The science of combating climate science misinformation

  • Researchers are increasingly looking into how to counter the climate science misinformation being fed to the public, and a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change this month rounds up some of the key insights from this emerging field of research.
  • Researchers identified a number of crucial advancements in the social sciences and used them as the basis of a coordinated set of strategies for confronting the institutional network that enables the spread of climate science misinformation.
  • The researchers grouped those strategies into four inter-connected issue areas — public inoculation, legal strategies, political mechanisms, and financial transparency.

For more than three decades, fossil fuel interests have waged a campaign to protect their businesses by undermining public trust in climate science and delaying action to forestall global warming. This misinformation has been especially successful in the United States, the country that has, historically, pumped the most climate-cooking carbon emissions into Earth’s atmosphere.

Researchers are increasingly looking into how to counter the misinformation being fed to the public, and a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change this month rounds up some of the key insights from this emerging field of research.

Justin Farrell, a professor of sociology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, led the research team behind the study. “Many people see these efforts to undermine science as an increasingly dangerous challenge and they feel paralyzed about what to do about it,” he said in a statement. “But there’s been a growing amount of research into this challenge over the past few years that will help us chart out some solutions.”

False information must be neutralized in real-time as it is produced and disseminated, Farrell said. He and his colleagues identified a number of crucial advancements in the social sciences and used them as the basis of a coordinated set of strategies for confronting the institutional network that enables the spread of climate science misinformation. The researchers grouped those strategies into four inter-connected issue areas — public inoculation, legal strategies, political mechanisms, and financial transparency.

Misinformation and of course “fake news” are very much part of the popular conversation today, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the public debate around climate change has improved, Farrell told Mongabay: “The rise of terms like ‘misinformation’ and ‘fake news’ in the American vernacular has certainly helped. But, that doesn’t mean that folks will step out of their echo chambers and seek out facts and information that is not thoroughly politicized. I’ve received numerous emails from some folks on the right since publishing this article that view established climate science itself as misinformation.”

So while it’s good that people are perhaps more aware of misinformation now, that by no means solves the underlying gridlock preventing us from taking meaningful action to halt climate change, Farrell added. We must look elsewhere for those solutions.

“Research into these dynamics has dramatically improved in recent years, and I felt like we now had enough to begin to think about how to coalesce this work into a set of concrete strategies,” Farrell said. “Until this paper, everything had been piecemeal, and suggested within particular papers. We needed a state-of-the-art synthesis that brought together all that had been done, with an eye toward applying research to actual solutions.”

Public inoculation

The truth is not enough to set the public free from climate science denial — indeed, the partisan divide in the United States over climate change emerged at precisely the point when scientific consensus about the mechanisms driving the warming of our planet became the most unanimous. But, Farrell and team found, it might be possible to inoculate the public against misinformation: “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.”

Through recent experimental research, social scientists have found that “attitudinal inoculation” can have a positive effect on individuals from across the political spectrum, meaning it might be a means of overcoming differences in “cultural cognition” — the ways people’s pre-existing ideologies and values inform how they engage with and process scientific information.

“To improve and expand this tactic, the public should be inoculated against the sources of
scientific misinformation as well,” Farrell and co-authors write in the study, “by drawing more explicit attention to exactly who is behind these messages — i.e., the financial contributions and economic motivations behind the bad-faith information they will encounter.”

Of course, inoculation would come too late for people who have already contracted a case of climate denial. In dealing with the outright dismissal of scientific facts, an approach called “technocognition” might help, given its focus on building better information architectures that bridge the “socially-defined epistemic islands” many people confine themselves to in the modern climate debate. “As one of the few proposals to holistically address broader concerns of a ‘post-truth’ society,” Farrell and team write, “the technocognition approach would integrate both technological adaptations to prevent misinformation spread, and cognitive approaches to education and communication.”

Legal and political strategies

Farrell and co-authors argue in their study that these public inoculation measures must be coordinated with strategies to effect the political and legal changes necessary to stem the flow of misinformation.

Harvard science historians Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes looked at the climate change communications of oil giant ExxonMobil from 1977 and 2014 and found that 80 percent of the company’s internal documents acknowledged climate change as real and caused by humans at the same time that 81 percent of its public materials cast doubt on the reality of global warming. These types of findings have led to a number of lawsuits being filed by cities and counties in the US and the UK who are seeking to hold fossil fuels companies accountable for the impacts of the climate crisis they knowingly created and deliberately downplayed.

“Such lawsuits may prove to be the most effective strategy for directly confronting and discouraging the spread of scientific misinformation,” Farrell and colleagues write, “but they are also very costly and have a long time horizon. Yet as these lawsuits have gained more traction in the courts, so too have they gained more traction in the media.” News coverage of these lawsuits, the researchers add, not only helps influence public opinion but also perhaps further inoculates people against the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to mislead them.

At the same time, research that unpacks the complicated networks of corporations, elected officials, family foundations, think tanks, PR firms, political action committees (PACs), shell corporations, and front groups that constitutes the climate denial echo chamber has helped in the legal defense of climate scientists who have come under attack for their research. Network mapping is not just a defensive strategy, however: “Mapping out the configuration of individuals and organizations involved in climate change misinformation can help to empirically identify the most prominent and influential legal targets,” the researchers write.

These legal strategies won’t necessarily help resolve the partisan stalemate around climate action — to do that, we must find ways to apply political pressure to members of the climate misinformation network who have managed to secure electoral, legislative, and regulatory victories on behalf of the industries that would be most impacted by efforts to rein in global warming.

“We must deploy social science research and public vigilance to better understand when and how the political process is being manipulated,” the authors argue in the study. They point to the example of energy company Entergy Corporation hiring a PR firm in 2017 that paid actors to attend a New Orleans City Council hearing and pose as grassroots supporters of a controversial power plant.

“The institutional networks spreading misinformation at large scales continue to develop such sophisticated techniques like this to mimic authentic mobilization, impersonate public concern, produce spurious scientific research, and steer the political process toward their interests, while at the same time disguising their funding activities,” according to Farrell and co-authors. “Extant social science research has certainly provided a window into these complex political efforts, but much more is needed moving forward.”

Farrell and colleagues also said that their research showed that the divestment movement, in which a growing number of organizations are divesting their assets from firms involved directly or indirectly with fossil fuel extraction, is an effective means of confronting the climate misinformation network. The researchers also suggest that it would be effective to target efforts to combat misinformation on “geographic areas that are both especially vulnerable to the short-term impacts of climate change and where public and political skepticism about climate change is widespread (e.g. Florida and Alaska).”

Financial transparency

Think tanks and advocacy groups that are “ideologically compatible” with the anti-climate action agenda receive hundreds of millions of dollars from private philanthropic and industry donors. While some of those funds come directly from a few large corporations, the vast majority is furnished by donor-directed foundations that don’t divulge their donors’ names to the public. A 2014 study by Robert Brulle of Brown University (a co-author of the present study, as well) found that funds provided by foundations that conceal their donors’ identities to organizations that are part of the “climate change counter-movement” quadrupled over the past 10 years.

Weak campaign finance laws and these donor-directed philanthropies make tracing the source of funds going to promote climate misinformation campaigns difficult. “While empirical knowledge of funding flows within these institutions and across networks has improved in recent years, it is still based on piecemeal data that is often extremely difficult to uncover, and intentionally kept hidden,” Farrell and team found. “Fortunately, in recent years, nonpartisan organizations tracking money in U.S. politics (e.g., Center for Responsive Politics, Sunlight Foundation) have become important resources for researchers in need of reliable funding data.” The researchers advocate for the passage of new laws to make campaign finance more transparent in order to improve the availability of such data.

“We’re really just at the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding the full network of actors and how they’re moving money in these efforts,” co-author Kathryn McConnell, a Ph.D. student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, said in a statement. “The better we can understand how these networks work, the better the chances that policymakers will be able to create policy that makes a difference.”

The authors stress the importance of coordinating strategies across all of the issue areas they’ve identified, writing, “public inoculation and legal strategies depend on improved financial transparency, just as financial transparency can similarly be strengthened by legal strategies that are themselves dependent on continued research into the financial and ideological sources of misinformation.”

“Ultimately we have to get to the root of the problem, which is the huge imbalance in spending between climate change opponents and those lobbying for new solutions,” Farrell said. “Those interests will always be there, of course, but I’m hopeful that as we learn more about these dynamics things will start to change. I just hope it’s not too late.”

Reporters with various forms of “fake news” from an 1894 illustration by Frederick Burr Opper. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


• Brulle, R. J. (2014). Institutionalizing delay: foundation funding and the creation of US climate change counter-movement organizations. Climatic Change, 122(4), 681-694. doi:10.1007/s10584-013-1018-7

• Farrell, J., McConnell, K., & Brulle, R. (2019). Evidence-based strategies to combat scientific misinformation. Nature Climate Change, 1. doi:10.1038/s41558-018-0368-6

• Supran, G., & Oreskes, N. (2017). Assessing ExxonMobil’s climate change communications (1977–2014). Environmental Research Letters, 12(8), 084019. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/aa815f

Follow Mike Gaworecki on Twitter: @mikeg2001

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