A vaccine for fake news

There is currently a plague of fake news around the U.S. and like many other educators, scientists and citizens, I am increasingly concerned about the impacts this has on the understanding of science for my students and the public at large. The sheer quantity of information currently available at our fingertips at any point in time is greater than ever before. This can make it hard to sift through all the distractions and misinformation to get to the nuggets of factual information.

Panning for facts - the new panning for gold? Image credit: http://amhistory.si.edu/coins/printable/theme.cfm?theme=4

Panning for facts – the new panning for gold?. Image credit: http://amhistory.si.edu/coins/printable/theme.cfm?theme=4

In response to all this data, our brain uses heuristics or strategies derived from experience, such as using the number of “likes” or “shares” on social media to determine the importance of a specific article or fact.  Or we may use other people we trust to guide our understanding on a topic.  Such heuristics may help us to efficiently prioritize information, but they do not always help us effectively find factual and accurate information.  In fact, it often leaves us vulnerable to fake news and alternative facts. Studies have shown that it is difficult to forget false information once you’ve been exposed to it, even if you know at the time that what you are reading or seeing is false. The good news is there may be a way to inoculate ourselves against such misinformation!

Photo credit: https://bionews-tx.com/news/news-tags/vaccines/

Photo credit: https://bionews-tx.com/news/news-tags/vaccines/

This week a study was published in the journal of Global Challenges by van der Linden and colleagues that tested the effectiveness of an information “vaccine” to combat fake news.  This inoculation, like a real vaccine, entailed the introduction of a weakened version of the misinformation (i.e. virus) along with a rebuttal of the misinformation.  In this way, the weakened version of misinformation prepares the brain to identify the incorrect information when coming across it later. Similarly, the weakened virus in a vaccine prepares the immune system by enabling the immune system to recognize the virus as a threat.  Then later when exposed to the full strength virus it is able to launch an effective immune response.


Image credit: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vac-gen/howvpd.htm.

In the study described above, the authors utilized a common climate change misconception – the idea that there is not scientific consensus for climate change – when there most definitely is (97% of scientists agree that there is climate change and that is caused by human activity).


Temperature data from four international science institutions. All show rapid warming in the past few decades and that the last decade has been the warmest on record. Data sources: NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, NOAA National Climatic Data Center, Met Office Hadley Centre/Climatic Research Unit and the Japanese Meteorological Agency. Image and caption from NOAA.

They found that if you introduce the fact and then the misinformation, the misinformation overrode  the correct information in people’s recollections.  However, when they provided a warning before introducing the misinformation, the same people were more likely to later accurately depict the true scientific consensus. ScienceFriday had an interview with the authors which you can hear here.

Perhaps more importantly, these findings were generalizable across participants regardless of their political beliefs.  Republicans and Democrats benefited equally from the inoculation.  I find this heartening. In a world where political beliefs often correlate with a trust (or lack thereof) of science and scientific issues like climate change are highly politicized – it gives me hope that there are still ways to communicate science across party lines.

In one of the most hopeful statements I’ve heard this week, one of the authors of the misinformation vaccine study, van der Linden, said in this ScienceDaily article: “There will always be people completely resistant to change, but we tend to find there is room for most people to change their minds, even just a little.”

Sign seen at Women's March on Washington last week (1-21-17). Photo is unattributed, so please let me know if the credit is yours.

Sign seen at Women’s March on Washington last week (1-21-17). Photo is unattributed, so please let me know if the credit is yours.

For more information on communicating science, especially to those who may be identify as anti-science, visit here  and here.

And if we simply want to avoid falling into the alternative fact trap ourselves?  Studies suggest that reading critically and fact-checking as you go are also good ways to avoid inadvertently clinging to false information.

Please share more tips and articles in the comments section!

Journal reference: Sander van der Linden, Anthony Leiserowitz, Seth Rosenthal, Edward Maibach. Inoculating the Public against Misinformation about Climate ChangeGlobal Challenges, 2017; 1600008 DOI: 10.1002/gch2.201600008


  1. Excellent reminder to stay vigilant and think critically

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