Thursday, 18 July 2024
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Thursday, 18 July 2024

Fact, Myth, Fallacy: Unraveling Misinformation in Climate Science and Beyond

Disinformation is often designed to hit a nerve – to be provocative, emotional, and salient. Sometimes it works with our biases, sometimes it’s just straight up misleading. This is why it spreads like wildfire across the internet, particularly when it’s stoked by commentators or politicians.

Misinformation flows through our media environments faster than the truth. Six times quicker than the truth on Twitter, according to a study by Harvard University. The same can’t always be said for attempts to communicate the truth. The facts and stats we use to try and set the record straight can seem dry, or even unlikely, when compared to the alternative. This is a problem for us when we’re trying to set the record straight – our rebuttals just don’t travel as far as the original untruth. So, what can we do?

Ideally, we want to be ahead and set our own frames before misinformation appears. Or if misinformation already exists, reframe the issue away from the opponent’s frame. For example, insulation is still a policy largely untouched by misinformation, so we are free to set our own frames. Renewable energy, however, has been under attack for a long time in the UK, so communications need to combat existing frames.   

However, sometimes when misinformation has reached critical mass, we need to tackle it head on with rebuttals. The ‘Fact, Myth, Fallacy’ model was developed by academic John Cook to rebut misinformation in ways that are as ‘sticky’ as the original lie.

First, find a compelling explanation that replaces the falsehood. We create mental models for situations. If there’s a hole in them, we experience something called ‘cognitive dissonance’ and reject the evidence for a more intuitive explanation. Therefore, we need to create an equally intuitive – but correct – explanation. 

Second, we need to order our argument carefully, according to the communication science: 

  1. Lead with the fact, so people anchor to that and not the myth.
  2. Follow up with the myth that they have heard before (if they haven’t, we shouldn’t be doing this!)
  3. Point out why the myth isn’t true, by describing the logical fallacy

Putting this into action – Creating your own sticky rebuttals

Imagine sending the below explanation to a friend. They believe that climate change is caused by sunspots, not human activity: 

Friend: Climate change is a hoax – it’s not caused by humans, but by sunspots. Expert X says so.

Rebuttal: “Climate change is not a hoax! Here’s the hockey stick graph that plots carbon dioxide in the atmosphere against global temperature to prove it’s caused by us. Expert X doesn’t know what they’re talking about!” 

Can you spot what’s wrong with the above? We lead with the myth, reinforcing it. The argument assumes a lot of knowledge and lacks that sticky storytelling that makes people listen.

Instead let’s use the Fact, Myth, Fallacy model:

Fact: Climate change is happening and it’s down to us – that’s what 97% of climate scientists think. They’ve studied the amount of carbon that’s been in the atmosphere for as long as humans have been on earth. When it’s plotted on a graph, we can see clearly that once the industrial revolution hits, carbon dioxide spikes, and so does global temperature. That’s us.

Myth: You’ve said that climate change is a hoax and not caused by humans, as Expert X says so.

Fallacy: This person is a fake expert! There are lots of people making a lot of money in fossil fuels who don’t want us to change, and it’s likely that they pay people like Expert X to say climate change is a hoax. Their degree is in sociology, not climate science – would you go to a cancer doctor about your broken leg for a treatment that 97% of physiotherapists disagreed with? 

This technique isn’t just helpful for climate science, you can also use it for ‘climate delay’ messaging. This is where people accept climate change is happening and is human caused, but share messages that slow progress to a solution. Check out our Advertising Guide on Framing for more information about ‘delay’ messaging.

Let’s look at what Fact, Myth, Fallacy can look like for climate delay messaging:

Friend: My energy bills are so high! Britain should be fracking its way out of the energy crisis to keep costs down for its people!

Fact: Fracking won’t bring down our energy bills any time soon, because wells will take several years to come online. Even then, the way the energy market works means any gas from fracking isn’t automatically kept for Britain but sold to the highest bidder. Renewables are a better way to keep our costs down as they are cheaper, faster to bring online and will give us freedom from the volatile gas market.

Myth: You’ve said that Britain should be fracking its way out of the energy crisis to keep costs down for its people.

Fallacy: I don’t know where you’ve heard that, but people are commonly cherry picking scientific or energy price data to further political agendas. Our government’s own data shows that fracking wouldn’t bring down costs. 

Resources to help you

Don’t just take our advice, John Cook and his colleagues at George Mason University have put together a ‘taxonomy of science denial techniques’ which they call FLICC to help you describe the fallacies which are at play. Read about it here.

Watch the full John Cook video here for an in-depth tutorial on how to use the ‘Fact Myth Fallacy’ model in your work.

If you don’t want to spend lots of time making up your own debunks, check out Skeptical Science, which uses the model for climate science denial, and is a great resource. Or check out our climate communications resources by topic, where we frequently suggest reframes and rebuttals for common climate misinformation narratives in the UK.

Kathryn Bonner is Account & Partnerships Manager at ACT Climate Labs.
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