Back to Psychology: A Vaccine against “Fake News” on Climate Change

I ended my book on climate change (Climate Change: The Fork at the End of Now – Momentum Press, 2011) with the chapter: “The Future, the Past and the Just World Hypothesis.”

My wife, an experimental psychologist and now the dean of research at my college, pointed out that social psychology has a possible explanation for inaction in the face of dire threats, mediated by a strong need to believe that we live in a “just world,” a belief deeply held by many individuals that the world is a rational, predictable, and just place. The “just world” hypothesis also posits that people believe that beneficiaries deserve their benefits and victims their suffering7. The “just world” concept has some similarity to rational choice theory, which underlies current analysis of microeconomics and other social behavior. Rationality in this context is the result of balancing costs and benefits to maximize personal advantage. It underlies much of economic modeling, including that of stock markets, where it goes by the name “efficient market hypothesis,” which states that the existing share price incorporates and reflects all relevant information. The need for such frameworks emerges from attempts to make the social sciences behave like physical sciences with good predictive powers. Physics is not much different. A branch of physics called statistical mechanics, which is responsible for most of the principles discussed in Chapter 5 (conservation of energy, entropy, etc.), incorporates the basic premise that if nature has many options for action and we do not have any reason to prefer one option over another, then we assume that the probability of taking any action is equal to the probability of taking any other. For large systems, this assumption works beautifully and enables us to predict macroscopic phenomena to a high degree of accuracy. In economics, a growing area of research is dedicated to the study of exceptions to the rational choice theory, which has shown that humans are not very rational creatures. This area, behavioral economics, includes major contributions by psychologists.

Well the book was published in 2011. Things are different now. It seems that half the global population doesn’t think that the world is just and that line of thinking has had serious political consequences when it comes to the structure of governments and the shape that the world will take in the future. While rethinking the “just world” hypothesis, I ran into an article on the University of Cambridge website that mentions a recently published study which might provide a new psychological tool for helping the public differentiate between real news and fake news as it relates to the human role in climate change. The tool takes its inspiration from public health vaccinations. The essence of the concept is as follows:

New research finds that misinformation on climate change can psychologically cancel out the influence of accurate statements. However, if legitimate facts are delivered with an “inoculation” – a warning dose of misinformation – some of the positive influence is preserved.

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.

For my part in aiding the credibility of psychological research in addressing collective societal issues, I have decided to highlight this paper by emphasizing the methodology of the research. Detailed description of methodology is the essence of good science because it enables readers to judge the quality of the research while also facilitating any attempts to replicate the research to compare results.

The original study, “Inoculating the Public against Misinformation about Climate Change,” was published by Sander van der Linden, Anthony Leiserowitz, Seth Rozenthal, and Edward Maibach in Two of the authors are affiliated with Yale University in the US, one with George Mason University in the US, and the last with Cambridge University in the UK. The abstract of the study is given below:

Effectively addressing climate change requires significant changes in individual and collective human behavior and decision-making. Yet, in light of the increasing politicization of (climate) science, and the attempts of vested-interest groups to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change through organized “disinformation campaigns,” identifying ways to effectively engage with the public about the issue across the political spectrum has proven difficult. A growing body of research suggests that one promising way to counteract the politicization of science is to convey the high level of normative agreement (“consensus”) among experts about the reality of human-caused climate change. Yet, much prior research examining public opinion dynamics in the context of climate change has done so under conditions with limited external validity. Moreover, no research to date has examined how to protect the public from the spread of influential misinformation about climate change. The current research bridges this divide by exploring how people evaluate and process consensus cues in a polarized information environment. Furthermore, evidence is provided that it is possible to pre-emptively protect (“inoculate”) public attitudes about climate change against real-world misinformation.

With the following conclusion:

In a large experiment (N = 2167), we show that communicating the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change significantly increases public perception of the expert consensus by about 20 percentage points (Bar I, CT-Only). Importantly, the introduction of (mis)information contesting the existence of a scientific consensus neutralizes the positive effect of highlighting normative expert agreement (Bar III, CT|CM). Further, in the absence of any cues about the actual level of consensus, the presentation of misinformation significantly undermines the public’s perception of the level of scientific agreement (−9 points; Bar II, CM). Finally, pre-emptively warning people about politically motivated attempts to spread misinformation helps promote and protect (“inoculate”) public attitudes about the scientific consensus (Bars IV and V, In1 | CM and In2 | CM).

More about the analogy with medical vaccines:

The rate of cultural transmission, or infection, may be slowed through a process known as attitudinal inoculation. In medicine, resistance to a virus can be conferred by exposing someone to a weakened version of the virus (a vaccine)—strong enough to trigger a response (i.e., the production of antibodies), but not so strong as to overwhelm the body’s immune system. The social–psychological theory of attitudinal inoculation [56] follows a similar logic: A threat is introduced by forewarning people that they may be exposed to information that challenges their existing beliefs or behaviors. Then, one or more (weakened) examples of that information are presented and directly refuted in a process called “refutational pre-emption” or “prebunking.”[14] In short, attitudinal resistance is conferred by pre-emptively highlighting false claims and refuting potential counterarguments.


Two studies were conducted to answer these research questions. In the first study, we used a nationally representative probability sample of the US population (N = 1000) to test several misinformation statements about the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change. The purpose of Study 1 was to identify the most influential and representative “countermessages” used by climate change opponents. In Study 2, we conducted a randomized online survey experiment using a large and diverse sample (N = 2167) from Amazon Mechanical Turk (Mturk) to test whether it is possible to “inoculate” people against such misinformation (see Part B in the Supporting Information for more information about Mturk). We employed a mixed design that compared a participant’s pre–post (within-subject) estimate of the scientific consensus across (between) six different experimental conditions. An overview of the different experimental conditions is provided in Table 1

The supplementary materials to the paper include specific examples of misinformation, real information, and inoculation information used in the study.

Summary of the results:

All of the hypotheses were fully supported by the data. Descriptive within-subject differences in perceived scientific agreement are reported in Table 3 and Figure 1. As expected, no meaningful pre–post change in perceived consensus was observed in the control group (Mdiff = 0.35). The consensus-treatment (CT) alone elicited a large increase in perceived scientific agreement (Mdiff = 19.72). In contrast, the (misinformation) countermessage (CM) had a substantial negative influence (Mdiff = −8.99) when presented on its own. When participants viewed the messages sequentially (CT | CM), the informational value of the consensus-treatment was negated completely (Mdiff = 0.51). As hypothesized, the general (In1 | CM) and detailed (In2 | CM) inoculation interventions were each successful in preserving much of the positive effect of the consensus message in the presence of counterinformation (Mdiff = 6.47 and 12.71—or one-third and two-thirds of the initial consensus-treatment effect, respectively).

The selected paragraphs that I have included might seem confusing so I strongly encourage you to read the original publication and the provided supplemental information. If you choose not to read the whole paper you will have to take my word that the authors analyzed the significance of what appeared to be a small tendency to more readily accept the real information after the inoculation than without it. As in the medical case, an “informational vaccine” could indeed help stop the spread of misinformation and fake news.

However, it is unclear how best to deliver such a “vaccination” for optimum electoral impact to affect policy.

Next week I will go into some detail about how we can address the break in the “just world” hypothesis in such a way as to influence the electoral process.

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About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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2 Responses to Back to Psychology: A Vaccine against “Fake News” on Climate Change

  1. Hadeel Alsayed says:

    People see the climate crisis as the biggest threat facing our generation. And because the world is an unsustainable. We need to change a lot – how do we get the energy and food we have, and move around, and also, we can to try to avoid its effects by making Good planning and dealing with the seriously variables for all countries of the world.

  2. Kamila says:

    Sometimes people need to know the fact or true information so maybe they will be moresponsible paying attention to what they are doing or have done.

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