Author: Martha Villabona works at Centro Nacional de Innovación e Investigación Educativa (CNIIE) of the Spanish Ministry of Education and Vocational Training, where she coordinates the area of multiple literacies.
Scientific disinformation about climate change is having a great impact especially in countries like the United States (USA). Misinformation about this topic and about scientific issues in general, not only confuses the population and discredits scientific findings but also paralyzes evidence-based policies. Farrell et al (2019)1 provide a series of examples and strategies that can be carried out to combat misinformation.
One of the examples offered by the authors of the article is that of the US Environmental Protection Agency, in which a former administrator established a standard that would reduce the number of scientific studies and with which the Agency would limit itself to regulate the toxic chemicals and carbon emissions that science has shown to have harmful effects on the environment and health. This restriction of studies does not suppose in itself erroneous information, but the formulation of norms from arising from politics and not from science generates clear harm. According to the study, the norm responded to interests of institutional and economic powers and fossil fuel companies were behind its formulation.
Scientific disinformation about climate change has existed for years, but until now it has not had so much impact. As the authors of the article affirm, among the actors responsible for disseminating and supporting this type of information are entities, groups of experts and pressure groups that promulgate informs and reports with an appearance of alternative scientific evidence but are really biased data favourable to political and industrial interests. In addition, they use different media/mass media to generate a supposed scientific debate that really should not exist because it is already more than proven that climate change is produced by the action of man but gives the impression to the general public that the theme is not settled.
What can be done about these disinformation campaigns? The authors of this publication offer a series of strategies that focus on four areas. The first one is a focus on the public. It is no longer effective to repeat to the general society that climate change exists or to participate in equitable debates against those who say that it does not exist. It only generates more confusion and misunderstanding of the science itself by the population. According to the study, the public combines its beliefs about science, politics and economics with the confidence in what the government says and they lack means and education to interpret specialized scientific information. In this way, disinformation arises. One of the strategies to curb what the authors call the “inoculation of the public” is the “inoculation of attitudes”, that is, just as a vaccine generates antibodies to resist disease, public attitudes about climate change can be modified exposing it to arguments refuted before they are heard. In the educational context, it would be very useful because students are still not contaminated with incorrect information. As the study reports, there are already experimental investigations on this technique 2, that demonstrate its positive effect, but it remains to be seen whether it can be applied to larger segments of the population.
The second area proposed by the study is based on legal strategies. The study explains the case of the oil company Exxon Mobil and the prolonged disinformation campaign that it did from 1977 to 2014. In March 2019 this company refused to participate in a public hearing of the European Parliament that was investigating its supposed truth-bending campaign. Its refusal was based on the participation in the audience as an expert of one of the researchers who had demonstrated what the company had been doing for decades: it has recognized in internal reports that climate change is due to the action of man, while publicly issued reports in which they expressed their doubts about this evidence. This is an example that the fight against misinformation can be done from the courts.
The third area is that of political mechanisms. The article gives as an example the case of the energy company Entergy. This company wanted to build a power plant in a town in the USA but needed the full support of the town hall. It was going to be debated whether its construction was necessary or not. To achieve this support, the electricity company hired an advertising company that supposedly hired 50 actors who acted as activists in favour of its construction. They intervened with previously prepared speeches and applauded when someone said something against wind and solar energy – this method of creating an illusion that there is basic social support is known as “astroturfing” -. Although it was investigated whether these agents were hired to generate discord and confusion, the construction of the power plant was approved.
Given these facts, many organizations are not investing in companies that try to distort reality with this type of techniques. There are also community leaders who speak out in public against those industries that finance the arguments that climate change is not the product of man.
The fourth and final area focuses on the transparency of financing. According to the study, knowing where it comes from and how it works the financing of institutions that come from foundations, anonymous donors and private companies, would suppress the flow of intentional and influential scientific disinformation in political decisions. According to the study, there are organizations in the USA that track money and this becomes a fundamental resource for the researcher because they provide objective data on financing.
The authors of the study conclude that scientists should not underestimate the power of a country’s industry, economy and politics. The truth on your side is not enough. Therefore, they propose to work in a coordinated manner the four areas to synchronize the scientific evidence provided by experts with legal actions, political leaders and anyone who is interested in fighting against misinformation, not only on the topic of climate change but in other scientific and social issues.
- Farrell, J., McConnell, K. & Brulle, R. (2019), Evidence-based strategies to combat scientific misinformation, Nature Climate Change 9, 191-195. doi: 10.1038/s41558-018-0368-6 ↩
- Van der Linden, S., Leiserowitz, A., Rosenthal, S. & Maibach, E. Inoculating the public against misinformation about climate change. Glob. Chall. 1, 1600008 (2017). ↩