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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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India's Supreme Court Demands That the Taj Mahal Be Restored or Demolished
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The Taj Mahal is one of the most recognizable monuments on Earth, but over the years it's started to look less like its old self. Smog and insect droppings are staining the once pure-white marble exterior an unseemly shade of yellow. Now, The Art Newspaper reports that India's Supreme Court has set an ultimatum: It's threatening to shut down or demolish the building if it's not restored to its former glory.

Agra, the town where the Taj Mahal is located, has a notorious pollution problem. Automobile traffic, factory smoke, and the open burning of municipal waste have all contributed to the landmark's increasing discoloration. Insects and acid rain also pose a threat to the facade, which is already crumbling away in some parts.

India's highest court now says the country's central government must seek foreign assistance to restore the UNESCO World Heritage Site if it's to remain open. Agra's state of Uttar Pradesh has taken some steps to reduce pollution in recent years, such us banning the burning of cow dung, which produces heavy brown carbon. In 2015, India's Supreme Court ordered all wood-burning crematoriums near the Taj Mahal to be swapped for electric ones.

But the measures haven't done enough to preserve the building. A committee led by the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpu reportedly plans to investigate the exact sources of pollution in the area, a process that will take about four months. The Supreme Court plans check in on the status of site every day from July 31.

Air pollution isn't the only factor damaging the Taj Mahal. It was constructed near the Yamuna River in the 17th century, and as the water gradual dries up, the ground beneath the structure is shifting. If the trend continues it could lead to the building's total collapse.

[h/t The Art Newspaper]

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Are You Eco-Conscious? You Could Win a Trip to the Dominican Republic
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Do you love lounging on the beach but also want to take action to save the planet? You'll be able to do both if you're chosen to serve as a "sustainability advisor" for a luxury resort in the Dominican Republic, Lonely Planet reports.

The worldwide contest is sponsored by Eden Roc at Cap Cana in Punta Cana. The winner and one friend will receive a five-night stay at the Relais & Châteaux hotel, where they'll partake in specially curated activities like a food-sourcing trip with the hotel's chef. (One caveat, though: Airfare isn't included.)

You don't need a degree in conservation to enter, but you will need an Instagram account. Give the resort's Instagram page (@edenroccapcana) a follow and post a photo of you carrying out an eco-friendly activity on your own page. Be sure to tag the resort and use the official hashtag, #EcoEdenRoc.

The only requirement is that the winner meet with hotel staff at the end of his or her trip to suggest some steps that the hotel can take to reduce its environmental impact. The hotel has already banned plastic straws and reduced its usage of plastic bottles, and the sole mode of transport used on site is the electric golf cart.

Beyond the resort, though, the Dominican Republic struggles with deforestation and soil erosion, and the nation scored poorly on the 2018 Environmental Performance Index for the agricultural category.

Entries to the contest will be accepted until August 31, and you can read the full terms and conditions here.

[h/t Lonely Planet]

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