Yesterday we talked about Bill Nye’s admittedly casual answer to the question of what can be done about climate deniers, but today we’re actually going to get into some of the science the Science Guy didn’t!
First up is a new review article published last month that asks (and answers) “how can psychological science help counter the spread of fake news?” It goes over what we know about debunking and fact checking, like that the backfire-effects are minimal when debunking, but repeating disinformation does still provide some “illusory truth effect” to make it seem more truth-y. Better than chasing after myths is inoculating the public against them beforehand, with some fun little games showing how you can make fighting things like COVID denial exciting!
It then gets into some of the more cutting-edge areas of research, where (for example) researchers are still learning how long the effects of a debunking lasts, and discerning between things shared because people just aren’t paying attention to the truth, versus fake news intentionally shared for political reasons.
That’s really where, as a general principle, psychological science inherently falls short as a tool for fighting disinformation. Because no matter how well researchers design and implement a program for correcting disinformation, that approach is always playing catch-up with the lies. And no matter how effective a debunking is, if the people who saw (and chose to believe) the disinformation don’t see it, or don’t believe it just to own the libs, then the disinformation is winning.
That political element is the focus of another study from a usually psychological-science-centric debunking expert, Stephan Lewandowsky: Liberty and the pursuit of science denial. Noting that tobacco denial, climate denial, COVID denial and other objections to public health protections are justified by a libertarian political ideology, Lewandowsky questions whether that worldview can be reconciled with one where profits aren’t always prioritized over people.
After going through the history of the synergy between denial and libertarianism, the damage done by disinformation and the potential solutions available to communicators, it all comes down to a fundamental reality synthesized by Dr. Robert Brulle, who has written that because what’s preventing climate action is economics and politics, “introducing new messages or information into an otherwise unchanged socioeconomic system will accomplish little.”
There’s no perfectly crafted narrative that’s going to change the fact that the fossil fuel industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars on political campaign contributions and lobbying to shape policy (or the lack thereof) directly, and a whole network of pseudo-media outlets, university centers, think tanks and other organizations that indirectly shape the culture in ways favorable to the industry.
The Koch fortune’s bought a whole lot of libertarianism, and injected it into the right. As a result, the “libertarian” organizations that exist almost all uniformly reject each and every actual market-based climate policy that would otherwise be entirely consistent with the libertarian ideals of protecting private property. If it were just the politics, they’d embrace climate lawsuits to hold polluters accountable, for example, and a price on carbon as a starting point for policy. But they don’t, because the ideology is simply being exploited by organized and funded agents of the fossil fuel industry’s climate denial network.
So as Lewandowsky writes, Brulle’s “recognition is crucial because it clarifies that overcoming climate denial and facilitating climate mitigation is not simply a matter of improving communication but of political change.”
To answer, then, the question posed to Bill Nye about what to do about deniers, the answer is not particularly complicated (even if it is difficult to execute): commonsense campaign finance reform to get dark, corporate money out of politics and politicians of both parties out of company’s pockets; IRS enforcement of the non-political status of "charities" being used as covert anti-regulatory lobbying bodies; and social media moderation to deplatform paid, professional disinformation agents who use those private platforms to peddle libertarian political ideology as a front for pro-polluter absolutism.
If those things aren’t done, then the psychological science telling us how to debunk disinformation is always going to have to follow behind denial, playing whack-a-mole and perpetually cleaning up messes instead of preventing them.