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How to inoculate people against Donald Trump's fact bending claims

Posted on 23 March 2016 by John Cook, Margaret Crane

This article was originally published on The Conversation. For Skeptical Science readers wondering what Trump has to do with climate science, note that this article is actually about critical thinking and inoculation, key topics in our Denial101x online course (Trump is just a case study).The Conversation

A potential Donald Trump presidency terrifies people worldwide. His racism, bullying, and enthusiasm for violence are a great concern for onlookers.

But we see a positive in Trump’s candidacy: We can improve our critical thinking by using him as an example of how people spread misinformation.

And there is no shortage of material to work with, given Trump’s firehose of falsehoods.

Politifact found that 78% of Trump’s statements were Mostly False, False, or “Pants on Fire” (the most extreme form of false). Fact-checking websites, parody videos, and even a debunking speech by former governor Mitt Romney have highlighted his misinformation.

But pundits and political scientists are mystified that this hasn’t hurt his level of support, with fact-checking efforts sometimes helping Trump and energising his supporters.

When facts aren’t enough

Psychologists are quite familiar with the fact that die-hard supporters of an idea aren’t swayed by contrary evidence, which can backfire and strengthen preexisting attitudes. Indeed, trying to change the minds of headstrong Trump supporters may be largely futile.

Communicating to the larger majority who are still open-minded to facts is more effective. Psychological research on science denial provides a model for how to reduce Trump’s influence on the general populace: inoculation theory.

This uses the metaphor of vaccination. Vaccines stop viruses from spreading through inoculation, which is when when healthy people are injected with a weak form of a virus and then build immunity to the virus.

The inoculation theory applies the same principle to knowledge. Research has found we can make people “immune” to misinformation using the Fact-Myth-Fallacy approach. In this method, we first explain the facts, then introduce a related myth, and then explain the technique the myth uses to distort the facts. By understanding the technique used to create the myth, people are exposed to a “weakened form” of the misinformation.

Science deniers use five techniques to distort facts: fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry picking evidence, and conspiracy theories. The acronym FLICC is an easy way to remember these techniques.

FLICC: Fake experts, Logical fallacies, Impossible expectations, Cherry picking, Conspiracy theories. John Cook

FLICC away Donald Trump

Let’s take a look at some examples of Trump’s FLICC-laden arguments.

Fake Experts

The fake expert strategy occurs when people claim to be experts despite having little or no relevant expertise.

Trump has negligible relevant expertise to be President. However, Trump believes that presidents must be smart. He elegantly demonstrates his intelligence level in the following video:

Donald Trump comments on his level of education, and having “the best words”.

Logical Fallacies

Logical fallacies cover a variety of techniques, from distracting red herrings to Trump’s favourite, ad hominem attacks, i.e. attacking a person’s character rather than their ideas (you’ll find many examples on Twitter and in his speeches).

A common fallacy from Trump is over-simplification: proposing overly simplistic solutions to wickedly complex problems. Trump’s explanation for how Mexico will pay for his infamous wall between the US and Mexico demonstrates this fallacy:

Trump’s oversimplifies how to convince Mexico to pay for the wall

Impossible Expectations

Impossible expectations involves demanding unrealistic or unreasonable standards of proof.

For example, while the planet has been warming for decades, that doesn’t mean winter will stop happening or that places will no longer experience cold periods. Arguing that cold weather disproves global warming is like arguing that feeling full after a large meal disproves global hunger.

Trump tweets disbelief in global warming after experiencing cold weather. Twitter

Cherry Picking

Cherry picking paints a misleading picture by selecting a few facts that support an idea and ignoring the larger body of evidence. Trump cherry picks isolated examples of Hispanic supporters to cover the fact that the vast majority of surveyed Hispanics disapprove of him.

Trump demonstrates that he has at least one Hispanic supporter

Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories are a common feature of science denial. Deniers claim that the large group of people who disagree with them are part of a conspiracy. Trump often uses this logic to justify why the media speaks poorly about him.

Trump’s justification of his negative media coverage

Both climate science denialists and Trump are known to entertain a variety of conspiracy theories. For example, Trump has been a big proponent of the birther theory about Obama’s birthplace).

An example of Trump inoculation

Now that we understand the techniques Trump uses to spread information, let’s look at an example of inoculation using the Fact-Myth-Fallacy approach used by inoculation theory:

Donald Trump is highly unpopular among Hispanics. This should come as no surprise given his constant refrain for a wall along the Mexican border, as well as his characterisation that Mexicans crossing the border are drug traffickers and rapists.

A recent Gallup survey found 77% of Hispanics view Trump unfavourably. This is the highest disapproval rating among all Presidential candidates.

Contradicting these statistics, Trump falsely claims that Latinos love him. At one rally, Trump brought an enthusiastic Colombian woman on stage to share her support.

Trump uses the cherry picking technique to distort the facts. He paints a misleading picture by highlighting a single example and ignoring contradicting information.

This inoculation approach gives people the critical thinking skills to assess arguments and determine what information to believe.

Is this the solution to stop Trump?

Given similarities between science denial and Trump support, could we apply inoculation theory to stop Trump? It’s difficult to say.

Inoculation research has mainly been applied to areas of knowledge that are quite different to the complicated political arena. Trump’s support is not as simple as distinguishing between a fact and a myth.

When it comes to voting patterns, political affiliations interact with ideology, religion and many other factors, including dissatisfaction with the political establishment — a dominant theme in this election cycle.

Promisingly, inoculation has been found to be effective in neutralising political attack messages. But whether inoculation would prevent Trump’s influence from spreading beyond his core followers is an unanswered question.

Even if examining Trump’s arguments using the inoculation approach has a minimal effect on the political landscape, at least Trump’s candidacy can help strengthen our critical thinking skills.

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Comments 1 to 23:

  1. While not in disagreement with what you say, I would vote for Trump simply on the basis of my worst fears, which are about US foreign policy. The whole field of Republican candidates has been a competition about who is the greatest war monger. Trump is the only one who thinks he can get along with Putin, pull out of entanglements such as US support for ISIS, and make deals with other countries. That sounds a lot better to me than pushing Russia into nuclear war [don't forget NATO is conducting exercises on the Russian border, 100 km from St. Petersburg, and expanding its missiles and pre-emptive strike doctrine]. I see Trump as the most conciliatory and least violent in this regard.

    The democratic party also went full-bore on homeland security, Iraq, drone killings, etc. Hillary terrifies me in this regard, willing to sacrifice any number of people to meet her targets.

    Once in office, Trump will want to succeed. He will listen to advisers, and quicly learn about the real world. If he can get over his ideological instincts, he may even learn that climate change is not just a leftist thing and that solar is a good business proposition — his comments up till now seem not to go much further than people who exclaim: "Where's that global warming when you need it!" as they wait for a bus in the cold wind.

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  2. I tend to agree with JWRebel in some respects.

    Donald Trump would in all probability be a much better President in regard to climate change and renewable energy than Ted Cruz, who has already shown how far he is willing to go in order to further the Big Oil agenda.

    While frevently hoping that neither ever become President, I feel that Trump would be more amenable to being persuaded on climate change, and by light years more amenable to "the art of the deal" (his words) on renewable energy and the environment. At least, Trump is not financially beholden to anyone. 

    A Trump administration, with maybe Kasich as VP, might surprise us. It bloody well better, if it ever happens.

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  3. So far as #2, it matters not who is VP, never does. 

    It is pretty easy to do a search on Trump as a carnival barker and find such comparisons going all the way back to the birther controversy, but that dangerously minimizes him.  Trump is a man who when it comes to reading his crowd is head and shoulders above the other candidates.  He also plays the media with the skill of a virtuoso.  This is not just about climate change however.  Donald Trump won the PolitiFact 2015 lie of the year for a good reason.

    A candidate who tells you only what you want to hear, but never what you need to know is among the most dangerous of political animals.  Whether a President Trump would be as I think remains to be seen.  His body of work has left me deeply distrustful of most everything he says. 

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  4. JWRebel

    While I see some merit in your vote, I would say it's an uncertain and dangerous wild card sort of play your betting on. Yes, Trump is a buffoon that's flip-flopping all over the place saying whatever gives him the most votes. Hoping that he turns out to be a rational candidate if he's elected, which is hard to foresee considering his shenanigans in public, is a dangerous way to go in my opinion.

    Please note that I share your concern for the ultimate doom, i.e nuclear war. If I were an American citizen I would vote for Sanders, even though he said he would continue to politically and economically isolate Russia. Him voting against US policy in the Middle East tells me that he is rational enough to not to escalate things to a confrontation with Russia.
    Unfortunately, Sanders doesn't really stand a chance in a system of bought elections.

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  5. #3, knaugle,

    Abraham Lincoln: "I would agree to any evil to prevent a worse one".

    Between Trump and Clinton: Clinton

    Between Trump and Cruz: Trump

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  6. #1 JWRebel

    "US support for ISIS"?  Is this a typo?

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  7. Penguin

    The most clear and present danger is actually climate change. If we were even a little bit serious the US and the EU would each be spending 400-500€Billion a year on mitigation, research, etc. Military budgets should be repurposed and added to that: the earth is a more all or nothing proposition than any (military) necessity ever has been.

    That said, few people realize how likely it is to push Russia (or Nato) into using tactical nuclear and things getting out of hand. Current generation of politicians are not adults trying to de-escalate, but are juveniles pushing the neo-con insanity, after having abolished the hotlines and many of the political safe-guards. That's why a psychopath like Hillary scares me even more than a blow-hard narcissist like Trump. Don't forget that it was Nixon and Reagan that ultimately made overtures to the East and brought about detente.

    Sanders' foreign policy statements are not reassuring, but I would be far more inclined to vote Sanders than anything else, if he were the nominee. Like you, however, I have to entrust this one to the American public. Whaaaa!

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  8. Hello,

    I have decided to look more closely into this whole Climate Change/Global Warming issue.  I was wondering where a good place for lots of information would be.  Like in a condensed type version listing many different facts and then where I can go back and look at some things in greater detail.  I hope that makes sense.


    I will admit, I am a skeptic on most things, however, when I start researching something, I usually do it with an open mind and often don't have a real opinion on it until quite some time of research.  Of course, some subjects just take naturally longer to digest if you are not familiar with the terms used, the science involved and things like that.  My knowledge of Climate and weather are probably no more than the average person.  I know when the sun is out I am happy and when it is cloudy I get crabby lol.


    As an example, I studied different aspects of 911 to see if it actually happened the way it did or if it was done on purpose.  That took me 3 years before I made my final determination.  I know, but I had to teach myself about Architecture, Engineering, lots of mathematical formulas, tons of reading, videos etc.  There is really a lot out there to go thru on both sides of the argument.  I still to this day check out anything new that somebody comes up with.


    So that kind of shows you how I research.  Yes, it's a bit anal, but I like to go thru everything before I make a determination on something.  The best way to do that for me is to learn as much as I can about all aspects of it.  I will look at scientific facts and the reasons for it and then I look at the debunking side of it as to why people believe that part is not true.  Of course, there is always the "conspiracy theory" part that I need to research on things too.  I find a lot of that is based on people's creative imaginations.  But you can never rule all of it that way as some people do have good evidence to back up their theories, not many do, but a few do.


    So anyways, if you guys and gals could point me in a good direction for a newbie learner to start, I would very much appreciate it.

    Thank you,


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    Moderator Response:

    [TD] Welcome to Skeptical Science! Given that you are a thorough and systematic researcher, I suggest you:

    1. Read the "Newcomers Start Here" post you can get to by clicking that big button at the top of the home page. Click some of the links in the resulting page, but don't linger in any of those destinations yet; just glance at them so you know what resources are there.
    2. Now click the "The History of Global Warming" big button that is to the right of the "Newcomers" button at the top of the home page. Read the whole resulting page without clicking any links yet, because you should get the overview first. Pay special attention to the timeline, in the sense that some projections/predictions were made years, decades, and even more than a century before observations could be made, and those observations confirmed the projections/predictions. At the bottom there is a link to Spencer Weart's "Discovery of Global Warming" online free book, but I suggest you not click that yet.
    3. Now click the "The Big Picture" button that is the rightmost of the three big buttons at the top of the home page. Read the resulting page, but again do not click any of those links yet, so you don't interrupt your getting of the Big Picture.
    4. Given your self-described learning style, you might next want to go ahead to the detailed history in Spencer Weart's "Discovery of Global Warming." Your own learning journey might well recapitulate some of the scientific community's learning journey over the past 200 years, so you might discover that as your reading raises questions in your mind, your reading of the next bit of the history will answer those questions.
    5. Now come back to the "Newcomers Start Here" and click links within it. Ditto The Big Picture.
    6. Then ask questions and make comments here on Skeptical Science!!!! But please do so on an appropriate thread. To find an appropriate thread, use the list of myths/arguments (click the links in the left margin) and/or use the Search field at the top left of every page. Many regular readers monitor the Comments page that shows all comments on all threads, so if you pick the wrong thread somebody will point you to a better one. If you truly have no idea which thread is appropriate, comment on one of the weekly Digest or Roundup pages.
  9. Adding to the mod's response - I recommend the online course: which a number of the folk on this site were involved with creating.

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    Moderator Response:

    [TD] Whoops! I intended to suggest that course; thanks!

  10. DrDeath @8, I would start with the very basics first:

    1)  Humans are causing the current rise in CO2 level; and

    2)  There is an atmospheric greenhouse effect.

    Once you understand those two points, a lot of the dross churned out by Anthropogenic Global Warming Deniers can be quickly identified for the absurdity it is.  You will then be able to concentrate on the more serious arguments by the more sensible critics of the IPCC (and there are some from both sides, ie, critics who think the IPCC overestimates potential warming and/or potential harm; and critics who think the IPCC underestimates potential warming and/or potential harm).

    That in itself is an important point.  Most of the media, and a lot of blogs give the impression that there are two sides to the argument, the IPCC side, and the extreme downside critics of the IPCC.  In fact, the the IPCC occupies the central position relative to rational criticisms (and some not so rational from both sides).  If your reading does not make you aware of that, it is not broad enough.

    Finally, most blogosphere criticism of the IPCC, and a lot of media criticism of the IPCC does not even rise to the level of being rational.  It is flat earther stuff.  In a couple of cases less rational than flat earther arguments, but those are rare.  It depends essentially on made up 'data', extremely selective data, and outright misrepresentation of the IPCC position

    More generally, as you apparently have taught yourself a bit of maths, I highly recommend "The Science of Doom", even though I disagree with the author of that site on some points.  Better yet are good textbooks such as:

    Principles of Planetary Climate, by Raymond Pierrehumbert

    The Warming Papers, edited by David Archer and Raymond Pierrehumbert (which reviews the foundational papers of global warming)

    Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast, by David Archer

    The first and second of these have associated websites, which make them particularly useful.

    Also worthwhile getting, and the best popular book on the subject IMO, is Richard Alley's, Earth: The Operators Manual.

    Finally, while I concur with the advise given above, and think SkS the best place to ask basic questions, as your understanding improves you will get more milage by asking your questions at Science of Doom, Tamino's Open Mind for statistics questions, ... And Then There's Physics for general questions on the debate, and Real Climate for detailed science questions.  This is not a criticism of Skeptical Science, but a reflection of the focus of the site.  I should also note that some of the authors on Skeptical Science, particularly in particular areas (Kevin Cowtan on temperature records, Rob Painting on sea levels, Dikran Marsupial on statistics and the carbon cycle) have detailed and in depth knowledge of the subject and will give you answers as good as you will get anywhere else.  Unfortunately they are also busy and often are not able to respond.

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  11. DrDeath

    In addition to others comments, the question I might pose to you is how much basic thermodynamics do you know? Because climate, at a basic level is about energy and energy flows.

    Google/Wikipedia topics like:

    Earth's Radiative Energy Balance. Follow the energy trail.

    Greenhouse Effect.

    Look into the differences between the energy needed to change the temperature of air vs water, how much is needed to melt ice, vapourise water etc. If you want to get more technical look into the Stefan-Bolzmann equation, Planck's Law, Atmospheric Lapse Rate. When you realise the Earth's surface temperature is 10's of degrees warmer than it should be given how far from the Sun we are and how reflective the Earth is a hell of a lot falls into place.

    Make sure you start with an understanding of the distinction between climate and weather.

    And a second to TD's cite of Spencer Weart's 'Discovery of Climate Warming'. Following what the scientists did will suggest topics you may not have considered.

    Also, with Tom's link to RealClimate, they have an excellent Sources page. You can use it to link to temperature datasets, ocean heat content observations, databases of CO2 readings and more. Even just to get a sense of how much data is out there.

    Then a general area to research is Paleoclimate. Not just ice-core records, that is recent as far as the Earth is concerned. There are insights to be gained when we look back 100's of millions of years, including just how bad climate has been in the past. And it provides a reality check when people suggest climate can't change in harmful ways. Oh yes it can, it has done so repeatedly.

    A general trap to be wary of. Many skeptics try to paint climate science as being about just CO2 then claim that it is more complex than that. A Strawman argument. Well doh, the scientists know all of that. They know climate is about many factors, which have differing impacts in different contexts. The position of the continents impacts climate significantly for example. But since movement of the continents occurs on time scales of millions of years, they aren't going to impact on climate change on human timescales. Context matters.

    If your researching claims, keep your antenna primed for logical fallacies. For example, 'Climate has always changed without humans here', with the implied subtext that therefore any current change isn't caused by us. Thats a non sequiter. The other key one is cherry-picking - using local, specific or truncated data to imply broad or global phenomena.

    Lots to study, really fun to discover actually, pity the subject is so serious.

    Plenty of folks here willing to answer questions or point you towards data.

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  12. #3, knaugle,

    ".. it matters not who is VP, never does"

    Just two words to disprove that contention: Dick Cheney

    Cheney had a malign influence on the policies of the last Bush administration, not least in regard to energy and climate.

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  13. # 7 JWRebel

    " ... a psychopath like Hillary scares me .. "

    Not sure where that is coming from, but in a European perspective Hillary Clinton is seen as a safe pair of hands, not only on energy and climate, but also in regard to foreign policy. It was Clinton who re-booted the US' foreign relations with allies and enemies in 2008, after the disastrous Bush years.

    While the EU totters in the face of multifaceted crises (Brexit, the possible fragmentation of both the UK and Spain, a prolonged recession and currency crisis, the return of right-wing authoritarianism as a political force, a refugee crisis unparallel since 1945, a militaristic and expansionist Russia ..) the last person we want to see directing US policy is the vainglorious and volatile Trump.

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  14. Dr Death @8.  Not unsurprisingly despite your comment "I will look at scientific facts and the reasons for it and then I look at the debunking side of it as to why people believe that part is not true" none of those responding to your post have provided you with any sites where "debunking" occurs on a regular basis.  

    Some of those sites are Wattsupwiththat run by an American "meteorologist" but probably more accurately a TV and radio weather presenter; Jonova run by the Australian Joanne Nova who has an Honours degree majoring in Microbiology and Molecular Biology  from the University of Western Australia; ClimateAudit run by Steve McIntyre a Canadian with a Bachelor's degree im Mathematics from the University of Toronto and a degree in politics, philosophy and economics from the Unversity of Oxford; Climate Etc run by the American Dr. Judith Curry who is a climatologist with many peer reviewed publications in the field of climate science; Global Warming Policyh Foundation started by the Englishman Nigel Lawson (aka Lord Lawson) who was the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Mrs thatcher's government.  Others you might like to look up are the American Dr. Richard Lindzen an atmospheric physicist educated at Harvard, the American meteorologist Dr Roy Spencer and the American climate scientist Dr john Christy who, with Roy Spencer monitors the global climate using information from satellites

    All of those who I have mentioned are persona non grata at this site but as your stated aim is to examine the views from the "debunking side" it seems remiss not to point you in the direction of some, but by no means all, of those who frequently comment on the 'debunking side" of the climate debate

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Sloganeering and argumentative statements snipped. 

  15. # 7 JWRebel: " ... a psychopath like Hillary scares me ... "

    #13 shoyemore: "Not sure where that is coming from ..."

    It is fairly middle of the road for US conservative belief (i.e. yes, it is false, but there are some views that make it seem reasonable by comparison). Personally, I don't like Hillary, but she is hands down the least scary conservative running this year. Another four years of policies similar to what Obama has followed won't cause massive damage to the country and/or world at large. You really can't say that for ANY of the other right wing candidates. Sure, maybe Trump would have sane policies in office... or maybe he'd be the worst of the lot. Electing a known lying fraud in the hopes that his actual policies will be less destructive than what he claims he would do would be incredibly reckless. Sanders is the only candidate actually pushing a liberal agenda which could provide significant environmental and economic benefits, but he has always been a long shot for the nomination and the window for an upset is closing fast.

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  16. ryland #14: "All of those who I have mentioned are persona non grata at this site..."

    Reality: Every major climate publication and pronouncement made by each of those people is discussed in detail on this site. Some of them, and other prominent skeptics, have taken part in discussion on this site... often at the express invitation of the moderators. None of them are barred from the site or in any way discouraged from participating.

    See, this is the problem with global warming 'skeptics'. Much of what they 'know' about the subject is demonstrably false. They aren't 'skeptical' at all, but rather shockingly credulous... of misinformation.

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  17. I agree with the point that misleading marketing uses the listed methods to try to 'win support'.

    However, I would add that it is never possible to exhaustively fully present all information relevant to any issue. And less than full presentation means selcting what to present and how to present it.

    The real difference has to be the objective of the selected and carefully crafted message, evspecially messages that are designed to make people more passionate about something.

    The advancement of humanity to a lasting better future for all has to be the measure of acceptability. Any other measure, like simple popularity or profitability, can clearly result in damaging ultimately unsustainable attitudes and actions becoming popular and profitable contrary to the advacement of humanity.

    By that measure it is clear that Ted Cruz is worse than Donald Trump. But Donald Trump, with his declaration of his success at grabbing as much reward for himself as he can get away with (he actually has declared that as one of his valued characteristics), is clearly not fit to 'lead' anything. And he has chosen to drum up passionate support for greed and intolerance. He clearly needs close monitoring by responsible thoughtful adults with effective intervention and "Tough Love" when appropriate.

    The real problem is the way that popularity and profitability clearly take over societies to the ultimate demise of those societies as their unsustainable created impressions of success through understandably unacceptable pursuits grows until it shatters dramatically.

    And it is clear that the power of selective (particularly misleading) marketing used for the wrong purposes is the most damaging weapon of mass destruction developed by humanity. And, unlike other developed weapons of mass detruction, misleading marketing is in regular use creating damaging consequences that inhibit the advancement of humanity.

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  18. I see no problem with Ryland's advice to Dr Death to check out WUWT, Jonova, ClimateEtc, the GWPF, et al. If Tom is truly sincere in his intention to with intelligence and an open mind compare almost 200 years of cohesive science with its multiple lines of non-contradictory evidence to what the "debunking side" puts forward it will only make reaching his conclusion that much easier.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Dr Death should be able to ferret out climate science denier websites on his own. We are under no obligation to provide Ryland or anyone else with a venue for promoting them.

  19. Oh, I qute agree JH, but Ryland already let that horse out of the barn, and it might not turn out quite the way he hoped it would.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Ryland is skating on some very thin ice with respect to his posting privileges on this site. 

  20. Much as I admire Dr Death for his stated diligence in learning the maths, science and all in relation to climate change, I would caution him in that this isn't the answer.

    As a layman, with just a smattering of climatology education, the one thing that sticks out above all else is that the subject is immensely complicated, and involves expert knowledge of dozens of entirely different disciplines from statistical analysis through thermodynamics to ice core study.

    I am sure that most in the field have to take much of the studies outside their particular expertise on trust, within the scientific method. Trying to become expert enough to make sense of *all* the data out there is to me not sensible.

    Looking at it from well outside, however, and seeing just how much all the different disciplines converge on the same opinion, convinces me. There will always be outliers: spotting *them* is easier than following complex arguments that the majority of the scientific community agree on.

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  21. I love that phrase "firehose of falsehoods". Can I steal it for use in my online denialist fighting? It's so much more usable than pointing out a Gish Gallop, then having to explain what one is for the general audience, who have rarely heard the term before.

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  22. There are no good choices for US president.  Even Clinton represents BAU which will guarantee catastrophee.  Obama was a good president, but proved to be totally ineffectual re climate change.

    The election result doesn't really matter because the US president is much less powerful than people imagine.  The real power lies with Wall street and the mega-corporations.  They are finally seeing the light as fossil fuel prices tank and their profits shrink.  As always, just follow the money.  When renewables become more profitable than fossil fuels, then we will see some change.

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  23. Fossil Fuel prices aren't tanking for any logical reason: some say it's to stop America drilling for their own reserves and thus it's Geo-political rather than for any natural limiting factor!

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