We’ve all heard about the dangers of antibiotic-resistant bacteria: nasty little bugs that simply do not respond to conventional treatment. But another type of resistance could potentially be even more dangerous: humans with fact-resistant attitudes.
This is a problem that seems to have flared up recently, as fake news competes with real news, confusing the citizenry and leading to decisions that may well prove regrettable.
Misinformation is especially prevalent when it comes to the subject of climate change, where a substantial number of people have become entrenched in an attitude that no amount of factual information or rational argument can change.
It’s a question that researchers at Cambridge University have been studying in hope of finding some treatment — perhaps in the form of a ‘vaccine’ — that could protect the broader population.
Looking through a medical lens, you could say that these individuals have been infected by fact-resistant misinformation. The researchers wanted to know if their research subjects could be “inoculated” against such misinformation. By adding a small amount of misinformation to otherwise factual information, the researchers hoped to build up immunity to falsities. Here’s how it worked.
At the outset, subjects shown misinformation dropped their belief in a scientific consensus by 9 percent. At the same time, those shown only factual information increased their acknowledgement of that scientific consensus by 20 percent.
But those gains were negated when the subjects were shown misinformation in the form of a fake petition of scientists, with only 0.50 percent remaining convinced of the consensus. This shows how powerful false information can be.
The scientists exposed a second test group to a discussion of factual distortion often used by politically-motivated groups. They then repeated the above, and found that the negation effect of the misinformation was largely eliminated.
Specifically the general impact of this cognitive “inoculation” was a shift of 6.5 percentage points back toward acceptance of the scientific consensus, even with the exposure to misinformation.
When more detailed information about the nature of the misinformation was given, the retention rate grew to almost 13 percentage points.
This demonstrates that, other than providing factual information, calling out misinformation and discrediting it with clear evidence of manipulation can be an effective way to avoid losing support for a sustainability agenda to the widespread presence of politically-motivated falsities and half-truths.
“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,” said lead researcher Dr. Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist from the University of Cambridge and director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab,
“It’s uncomfortable to think that misinformation is so potent in our society,” van der Linden continued. “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.” Furthermore, “Misinformation can be sticky, spreading and replicating like a virus.”
Given two conflicting sets of information, people are left with the choice of which one to believe. All kinds of different factors play into that.
The “vaccine” really consists of information that explicitly pulls back the curtain on the misinformation, showing where it comes from and the motivation behind it.
The idea is not new. In fact, these techniques have been used by both the tobacco and the fossil fuel industries to inject public doubt about scientific arguments being made on behalf of the public good.
The researchers also found surprising results when they looked at the political affiliation of the subjects.
Before inoculation, the fake news negated the factual for both Democrats and Independents. In the case of Republicans, the fake info actually swung their opinions by a further 9 percentage points.
However, once the “inoculation” was given, the positive effects of the accurate information were preserved across all political parties.
Says van der Linden: “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.”
That means that when “inoculated,” subjects developed an immunity to the ubiquitous propaganda that attempts to cast doubt on the clear consensus of scientists working on behalf of the public good. The subjects, on average, maintained their view without backsliding.
Of course, “There will always be people completely resistant to change,” van der Linden conceded, “but we tend to find there is room for most people to change their minds, even just a little.”
These findings are particularly important at this moment, when the Donald Trump administration seems intent on waging an all-out war against climate science in order to protect the profits of the fossil fuel industry.
Image credit: Flickr/NIAID