Can you vaccinate against “Alternative Facts”?

There is a new study that takes a rather serious look into the idea that you can psychologically inoculate people. Well yes, with my tongue firmly placed in my cheek I believe the term we use to describe that is the word “Education”.

OK, so putting the teasing to one side, it is actually both quite serious, and also does appear to be on to something rather interesting. The paper by John Cook, Stephan Lewandowsky, and Ullrich Ecker, is available on the open access site PLOS One and is entitled …

Neutralizing misinformation through inoculation: Exposing misleading argumentation techniques reduces their influence

Misinformation can undermine a well-functioning democracy. For example, public misconceptions about climate change can lead to lowered acceptance of the reality of climate change and lowered support for mitigation policies. This study experimentally explored the impact of misinformation about climate change and tested several pre-emptive interventions designed to reduce the influence of misinformation. We found that false-balance media coverage (giving contrarian views equal voice with climate scientists) lowered perceived consensus overall, although the effect was greater among free-market supporters. Likewise, misinformation that confuses people about the level of scientific agreement regarding anthropogenic global warming (AGW) had a polarizing effect, with free-market supporters reducing their acceptance of AGW and those with low free-market support increasing their acceptance of AGW. However, we found that inoculating messages that (1) explain the flawed argumentation technique used in the misinformation or that (2) highlight the scientific consensus on climate change were effective in neutralizing those adverse effects of misinformation. We recommend that climate communication messages should take into account ways in which scientific content can be distorted, and include pre-emptive inoculation messages.

Pulling back the curtain

If you reveal to people how they can be manipulated, then you have primed them to potentially recognise that they might be conned. Perhaps an apt analogy is the “Psychic” arena. Somebody such as illusionist and mentalist Derren Brown tells you that he is simply fooling you with tricks and so you know it is entertainment, but a supposed “Psychic” doing exactly what he does would fool people into thinking something supernatural was going on. An example of the latter is Uri Geller. He claimed to have amazing powers, and yet even his own manager later revealed he was simply doing basic conjuring tricks. Imagine if you will a world where Mr Geller’s spoon bending trick was explained to his audience in advance of a show. An attempt to then con that audience into believing it was real would simply not get any traction at all.

That essentially is the essence of all this.

“Alternative Facts” have real consequences

The acceptance of ideas that are simply not true can and does have serious consequences. A couple of specific examples that illustrate this would be these …

  • Denial of the scientific consensus that HIV causes AIDS led to policies in South Africa between 2000 and 2005 that are estimated to have contributed to 330,000 excess deaths [1].
  • In Western countries, decreased acceptance of vaccinations based on erroneous or exaggerated claims of adverse effects has led to lower compliance; this has placed the population at greater risk of vaccine-preventable disease [2,3,4], and likely led to the U.S. measles outbreaks in 2014 and 2015 [5.6].

It is like this because humans can’t fact-check every snippet of information directed at them, so instead they tend to accept information that confirms previously existing beliefs.

What however can be done is to prepare people by explaining how they can be potentially manipulated and fooled. This then enables people to immediately recognise when a flawed argument is being presented and so they are potentially inoculated against such manipulation.

What did the Published Study do?

They specifically focused on climate change denial …

in two experiments we looked at two sides of the misinformation coin: we examined the effects of misinformation on climate attitudes, and we sought to eliminate the effects of that misinformation through the exploration of various types of counter-information provided before exposure to the misinformation. We were particularly interested in whether our counter-information approach would be able to offset misinformation effects even when the counter-information conflicted with people’s worldview and might therefore be received critically.

Now that is an interesting consideration. This is because evidence is often dismissed if it conflicts with an existing worldview.

So they specifically focused on two distinct misleading strategies that often come into play. These are “false balance” and also “fake experts”. First, let’s ask ourselves what these terms mean. There is no ambiguity here, their paper clearly defines them as follows …

‘fake experts’

Those individuals appear to have relevant expertise but in fact rarely do (i.e., they are ‘fake experts’) [31]. An early example of this strategy was the 1995 “Leipzig Declaration”, a document purporting to refute the scientific consensus on climate change. However, among the 105 signatories, many worked in fields unrelated to climate, and 12 even denied signing the document altogether [32]. Texts featuring fake experts that cast doubt on the consensus have been observed to lower perceived consensus and acceptance of climate change [33].

‘false balance’

media coverage … evenly balances contrarian voices and expert views (i.e. ‘false balance’ coverage). Media coverage of scientific issues has diverged from the scientific consensus on issues such as climate change [34,35,36] and the mythical vaccine-autism link [37]. False-balance media coverage has been observed to decrease public certainty about scientific issues when it comes to environmental science [38], the false link between vaccination and autism [39], and the health effects of pollution [40].

The problem is that once people have absorbed information it can be quite challenging to correct it. However, what is fascinating is that people can be “inoculated” against misinformation by being exposed to a refuted version of the message beforehand. This is very similar to the way vaccines work by generating antibodies to resist future viruses. Inoculation messages equip people with counterarguments that potentially convey resistance to future misinformation. This appears to work even if the misinformation is congruent with pre-existing attitudes.

The two questions examined by this study are as follows:

  • What effect does misinformation have on acceptance of climate change?
  • Can inoculation neutralize the influence of misinformation?

To explore this they conducted two experiments, so let’s look at each in turn.

Experiment 1- False Balance

The presented precipitants with some variation of these …

  • general consensus information
  • and/or …an explanation of how false balance in the media can be misleading

Next they get a fake news article that had scientists presenting AGW arguments, and then other scientists presenting arguments against AGW. Well yes, it was a bit more complex than just that, so the above gives you a rough idea.

So what happened?

The found that pre-emptively explaining the potentially misleading effect of false-balance media coverage was effective in neutralizing the negative influence of that type of misleading media coverage.

Experiment 2 – Fake Experts

Participants were divided into a control group (no intervention text), inoculation group (inoculation with no misinformation), misinformation group (misinformation with no inoculation), and inoculation/misinformation group (inoculation preceding misinformation)

  • The misinformation intervention consisted of text taken verbatim from the Global Warming Petition Project website. The text mentions a petition of over 31,000 signatories with science degrees who have signed a statement claiming that human release of greenhouse gases is not causing disruption of the Earth’s climate (the so-called “Oregon Petition”)
    • this is the “fake expert” example – 99% of the signatories have no expertise in climate science
  • The inoculation intervention explained the technique of “fake experts”, that is, the use of spokespeople who convey the impression of expertise without possessing any relevant scientific expertise. Specifically, the text used the example of a tobacco industry ad featuring tens of thousands of physicians endorsing a particular brand of cigarette.

So what happened?

The misinformation had a sizeable effect only if it was not combined with an inoculation. In other words, an inoculating message that explains the misinforming technique without mentioning any specifics fully neutralized the polarizing effect of misinformation.

So what does this tell us?

Basically this: If you combine accurate information with an explanation of the misinformation techniques, then that is an effective way of neutralizing misinformation.

But why does this work?

Basically by explaining to people how misinformation techniques work, you move them beyond shallow heuristic-driven processing and engage them in deeper, more strategic scrutinizing of the presented information.

John Oliver does Climate Change

Moving beyond the study, but staying on topic, here is a rather entertaining snippet from John Oliver that dates back to 2014. Here he lays out in a very entertaining way how the false balance often comes into play in order to manipulate you, and then finishes with a more appropriately balanced version.

This clip has been viewed over 7 million times and if you have not seen it, then you will soon see why it is popular. Oh and yes, Bill Nye is a guest.


  1. Chigwedere P., Seage G. R. III, Gruskin S., Lee T. H., & Essex M. (2008). Estimating the lost benefits of antiretroviral drug use in South Africa. JAIDS Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, 49(4), 410–415. pmid:19186354
  2. Smith MJ, Ellenberg SS, Bell LM, Rubin DM. Media coverage of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and autism controversy and its relationship to MMR immunization rates in the United States. Pediatrics. 2008; 121(4), e836–e843. pmid:18381512
  3. Poland GA, Spier R. Fear, misinformation, and innumerates: how the Wakefield paper, the press, and advocacy groups damaged the public health. Vaccine. 2010; 28(12), 2361–2362. pmid:20199766
  4. Carrillo-Santisteve P, Lopalco PL. Measles still spreads in Europe: Who is responsible for the failure to vaccinate? Clinical Microbiology and Infection. 2012; 18(s5), 50–56.
  5. Majumder MS, Cohn EL, Mekaru SR, Huston JE, Brownstein JS. Substandard vaccination compliance and the 2015 measles outbreak. JAMA pediatrics. 2015; 169(5), 494–495. pmid:25774618
  6. CDC (2017). Measles Cases and Outbreaks.

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