climate change
An Adelie penguin stands atop a block of melting ice near the French station at Dumont d’Urville in East Antarctica, Jan. 23, 2010. Reuters/Pauline Askin

Fake news has been a topic that has come up often in the last few months, with some saying it helped President Donald Trump win the election while the president himself called his “Golden Shower Gate” controversy another piece of fake news.

Around the world too, there have been various instances recently involving fake news — China, Germany and Sweden, among others, are mulling action against Facebook and other social media platforms for the propagation of misinformation; Pakistan’s defense minister threatened Israel with nuclear war based on a bogus news story; a fake news story about a blast in Thailand triggered the safety check feature on Facebook; and so on.

One of the leading topics about which there is a plethora of misinformation is climate change, an issue whose effects are not limited to one country alone but have an impact on the entire planet and all life-forms on it. And in a paper published Monday, researchers suggest using a psychological “vaccine” to inoculate the public against the damaging effects of misleading “myths about climate change.”

In a statement, the researchers from universities of Yale, George Mason, and Cambridge in the United Kingdom, said: “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’.”

climate change and national security
A U.S. intelligence report linked climate change to national security, stating that in the next five years global warming will pose security threats in the form of “extreme weather events and from the exacerbation of currently strained conditions, like water shortages.” CHRISTOPHER FURLONG/GETTY IMAGES

Over 2,000 participants across the United States were tested for the study, in which they were presented with opposing statements on climate change — from false assertions about there being no consensus about climate change among the scientific fraternity to accurate ones like 97 percent of scientists agreeing on human-induced climate change.

Researchers found those who saw only the facts about climate change were quite likely, irrespective of political affiliation, to move toward believing in the scientific consensus. Those who were shown only the misinformation were inclined to move away from scientific beliefs. Participants who saw the accurate data followed by fake news had very little change in opinion, the two competing sets of data cancelling each other out.

Two groups among the participants, chosen randomly, were given two separate doses of “vaccines.” One was a general warning that some groups tried to mislead the public by talking about disagreement among scientists on climate change. The other was a detailed breakdown of such claims by the Oregon Global Warming Petition Project, explaining how the signatories were fraudulent (Charles Darwin and members of the Spice Girls are among them) and how less than 1 percent actually had a background in climate science.

It was seen that the groups so inoculated showed a marked shift in opinion toward believing in climate change, and its human cause.

Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist from the University of Cambridge and director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab, and lead author of the study, said: “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. 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.”

Titled “Inoculating the Public against Misinformation about Climate Change,” the open access study was published in the journal Global Challenges.