Scientists working On a Virtual Vaccine Against “Fake News”, “Alternative Facts”

January 24, 2017

For anyone following the war on science over the last 30 years or so, it was clear that the general movement to delegitimize real expertise and disinform the public, eventually would become a threat to democracy. Welcome to 2017.

Researchers used the hoary “30,000 scientists’ petition as a test case of climate denial nonsense.  It is, according to John Cook, actually one of the most shared denial memes on Facebook – which probably accounts for the continued popularity of my vid, above.

Expect the anti-vaxxers out on this one.

In medicine, vaccinating against a virus involves exposing a body to a weakened version of the threat, enough to build a tolerance

Social psychologists believe that a similar logic can be applied to help “inoculate” the public against misinformation, including the damaging influence of ‘fake news’ websites propagating myths about climate change.

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’.
The study on US attitudes found the inoculation technique shifted the climate change opinions of Republicans, Independents and Democrats alike.

“Misinformation can be sticky, spreading and replicating like a virus,” says lead author Dr Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist from the University of Cambridge and Director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab.

“We wanted to see if we could find a ‘vaccine’ by pre-emptively exposing people to a small amount of the type of misinformation they might experience. A warning that helps preserve the facts.

“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.”

To find the most compelling climate change falsehood currently influencing public opinion, van der Linden and colleagues tested popular statements from corners of the internet on a nationally representative sample of US citizens, with each one rated for familiarity and persuasiveness.

The winner: the assertion that there is no consensus among scientists, apparently supported by the Oregon Global Warming Petition Project. This website claims to hold a petition signed by “over 31,000 American scientists” stating there is no evidence that human CO2 release will cause climate change.

In order to gauge shifts in opinion, each participant was asked to estimate current levels of scientific agreement on climate change throughout the study.

Those shown only the fact about climate change consensus (in pie chart form) reported a large increase in perceived scientific agreement – an average of 20 percentage points. Those shown only misinformation (a screenshot of the Oregon petition website) dropped their belief in a scientific consensus by 9 percentage points.

Some participants were shown the accurate pie chart followed by the erroneous Oregon petition. The researchers were surprised to find the two neutralised each other (a tiny difference of 0.5 percentage points).

“It’s uncomfortable to think that misinformation is so potent in our society,” says van der Linden. “A lot of people’s attitudes toward  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.”

Alongside the consensus fact, two groups in the study were randomly given ‘vaccines’:

  • A general inoculation, consisting of a warning that “some politically-motivated groups use misleading tactics to try and convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists”.
  • A detailed inoculation that picks apart the Oregon petition specifically. For example, by highlighting some of the signatories are fraudulent, such as Charles Darwin and members of the Spice Girls, and less than 1% of signatories have backgrounds in climate science.

For those ‘inoculated’ with this extra data, the  that followed did not cancel out the accurate message.

The general inoculation saw an average opinion shift of 6.5 percentage points towards acceptance of the climate science consensus, despite exposure to fake news.

When the detailed inoculation was added to the general, it was almost 13 percentage points – two-thirds of the effect seen when participants were just given the consensus fact.

The research team point out that tobacco and fossil fuel companies have used psychological inoculation in the past to sow seeds of doubt, and to undermine scientific consensus in the public consciousness.


Snopes confirms my video, here.

According to, the official website of the effort, the petition bore 31,487 signatures as of October 2016:

The current list of petition signers includes 9,029 PhD; 7,157 MS; 2,586 MD and DVM; and 12,715 BS or equivalent academic degrees. Most of the MD and DVM signers also have underlying degrees in basic science.

These numbers are provided with little means of verification (an issue discussed in more detail below), but the most important takeaway is that the only requirement to sign this petition is an undergraduate degree in any science or science-related field. Here is how the “Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine” describes their requirements:

Signatories are approved for inclusion in the Petition Project list if they have obtained formal educational degrees at the level of Bachelor of Science or higher in appropriate scientific fields.

It is therefore misleading for the signatories to be considered climate scientists or even top researchers in their field, as some suggest. In fact, based on the group’s own numbers, only 12% of the signers have degrees (of any kind) in earth, environmental, or atmospheric science.

Further, the petition and its creators are not neutral parties, and the major entities supporting it can easily be described as politically motivated. The petition was organized by Arthur B. Robinson, a conservative politician who founded the aforementioned Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine and who holds a PhD in biochemistry from the University of San Diego.

Along with the petition itself, the document was sent out with a cover letter written by Frederick Seitz, a National Medal of Science Medal winner and a former president of the National Academy of Science who later went on to be an influential yet controversial tobacco lobbyist and who founded the George C. Marshall Institute, a conservative think tank that has since morphed into one more focused on the climate, with a long history of promoting environmental skepticism.

In 1994, Seitz authored a paper (external download archived by GreenPeace USA here) titled “Global warming and ozone hole controversies: A challenge to scientific judgment,” which simultaneously made the two demonstrably false claims that chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, were not a threat to the ozone layer, and that second-hand tobacco smoke inhalation was not a threat to health.

Seitz’s participation in the circulation of this petition raises another line of issues for the petition — that its original iteration intentionally misled its signers into thinking it was a document officially supported by the National Academy of Sciences. Seitz, a former president of the Academy, used its official letterhead to draft a letter of support and manufactured a non-peer-reviewed “study” formatted to look as if it were published in an Academy journal, as reported by the Washington Post in 2006:

It was printed in the font and format of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: the journal of the organisation of which Seitz — as he had just reminded his correspondents — was once president.

Soon after the petition was published, the National Academy of Sciences released this statement: “The NAS Council would like to make it clear that this petition has nothing to do with the National Academy of Sciences and that the manuscript was not published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences or in any other peer-reviewed journal. The petition does not reflect the conclusions of expert reports of the Academy.”


One Response to “Scientists working On a Virtual Vaccine Against “Fake News”, “Alternative Facts””

  1. indy222 Says:

    While idly googling my name a few years ago, I was amazed to see my name on the “32,000 scientists” petition. At first I was outraged, as anyone who has seen my teaching knows it’s the last petition I’d ever sign. Then, I decided I’d just leave it – as a good example for my students as I pointed out the fraud. I’m an actual scientist – but certainly never signed Robinson’s ridiculous petition. So I have no doubt there are many other genuine scientists who’ve also had their name put on there by Robinson or trolls or whomever, and there the name sits.

    NewSpeak indeed.

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