Want to combat scientific disinformation? Here’s how

If you’re reading this, there’s a very good chance you tried to combat some science misinformation at some point. Whether it’s an antivaxxer friend, that climate change-denying uncle, or just some internet comment, disinformation has become so pervasive that it’s impossible to avoid — and if you’ve tried to talk them out of it, you know just how insanely difficult it can get.

Now, in a new study, researchers describe some evidence-based strategies to combat the misinformation.

Transparency is a must, researchers say.

Misinformation is hardly a new thing. it artificially generated backlash against climate change science — ironically just as the scientific community was reaching a consensus on the issue.

“Nowhere has the impact of scientific misinformation been more profound than on the issue of climate change in the United States,” researchers write in the study.

That might seem like a contradiction, but it is actually the result of a carefully planned strategy. An organized network, funded by organizations with a lot of money invested in the fossil fuel industry, devised a campaign to slow down the transition to a low-carbon economy, especially by eroding public confidence in climate change. The result was a large-scale misinformation campaign which was wildly successful, says Justin Farrell, of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES).

In a new paper, Farrell and colleagues shed new light on this misinformation, and describe four evidence-based strategies to combat it:

  • Public inoculation: A growing body of research shows that our individual perceptions are strongly influenced by our culture — the set of pre-existing ideologies and values we have. However, there is more and more evidence showing that we can use this and “inoculate” against misinformation. This inoculation is essentially exposing people to refuted scientific arguments before they can even hear them — fittingly, like using a “vaccine”. This strategy can be very effective if done quickly, before misinformation spreads, and if more attention is placed on the sources of misinformation.
  • Legal strategies: It’s well-known that fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil have systematically downplayed the risks for their products. Industry leaders knowingly misled the public. As a response, several cities and states have sued these companies — while this is a lengthy process, it can help shed new light on how these companies lied to the public and to political leaders.
  • Political mechanisms: Like the public opinion, political opinion has also been swayed — but the exact way in which this happens remains difficult to assess. For instance, they identify a case in which the energy company Entergy Corporation paid actors who posed as grassroots supporters of a controversial power plant in New Orleans — but this got little attention in the media, and it’s unclear how politicians were swayed by this manipulation campaign. Placing cases like this under the spotlight, as well as discussing more political candidates’ views on climate change could be very useful in encouraging the election of responsible leaders into office. Also, shedding light on politicians’ financial connections to fossil fuel companies needs to be addressed more — which leads us to our last point.
  • Financial transparency: “follow the money” is generally a pretty good plan. The number of campaigns that promote science misinformation — coming from donor-directed foundations that shield the contributor’s identity from the public–  has grown dramatically in the past few years, topping $100 million. This is done especially to make it difficult to learn who the authors of the disinformation campaign are and to spread haze around the money trail. How often have we heard that scientists are “lying about climate change to get research money” — when the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. The authors call for new legislation to improve funding transparency.

“Ultimately we have to get to the root of the problem, which is the huge imbalance in spending between climate change opponents and those lobbying for new solutions,” said Farrell. “Those interests will always be there, of course, but I’m hopeful that as we learn more about these dynamics things will start to change. I just hope it’s not too late.”

While the study was focused on climate change, similar strategies can be used to address all sorts of misinformation — from antivaxxing and homeopathy to astrology and conspiracy theories.

The study has been published in Nature.

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