This week, the average American experienced a taste of what it is like to be a public health official or researcher. It wasn’t due to an outbreak or epidemic, mind you. It had to do with this…

inauguration(Inauguration Day…)

Despite what your eyes might see above, several people claimed the crowd attending the 2017 event was more populous than that in 2009. A variety of statistics were thrown around to support this view. Even the centre of all that attention entered the debate suggesting he felt there were far more people than the visual evidence suggests.

This all culminated when a spokesperson who was questioned about these obviously inaccurate conclusions suggested they were…

alternative-facts(Alternative Facts…)

As you might expect, this started a rather heated debate in the media and the term itself went viral on social media. Even Merriam-Webster, the dictionary company, entered the discussion pointing out…

fact(To much rejoicing I might add…)

Yet despite all this, those siding with the 2017 claim did not budge.

Right about now, you might find yourself experiencing a tinge of malcontent. Depending on how long this simmers (or festers), you may end up wanting to…

scream(Scream!)

But as much as I hate to say it, for public health officials and researchers, this is par for the course. Each and every day, these wonderful people watch helplessly as evidence is set aside and replaced by a combination of alternative facts, feelings, and conjecture. If they try to set the record straight, they are met with a combination of derision, defamatory comments, and accusations of…

dog-cat(Illiteracy…my favorite)

Using alternative facts to push a claim is a common practice in many different scientific arenas. Three of the most popular – and for the record, false – claims happen to be…

  • Vaccines cause autism.
  • GMOs are going to harm us.
  • Climate Change is not real

No matter what evidence from the scientific literature is presented, those who stand by these claims never let up. Instead, they share a variety of alternative facts in the hopes of confusing the public. What they are doing is relying on one of the fundamental tenets of science:  it is not absolute…

zero(Except, of course for Absolute Zero…)

Because scientists cannot conclude with complete certainty, alternative facts can squeeze into the discussion and eventually overtake it. Depending on the index case – the person who introduced these falsehoods – misinformation can spread like a virus. An outbreak may ensue and if not caught early enough, quickly turn into an epidemic of speculation, doubt, and lack of trust.

This analogy, while depressing, does offer some hope and a possible hypothesis to counter alternative facts. It goes something like this…

Because alternative facts are viruses of fiction,
we can vaccinate against them using factual information.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking…

what(He’s lost it this time…)

I admit, it does seem far-fetched. Yet, a group of researchers based in America and the UK, this theory appeared to be worthy of at least a preliminary test.

The team focused on climate change as the topic of interest. The virus, if you will, is the continuing perception that it does not exist. The vaccine was comprised not of a liquid injected into the arm, but a flood of factual information injected into the brain through communication.

Here’s how the experiment worked. The team conducted an online survey in which hundreds of people were asked about their view on climate change. Then, they were exposed to information regarding the phenomenon. The messages fell into one of the following categories:

  1. A consensus statement on climate change – it is happening;
  2. Alternative facts (which they called a counter-message);
  3. A simple vaccine comprised of easy to understand information about climate change;
  4. A stronger vaccine comprised of detailed knowledge and information on climate change.

After the exposures were complete, the volunteers were asked again for their views.

When the results came back, this is what they saw…

conesnsus

(The numbers here reveal the change in people’s views from their original stance…)

As you can see, the power of alternative facts (Line 3) is undeniable. These untrue perspectives were able to change the viewpoint of close to 10% of the people. They also are effective at in neutralizing an opposing message. Just look at Line 4. Even though the consensus statement was made, as soon as those viral entities made their way into the brain – especially for Republicans – the stance changed for the worse.

When you think about it, this is why people who want to avoid the truth turn to alternative facts. They know these distractions from reality can sway a person to doubt and possibly force them to turn away from what is known to be true.

But the real story comes in the subsequent lines. Line 5 is the simple vaccine while Line 6 is the stronger version. Both were effective at helping to sway the stance towards the evidence. Even when those alternative facts were presented, they had little effect. In essence, the vaccine had worked.

When it was all said and done, the vaccine wasn’t quite as effective as they hoped. The effectiveness was only about 20%. If this were a real biological vaccine, it would have to go back to the drawing board. However, for this purpose, a change of 20% of the population could be regarded as…

yuge(Sorry, I had to…)

When you think about a population of hundreds of millions of people such as America, swaying that many minds towards reality over fiction would be considered a triumph.

Of course, this study was done in a controlled setting using surveys and volunteers. No one quite knows if it would be as effective in the real world. However, for those who continue to spread the good word, this study should provide some comfort. The more these people continue to vaccinate the public, the greater the chance we may all be able to live in a world ruled by scientific evidence instead of…

pinocc(You get the idea…)

If you want to read the entire study, you can find it here: Inoculating the Public against Misinformation about Climate Change – van der Linden – 2017 – Global Challenges – Wiley Online Library

 

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