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Simple Jury Persuasion: A psychology vaccine for climate  change disinformation

Wednesday, February 1, 2017
posted by Douglas Keene

Disinformation is everywhere you turn these days, so we need good tools to debunk those “alternative facts”. Last year we wrote about a strategy to combat distrust of science by using the concept of the “gateway belief”. While that paper received criticism from a well-known law professor, over at the Cultural Cognition blog, the same research team has come back with a new paper wherein they obliquely mention the criticism and then dismiss it in favor of writing about their new research. They are (again) writing about disinformation on climate change but rather than just using the gateway belief (97% of scientists agree climate change due to human activity is a thing) to persuade, they recommend two strategies based on new research.

The authors (an international group from the UK, Yale, and George Mason) have described their work so (instead of repeating it here) here’s a link where you can see their description of what they did and even download the full paper if you like. We will focus here on their two strategies and tell you that they showed participants either the 97% consensus graphic or the Oregon Global Warming Petition Project (a well-known climate change denial project).

The researchers thought that the 97% consensus graphic would increase belief in climate change and the Oregon Global Warning Petition Project would decrease belief in climate change. And they were right on both counts—but they were surprised by how powerful disinformation was—the disinformation cancelled out the accurate information so that there was no net effect of providing accurate information. So, being scientists, they wondered about a “vaccine” of sorts to minimize the impact of disinformation like that contained in the Oregon Petition Project.

They found two of them—one easy and one more complicated but also more potent. The important thing is to deliver the “inoculation” with the legitimate facts and this will disarm the potency of the disinformation.

Strategy 1: Say this: “Some politically-motivated groups use misleading tactics to try to convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists”.

This general inoculation resulted in participants moving 6.5% toward acceptance of the climate science consensus (despite a followup exposure to fake news). In other words, the fake news “rebuttal” did not work to swing opinions back. Participants were more alert to being misled.

Strategy 2: In this study, the disinformation was the Oregon petition and so they used a detailed inoculation to discredit the petition (after making the Strategy 1 statement). For example, they highlighted signatures that were fraudulent (e.g., Charles Darwin and members of the Spice Girls band) and the fact that less than 1% of those signing the petition even had backgrounds in climate science.

This detailed inoculation (when added to the general inoculation) resulted in almost 13% increases in the general acceptance of climate change (despite a followup exposure to fake news). Again, the fake news “rebuttal” not only did not work but worked even less well than with the general inoculation alone. In other words, much like a recent recommendation from the Poynter journalism group, it isn’t always enough to say it isn’t true, sometimes you need to show them why and how it isn’t true. And that requires more time, and sustained attention.

The researchers comment that tobacco and fossil fuel companies have used these sorts of psychological inoculation strategies in the past to sow seeds of doubt and undermine scientific consensus in the minds of the public. They think this research tells us that the impact of disinformation can be at least “partially reduced” with this approach.

From time to time, every litigator is confronted with a situation in which it is crucial to educate jurors on the disinformation that may be used (as well as giving them information on typical strategies used to undermine accurate information). Then, when they hear the common strategies presented by opposing counsel, they can spot it quickly, and rest assured they have not been fooled. The researchers comment that this strategy works well in our politically polarized society. We think that makes sense but, as always, test it in pretrial research before you roll it out at trial!

Full text is available here.

van der Linden, S., Leiserowitz, A., Rosenthal, S., & Maibach, E. (2017). Inoculating the Public against Misinformation about Climate Change Global Challenges DOI: 10.1002/gch2.201600008

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