UNESCO, whIch is the education, science and cultural arm of the UN, has put out a document aimed at countering misinformation and conspiracy theories. It’s a series of factsheets titled” “ThinkBeforeSharing – Stop the spread of conspiracy theories.” and it opens thus:

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a worrying rise in disinformation and conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories can be dangerous: they often target and discriminate against vulnerable groups, ignore scientific evidence and polarize society with serious consequences. This needs to stop.

The idea of “stopping the spread” of conspiracy theories is obviously taken directly from the treatment of viral infections, and the metaphor is extended throughout the document. The advice is basically to stick a mask over your mind and wash your brain thoroughly if it comes in contact with an idea.

A new campaign helps you learn how to identify, debunk, react to and report on conspiracy theories to prevent their spread… This UNESCO campaign is implemented jointly with the European Commission, Twitter and the World Jewish Congress.

The campaign consists of 10 infographics and 10 “stamps,” which is UNESCO-speak for posters of the kind you see at the doctor’s warning about coughs & sneezes & venereal diseases.  And at the bottom of each infographic is the following:

With thanks to Michael Butter, co-author of the COMPACT Guide to Conspiracy Theories, and John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky, authors of The Debunking Handbook and The Conspiracy Theory Handbook. 

Cook & Lewandowsky we know. Though their Debunking and Conspiracy Theory handbooks are stuffed full of references to climate denialists and their conspiracy theories, none of this appears in the UNESCO documents. Cook & Lewandowsky’s first published paper on conspiracy theorizing & misinformation was so full of it that it had to be retracted, officially because it failed to “protect the rights of subjects” or some such, in fact because it was a load of defamatory garbage. Their third paper was a rewrite of the first, with the added (surely unique) feature, that, in order to avoid charges of defaming their ”subjects,” they simply made up the quotes themselves. 

These two papers were responses to criticism, not to say rolling-about-wetting the-carpet-with-tears-of-laughter derision, which greeted Lewandowsky’s first paper on conspiracy theorizing (though the second to be published) the famous “NASA Faked the Moon Landing…”

This paper had a long, (and unjustly overlooked) introduction on the academic literature on conspiracy theorizing, which at the time of his research (2010) was extremely sparse, so sparse that the bibliography is filled out with a bewildering variety of papers on e.g. the views of homophobic men who have sex with other men in South Africa, and a study of anti-Semitism in Malaysia which concludes that there is little anti-Semitism in Malaysia because there are no Jews. From this literature Lewandowsky derived an analysis of conspiracy theorizing which he has used in subsequent publications like the Debunking Handbook and The Conspiracy Theory Handbook, which form the basis of the UNESCO study.           

Less is known of Michael Butter, though I mentioned him herehttps://cliscep.com/2019/03/08/the-great-climate-conspiracy-theory-conspiracy-theory/  From his bio at the University of Tübingen, where he is professor American Literary and Cultural History, we learn :

 Michael Butter’s research interests include conspiracy theories and populism, the colonial period and the Early Republic, popular culture, the poetics of contemporary TV shows, the construction of heroes and their cultural functions, and American culture after 9/11. From 2016 to 2020, he was Vice Chair of the COST Action “Comparative Analysis of Conspiracy Theories.” Since April 2020, he has been Principal Investigator of the ERC-funded project “Populism and Conspiracy Theory.” .. he… serves on the advisory board of veritas, which offers counseling for people affected by conspiracy theory..

COST, as you can see, is an EU financed programme, and Michael Butter’s last contribution as vice chair, as far as I know, is this Final Achievement Report, which can be found by clicking on Final Achievement Report here .

What has all this to do with Climate? Nothing. COST doesn’t get into details on individual conspiracy theories, but stays strangely abstract, as here, where they discuss their success in attaining the following objective:

The Action aims at equipping the major stakeholders with robust knowledge and strategies to understand and counter accusations of conspiracy directed against them or others. It thus will reach out and collaborate with scientists, politicians, journalists, NGOs and educators

You read that right. One of COST’s aims is countering accusations of conspiracy against themselves, or against politicians, journalists, NGOs etc.

They award themselves 76-100% success on this objective. Why?

The Action successfully organized a stakeholder workshop which took place in Brussels in January 2017 to learn about stakeholders’ needs and interests. In addition, at each WG meeting or action conference, there has been at least one panel dealing with the practical implications of believing in conspiracy theories and trying to counteract them. At the Turin meeting the focus was on vaccination; at the Bilderberg meeting it was on security issues. 

So that’s COST. They hold meetings, and produce a report that awards themselves achievement points, depending on how many meetings they’ve held.

Meetings at which they listen to politicians, journalists, NGOs etc. explain how they need to be protected from accusations by conspiracy theorists. 

Our UNESCO document also recommends Michael Butter’s  “COMPACT Guide to Conspiracy Theories” which can be found here, which I’m looking forward to reading the day I’m locked in an isolation cell for the crime of spreading disinformation and accusations of conspiracy about politicians, journalists, NGOs etc.

The UNESCO documents are in the form of visuals which can’t be searched or copy/pasted, and I can’t be bothered to type out any more of the wisdom of the learned academics, so you’ll have to explore it on your own. And the day they knock on your door asking: “Who told you that?” please forget that you read it here first.

10 Comments

  1. Okay, let’s talk about this wonderful Debunking Handbook that UNESCO is placing so much store in. The 2020 edition has this to say regarding the so-called backfire effect:

    “Ten years ago, scholars and practitioners were concerned that corrections may “backfire”; that is, ironically strengthen misconceptions rather than reduce them. Recent research has allayed those concerns: backfire effects occur only occasionally and the risk of occurrence is lower in most situations than once thought. Do not refrain from attempting to debunk or correct misinformation out of fear that doing so will backfire or increase beliefs in false information.”

    What they fail to point out is that this backfire effect was the half-baked brainchild of the very same people who wrote the Debunking Handbook. i.e. they are themselves the ‘scholars and practitioners’ to which they refer. This is what they said in the 2011 edition:

    “Hence the backfire effect is real.”

    Then the 2020 version says:

    “Early evidence was supportive of this idea, but more recently, exhaustive experimental attempts to induce a backfire effect through familiarity alone have come up empty.”

    In other words, they had dreamt it up and put it in their handbook but forgot about the need for reproducibility.

    Under the heading, ‘Worldview Backfire Effect’, the 2011 version stated:

    “The third and arguably most potent backfire effect occurs with topics that tie in with people’s worldviews and sense of cultural identity.”

    Now the 2020 version states:

    “While there was initially some evidence for the worldview backfire effect, recent research indicates that it is not a pervasive and robust empirical phenomenon.”

    Again, they forgot about the important role of evidence. What they had claimed was ‘real’ and ‘potent’ turned out to be bullshit. But that’s okay, because the people who are now debunking the 2011 edition of the Debunking Handbook are the authors of the 2011 Debunking Handbook. They are so good at debunking that they can debunk themselves. UNESCO obviously doesn’t care about this.

    The 2011 edition of the Debunking Handbook was very much based upon the backfire effect but it turned out to be a case of pseudo-science at best. The latest edition doesn’t escape that accusation simply by acknowledging previous errors. The same charlatans are responsible for both editions.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. JOHN RIDGWAY
    Thanks for that de/pre bunking of the backfire effect. I confess I haven’t been into it that deeply.

    For anyone mystified by the significance of all this:
    Lewandowsky came to prominence as a critic of climate sceptics, in whom he claimed to detect conspiratorial tendencies, which led to him getting a certain academic reputation as an expert on conspiracy theorising. By the time academia discovered that his work was nonsense, he’d got a foothold in the expanding world of conspiracy and misinformation studies. He tends therefore to avoid referring to climate conspiracy theorists (the only kind he’s studied) because they tend to answer back, and to concentrate on the larger field of suppression of opinions unwelcome to governments or academic authorities, citing just enough of his rubbish articles to establish that he exists. It worked with the British Parliamentary Committee on the media, it worked with Oxford University Press. Why shouldn’t it work with UNESCO, Twitter, the European Union and Google?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. It works because nobody properly scrutinizes anymore. When Lewandowsky and Cook first got into all of this ‘inoculation’ and debunking stuff, the backfire effect was the centrepiece of their thesis (remember all that stuff about facts being at a disadvantage?) When I first read about it, I thought it sounded highly dubious. ‘Where is the evidence?’ I wondered. It turns out there was none. The whole thing was such shoddy science that it was tantamount to scientific misconduct. However, they were the only ones in any position of authority who were monitoring this debacle. So they got to write up the climb down in their own handbook ‘update’ using their own way of phrasing things. To those who continue to observe so lackadaisically, it just looks like more sterling work from the pen of Lewandowsky et al.

    It isn’t. It is a coded admission of professional incompetence that should have put them permanently out of a job – in an ideal world. Instead, their reputation goes from strength to strength.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. To get a flavour of the Debunking Handbook without wading through it, I recommend p15, “Example of a Refutation” which contains the only concrete example of misinformation, and advice as to how to debunk it. It’s all about climate.

    It consists of four boxes, headed FACT, MYTH, FALLACY, and FACT. Beside each box there are comments with arrows linking to the text inside the box.

    The headline in the first FACT box says: “Scientists observe human fingerprints all over our climate,” with a linking comment: “Lead with the fact if it’s clear pithy and sticky – make it simple, concrete and plausible.”

    So is it sticky? (The fact I mean, not the fingerprints.) Is it concrete and plausible?
    Well, for starters it’s not even a fact. It’s a metaphor, taken from detective novels. With the implication that a crime has been committed and we know the culprit.

    The following text reads:
    « The warming effect from greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide has been confirmed by many lines of evidence. Aircraft and satellites measure less heat escaping to space at the exact wavelengths that carbon dioxide absorbs energy. The upper atmosphere cools while the lower atmosphere warms—a distinct pattern of greenhouse warming. »

    Clear as mud and pithy as a bowl of warm pith. This is exactly what NOT to say, isn’t it? What’s sticky about it? Read it as you might if you knew and cared nothing about the subject and see what sticks. Our attention is seized by the first and only concrete reference, to aircraft and satellites, which measure: “Less heat escaping to space … carbon dioxide absorbs energy … the upper atmosphere cools .. a distinct pattern ….” Are Cook & Lewandowsky secretly on our side?

    Then follows the MYTH:
    « A common climate myth is that climate has always changed naturally in the past, therefore modern climate change must be natural also. »

    Nobody has ever said that have they? What they HAVE said is that our naturally changing climate has probably been as hot in the past, without any of the catastrophic consequences predicted by climate scientists.

    And the authors add this advice:
    “Repeat the misinformation, only once, directly prior to the correction. »
    Which advice they then ignore, since they don’t repeat the information, and they don’t follow it with a correction, but with the following:

    « This argument commits the single cause fallacy, falsely assuming that because natural factors have caused climate change in the past, then they must always be the cause of climate change. »

    So myth and refutation can be condensed as follows:
    « The myth that climate has always changed naturally in the past, therefore modern climate change must be natural also, is a fallacy, since it assumes that because natural factors have caused climate change in the past, then they must always be the cause of climate change. »

    And the concrete refutation finishes with a final FACT, a repetition of the same metaphor:
    « Just as a detective finds clues in a crime scene, scientists have found many clues in climate measurements confirming humans are causing global warming. Human-caused global warming is a measured fact. »

    With two practical hints as a final flourish :
    “Finish by reinforcing the fact” (i.e. the metaphor about a crime scene) and “Repeat the fact multiple times if possible.”

    Which our authors have been doing for ten years now. And still no arrests.

    Like

  5. Let us also not forget the great Lewandowsky’s involvement in the Uncertainty Handbook, in which he lectures how no one who opposes the climate change orthodoxy understands anything about uncertainty:

    Experts, Texperts

    Perhaps UNESCO will be appointing him as its go to expert on uncertainty analysis next. Anything is possible if the Debunking Handbook impressed them.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Professor Cranky Uncle Lew has just delivered the keynote speech kicking off a conference in Zurich organised by the European Association of Communication Professionals in Higher Education*. The conference’s title: ‘Science Communication. How to Engage Nowadays.’ Lew’s keynote: ‘Communicating science in a post-truth world’.** There’s a longish summary of Lew’s keynote here:

    https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20220829115905960

    During his keynote, Professor Cranky Uncle Lew apparently said:

    (a) Populism is ‘dictatorship in drag’

    (b) Brexit is ‘populism on steroids’***

    What happens when drag artists take steroids? Are they less likely to become populists? (Asking for a friend.)

    ===
    *If you search the Web for ‘EAOCPIHE’, Google shows hits for ‘EARACHE’. ‘EACPHE’ gives you ‘APACHE’. This is perhaps why this group of leading communication professionals has chosen to go by the somewhat uninformative initialism ‘EUPRIO’ (and a logo that looks like ‘~UPRIO’).

    **A title that Lew seems to have borrowed from 2017 and 2018 eco-journalism conferences in America.

    ***Another borrowing. But that’s OK. Academics aren’t academics if they don’t build on the work of others.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Vinny – thanks for that “‘vaccine’ for fake news works, psychologists find”
    Nic Mitchell 29 August 2022 – link, well worth a read.

    standout snippets for me –
    “Psychologists from Bristol and Cambridge universities in the United Kingdom claim they are well on the way, in cooperation with specialists at a unit within Google, to developing a psychological inoculation that helps to build resistance against future manipulation at scale and to identify fake online news.”

    “The team behind the research believe that pre-bunking may be more effective at fighting the misinformation deluge than fact-checking each untruth after it spreads – the classic ‘debunk’ – which is impossible to do at scale and can entrench conspiracy theories by feeling like personal attacks to those who believe them.”

    ““Propaganda, lies and mis-directions are nearly always created from the same playbook,” said co-author of the study, Professor Stephan Lewandowsky from the University of Bristol.
    “We developed the videos by analysing the rhetoric of demagogues who deal in scapegoating and false dichotomies.
    “Fact-checkers can only rebut a fraction of the falsehoods circulating online. We need to teach people to recognise the misinformation playbook, so they understand when they are being misled.”

    they really think they know best, sad people.

    Like

  8. If anyone is interested, this is one of the papers that looks into the backfire effect and finds that it does not exist. Lewandowsky and Cook are clearly identified as the scientists that pushed the idea. In their latest edition of the Debunking Handbook they have the audacity to glibly refer to what ‘some researchers thought’ when they are actually alluding to their own shoddy work. It took others to expose them as quacks but, risebly, they even seem to want to take that credit for themselves, albeit without identifying themselves as the actual culprits. Only someone like Lewandowsky would attempt such a deception.

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7462781/#:~:text=A%20backfire%20effect%20occurs%20when,%2C%20%26%20Cook%2C%202012

    Like

  9. …Just to put the record straight, Lewandowsky’s name appears on other papers that debunk his effect. He seems to be making a living out of debunking himself. I suppose that is what a good scientist does 🙂

    Like

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