Structured efforts to increase the public’s distrust in science- or scientific misinformation- are not a recent occurrence. Science historians have shown that similar efforts took place in order to create false controversy about the scientific evidence of dangers of smoking tobacco, the ozone depletion and most recently the role of human activity in climate change. But what is recent is the extent to which these efforts are changing the public’s opinion and are shaping the conversation and potentially even legislation.
For example, in March this year the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released a proposal to limit the scientific research used in the federal rule making process. The proposal is hiding under the pretence of its title- “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science”, but what it really does is to limit the amount of evidence-based information for environmental decision-making. While this is not directly misinformation, it certainly contributes to it. Not surprisingly, since the team that is behind this proposal has also worked on discrediting the research of public health risk of smoking.
But perhaps what is not so clear to us, the larger public, is the extent of the networks largely hidden, behind such campaigns: PR companies, lobbyists, philanthropist funded think tanks, in-house and externally funded PhD experts whose goals revolve around instilling uncertainty, discrediting scientific consensus and creating the appearance of false balance. Paradoxically, the belief that climate change is not caused by human actions gained exponential traction exactly when the scientific community unanimously agreed on the opposite- that we have caused the climate shifts and we are also the ones who can reverse these. And that was possible because of these networks’ coordinated efforts of publishing papers, speaking on TV, creating content which gives the false impression of balance between those who take one side and the ones who take the opposite view.
But make no mistake- there is no balance there- once there is a scientific consensus on any given topic! Unfortunately, changing the public’s mind is not as easy as repeating the facts and the evidence over and over.
So what might be some strategies that can be employed?
A study from 2019 published in the Global Environmental Change Journal has revealed that even simple interventions such as reminding people of the common recommendations for spotting fake news online and reflecting upon them can slow the spread of fake news on social media.
Here are the questions which the researchers used and are worth bringing to mind when faced with a dubious piece of information:
•Do I recognize the news organization that posted the story?
•Does the information in the post seem believable?
•Is the post written in a style that I expect from a professional news organization?
•Is the post politically motivated?
Facebook also published a more expanded checklist which you can find here.
However, a study from Nature Climate Change Journal is recognizing the complexity of forces we are up against and is advocating on the need for coordinated strategies in the following areas:
Research suggests that an individual’s ideology and values will determine whether they accept or reject scientific consensus. Factors such as religious beliefs, political affiliation and even geographical location will determine whether they will change their mind on climate change, given the scientific consensus. So what can be done?
Farrell, McConnell and Brulle- the authors of the study propose a strategy called attitudinal inoculation:
“In this view, public attitudes about climate change can be successfully ‘inoculated’ against misinformation by exposing people to a dose of refuted arguments before they hear them. Similar to how a vaccine builds antibodies to resist a virus a person might encounter, attitudinal inoculation messages warn people that misinformation is coming, and arm them with a counter-argument to resist that misinformation.”
And it seems that experiments in this area have proved successful regardless of the person’s political affiliation.
This strategy entails lawsuits against the organizations that spread misinformation. For example the case of ExxonMobil, which between 1977 and 2014 was found to have acknowledged within 80% of their internal documents that climate change is real and human made, while 81% of their external material communicated doubt.
These lawsuits can prove costly, but they might be the best method to discourage such behaviour.
“Legal reform around the issue of misinformation should address these inherently networked aspects of the creation and promulgation of such misinformation.”
One reason why scientific misinformation has been so successful has to do with their association to real world economic and political problems, such as energy independence or nationalism. When you take a discourse on “real” causes of climate change having nothing to do with human actions and combine it to an issue like energy independence, chances are you will gain more traction via the causes’ activists, social media users or elected officials.
This can be quite difficult to fight against. Here are the three methods proposed by the study’s authors:
- Understanding when the political process is being manipulated, by using social science research and public vigilance.
“The institutional networks spreading misinformation at large scales continue to develop sophisticated techniques […] to mimic authentic mobilization, impersonate public concern, produce spurious scientific research and steer the political process towards their interests, while at the same time disguising their funding activities. “
2. Divesting funds from organizations that are involved directly or indirectly with harming the environment, such as the growing number of organizations that are removing their assets from companies involved with fossil fuel extraction.
“Inspired, perhaps, by calls from moral leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who suggested in 2014 that “people of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change”, this movement aims to defund and publicly stigmatize the industry and its associates.”
3. Targeting efforts towards areas vulnerable to climate change and where there is also widespread scientific misinformation.
“Tactics in these targeted areas might include obtaining better media coverage of local candidates’ views on climate change science, inoculating these specific communities against these candidates’ misinformation messages and explaining their funding sources, and pursuing strategic lawsuits tailored to address the disproportionate effects these vulnerable areas are experiencing due to climate change.”
The mass expansion of scientific misinformation has been made possible due to funding from private philanthropic organizations, as well as industry financial backing. But a lot of this funding is largely untraceable.
What is needed are laws meant to improve funding transparency.
“Better transparency may also prevent future misinformation campaigns from gaining traction in the first place. Had better transparency legislation been in place 30 years ago, it is reasonable to assume that hundreds of millions of dollars would not have been so easily, and so furtively, channelled between corporations, family foundations, think-tanks, public relations firms, super-PACS (political action committees), shell corporations and front groups dedicated to spreading scientific misinformation. Financial anonymity provides fertile ground for the development of these networks. “
The huge complexity of these networks behind misinformation efforts leaves me quite disheartened. But there is hope. We can still fight with the power of information and education. But just as the study’s authors remark, there needs to be a very coordinated action which should touch at least the areas mentioned above.