Science Pinpoints Why People Fall For Fake News — And What We Can Do About It

The good news is that it’s not as influential as it may seem.

Anna Almendrala Senior Healthy Living Editor, The Huffington Post –01/25/2017 05:20 pm ET | Updated 2 days ago

“Fake news” — the kind of stories without even a kernel of truth, often made up by nefarious agents or cynical profiteers, appeared to play a major role in the 2016 presidential campaign.

There are no signs that these fictionalized articles, spread mostly on the internet via social media, are going away anytime soon. In fact, they’re a prominent feature of what some have dubbed the “post-truth era” ― a time when the general public (or even a certain leader of the free world) can’t seem to agree on basic facts, let alone reach consensus on tackling a problem.

Unsurprisingly, scientists have a major stake in making sure that facts ― obectively derived from the scientific method, reasoning, or other principles of enlightenment ― don’t lose their relevance to the public. Not only does their livelihood depend on experimentation and scientific discovery, but many of today’s disputed facts have widespread implications for health and safety.

Three new research papers tackle this problem, showing how to reach people with anti-scientific views, or how to help people sort fake news from real facts. Here’s what we can learn from each of them.

1. People have ulterior motives for holding anti-science or anti-fact beliefs.

Underlying motives ― what psychology professor Matthew Hornsey of the University of Queensland called “attitude roots” ― may not be apparent or obvious, even to the people who have them.

In a theoretical paper presented on Saturday, Hornsey hypothesized that people who want to challenge unscientific beliefs ― say public health communicators or political leaders ― should try focusing on attitude roots when repeated explanations of the facts don’t work.

“Rather than focusing on what people are saying, it might be better to focus on what their motivations are for what they’re saying,” Hornsey said. “Then you work backwards from there, constructing arguments that work with their underlying motivations, not against them.”

So how are you supposed to gauge a person’s underlying motivations for unscientific belief? First, ask why they believe this. Secondly, never assume that the other person is unreasonable or unprincipled. That’s a common mistake, and usually results in hurt feelings and even more entrenched beliefs. The onus to reach out, Hornsey said, is on people who accept the existence of an objective reality.

“You have to provide a path for people to change their minds without feeling humiliated or defeated,” he said.

Hornsey’s idea is untested, but provides an intriguing way forward for science communicators who find that simply talking about the evidence isn’t making a dent on an intended audience.

2. Education can protect against scientific misinformation. 

Researchers from Cambridge, Yale and George Mason universities recently demonstrated that people can be “inoculated” against scientific misinformation if they are first educated about strategies and tactics that partisan groups use to distort the truth. The results show that learning more about the ways that groups spread falsehoods results in participants being able to distinguish between accurate information about climate change and misinformation. This effect held for people across the political spectrum, according to the study.

Scientists recruited a nationally representative sample of more than 2,000 people online and divided them into six groups: a control group, a second group that received the accurate message that “97 percent of scientists agree on man-made climate change,” a third group that received the false statement that “there is no convincing scientific evidence of human-caused global warming,” and a fourth group that received both messages.

The fifth and sixth groups received the accurate message, followed by a “vaccine” message either explaining how some partisan groups can mislead the public, or specific details about the Oregon Petition, which falsely claimed it had signatures of more than 31,000 experts agreeing there is “no convincing scientific evidence” that human activity causes climate change. Then they received the false statement on climate change.

The scientists found that the fifth and sixth groups, which had received the “vaccine” against misinformation, saw their belief in the scientific consensus around climate change grow. Group 5, which received only a general message about how misinformation can spread, grew in acceptance of climate change consensus by 6.5 percent. Group 6, which was educated specifically about the fraudulent Oregon petition,