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Why people believe misinformation and resist correction

Posted on 26 January 2022 by Guest Author

This is a repost from Justin Hendrix on Tech Policy Press published on January 14, 2022. It provides a neat summary of the recently published paper "The psychological drivers of misinformation belief and its resistance to correction" (Ecker et al. 2022).

From COVID-19 and vaccine conspiracies to false claims around elections, misinformation is a persistent and arguably growing problem in most democracies. In Nature, a team of nine researchers from the fields of psychology, mass media & communication have published a review of available research on the factors that lead people to “form or endorse misinformed views, and the psychological barriers” to changing their minds.

Acknowledging that “the internet is an ideal medium for the fast spread of falsehoods at the expense of accurate information,” the authors point out that technology is not the only culprit, and a variety of interventions that have sought to solve misinformation by addressing the “misunderstanding of, or lack of access to, facts” have been less than effective. The so-called “information deficit model,” they argue, ignores “cognitive, social and affective drivers of attitude formation and truth judgements.”

The authors are particularly concerned with the problem of misinformation as it concerns scientific information, such as on climate change or public health matters. In order to better understand what can be done to address the problem, they look at the “theoretical models that have been proposed to explain misinformation’s resistance to correction” and extract guidance for those who would seek to intervene. Then, the authors return to “the broader societal trends that have contributed to the rise of misinformation” and what might be done in the fields of journalism, education and policy to address the problem.

The authors summarize what is known about a variety of drivers of false beliefs, noting that they “generally arise through the same mechanisms that establish accurate beliefs” and the human weakness for trusting the “gut”. For a variety of reasons, people develop shortcuts when processing information, often defaulting to conclusions rather than evaluating new information critically. A complex set of variables related to information sources, emotional factors and a variety of other cues can lead to the formation of false beliefs. And, people often share information with little focus on its veracity, but rather to accomplish other goals- from self-promotion to signaling group membership to simply sating a desire to ‘watch the world burn’.

Drivers of false beliefs

Figure 1: Some of the main cognitive (green) and socio-affective (orange) factors that can facilitate the formation of false beliefs when individuals are exposed to misinformation. Not all factors will always be relevant, but multiple factors often contribute to false beliefs. Source: Nature Reviews: Psychology, Volume 1, January 2022

Barriers to belief revision are also complex, since “the original information is not simply erased or replaced” once corrective information is introduced. There is evidence that misinformation can be “reactivated and retrieved” even after an individual receives accurate information that contradicts it. A variety of factors affect whether correct information can win out. One theory looks at how information is integrated in a person’s “memory network”. Another complementary theory looks at “selective retrieval” and is backed up by neuro-imaging evidence.

Other research looks at “the influence of social and affective mechanisms” at play. These range from an individuals assessment of “source credibility” to their worldview– the “values and belief system that grounds their personal and sociocultural identity.” Messages that threaten a person’s identity are more likely to be rejected. Emotion plays a major role- from the degree of arousal or discomfort information might generate to the extent to which it might cause an “emotional recalibration” to account for it.

The authors identify three general types of corrections. They include fact-based corrections that address “inaccuracies in the misinformation and provides accurate information,” those that identify logical fallacies in the misinformation, and those that “undermine the plausibility of the misinformation or credibility of its source.” These corrections can be applied before the introduction of misinformation (pre-bunking) or after (de-bunking), and best practices for both approaches have begun to emerge, including methods to inoculate individuals to misinformation before they are exposed to it and how to pair corrections with social norms. These best practices are generally applicable in a social media environment, but there are some nuances, particularly on platforms where interventions may be observed by others and could be “experienced as embarrassing or confrontational.”

Strategies to counter misinformation

Figure 2: Different strategies for countering misinformation are available to practitioners at different time points. If no misinformation is circulating but there is potential for it to emerge in the future, practitioners can consider possible misinformation sources and anticipate misinformation themes. Based on this assessment, practitioners can prepare fact-based alternative accounts, and either continue monitoring the situation while preparing for a quick response, or deploy pre-emptive (prebunking) or reactive (debunking) interventions, depending on the traction of the misinformation. Prebunking can take various forms, from simple warnings to more involved literacy interventions. Debunking can start either with a pithy counterfact that recipients ought to remember or with dismissal of the core ‘myth’. Debunking should provide a plausible alternative cause for an event or factual details, preface the misinformation with a warning and explain any logical fallacies or persuasive techniques used to promote the misinformation. Debunking should end with a factual statement. Source: Nature Reviews: Psychology, Volume 1, January 2022

The emerging science of misinformation points to a number of important implications, including for practitioners such as journalists as well as for information consumers. But the authors see the limitations of both groups, which is where policymakers come in. “Ultimately, even if practitioners and information consumers apply all of these strategies to reduce the impact of misinformation, their efforts will be stymied if media platforms continue to amplify misinformation,” they say, pointing to both YouTube and Fox News as examples of companies that appear economically incentivized to spread misinformation.

The job of policymakers, in this context, is to consider “penalties for creating and disseminating disinformation where intentionality and harm can be established, and mandating platforms to be more proactive, transparent and effective in their dealings with misinformation.” Acknowledging that concerns over free speech must be weighed and balanced against the potential harms of misinformation, other policy recommendations include:

  • That “companies should be encouraged to ban repeat offenders from their platforms, and to generally make engagement with and sharing of low-quality content more difficult”;
  • Paying attention to how “undue concentration of ownership and control of both social and traditional media facilitate the dissemination of misinformation”;
  • Helping “support a diverse media landscape and adequately fund independent public broadcasters”;
  • Making “substantial investment in education, particularly to build information literacy skills in schools and beyond”;
  • And interventions that address norms, such as those “targeted more directly at behaviour, such as nudging policies and public pledges to honour the truth”.

Notably, the authors suggest broader interventions to strengthen trust may yield results in the fight against misinformation, such as “reducing the social inequality that breeds distrust in experts and contributes to vulnerability and misinformation.”

Having reviewed the literature, the authors also offer their recommendations for future research, including larger studies, better methods, longer term studies, more focus on media modalities other than text, and more translational research to explore “the causal impacts of misinformation and corrections on beliefs and behaviors.” Ultimately, what is needed is more work across disciplines, particularly at the “intersection of psychology, political science and social network analysis, and the development of a more sophisticated psychology of misinformation.”

About the author:

Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own. Follow Justin on Twitter.

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Comments 1 to 14:

  1. This is interesting, but not really new. The problem has been able to be understood for centuries. And in the past 50 years it has become increasingly hard to deny or excuse, yet the denial and excusing persists. The problem is understandably the developed results of competition for status without effective governing of the competition to rapidly identify and effectively terminate harmful developments.

    As a Professional Engineer I understand, and have embraced, the responsibility to constantly seek increased awareness and improved understanding in order to effectively avoid the production of harmful results and to correct any already built items that become understood to be harmful or an unacceptable risk of being harmful. And I increasingly appreciate that my developed biased perspective or 'worldview' is 'not the Norm' in many developed societies. The 'Norm perspective' that gets developed in socioeconomic political competitions for perceptions of status is challenged by suggestions that what has become popular or profitable is unacceptable and needs to change (and some higher status people do not deserve to be higher status). The Norm does not seek to understand the harmfulness of what is developed if there is a developed liking for, or hope to benefit from, what has developed.

    The UNEP 2022: Emergency mode for the environment published January 6, 2022, identifies the “... enduring crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste.” That is far more than climate change. And it is all tragically becoming a bigger problem at a rate than cannot wait for more rigorous science in the hope for policy action to be developed based on 'more rigorous' science. As was correctly portrayed in Don't Look Up is it easy to continue demanding 'more certainty' before the need for corrective action is taken seriously (and even then it may not be correctly acted upon).

    Back in 1988, Edward S. Herman (with Noam Chomsky), presented the Propaganda Model in the book Manufacturing Consent, with an update in 2002 (and a Movie of the same name made in 1992). And Alan MacLeod's Propaganda in the Information Age, published in 2019 was a further update confirming the general validity of the Propaganda Model in the new social media age.

    A summary of the problem would be:

    Rapidly growing tragic results are developed by human competition for status, particularly harmful being the socioeconomic-political competitions based on 'Freedom, Popularity, and Profit'.


    The 'Freedom to believe and do whatever is desired without being governed or limited by the requirement to Do No Harm' has rapidly developed massive harmful 'popular and profitable' results.

    Unfortunately, more rigorous science investigation is unlikely to correct that problem in time.


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  2. The problem of misinformation is a problem on both sides to the political spectrum.  We are really better off long term with the free exchange of Ideas.  

    Misinformation with Covid was brought up in this article which is a prime example of supressing good information in the name of stopping misinformation.  Take Ivermectin for example, virtually no study shows that Ivermectin is an effective treatment for covid (which i concur) but at the same time several regions of the world with heavy invermectin usage for other illnesses have had much shorter waves and those waves have had much lower population levels.  Medical research should be spent trying to discover the cause of the much smaller waves.


    Another example is the better natural immunity acquired from infection vs from the vaccine.  That difference was well known and well documented in the medical literature since August 2021, yet the CDC kept insisting that the vax was better until last week when the CDC finally acknowledged what was known 6 months earlier.  


    The point is that attempting suppress missinformation is going to wind up suppressing good information.  The normal free exchange of ideas is going to have far better results in the long term.

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  3. @2 :   "The point is that attempting suppress missinformation [sic] is going to wind up suppressing good information.  The normal free exchange of ideas is going to have far better results in the long term."  [unquote]

    Umm, not so sure about that, David-acct.   It is a fine Utopian idea, but does it actually reflect reality?   (Mind, I am not trying to argue the opposite!)

    Until about 20 years ago, I would have agreed with your proposition.  But new evidence has shown itself.  Nowadays, on the multiple platforms of the public internet, the river (flood?) of informational flow has become highly toxic.

    Is this toxicity (a blend of nastiness and intellectual insanity) merely an expression of the vices of basic human nature ~ or do the modern open-slather communications simply fan the flames, turning the usual small grass fires into a wildfire of vast extent?  (If we are lucky, this nastiness could all turn out to be cyclic in human history ~ a swing of the social pendulum.  But the cynic would say no. )

    Perhaps this issue could be better assessed by a panel of historians, who would look at the advent of general literacy . . . yellow journalism . . . partisan propaganda . . . fascism/communism . . . atrocities, pogroms and genocides . . . etcetera.  The whole picture, over centuries.

    IMO :  the best social result is achieved not by extremes of "freedom" or extremes of "suppression" ~ but by a middle course, where there is a degree of filtering or damping of the system.  This, perhaps rather easy to achieve say half a century ago, provided you had a foundation of probity in journalism of mainstream media.  But now, in a time of increased partisanship & tribal hatreds and unfiltered public access?  

    David, my argument derives from examining the functioning of living organisms, where complete "freedom" is incompatible with long term survival at the cellular level.  We must look at the evolved biological mechanism ~ and not allow our thinking to be distracted by word-labels and ideological rhetorical slogans.

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  4. I basically agree with Eclectics views on misinformation and how to deal with it. I believe there are good ways of responding to misinformation that don't suppress potentially good information. For example a website open to public comments might publish suspicious looking information by just annexing a note to it saying "the information may not be reliable, and that the official data, (or published research, or whatever) says xyz". Comments promoting invermectin could be handled that way.

    But I do think that blatant trolling nonsense (eg covid vaccines kill millions of people ) should just be deleted or not published. Lives are at stake, and a small number of fools spamming websites with such information can do a lot of damage.

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  5. Just for clarity I very much doubt invermectin would do any good. There are most likely other explanations why areas that have used invermectin have had shorter covid waves.

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  6. David-ACCT

    We see immediately the problem with letting people decide themselves what is accurate scientific information.   Your statement "another example is the better natural immunity acquired from infection vs from the vaccine" is completely false.

    According to the CDC website today "FACT: Getting a COVID-19 vaccination is a safer and more dependable way to build immunity to COVID-19 than getting sick with COVID-19." source  At the hospital where my brother works in California yesterday there were 12 people with covid in the intensive care unit.  None had been vaccinated.  Most of them would have had delta covid.  The New York Times says about 70% of the population in California is double vaccinated.  If natural immunty was as good as vaccination we would expect over 70% of the ICU to be vaccinated individuals. 

    It was reported recently in The Guardian that "Fauci said unvaccinated people were 10 times more likely to test positive for Covid-19, 17 times more likely to be hospitalised and 20 times more likely to die."  The overwhelming majority of the unfaccinated have contracted covid.  Obviously your statement that natural immunity is better than vaccination is completely false.  Please link to credible sources to support your wild claim.

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  7. Reading my previous comment it is unclear.

    The people in the intensive care units in the USA today are overwhelmingly people who are unvaccinated.  They first contacted Delta covid or another variety.  Now they are in the ICU with omicron.  If natural immunity was as good as vaccination there would be as many vaccinated people in the ICU as unvaccinated people who contracted delta covid.

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  8. About Covid, it should be pointed that infection does not always result in seroconversion (i.e. development of antibodies and improved immunity). The natural vs vaccine immunity discussions pertain to people who do seronconvert.  The more contagious Omicron makes it more likely that non seroconverted people will be re-infected. 

    The CDC statement about natural vs vaccine acquired immunity is justified because relying on the infection to develop immunity entails the risk to experience the severe form of the disease, leading to hospitalization, intensive care and/or death. I believe that it has also been shown that vaccination led to higher seroconversion rates than infections.

    Although some risk factors have clearly been identified (obesity by far the most consistently associated with severe disease), a significant number of people without clear risk factors develop severe disease. However, natural immunity alone has been shown to be superior to vaccine acquired immunity alone. The highest level of protection is natural+vaccine, which is why even people who have had the disease should vaccinate (twice the protection).

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  9. There is a lot to consider when comparing the protection from COVID-19 that is provided by vaccination vs. contracting the disease unvaccinated.

    In addition to what has already been mentioned:

    • A different type of protection is developed by recombinant vaccine, mRNA vaccine, or contracting the illness.
    • The level of protection developed from contracting the disease is related to the severity of the disease. Getting a mild case of COVID-19 does not necessarily provide robust protection from reinfection.

    It would appear that the best case of protection is provided by getting mixed vaccinated (recombinant plus mRNA) then contracting COVID-19. But that is impractical to scientifically rigorously investigate.

    What is quite certain is that vaccination is incredibly helpful.

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  10. Supporting documentation: 

    - About non seroconverting populations:

    - About other aspects discussed, this brief is from October 2021:


    According to available data, vaccine is the rational choice, without a doubt.

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    Moderator Response:

    [BL]. This Covid discussion is starting to get a bit off the topic of the blog post, which is disinformation and why people believe in it. Although Covid is an example of a situation where misinformation is common, can all participants please try to keep the discussion focused on the general characteristics of and response to misinformation, rather than debating Covid 19? The focus of this web site is the battle against climate disinformation.

  11. I concur that the covid discussion is off topic from climate science, though my point remains the same.  


    A tremendous amount of information is treated as misinformation because it doesnt fit the censors bias.  As a result, far more good information is and will be censored and/or treated is misinformation.  

    Phillippe comment "the CDC statement is justified because ..." is based on trying to get the preferred result even though the CDC statement is now known to be inaccurate.  That is a good example of treating factually accurate statements as misinformation 


    In summary, censoring misinformation in the long term will be far more damaging to the advancement of science.  Think back in history with prior censoring of information, it has never been pretty.

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  12. David-acct  @11  :-

    Once again, I must respectfully beg to disagree ~ for I think you are being too idealistic, and you are basing your ideas on the older & simpler world of the pre-internet.  It is good-hearted of you, but you are not being sufficiently cynical about human nature.

    The last 20 years of "internet" have revealed the result of this novel & unplanned experiment in social interactions.  And the resulting data are very ugly ~ and so it is time for you to revise your opinions and modify your ideals pragmatically.

    The case of Philippe Chantreau & the CDC advice is very much a special case:  a case of a short-term situation, where imperfect decisions (imperfect in hindsight) are taken in the heat of battle.

    In the long-term . . . for example climate science . . . there is time for the science to become more "settled".   And we have the benefit of decades of hindsight & progress of knowledge.   The science-deniers & conspiracy-theorists have had a grand "field day" for the whole two years of the pandemic, and they have done immense harm in the short run.  And they are still continuing to do great harm to future generations, by opposing action against AGW.

    David, I gather you find any type of restriction to be somewhat distasteful.  That's understandable, to a degree.  But now it has become necessary to actively choose the lesser of two evils.  I am sure you know the old saying :-  "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

    Here endeth the lecture for the first month.  And best wishes for the rest of 2022, David.

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  13. David-acct:

    I note that you have linked no sources to support your wild claims.  It is typical for people who believe misinformation that they do not link to credible sources to support their claims.

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  14. I know that the Covid discussion is irking moderation but I can not let David-acct's comment stand, as it is profoundly wrong. The CDC said that vaccination was a safer and more dependable way to acquire immunity. The data available is consistent with that statement, the statement is completely factual. Catching the disease can be deadly, and if it is a mild form, the patient may not acquire immunity. Although the vaccine acquired immunity may not perform as well as naturally acquired, it is still enough to prevent the severe form in the immense majoity of cases, and it is a far better way to protect the population.

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