Two preliminary studies were recently conducted to test the effects of ‘inoculating’ people against believing a certain way in regards to climate change. The studies were carried out as a means of combating the existing information and disinformation that challenges the scientific consensus over the risks of climate change — using information ‘vaccines.’
A recent report from Vox, titled, Scientists are testing a “vaccine” against climate change denial, makes the case for these inoculation procedures to help people be more prone to accept facts instead of holding mistaken beliefs.
On the surface, this sounds wonderful. However, if we look at it from a scientific stance — applying scrutiny and skepticism — it becomes quite worrisome.
It is important to note that while we have scientists on our staff, no one here at the Free Thought Project is a climate scientist. For this reason, the Free Thought Project will not attempt to deny the human element in climate change nor will we attempt to purport the exact effect humans have on climate change.
However, to understand the disquieting nature of a program that inoculates young people against their natural tendencies of skepticism — one need not be an expert in the field of climate science.
As Vox reports, psychologists have known for decades that people are more resistant to misinformation if they’re warned about it beforehand. Teens who are warned about the dangers of smoking are less likely to succumb to their friends’ arguments in favor of it; people who are warned about pro-sugar campaigns by soda companies are less likely to fall for them. These “inoculation messages” can even work retroactively, changing the minds of those who have already been influenced by misinformation.
The idea of arming people with facts to combat misinformation is, indeed, a noble one. After all, who wants people to succumb to fake science or fake news because some group is deliberately lying to them to promote their agenda?
Both of these studies, Neutralizing misinformation through inoculation: Exposing misleading argumentation techniques reduces their influence and Inoculating the Public against Misinformation about Climate Change, are entirely noble in purpose.
The intent of these studies is not an immediate issue. The issue arises, however, when we look at the unintended consequences of ‘inoculating’ people into thinking a certain way simply because there is a consensus on an issue.
A scientific consensus is not to be easily discounted. Thousands of people all coming to similar conclusions through varying applications of the scientific method is a powerful means of explaining and understanding our environment and presence on this planet and in the universe. Coming to a consensus allows humanity to make better decisions about fostering a more sustainable future and helps us figure out how to progress as a species.
That being said, the collective is often dangerously — and deadly — wrong. Do not mistake this for a stance on climate change. Whether or not humans contribute to the effects of climate change is a moot point for the purpose of this issue. However, indoctrinating people to unquestioningly accept that it is a fact, through various means of information manipulation — known as “inoculation messages” — in these studies, can and will have damning consequences.
While the intent of the ‘inoculation’ is to help forward an idea that may be beneficial to the betterment of mankind, seeking to eliminate those who question everything — even the consensus — is chilling.
The effect of this process appears to inoculate people’s skepticism. Even if that skepticism is wrong, it is quite possibly the most necessary function of the scientific process. After all, science does not set out to prove — it sets out to disprove.
Without people questioning our very reality, science would likely still be stuck in the stone ages.
This inoculation method sets out to grow the herd of consensus, simply by convincing people that doing anything but unquestioningly accepting the consensus is wrong.
“Consensus messages don’t ask people to change their beliefs — they ask them to change their opinion about what other people believe, so they’re not a direct threat to their identity,” says Sander van der Linden, a psychology professor at Cambridge, who has also tested the strength of inoculation messages and who published the second study mentioned above.
Once people view the consensus as non-threatening, they will readily accept the science on the matter. Seems harmless enough, right?
Well, it does if you haven’t studied history at all.
Eugenics, the ‘science’ of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics, is a dark stain on humanity’s past and it was a consensus.
While most people associate it with Adolf Hitler and his movement to create a supreme race in Nazi Germany, the fact is that eugenics sciences began in the 1860s. By Hitler’s time, it was a consensus among many that the human population could be improved through selective breeding and the horrific treatment of people deemed ‘inferior’ by science.
One need only look at its horrid implementation and practice to see the gruesome reality of following a consensus that is dead wrong.
Eugenics is a prime example of how the scientific consensus can be manipulated and misused to support unscrupulous ends.
While eugenics is an extreme version of the consensus gone awry, consider the Hungarian doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis, as another example.
Semmelweis wanted to figure out why so many women in maternity wards were dying from puerperal fever — commonly known as childbed fever.
Through a long period of trial and error, Semmelweis hypothesized that washing one’s hands could help reduce childbed fever and save lives. This was before the science was clear on germs and Semmelweis had only come to this theory based on observations.
When Semmelweis implemented the practice of doctors washing their hands with chlorine prior to delivering babies in the maternity ward, the rate of childbed fever fell — dramatically.
However, what happened next serves to illustrate the dangerous nature of a consensus unwilling to change. While Semmelweis is now credited with saving lives by implementing hand-washing, things were far different back in his day.
After his hand-procedure began saving countless lives, doctors became angry at Semmelweis because they thought he made it look like they were the ones making the babies sick. Eventually, all the doctors stopped washing their hands and went back to their normal routine. The consensus won — it was wrong — and people died.
For years, Semmelweiss would try to convince people that washing their hands saved lives but it was futile. The more he challenged the status quo — even showing proof of saving lives — Semmelweiss was chastised and cast out of the scientific community.
But casting him out of the scientific community was just the start. For challenging the consensus with truth, Semmelweis was committed to a mental asylum.
While the details of his death aren’t 100 percent known, it is believed that he was beaten in the asylum and he died an ironic death from sepsis — one of the same diseases he fought so hard to prevent through the washing of hands.
While Semmelweiss was alive, there was no such thing as ‘consensus messages’ or information inoculations. However, had there been such a thing, rest assured, that he would’ve never attempted to challenge the status quo — despite being heavily ridiculed and shunned — and the idea of washing hands could still be a ‘conspiracy theory’ today.
What the above two examples illustrate is the nature of science and its tendency to resist being proven wrong. While it is entirely noble to want to inoculate people to disinformation, sometimes that ‘disinformation’ is actually truth. Without the crazies in the peanut gallery keeping scientists and the consensus on their A-game, reality is not challenged and disinformation can become mainstream.
In the words of the late great George Carlin, humanity would do well to always “Question Everything.”