Correcting misinformation, however, isn't as simple as presenting people with true facts. When someone reads views from the other side, they will create counterarguments that support their initial viewpoint, bolstering their belief of the misinformation. Retracting information does not appear to be very effective either. Lewandowsky and colleagues published two papers in 2011 that showed a retraction, at best, halved the number of individuals who believed misinformation.
Combating misinformation has proved to be especially difficult in certain scientific areas such as climate science. Despite countless findings to the contrary, a large portion of the population doesn't believe that scientists agree on the existence of human-caused climate change, which affects their willingness to seek a solution to the problem, according to a 2011 study in Nature Climate Change. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.)
"Misinformation is inhibiting public engagement in climate change in a major way," says Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University and author of the Nature article, as well as a commentary that accompanied the recent article in PSPI by Lewandowsky and colleagues. Although virtually all climate scientists agree that human actions are changing the climate and that immediate action must be taken, roughly 60 percent of Americans believe that no scientific consensus on climate change exists.
"This is not a random event," Maibach says. Rather, it is the result of a concerted effort by a small number of politicians and industry leaders to instill doubt in the public. They repeat the message that climate scientists don't agree that global warming is real, is caused by people or is harmful. Thus, the message concludes, it would be premature for the government to take action and increase regulations.
To counter this effort, Maibach and others are using the same strategies employed by climate change deniers. They are gathering a group of trusted experts on climate and encouraging them to repeat simple, basic messages. It's difficult for many scientists, who feel that such simple explanations are dumbing down the science or portraying it inaccurately. And researchers have been trained to focus on the newest research, Maibach notes, which can make it difficult to get them to restate older information. Another way to combat misinformation is to create a compelling narrative that incorporates the correct information, and focuses on the facts rather than dispelling myths—a technique called "de-biasing."
Although campaigns to counteract misinformation can be difficult to execute, they can be remarkably effective if done correctly. A 2009 study found that an anti-prejudice campaign in Rwanda aired on the country's radio stations successfully altered people's perceptions of social norms and behaviors in the aftermath of the 1994 tribally based genocide of an estimated 800,000 minority Tutsi. Perhaps the most successful de-biasing campaign, Maibach notes, is the current near-universal agreement that tobacco smoking is addictive and can cause cancer. In the 1950s smoking was considered a largely safe lifestyle choice—so safe that it was allowed almost everywhere and physicians appeared in ads to promote it. The tobacco industry carried out a misinformation campaign for decades, reassuring smokers that it was okay to light up. Over time opinions began to shift as overwhelming evidence of ill effects was made public by more and more scientists and health administrators.
The most effective way to fight misinformation, ultimately, is to focus on people's behaviors, Lewandowsky says. Changing behaviors will foster new attitudes and beliefs.