Factors that make correcting misinformation about science more successful

New Penn research assesses belief in misinformation about science and determines how well debunking misinformation proves to be effective.

New research explains the circumstances under which corrections of misinformation about science are most likely to work or fail, as well as the characteristics of the corrections most likely to succeed. The study, titled “A Meta-analysis of Correction Effects in Science-Relevant Misinformation,” published in Nature Human Behaviour, is authored by Penn psychologists and communication scholars Man-pui Sally Chan and Dolores Albarracín.

The authors conducted a meta-analysis, a quantitative synthesis of prior research, which involved 60,000 participants in 74 experiments. Each experiment either assessed belief in misinformation about science or introduced misinformation about science as accurate and then introduced corrections for the misinformation.

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Although on average the corrections failed to accomplish their objectives, they worked better when the issue in the correction was emotionally more positive than the misinformation, the correction matched the ideology of the recipients, the issue was not politically polarized, and the correction provided abundant details as to why the earlier claims were false.

The researchers found that “attempts to debunk science-relevant misinformation were, on average, not successful,” says Chan, the lead author and a research associate at the Annenberg School for Communication. “Therefore, most of the science-relevant misinformation goes uncorrected even when a debunk is presented. People believe in the misinformation as much before as after the debunk. This is quite notable, because corrections in other domains, such as reports about an accident or political event, do reasonably well, as shown by past research. However, this does not occur in the domain of misinformation about science.

“We humans like to keep our rose-tinted glasses on, and we are resistant to debunking pseudoscience that feels good,” says Albarracín, the Alexandra Heyman Nash University Professor of the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Science of Science Communication division of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. “It is far easier to correct hype about a chemical spill that didn’t happen than about deforestation that is happening. The reason is that it’s more pleasant to move from pessimistic to optimistic news rather than the other way around.” Good news corrects negative misinformation more easily than bad news corrects positive misinformation, she says.

There are, however, ways to correct misinformation. Once obstacles can be accounted for, they can be worked around. Chan recommends “using corrections that are detailed, increasing familiarity with the topic in the audience, making discussions of science not about politics to depolarize them. But if the topic is already politically polarized, then the correction must be written in a way that aligns with the recipient’s politics.”

Read more at Annenberg Public Policy Center.