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With Training, We Can Learn to Spot Fake News

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Fake news is a real problem. Now researchers say we may be able to inoculate ourselves against real-looking fabrications the same way we would against any other epidemic. They published their findings in the aptly named journal Global Challenges.

Lead author Sander van der Linden is a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge. “Misinformation can be sticky, spreading and replicating like a virus,” he said in a statement. “We wanted to see if we could find a ‘vaccine’ by preemptively exposing people to a small amount of the type of misinformation they might experience.”

Van der Linden and his colleagues at Cambridge and George Mason University recruited 2167 participants from across the United States and asked them to rate their familiarity and agreement with a variety of statements about climate change. Some were true, such as: “97% of scientists agree on manmade climate change.” Others were falsehoods created and spread by disinformation campaigns, such as: “There is no consensus on human-caused climate change."

Some people were shown just the facts; others saw only the falsehoods. Others saw a combination of both in varying proportions. As the participants read through the materials, they were asked repeatedly if scientists agreed about human-made global warming, in order to judge which stories they believed.

The results were what you might expect. Being shown only the facts increased participants’ understanding that there is scientific consensus by 20 percentage points. The folks who only saw the falsehoods experienced a 9-percent drop in that understanding.

Showing participants fact and fiction at the same time had worrisome results: fiction seemed to cancel fact out. This is especially problematic at a time when many media outlets insist on presenting a false “balance” on issues like climate change, even though the facts are clearly piled up on one side of the scale: climate change is real and caused by us.

"It's uncomfortable to think that misinformation is so potent in our society," van der Linden said. "A lot of people's attitudes toward climate change aren't very firm. They are aware there is a debate going on, but aren't necessarily sure what to believe. Conflicting messages can leave them feeling back at square one."

But there’s good (real) news. The researchers also gave one subgroup of people an ‘inoculation’: a warning that “some politically motivated groups use misleading tactics to try and convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists.”

It worked. People who were given this fake-news vaccine reported a 6.5-percent increase in their understanding that there is scientific consensus on climate change even after they’d read misinformation. Remarkably, this effect held strong even among people who were predisposed to reject climate science. 

"There will always be people completely resistant to change,” van der Linden said, "but we tend to find there is room for most people to change their minds, even just a little."

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Animals
Why Blue Dogs Have Been Roaming Mumbai
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Residents of Mumbai began noticing a peculiar sight on August 11: roving stray dogs tinted a light shade of blue. No one knew what to make of these canines, which were spotted in the streets seemingly unharmed but otherwise bucking nature.

Concerned observers now have an answer, but it’s not a very reassuring one. According to The Guardian, the 11 Smurf-colored animals were the result of pollution run-off in the nearby Kasadi River. Industrial waste, including dyes, has been identified as coming from a nearby manufacturing plant. Although dogs are known to swim in the river, the blue dye was also found in the air. After complaints, the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board investigated and found the factory, Ducol Organics Pvt Ltd., was not adhering to regulatory guidelines for waste disposal. They shut off water to the facility and issued a notice of closure last Friday.

“There are a set of norms that every industry needs to follow,” MPCB regional officer Anil Mohekar told The Hindustan Times. “After our sub-regional officers confirmed media reports that dogs were indeed turning blue due to air and water pollution, we conducted a detailed survey at the plant … We will ensure that the plant does not function from Monday and the decision sets an example for other polluting industries, which may not be following pollution abatement measures.”

Animal services workers who retrieved five of the dogs were able to wash off the dye. They reported that no other health issues were detected.

[h/t The Guardian]

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environment
A Coral Reef in Mexico Just Got Its Own Insurance Policy
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The Puerto Morelos coral reef, about 20 miles south of Cancún, is one of Mexico’s most popular snorkeling attractions. It also serves a vital purpose beyond drawing tourists. Like all reefs, it provides a buffer for the coast, protecting nearby beaches from brutal waves and storms. And so the beachside businesses that rely on the reef have decided to protect the coral as they would any other vital asset: with insurance. As Fast Company reports, the reef now has its own insurance policy, the first-ever policy of its kind.

Coral reefs are currently threatened by increasing ocean acidification, warmer waters, pollution, and other ocean changes that put them at risk of extinction. Mass coral bleachings are affecting reefs all over the world. That’s not to mention the risk of damage during extreme storms, which are becoming more frequent due to climate change.

Businesses in Puerto Morelos and Cancún pay the premiums for the Reef & Beach Resilience and Insurance Fund, and if the reef gets damaged, the insurance company will pay to help restore it. It’s not just an altruistic move. By protecting the Puerto Morelos reef, nearby businesses are protecting themselves. According to The Nature Conservancy, which designed the insurance policy, coral reef tourism generates around $36 billion for businesses around the world each year. Perhaps even more importantly to coastal businesses, reefs protect $6 billion worth of built capital (i.e. anything human-made) annually.

When a storm hits, the insurance company will pay out a claim in 10 days, according to Fast Company, providing an immediate influx of cash for urgent repair. (The insurance policy is tied to the event of a storm, not the damage, since it would be hard to immediately quantify the economic damage to a reef.) The corals that break off the reef can be rehabilitated at a nursery and reattached, but they have to be collected immediately. Waiting months for an insurance payout wouldn’t help if all the damaged corals have already floated away.

The insurance policy is one of many new initiatives designed to rehabilitate and protect endangered coastal ecosystems that we now know are vital to buffering the coast from storm surges and strong waves. Coral reefs aren’t the only protective reefs: In the eastern and southern coastal U.S., some restaurants have started donating oyster shells to help rebuild oyster reefs offshore as a storm protection and ecosystem rehabilitation measure.

Considering the outsized role reefs play in coastal protection, more insurance policies may be coming to ecosystems elsewhere in the world. Hopefully.

[h/t Fast Company]

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