregon Petition, explained in the video below, and again inoculated one group against the misinformation

The inoculation this time consisted of a mixture of text and a figure of a tobacco ad with the text “20,679 Physicians say ‘Luckies are less irritating’” to show participants a similar previous example of the fake experts technique employed in the Oregon Petition. 

As in the first experiment, exposure to only the misinformation decreased participant perception of the expert consensus, acceptance of human-caused global warming, and support for climate policies. However, exposure to the inoculation offset the effects of the misinformation.

I asked lead author John Cook how these findings can be implemented in the real world where misinformation about subjects like climate science and vaccines is pervasive.

Click here to read the rest

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Comments 1 to 22:

  1. This junk science attacking vaccines and climate science, and this misleading rhetoric, is all so frustrating. It's a bit of a side effect of everyone having a super computer in their pocket, to spread or read this stuff. 

    The fake balance in the media is also frustrating. On the other hand you are not going to get a 97% / 3% split of warmist and denialist articles, and it will be closer together for practical purposes. But a 50 / 50 split is certainly artificial, and is creating a false impression.

    But at the very least the media could have an advisory note above climate denialist style articles, that there is a 90 - 97% consensus. This would gain them readers through grabbing attention, and promoting full disclosure.

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  2. nigelj @1, a simple search of google shows on the internet, denialist articles far outnumber those presenting the actual science.  I believe that to also be the case in the right wing and/or Murdoch press (and it is certainly the case in my experience).  We struggle to obtain a 50/50 distribution in the "main stream media".

    Part of the problem is that most journalists are scientifically illiterate.  CP Snow wrote in The Two Cultures:

    "A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?"

    Most journalists wouldn't even be able to quote one of Newton's laws of motion, the scientific equivalent of having read any book.  As a result, perhaps, the do not understand what travesties of journalistic standards are the articles purporting to be skeptical of AGW.

    It is not good enough.

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  3. Tom Curtis @2, yes very true, at least In America from what I observe. There are indeed far more denialist articles than mainstream science.

    I agree it's partly scientific ignorance of journalists, and I have seen specific cases of this, but I would contend some of it's deliberate ignorance to keep an exaggerated debate going, to attract readers. Nothing else quite explains things, and its absolutely deplorable.

    However in my country the newspapers are largely quite 'centrist' in outlook, and not as extremely partisan as America. Climate articles within specific newspapers tend to have a 50 / 50 split, so you get an article on evidence agw is causing  more storms for example, followed by an opposing point of view from one of our local sceptics / denialists (mostly delusional fellows). But it's still a fake sort of 50 / 50 balance given the overwhelming consensus that we are altering the climate.

    Having said that, it's  reasonable to expect the media to publish a variety of points of view, given there is at least some genuine scepticism on some specific climate matters. So its reasonable to expect some sceptical articles from time to time, maybe about 20% of the mix would be more appropriate. It would be a bit unrealistic to expect virtually none.

    It would really help if the media at least reported on the various consensus studies. This at least puts things in persepective, and informs the public. Call me old fashioned, but I thought the media was there to inform.


    Regarding our own media, I object perhaps even more strongly to the way media let the sceptics get away with writing blatantly misleading garbage, or total lies, without any apparent conscience on the matter. Of course this would partly reflect a lack of journalists having any scientific knowledge, to hold people to account.

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  4. Would the media give voice to people who say the Earth is flat?

    Would the media give voice to people who say the Sun orbits the Earth?

    Yet the media give voice to people who deny AGW, which is as solidly grounded in overwhelming evidence as the shape and orbit of the Earth.  If they don't know this, they are incompetent.  If they do know this, they are evil.

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  5. My best success talking with skeptics/deniers is when I go way back to the very, very basics.

    1) CO2 absorbs infrared heat. That is a rock solid proven fact that was established over 150 years ago and has been proven over and over ever since.

    2) When you add black ink to white paint it makes the paint darker, when you add sugar to water it makes the water sweeter, when you add stuff that absorbs heat to the air it makes the air absorb more heat and the air gets warmer. This is not really a difficult concept, it's not so much different than things we experience everyday.

    3) They quickly concede and move on the lukewarm or "it's not harmful" arguments. At this point I move on the fact that the warming we see now was correctly predicted decades ago, so  the scientists have a proven track record on this subject, and they say it's going to get much worse and it will have serious consequences. I ask them what scientific predictions they made decades ago that are now proven correct? Their arguments are weak and they know it.

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  6. My Google News Alert has gone from articles about climate science to about half climate science denial.  Sad really.

    The feedback loops that we have already triggered (many were triggered years ago), will give all of us a front row seat of interesting events that have already started---which we hardly notice, really.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] The Google News Alert for "Global Warming" does contain many articles from Deniersville. On the other hand, the Google News Alert for "Climate Change" contains only a few. It appears that the the term, "Global Warming" is preferred over "Climate Change" in Deniersville  - which is kind of funny when you think about it. 

  7. I agree the best way to convince sceptics is certainly to talk about the very solid evidence for the greenhouse effect, as this is the foundation of the whole climate issue.

    But I suggest also show them a big, simple graph  of declining solar irradiance over the last 50 years. This shows solar energy is unlikely to be a cause of climate change, and covers the  main point sceptics raise, weak though it is.

    Maybe the important thing is to keep things simple. People relate to simple explanations and graphs or pictures, better than lengthy detail or complex equations, and even well educated people forget details of school or university physics unless they use it in their job every day. 

    It's also people of average education that dominate the ranks of sceptics. While I'm no fan of Trump and his multiple crazy ideas, he is a good communicator by keeping things simple. 

    I'm no climate scientist and work in a design field, but I read a lot of popular science publications out of interest and have  a very broad tertiary level education. Sadly the only reading a lot of people do these days is facebook, or the life and times of Kim Kardashian.

    I realise you can't over simplify some things as well, and some people do respond well to more detailed discussion.

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  8. [JH] @6 (inset)

    Does it mean that Deniersville is interested in commenting on (i.e. denying)  "Global Warming" but they don't care about "Climate Change"?

    As you can find in Global warming vs climate change, "Climate Change" was always the prefered scientific term by a large margin, according to google scholar. Even in popular literature, according to google books, "Climate Change" is still prefered although by small margin and was less popular only briefly in mod-1990.

    So, deniers don't really know the preffered name of the phenomenon they're trying to deny? Will they ever "catch up"?

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] I suspect that the folk in Deniersville tend to use "Global Warming" more than "Climate Change" because they love to accuse climate scientists and people who accept the overwhelming body of scientific evidence about manmade climate change to be promotors of "CAGW" (Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming). They have convinced themselves that "CAGW" is a derogatory label that demeans the credibility of anyone it is applied to. In contrast, the acronym "CACC" (Catastrophic Anthropogenic Climate Change) just doesn't have the same sex appeal and name recognition as "CAGW".  Likewise, the acronym “AGW” versus “ACC”.

  9. I wonder why sites such as this and Real Climate and Open Mind attract such relatively few commenters compared with sites such as JoNova and WUWT and Climate etc.

    SkepticalScience has the headline "Explaining climate change science & rebutting global warming misinformation"  But to whom are these explanations and rebuttals being made?

    Commenters here are all, well virtually all, entirely convinced  humans are 100% responsible for climate change and don't require any explanations or rebuttals.  From time to time a denier will post but usually that post is heaviy moderated and the commenters here will rail mightily against such unwarranted and unwelcome intrusion to "their site"

    Perhaps the MSM find that if they print, publish, broadcast just the pro-AGW view very few people are interested just as many fewer people are interested in sites such as Real Climate and Skeptical Science than are interested in JoNova and Climate etc.  Perhaps if AGW proponents could create as much public interest in their views as the deniers manage to create in theirs, the MSM might have  a higher  pro-AGW /denier ratio than currently is the case.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] The number of comments garnered by a website does not necessarily reflect the number of people visiting a website and using the materials posted on it. Re SkS specifically, we provide the ammunition (rebuttal articles) for others to use.

  10. Haze @9 : what methods are you suggesting, to capture (and maintain) the professional interest of journalists and editors?

    JoNova and WUWT websites' comments columns are filled with toxic vitriolic and angry comments, because that is where angry deniers go to vent their anger.  They are angry people — not especially about AGW — but the AGW topic is a useful and available lightning-rod for them to express their anger about how life in general is going (and all the changes they see happening in society).  As well as venting public shouts of tribal loyalty.

    We would hope that journalists and editors are mostly motivated by other considerations.  And something else again, applies to the Murdoch media, unfortunately !

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  11. Haze - this site is to discuss science and you do that by backing your argument with references and data. The "heavily moderated" ones either dont do that or are uninterested in holding a discussion in a civil way which is what the comments policy is trying to engender. Got an example of a commenter that you think hard done by who was conforming to policy?
    This site is not in some competition for number of commentators. The traffic stats suggest most visitors dont. It is meant as a resource for those wanting to find out what the science actually says. People who want to have an illiterate rant are well catered for elsewhere.

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  12. Haze,

    I have been reading here for many years.  When I first started there were long debates over the data.  Skeptics would challenge the scientific viewpoint.  As time passed and more convincing data became available it has become impossible for anyone who looks at the data to argue that AGW is not occuring.  A few people still challenge the degree of warming, but even there the data is clear that the expected rise in tmeperature is alarming.  

    At the other sites you mention they develop stories that are not supported by data so that they can continue to argue.  DeanMJackson is typical of recent septics who post here and would fail my High School Chemistry class because they know nothing about data or science.  Should we mourn the lack of ignorant rants here?

    There are a few commentators here now (especially Tom Curtis) who post very strong, data based answers.  Deniers have found it impossible to respond to the data.  They go elsewhere to engage in their fantasies.  Even JoNova and Curry have been unable to argue with the data and scientific explainations posted here.  I used to post a lot but now I rarely post because the answers already here are so strong.   Should WUWT get credit for more posts when most of them are fantasy?

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  13. the trick is to be wise to their tactics

    all the top denier points are effective because they have a kernal of truth

    by that I mean, they are in themselves true statements - hence can be defended

    but in reality red herrings and irrelevant

    so we have - C02 is a traces gas, the climate has always changes, no rise in temps for XX years  

    all "true", but irrelevant to the science of AGW

    I was at a dinner party the other day when this subject was briefly discussed, one guest brought up the "pause" meme

    i immediatly shot back with - "why do you expect tempuratures to go up in straight lines"

    march and be colder than feb or Jan, April can be colder than Feb, but July (volcano eruptions apart) will always be warmer than Jan, Feb or March

    "tempuratures do not go up in straight lines - it would actually be odd if the did"

    you could see the cogs in his brain wirring - then he changed the subject

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  14. Why do certain climate denialist websites get a lot of posts? One  reason is they often publish quite provocatively worded articles. It's human nature to be attracted to that sort of rhetoric. 

    But writing very provocative or even outrageous or "alternative" facts, and getting some readers, doesn't make them true.

    I think genuine research scientists and websites like this have to be careful not to get fooled into descending to the same low, inflammatory level, although its still good to have some colour and be prepared to be angry occasionally, if an issue really deserves this

    Like M Sweet says, denialist websites also allow people to get away with obvious non scientific, or generally irrational rubbish (or things with a grain of truth that are then twisted into more than they really are). Its a place for the children to play, without fear of being genuinely scrutinised or having to admit they made an error.

    But people tire of this garbage eventually. We all like reading conspiracy theories a bit, but they get tiresome very fast, and we want the facts from real scientists doing the research.

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  15. I just watched the video clip featuring Bill Nye the science guy.  No doubt amusing to some but giving entirely the  wrong message.  Look for yourselves.  The"denier" is asked why he denies climate change and gives a concise, clear, straightforward and readily understandable answer "the science isn't in yet".  John Oliver then turns to the "climate scientists" who produce  a babble of sound in which nothing can be  distiguished.  How does this help their cause?  Humorus? Debatable.  Informative?  Definitely not

    A significant sentence in the piece  under discussion is " I asked lead author John Cook how these findings can be implemented in the real world where misinformation about subjects like climate science and vaccines is pervasive."

    The primary interest of the MSM is earning money by selling advertising everything else is secondary.  A piece headlined "Climate Change is a Scam"  attracts heaps of interest.  All the WUWT and JoNova readers say "Yeah bro, right on!"  while the readers of Real Climate and Skeptical Science  "No way bro, the evidence shows that that ain't so".  This sells papers and/or attracts viewers but above all gets publicity which attracts advertisers.

     And on a slightly different tack, I agree that JoNova and WUWT are attractive to the wider community  as their content makes little demand on the intellect.  That however is not the case  with  Judith Curry's "Climate etc" so why does it garner so many comments?

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  16. Haze, have a closer look at Curry's blog.

    She posts her own reflections on climate matters, plus some selected scientific studies (with spin), plus some articles containing nonsense — these articles she says she includes because they are "interesting" but she distances herself from the idea that she might be endorsing them.  Go figure !!

    The comments columns have much nonsense in them : the attraction here is for deniers who are wishing to vent, but do not wish to associate with the vitriolic morons as found at WUWT etc.

    There are few (if any!) other such denier-oriented websites, where the more genteel deniers can have their say in congenial company.  That, I suspect, is one of the great attractions of the Curry blog.

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  17. Haze - Short answer on Curry's blog. She asserts almost nothing quantifiable or testable, implies doubt by emphasizing uncertainties despite their small levels, and basically gives a certain class of climate denialists and 'lukewarmers' a space to claim that the science isn't solid. 

    Again, nothing testable, nothing solid, just handwaving, implications of nefarious actions on the part of the body of climate scientists, and assertions of doubt. It's a denial site. 

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  18. KR 17 - why do folks always leave out the part about Curry's dependence on personal attacks? - Her articles consistently insinuate that scientists are dishonest, she often suggests motives that show serious respected scientists in the worst possible light.

    Judith Curry does her "science communication" by malicious one-sided rhetoric. Tippy toeing around that doesn't help anyone. Why not confront it, case in point:

    "¶1 A look behind the curtain of John Bates’ facade - The John Bates Affair" - A citizen's examination of the article at the heart of this season’s faux climate scandal. "Climate scientists versus climate data" - John Bates, posted on February 4, 2017 at Curry's ClimateEtc

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  19. I can produce dozens of articles (peer-reviewed, if you insist), showing that vaccination is effective.  Nobody, NOBODY, can produce one paper (peer-reviewed or not) that shows, unequivocally, that a reduction in CO2 lowers global temperature.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] The use of all-caps constitutes shouting and is prohibited by the SkS Comments Policy. Please read the policy and adhere to it.

  20. I've been here before, so don't bother with the deluge of abuse.  Simply provide one paprer (only one) that proves your point. Reducing CO2 levels in the atmosphere lowers global temperatures.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Argumentative and repetititve.

    Please note that posting comments here at SkS is a privilege, not a right.  This privilege can be rescinded if the posting individual treats adherence to the Comments Policy as optional, rather than the mandatory condition of participating in this online forum.

    Please take the time to review the policy and ensure future comments are in full compliance with it.  Thanks for your understanding and compliance in this matter.

    [DB] Given that this user has been given this same Warning previously, no further Warnings shall be given.

  21. Karly, nobody can produce one paper (peer-reviewed or not) that shows, unequivocally, that a reduction in solar output lowers global temperature.

    Yet the planet is "highly likely" to cool if the sun's output reduces.

    Some things simply do not need to be investigated via a scientific paper — unless one is aiming to win an Ig Nobel Prize.

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  22. karly @19:

    "Nobody, ... , can produce one paper (peer-reviewed or not) that shows, unequivocally, that a reduction in CO2 lowers global temperature."

    Actually, here is one by Arrhenius in 1898.  He writes:

    "We may now inquire how great must the variation of the carbonic acid in the atmosphere be to cause a given change of the temperature. The answer may be found by interpolation in Table VII. To facilitate such an inquiry, we may make a simple observation. If the quantity of carbonic acid decreases from 1 to 0.67, the fall of temperature is nearly the same as the increase of temperature if this quantity augments to 1.5. And to get a new increase of this order of magnitude (3°.4), it will be necessary to alter the quantity of carbonic acid till it reaches a value nearly midway between 2 and 2.5. Thus if the quantity of carbonic acid increases in geometric progression, the augmentation of the temperature will increase nearly in arithmetic progression. This rule--which naturally holds good only in the part investigated--will be useful for the following summary estimations."

    Here is another by Richard Tol a century later.  He writes:

    "This paper demonstrates that there is a robust statistical relationship between the records of the global mean surface air temperature and the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide over the period 1870–1991. As such, the enhanced greenhouse effect is a plausible explanation for the observed global warming. Long term natural variability is another prime candidate for explaining the temperature rise of the last century. Analysis of natural variability from paleo-reconstructions, however, shows that human activity is so much more likely an explanation that the earlier conclusion is not refuted. But, even if one believes in large natural climatic variability, the odds are invariably in favour of the enhanced greenhouse effect. The above conclusions hold for a range of statistical models, including one that is capable of describing the stabilization of the global mean temperature from the 1940s to the 1970s onwards. This model is also shown to be otherwise statistically adequate. The estimated climate sensitivity is about 3.8 °C with a standard deviation of 0.9 °C, but depends slightly on which model is preferred and how much natural variability is allowed."

    Wasn't so hard, was it.

    Of course you will now reject both examples by equivocating on "unequivocal".  Neither paper equivocates on their results, but you will reinterpret "show, unequivocally" to mean "provide definitive proof"; which in turn will turn out to mean that you require mathematical proof, at least for something you are disinclined to believe.

    That game is, of course, massively uninteresting for those who really want their beliefs to be guided by evidence.

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