Neutralizing misinformation through inoculation: definitions (or the lack thereof)

John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky (together with Ulrich Ecker) have released a new paper at the beginning of May 2017. It is called Neutralizing misinformation through inoculation: Exposing misleading argumentation techniques reduces their influence.

The paper is about (skeptical) “misconceptions” and how to “neutralize” them by means of the inoculation theory. It is a topic that I recognize. John Cook wrote about this several times in the past. I was rather weary hearing his argumentation back then and this time it is no different.

The paper is certainly more thoughtfully written than the Alice-in-Wonderland paper (from two of the authors), but reading it, it is my impression that this is not the work of neutral researchers. I noticed that already in the beginning when I read the abstract. This is how it starts:

Misinformation can undermine a well-functioning democracy. For example, public misconceptions about climate science can lead to lowered acceptance of the reality of climate change and lowered support for mitigation policies.

Apparently they see “lowered acceptance of the reality of climate change” and “lowered support for mitigation policies” as examples for something that can “undermine” a democracy… Not just a democracy, even a “well-functioning” democracy. That is a bit over the top. With all respect, but I think one will need much more than the attitude of the public towards climate change that to undermine a “well-functioning” democracy.

Another head scratcher is the term “reality of climate change”, which was not defined in the paper and is rather ambiguous. It can mean many things, it depends on the background of the person who is using it.

Reading further in the paper, I realized that this was not the only thing that was not defined. The paper was based on the Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) worldview. Personally, I understand AGW as the worldview in which humans have an influence on the warming of the planet and when looking at how they defended this AGW worldview (by means of the 97% consensus on human caused global warming), then that seems to fit this definition. Unsurprisingly, they referenced to the papers of Oreskes, Doran, Anderegg and Cook.

But these references don’t fit this definition. The consensus on human caused global warming, as surveyed in these papers, is rather neutral (there is a consensus that the atmosphere is warming and that human emissions have an influence on this). But this is not how the authors used the term AGW in their paper. If I understand their example, then apparently the public should accept the “reality of climate change” and “support mitigation policies”, otherwise it could have some kind of disruptive effects on democracy. There is no way that this could be concluded from a neutral definition of AGW (as in their references).

Then it dawned on me: their definition of AGW probably goes well beyond AGW and is wandering into the domain of CAGW (Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming, meaning the warming caused by human emissions that has catastrophic consequences). In that case, if we assume that the science is settled by means of the consensus (which is on AGW) and the authors start from the assumption that we are likely to head for a rough future (based on a CAGW worldview) and combined with the assumption that the solution is well known, then I surely could understand that these misconceptions could become very dangerous things in a democracy. It could polarize politics and obstruct the necessary mitigation policies. But as far as I know, there is no consensus on the catastrophic nature of global warming.

If I read the paper with the definition of CAGW in my mind in stead of AGW, then their paper makes perfect sense, just as their example does. Also the other example of “significant societal consequences” they gave in the introduction now made sense (misinformation about HIV not causing AIDS and was estimated to have contributed to 330,000 excess deaths).

This lack of clear definitions is not exactly unusual. It happens a lot in climate communication. Some use the term Global Warming (the rise in temperatures over the last x decades) when they in fact mean Anthropogenic Global Warming or even Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming. Or, as in this case, they use Anthropogenic Global Warming when they mean Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming. This makes communication difficult. Using the same words, but with a different meaning. That is the basis of a lot of confusion and misunderstanding between alarmists and skeptics.

6 thoughts on “Neutralizing misinformation through inoculation: definitions (or the lack thereof)

  1. chrism56

    The last thing the authors want is for their definitions to be exact. If they were, they would be exposed for the charlatans that they are. Best to keep it all warm and fuzzy to keep their publishing acceptance and citation index up. The equivalent of an academic warm bath.
    A cynical view perhaps, but one that seems to best fit the facts.


    1. trustyetverify Post author

      I was thinking along the same line when reading the paper. What they want to do is changing people’s mind. Not by engaging in debate. Not by providing arguments. Not by understanding people’s standpoint. But by tricking people into their line of thinking (because they know the truth: the science is settled, there is a consensus, yada yada).

      Very interesting in that regard is their methodology, but more on that in (one of next) posts.


  2. chrism56

    Your description of how the seek to change minds sounds very much like the Catholic church, pre Reformation. Isn’t that why Protestant religions started so the masses could find the “truth” themselves? The clerical analogy is very apt when discussing things like dogma and heretics.


    1. trustyetverify Post author

      As far as I understand it, they start from the fact that someone’s worldview is difficult to change (which is undoubtedly true), therefor they propose to prepare the people for potential misinformation beforehand (“inoculating” them). That is much easier and less messy than debating or convincing someone with arguments (which in some cases might not work well or even have the contrary effect).

      I also think it has quite some hallmarks of dogma. I see a strong desire to convert others to their “truth” which is based on authority, with no room for doubt or opposition. Their goal is a bit different than religion of course. A larger part of the public needs to be on the bandwagon, in order to make it easier for the politicians to take the action they assume we need.

      I have no problem with taking action, but in a situation of deep uncertainty these are definitely not the right actions to take.


  3. manicbeancounter

    I think that the CAGW worldview is a subset of the AGW worldview. That is human-caused global warming can be one extreme a trivial relationship, that is of no consequence. At the other is the potential global apocalypse. The evidence in support of AGW is does not necessarily support CAGW.
    Then there is a need to distinguish between strong, high quality, relevant evidence and weak evidence. All is in the large set of “evidence”. In distinguishing, we should try reject the evidence that is tittle-tattle or hearsay.
    Lewandowsky and Cook never clarify these elements. Further they never even mention the effectiveness of policy that they want to promote. If they did clarify the difference then they would be forced to admit that the 97% consensus related to the weakest form of AGW. Given that they have deceived policy-makers like Bernie Sanders and Barak Obama in the USA they would be “forced to take the fifth”. Consensus evidence is basically “hearsay” evidence. A criminal case built on such flimsy evidence in most judicial systems would be rejected out of hand. But climate science seems to have lower standards.
    Even if there were strong evidence for CAGW, it is not, in my view, sufficient justification for applying policy. That lies in having a reasonable expectation of net positive outcome. It is a bit like a physician having correctly diagnosed a serious condition like cancer, in proscribed a course of risky and painful treatment, should have at least a reasonable expectation that the patient will be somehow better off with treatment than without.
    Another way to look at the issue. What distinguishes what Lewandowsky and Cook are doing from a group of academics trying to undermine democracy and impose their political agenda on the general public? All they seem to offer is that other academics share their opinions.


    1. trustyetverify Post author

      The CAGW worldview could indeed be viewed as a subset of the AGW worldview (which in turn is probably a subset of the GW worldview). The problem arises when it is said that they base themselves on the AGW worldview (and also prove their case with a survey on AGW), but are in fact basing themselves on a CAGW worldview. I have no problem with the 97% as such. I think there is a consensus and I have no reason to believe it is not at least 97%, but it is not the consensus that they are using as a starting point for their paper.

      That there is a consensus on “humans causing warming”, doesn’t necessarily mean that there is consensus that we “have to do something about it”. These are two distinct things, yet the authors seem to lump them together. The first one is investigated and apparently found to be 97%. The latter is not investigated, so taking the former as justification for the latter is a bait-and-switch.

      Which is a bit puzzling. Cook wrote two papers on the subject, so he should be aware what the consensus is about and that it is not about the latter.



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