Guest essay by Eric Worrall
A new study suggests that if people are psychologically “inoculated” with deliberately “weakened” versions of climate skeptic arguments, they are more likely to reject real skeptic positions.
The Press Release;
Psychological ‘vaccine’ could help immunize public against ‘fake news’ on climate change
Sander van der Linden, Anthony Leiserowitz,Seth Rosenthal, Edward Maibach
UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE
In medicine, vaccinating against a virus involves exposing a body to a weakened version of the threat, enough to build a tolerance.
Social psychologists believe that a similar logic can be applied to help “inoculate” the public against misinformation, including the damaging influence of ‘fake news’ websites propagating myths about climate change.
A new study compared reactions to a well-known climate change fact with those to a popular misinformation campaign. When presented consecutively, the false material completely cancelled out the accurate statement in people’s minds – opinions ended up back where they started.
Researchers then added a small dose of misinformation to delivery of the climate change fact, by briefly introducing people to distortion tactics used by certain groups. This “inoculation” helped shift and hold opinions closer to the truth – despite the follow-up exposure to ‘fake news’.
The study on US attitudes found the inoculation technique shifted the climate change opinions of Republicans, Independents and Democrats alike.
Published in the journal Global Challenges, the study was conducted by researchers from the universities of Cambridge, UK, Yale and George Mason, US. It is one of the first on ‘inoculation theory’ to try and replicate a ‘real world’ scenario of conflicting information on a highly politicised subject.
“Misinformation can be sticky, spreading and replicating like a virus,” says lead author Dr Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist from the University of Cambridge and Director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab.
“We wanted to see if we could find a ‘vaccine’ by pre-emptively exposing people to a small amount of the type of misinformation they might experience. A warning that helps preserve the facts.
“The idea is to provide a cognitive repertoire that helps build up resistance to misinformation, so the next time people come across it they are less susceptible.”
To find the most compelling climate change falsehood currently influencing public opinion, van der Linden and colleagues tested popular statements from corners of the internet on a nationally representative sample of US citizens, with each one rated for familiarity and persuasiveness.
The winner: the assertion that there is no consensus among scientists, apparently supported by the Oregon Global Warming Petition Project. This website claims to hold a petition signed by “over 31,000 American scientists” stating there is no evidence that human CO2 release will cause climate change.
The study also used the accurate statement that “97% of scientists agree on manmade climate change”. Prior work by van der Linden has shown this fact about scientific consensus is an effective ‘gateway’ for public acceptance of climate change.
In a disguised experiment, researchers tested the opposing statements on over 2,000 participants across the US spectrum of age, education, gender and politics using the online platform Amazon Mechanical Turk.
In order to gauge shifts in opinion, each participant was asked to estimate current levels of scientific agreement on climate change throughout the study.
Those shown only the fact about climate change consensus (in pie chart form) reported a large increase in perceived scientific agreement – an average of 20 percentage points. Those shown only misinformation (a screenshot of the Oregon petition website) dropped their belief in a scientific consensus by 9 percentage points.
Some participants were shown the accurate pie chart followed by the erroneous Oregon petition. The researchers were surprised to find the two neutralised each other (a tiny difference of 0.5 percentage points).
“It’s uncomfortable to think that misinformation is so potent in our society,” says van der Linden. “A lot of people’s attitudes toward climate change aren’t very firm. They are aware there is a debate going on, but aren’t necessarily sure what to believe. Conflicting messages can leave them feeling back at square one.”
Alongside the consensus fact, two groups in the study were randomly given ‘vaccines’:
A general inoculation, consisting of a warning that “some politically-motivated groups use misleading tactics to try and convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists”.
A detailed inoculation that picks apart the Oregon petition specifically. For example, by highlighting some of the signatories are fraudulent, such as Charles Darwin and members of the Spice Girls, and less than 1% of signatories have backgrounds in climate science.
For those ‘inoculated’ with this extra data, the misinformation that followed did not cancel out the accurate message.
The general inoculation saw an average opinion shift of 6.5 percentage points towards acceptance of the climate science consensus, despite exposure to fake news.
When the detailed inoculation was added to the general, it was almost 13 percentage points – two-thirds of the effect seen when participants were just given the consensus fact.
The research team point out that tobacco and fossil fuel companies have used psychological inoculation in the past to sow seeds of doubt, and to undermine scientific consensus in the public consciousness.
They say the latest study demonstrates that such techniques can be partially “reversed” to promote scientific consensus, and work in favour of the public good.
The researchers also analysed the results in terms of political parties. Before inoculation, the fake negated the factual for both Democrats and Independents. For Republicans, the fake actually overrode the facts by 9 percentage points.
However, following inoculation, the positive effects of the accurate information were preserved across all parties to match the average findings (around a third with just general inoculation; two-thirds with detailed).
“We found that inoculation messages were equally effective in shifting the opinions of Republicans, Independents and Democrats in a direction consistent with the conclusions of climate science,” says van der Linden.
“What’s striking is that, on average, we found no backfire effect to inoculation messages among groups predisposed to reject climate science, they didn’t seem to retreat into conspiracy theories.
“There will always be people completely resistant to change, but we tend to find there is room for most people to change their minds, even just a little.”
The Abstract of the study;
Inoculating the Public against Misinformation about Climate Change
Effectively addressing climate change requires significant changes in individual and collective human behavior and decision-making. Yet, in light of the increasing politicization of (climate) science, and the attempts of vested-interest groups to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change through organized “disinformation campaigns,” identifying ways to effectively engage with the public about the issue across the political spectrum has proven difficult. A growing body of research suggests that one promising way to counteract the politicization of science is to convey the high level of normative agreement (“consensus”) among experts about the reality of human-caused climate change. Yet, much prior research examining public opinion dynamics in the context of climate change has done so under conditions with limited external validity. Moreover, no research to date has examined how to protect the public from the spread of influential misinformation about climate change. The current research bridges this divide by exploring how people evaluate and process consensus cues in a polarized information environment. Furthermore, evidence is provided that it is possible to pre-emptively protect (“inoculate”) public attitudes about climate change against real-world misinformation.
I was curious about exactly how the inoculation is performed, the following from the full study is revealing;
… The rate of cultural transmission, or infection, may be slowed through a process known as attitudinal inoculation. In medicine, resistance to a virus can be conferred by exposing someone to a weakened version of the virus (a vaccine)—strong enough to trigger a response (i.e., the production of antibodies), but not so strong as to overwhelm the body’s immune system. The social–psychological theory of attitudinal inoculation follows a similar logic: A threat is introduced by forewarning people that they may be exposed to information that challenges their existing beliefs or behaviors. Then, one or more (weakened) examples of that information are presented and directly refuted in a process called “refutational pre-emption” or “prebunking.” In short, attitudinal resistance is conferred by pre-emptively highlighting false claims and refuting potential counterarguments. …
Read more: Same link as above
In the supplemental information document, the study authors provide an example of inoculation. They authors present the Oregon Petition claim “31,487 American scientists have signed this petition, including 9,029 with PhDs“, along with an image of Physics Giant Edward Teller’s Oregon Petition signature (see image at the top of this post), followed by the following “counterargument”.
General (In1) and Detailed (In2) Inoculation Messages
General: Nearly all climate scientists—97%—have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening. Some politically-motivated groups use misleading tactics to try to convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists. However, scientific research has found that among climate scientists “there is virtually no disagreement that humans are causing climate change”.
Detailed: One such politically motivated group claims to have collected signatures from over 31,000 “scientists” (including over 9,000 who hold Ph.D.’s) on a petition urging the U.S. government to reject any limits on greenhouse gas emissions because; “there is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of Earth’s climate.” They claim that these signatures prove that there is no scientific consensus on human-caused climate change.
This may sound convincing at first. However, several independent investigations have concluded that the “Petition Project” is extremely misleading. For instance, many of the signatures on the petition are fake (for example, past signatories have included the long- deceased Charles Darwin, members of the Spice Girls, and fictional characters from Star Wars). Also, although 31,000 may seem like a large number, it actually represents less than 0.3% of all US science graduates (a tiny fraction). Further, nearly all of the legitimate signers have no expertise in climate science at all. In fact, less than 1% of those who signed the petition claim to have any background in Climate or Atmospheric Science. Simply calling yourself a “scientist” does not make someone an expert in climate science. By contrast, 97% of actual climate scientists, agree that human-caused climate change is happening.
In my opinion this counter argument is deeply misleading.
- There is no mention that the 97% consensus claim is based on a disputed study.
- There is no mention of who Edward Teller is. As a skeptic I don’t defer to anyone’s authority, even Edward Teller doesn’t get a free pass. But having someone like Teller onboard surely means that the position he supports is worthy of closer examination.
- Suggesting that people from fields related to climate science have no right to criticise how climate science is conducted is ridiculous. For example, excluding input from non-climate scientists would exclude criticism from statisticians, who frequently object to the sloppy use of statistics by non-statisticians. Statistics matters – in scientific studies which rely on statistical analysis, sloppy use of statistics can lead to erroneous conclusions.
Are the authors aware of these flaws in their counterargument? Quite possibly – but their intention with their study was to test the impact of deliberately weakened skeptic positions, to test their “inoculation” theory, not to educate people about climate change.
The moral premise of this study is my most serious concern – it is not OK to play increasingly devious psychological tricks on people to win support. Of course it is possible to convince more people by providing them with a distorted, “weakened” version of your opponent’s position, which is what “inoculation” theory seems to be about – but that doesn’t make it right.