UPDATE: well, it's been a vigorous four hours of typing answers but I'm going to call it a day. Thanks to everyone for participating and providing really interesting questions, and sorry I didn't get to all them.

I am a researcher with the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, founder of Skeptical Science, and creator of Cranky Uncle. For the last decade, I've researched how to counter misinformation about climate change. I now combine critical thinking, climate science, cartoons, and comedy to build resilience against misinformation. 

All this research is on display in a new book I've just published: Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change. I'm also developing a "Cranky Uncle" smartphone game that uses gamification and cartoons to teach players resilience against misinformation. More book and game details at https://crankyuncle.com

I've published many research papers on these topics which you can access at . This includes research finding 97% scientific consensus on human-caused global warming (a study that has inspired many comments over the years and I’m sure will spark a few questions here). During my PhD, I published research finding that inoculation is a powerful tool to neutralize misinformation: we can stop science denial from spreading by exposing people to a weakened form of science denial. I’ve published research that uses critical thinking to deconstruct and analyze misinformation in order to identify reasoning fallacies. I also led a collaboration between the University of Queensland and Skeptical Science that developed the Massive Open Online Course: Making Sense of Climate Science Denial.

Ask me anything about my research, my MOOC, Skeptical Science, the Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change book, or the Cranky Uncle smartphone game.

PROOF: https://twitter.com/johnfocook/status/1232314003008843776 and https://twitter.com/johnfocook/status/1232346613474983937

Comments: 868 • Responses: 38  • Date: 

CerealFountain167 karma

What was the craziest piece of misinformation that you can't believe people actually believed?

Skeptical_John_Cook468 karma

After our 97% consensus study was published in 2013 (http://sks.to/tcppaper), I did receive an email from somebody arguing "global warming isn't caused by human activity. It's caused by an interstellar object that I saw in my telescope." I never did follow up with that person, and I wonder if they still adhere to that hypothesis. It's pretty out there!

More generally, I think the notion that the global community of tens of thousands of scientists in countries all over the world are engaged in a conspiracy to deceive the whole world is utterly ridiculous. People casually throw out the term "climate scam" or "climate hoax" but if you sit down and think about exactly what would be required to perpetrate such a conspiracy - thousands and thousands of scientists in every country in the world all fabricating data in order to reinforce the same conclusion - well, that actually makes "interstellar object in my telescope" guy look rational in comparison.

CarterLawler144 karma

What do you find to be the most common piece of misinformation believed by otherwise educated people? I'm a reasonably educated guy. I believe climate change is real, climate change is heavily impacted by the activity of man, and that we might just make the planet uninhabitable for ourselves if we don't make massive, sweeping changes (paper straws aren't going to do it). What am I likely to believe that is patently false?

Skeptical_John_Cook309 karma

I wouldn't label this as misinformation so much as a misconception or imbalanced view. I think way too much attention is paid to individual behavior - which while important serves to distract from the much more important step required to avoid the worst impacts of climate change - societal transformation from polluting energy to renewable energy. Changing lightbulbs and flying less are laudable actions - we do need to do them - but we should keep our eyes on what is really required and how to get there. And the way we achieve policy change is by building political momentum, which requires that people speak up and express their commitment to climate action. That is the purpose of the Cranky Uncle book - sparking conversations about climate change and contributing to the social momentum required for climate action.

Naughty_Kobold68 karma

What prevents your 'inoculation' method from being used against real information?

Skeptical_John_Cook125 karma

Nothing, effective communication techniques can be used to mislead people and they are used. In fact, I believe that one of the most effective inoculation campaigns was Donald Trump's "fake news" used to inoculate one third of the U.S. public against mainstream news.

Which brings up the point that inoculation if done in a certain way can be quite destructive, breeding cynicism and suspicion not just of misinformation but of all types of information. So it's important that when we inoculate people against misinformation, we don't inadvertently make people more suspicious of accurate information. This is why inoculation needs to be "surgical" rather than "shotgun" (I'd characterize Trump's "Fake news" as a shotgun form of inoculation).

The type of inoculation I've tested in my research is logic-based inoculation - where you inoculate people against denialist techniques and logical fallacies. This is a very surgical, specific form of misinformation and it doesn't lower people's trust in scientists - as I document in my inoculation study at http://sks.to/inoculation

cracksilog61 karma

How do you fight the argument that “yeah climate change is real, but it’s only going to affect us hundreds of years down the line, so whatever?”

Skeptical_John_Cook101 karma

It's important to communicate the fact that global warming is happening here and now. It's not some hypothetical threat in the distant future, happening to other people elsewhere in the world. It affects all of us right now. This feeling that climate change is a distant threat is called psychological distance - and closing that distance is why I published posts such as https://crankyuncle.com/global-warming-is-happening-here-and-now/

As well as the fallacy of psychological distance, another way that people ignore the threat of climate change is through the fallacy of slothful induction - avoiding the scientific evidence documenting the many threats posed by climate change. I use a parallel argument to demonstrate this fallacy in this cartoon: https://www.instagram.com/p/BoZzW3XhkHv/

Soronya44 karma

Did you know this was what you were going to do when you first started out? Or was it just thrust upon you (similar to what happened to Dr. Mann)?

Skeptical_John_Cook81 karma

Becoming a scientist researching climate denial and misinformation certainly snuck up on me (I often characterize this career as choosing me rather than me choosing it). It began innocently enough getting into conversations with family members who are dismissive of climate science (yes, I have my own cranky uncle). That led me to starting a website (skepticalscience.com) which led to learning about the psychological research into debunking which led to starting a PhD in cognitive science, which led to relocating to the U.S. to research how to fight misinformation. At each step, I never would've predicted the next development - it's been very much a meandering journey full of surprises!

expresidentmasks41 karma

Why should consensus be taken seriously?

For the entirety of my schooling, Pluto was a planet. Now it isn't.

Skeptical_John_Cook40 karma

This is a good question - and it's something I've grappled with as someone who has spent a lot of time researching and talking about consensus. An important point to make is that not all consensuses are created equal and some scientific consensuses have been overturned in the past (although I'm not sure I'd put the consensus on human-caused global warming on the same pedestal as how Pluto is characterized - that's apples and oranges).

Peter Jacobs delivers a must-watch video on the nature of consensus in our free online course Denial101x. He explores the idea of "knowledge-based consensus" by which he means consensuses that are robust and more likely to stand the test of time. There are three characteristics of a knowledge-based consensus. First, it's based on a consilience of evidence with many independent lines of evidence all pointing to the same consistent conclusion. Second, the consensus has social diversity - it's not just found in one narrow group but across a range of different disciplines, countries, etc. Third, the consensus has "social calibration", meaning the scientists are all working from the same framework.

It turns out that the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming meets these three requirements, which means it is a knowledge-based consensus that we can be confident will stand the test of time. I strongly recommend you check out Peter's video at https://youtu.be/HUOMbK1x7MI

And if you're really interested in learning more about consensus, check out our other videos on the consensus of evidence (https://youtu.be/5LvaGAEwxYs), consensus of experts (https://youtu.be/WAqR9mLJrcE), and consensus of papers (https://youtu.be/LdLgSirToJM). Ideally watch those three videos before watching the Knowledge-Based Consensus video as they're designed to be watched in that order. Enjoy! :-)

Shippuuryu38 karma

What has been the most egregious form of miscommunication about climate change you've ever personally experienced?

Skeptical_John_Cook108 karma

Hmm, personally experienced? That's like asking what's your favorite food in a huge buffet, I have so many options to choose from!

Okay, one example that immediately comes to mind - not that long ago I attended the Heartland Institute conference at the Trump hotel in Washington D.C. - attending with some journalists from the Weather Channel. We interviewed Christopher Monckton who tried to cast doubt on my 97% consensus study by saying the Queensland police had conducted a criminal investigation into my study. I could barely believe he was suggesting such a ludicrous thing, let alone say it so brazenly and confidently in my presence.

pisquire26 karma

Hi there, I'm a future educator an part of my coursework deals with identifying misinformation for the sciences. What would you say has been the most successful in terms of point conveying that climate change exists. I hear many arguments about how this happens in a cycle for the logic a lot and know it's not true?

Skeptical_John_Cook31 karma

If I wish to communicate that climate change exists, I point out that there are tens of thousands of lines of evidence for climate change. Not just thermometers, although that evidence is compelling enough. But we also see climate change in sea level rise, in ice melt, in ocean heat, in the changing structure in the atmosphere, in migrating animals, in changing seasons - it's everywhere and unmistakeable.

Similarly, the evidence that climate change is human-caused comes from many lines of evidence. Satellites and surface measurements measure infrared heat being trapped by CO2, weather balloons and satellites measure patterns in atmospheric warming that confirm greenhouse warming, the changes in seasonal and daily cycles are also consistent with human-caused global warming.

Conveying the consilience of evidence is one powerful way to communicate the reality of climate change. But depending on the audience and the context, communicating the scientific consensus among climate experts that humans are causing global warming is also a powerful and efficient way of communicating about climate change.

CalClimate21 karma

From where I read, it seems like the pro-delay contingent is now moved to advocating for 'climate action' policies that don't involve transitioning to clean energy. Should SkepticalScience do a compendium of such policy arguments and rebuttals to them, as well?

(It's not happening, it's not us, it's too expensive, it's too late (the Climate Deniers' Playbook); let's just adapt, let's just buy offsets, let's just plant trees, let's just eat local, let's just go vegan, let's just eat grass-fed beef, let's just each work on our own carbon footprint, other issues and [particular issue] are more worthwhile than fighting climate change (this gets asserted rhetorically, as evidence doesn't support that working on it & not climate would be wise (though [democracy ), let's just work on methane for now, why bother since China, why bother since [developing countries rising population], first we need to eliminate injustice, first we need to [tame or dump] capitalism) (p.s. although Elizabeth Warren makes sense)

(what's missing from this list?)

Skeptical_John_Cook34 karma

I have some new research coming out soon that looks at the five main denialist arguments (it's not real, it's not us, it's not bad, we can't solve it, scientists are unreliable) and uses machine learning to measure how those arguments have changed over time. There are some interesting patterns in the historical data.

First, yes, you're right, the "we can't solve it" category is on the increase. So deniers are making somewhat of a strategic retreat from outright science denial to solution denial. However, funnily enough "it's not real" is also increasing. So there is a contingent of science deniers who are doubling down on denying the basic existence of global warming.

However, and spoiler alert as this study isn't published yet, the huge screaming result from this research is that the fifth category - attacks on scientists and science itself - is by far the largest category of climate misinformation. Climate deniers are more than anything attempting to attack the integrity of scientists and scientific data, and erode public trust in climate science.

So yes, we do need to do more work on countering solution misinformation. But to me, the elephant in the room is the dearth of research into understanding and countering character attacks on climate scientists.

Freeze9521 karma

Quite a lot of attention has been brought to the higher values of equilibrium climate sensitivity returned by next-generation climate models. Do you expect that these values will be revised downward to the old IPCC 2 to 4.5 degree range or perhaps are the new models handling physical phenomena like aerosols and clouds better than before?

Skeptical_John_Cook27 karma

This is a bit beyond my area of expertise now that I'm focusing more on communication research but the impression I get is that it is extremely difficult for climate scientists (and climate models) to narrow the range of climate sensitivity estimates due to so many factors (such as aerosols). If there is newer research indicating that scientific understanding of these confounding factors has grown to the point that climate sensitivity estimates are narrowing, then I welcome a climate scientist to jump into this thread and let us know of the latest science!

PHDinLurking13 karma

The fact that you are encouraging and building resiliency is something to be lauded. I am trying to do something similar at work, but some days feel overwhelming. How do you stay afloat during times of stress?

Skeptical_John_Cook34 karma

Quite a while ago, I realized that fighting misinformation is a marathon, not a sprint. That realization led to a shift in my thinking and strategies - rather than trying to fight day-by-day fires, I try to think further ahead and develop long-term plans. This has led me to an increased focus on education, as well as public engagement. I find this long-term thinking offers a bit of a foundation offering stability amid the chaos from day to day.

That said, certainly this is a tough area to work in and it can be personally difficult. It's important that we look after ourselves, and lean on our support networks. The worst thing we can do is try to go it alone - ultimately that doesn't help anyone.

Preece11 karma

Do you think we should acknowledge a difference between denying that climate change is happening, and denying that it's catastrophic? I often see the two claims made interchangeably.

Skeptical_John_Cook10 karma

Yes and no.

Firstly, they are distinct arguments. Specifically there are 3 main denialist positions to do with the science (it's not real, it's not us, it's not bad), 1 denialist position re solutions (we can't solve it) and just general attacks on climate scientists/science (scientists are biased/science is unreliable). Sometimes they are contradictory. One can't argue "global warming isn't happening" and "global warming is caused by the sun."

Except climate deniers do tend to contradict themselves. I coauthored a paper on this very issue - the fact that denial positions are incoherent and self-contradictory - thus betraying that they are not interested in providing a coherent, alternative explanation of the world but instead are just focused on denying the mainstream position of climate scientists. Here's that study: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/81758833.pdf

And survey research shows that when someone believes one climate myth (it's not real), they are more likely to believe the others (it's not us, or it's not bad). Myths of a feather flock together.

GOPJay11 karma

Thanks for posting today. I have not decided how I feel about anthropogenic climate change, though I'm generally not a fan of the various premises. It isn't that I'm opposed to the green movement, on the contrary I embrace it, but global warming has become so politicized I believe much of both movements have lost their credibility. Particularly troublesome to me in the propaganda campaign is the use of that "97% of scientists" term. Since when did science become a popularity contest? Or a matter for majority rule? Most knuckleheads I know still believe blood is blue until it touches air. It doesn't make the argument any more valid. Further, how many other settled scientific premises have been turned on their heads? The real question is whether there is real and clear empirical evidence with demonstrated statistical relevance that climate change is a human caused phenomenon. That is my first problem, the argument hasn't convinced me, instead the movement has chosen to run some kind of political campaign to convince me.

The second problem that arises after I attempt to "drink the kool-aid" is related to modeling and predictions. For settled science, the industry sucks at telling me what is going to happen with the climate and temperatures. If we have definitive empirical evidence of human effects on the temperature, why is the modelling so often wrong? I've been hearing for most of my life that in short order Miami would be under the sea, super weather would destroy the Eastern Seaboard, and temperature would increase exponentially, etc. And it hasn't happened. If our modelling is accurate, which I dispute, why the fallacious predictions? Or, were only the previous predictions from 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago wrong, and we've got it all worked out now? It's peculiar to me that in spite of the many failed predictions, the advocacy position has not changed at all.

Next, I hope you will take a moment to address the suggestion that temperature data has been modified from earlier years. I have no idea how to gauge whether this is true. Has there actually been a revision of old temperature records, "to make them more accurate" or for any reason otherwise? If that were the case, I wonder what modeling would look like if temperature data had not been amended. Thanks for any thoughts you have on this. I assure you, I want to believe!

Skeptical_John_Cook19 karma

Re the 97% consensus, as the lead author of a 2013 study finding 97% consensus, I'll say what we said when this paper first came out - science isn't a democracy, it's a dictatorship and evidence is the dictator. Our scientific understanding isn't decided by a show of hands but by evidence and there are many independent lines of empirical evidence that humans are causing global warming. We list this evidence with links to primary research at http://sks.to/evidence and http://sks.to/agw

That said, a political strategist Frank Luntz recognized back in 2001 the crucial psychological importance of public perception of the scientific consensus. He found that if you confuse public into thinking scientists don't agree about climate change, their support for climate action goes down. So we've seen casting doubt on the consensus has been a central strategy of climate deniers. It's imperative therefore that we correct this misconception. Not because the scientific consensus proves human-caused global warming. But because communicating the consensus removes a roadblock to public support for climate action.

Re climate model predictions, I direct you to Dana Nuccitelli's book which checks the track record of climate predictions - both climate models predicting warming and climate deniers who invariably predict that "OH MY GOD GLOBAL COOLING IS GOING TO START NEXT TUESDAY!" Dana finds that predictions based on physics do surprisingly well, even climate models that are decades old, while predictions based on wishful thinking perform, well, not so good. Great book, heartily recommend it! https://www.amazon.com/Climatology-versus-Pseudoscience-Exposing-Predictions/dp/1440832013

There is one very important point to keep in mind whenever talking about temperature adjustments. If scientists ever do make adjustments to raw temperature data, the reason is simple - so that the data better reflects reality. If a thermometer measurement is made every day at 3pm, then for some logistical reason, it's changed to 6am every day, that will cause a shift in the temperature that is not a reflection of changing climate but reflects measuring practices. Scientists take all these factors into account in order to provide a temperature record that best reflects reality. That said, when you average out all the temperature data - there is very little difference between the average temperature warming trend whether its adjusted or not. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that attacks on the temperature record are not a good faith effort to better understand our climate but rather are an attempt to erode public trust in scientific data.

jett1111 karma

Beyond fighting climate denial, how do we fight climate apathy among people who believe in climate change but prefer to ignore it than act (e.g., by participating in climate activism or changing behaviors)?

Skeptical_John_Cook14 karma

One of the goals of the Cranky Uncle book is to address this issue. I see two target audiences for the book. One is the disengaged - research shows that climate humor is most effective with the disengaged so its my hope that the cartoons and humor are effective in attracting the interest of people who were previously disengaged from the issue of climate change.

The second audience is people who are concerned or alarmed about climate change. This demographic comprises 58% of the U.S. population, but most of them don't talk about the issue of climate change with their friends and family. Some insightful research by Nate Geiger and Janet Swim explored why people self-censor - it's because of the misconception of pluralistic ignorance (they're not aware that being concerned about climate change is the majority position) and worry that they'll be made to look stupid by a potential cranky uncle if they speak up. The Cranky Uncle book is also written for those people - by explaining to them the arguments of their cranky uncle, it empowers them to speak up, knowing what potential objections they might encounter and how to respond. My hope is that the book will spark climate conversations and break climate silence.

PHDinLurking10 karma

Wow!!! Read through some of your works! Do you mind if I use your same model to help spread resiliency for the fight against misinformation at work? I work in such a toxic environment, I think funny cartoons will totally help the morale and trajectory of the facility

Skeptical_John_Cook6 karma

Please do and keep me posted on Twitter (https://twitter.com/johnfocook) on how it goes. Cartoons are certainly a way to both engage people who are disengaged, and use humor to reduce friction. Good luck with your workplace, I hope the situation improves!

DaydreamDrone9 karma

How could one best study the attitudes/discourse of climate change denialists?

Skeptical_John_Cook15 karma

There is also a great deal of existing research that has explored climate denial and I recommend becoming familiar with this research as a starting point. I've published a number of studies into denial which I list at http://sks.to/johncook - I'd recommend in particular some of the book chapters I published in 2019 that offer good summaries of research into climate denial:

https://www.climatechangecommunication.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Cook_2019_climate_misinformation-1.pdf

https://www.climatechangecommunication.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Cook_2019_TMEO.pdf

Next steps, well, as a quantitative scientist, I'll betray my bias in saying that I think conducting empirical research - whether it be surveys exploring attitudes about climate change or experiments where you test people's responses to climate messages - are an insightful and robust way to better understand the psychology of climate science denial. It's imperative that the way we talk about science is also evidence-based, and that means conducting empirical research to better understand how people think about issues like climate change.

appleseiter159 karma

Hi, John!

I could walk down to your house and ask you these questions, but I'll post here instead... :)

- What is your background as a cartoonist? How did you come up with this project?

- The tone of the game "Cranky Uncle" seems to be targeted to appeal to Millennials and other younger people- the humor is in the vein of "OK Boomer" memes. Is that your main target audience?

- Do you have other plans to expand the "Cranky Uncle" brand to other media? Board games? Short films?

Skeptical_John_Cook11 karma

  1. After I completed my physics degree (many many years ago), I made the abrupt career change into cartooning and spent over a decade drawing comic strips for newspapers across Australia. But while I was drawing cartoons, I found myself doing science in my spare time (launching and running http://skepticalscience.com). Eventually the science hobby I was doing in my spare time grew and took over my life to the point that I went back into academia.
  2. How did I come up with Cranky Uncle? The research inevitably led me there. I was researching how to inoculate people against misinformation and began a collaboration with some critical thinking philosophers at the University of Queensland - Peter Ellerton and David Kinkead. They introduced me to the technique of parallel argumentation - take the flawed logic from misinformation and transplant it into an extreme situation in order to make it clearly obvious to people where the original argument went wrong. It occurred to me that cartoons were the perfect delivery mechanism for parallel arguments. This was my Dorothy from Wizard of Oz moment - it turns out I had the answer to misinformation all along! I began drawing cartoon parallel arguments debunking common myths of climate change, and eventually compiled all this work into the Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change book.
  3. Are millennials the target audience of the Cranky Uncle book? I hate to be one of those wishy washy "it's for everyone" types but I gotta say, I think critical thinking is a skill that a high schooler needs to learn just as much as a boomer. So no, the book wasn't specifically written for millennials. My hope is that the book will be useful in classrooms and will appeal to students, but I also hope that older people will read the content and become more resilient against the fallacies of science denial. That said, when we tested the Cranky Uncle game in college classes and asked the students for feedback, one comment was "it helps you argue against boomers!" So it wouldn't surprise me if the game and book has its greatest impact amongst millennials and Gen Z'ers.
  4. Do I have other plans for Cranky Uncle? I did toy with a card game at one time (my daughter is big into table top games like Cards Against Humanity and Exploding Kittens) but hadn't taken that far. And I think Cranky Uncle would lend itself well to the video format. When we were developing the Denial101x MOOC, we originally planned to produce a live-action video of a family talking around the dinner table, with a Cranky Uncle spouting denialist arguments which were refuted by his niece (studying environmental science in college). Unfortunately we ran out of time but I would love to make such a video - whether it be animated or live-action - if the opportunity arose. But for now, the book and game are keeping me pretty busy!

sciencequiche8 karma

Yale's recent update to 6 Americas shows pronounced progress in terms of concern regarding climate change. But those dismissive (and likely generating misinformation) remains small compared to the cautious or disengaged populations? Do we have a sense of which Americans are more susceptible to misinformation? Can we target this inoculation as you describe it towards those audiences?

Skeptical_John_Cook9 karma

Good question. My research found that climate misinformation has a disproportionate effect among political conservatives. In other words, the more conservative a person, the more susceptible they were to misinformation about climate change. But research by Larry Hamilton shows that conservatives are not a monolith - he found that moderate conservatives actually resemble independents more than far-right conservatives. That points to an audience for whom inoculating messages should be most effective.

Guacamoleistoocostly8 karma

Hello fellow researcher of pseudoscience and misinformation! Inoculation and other lab-interventions work in part because we force subjects to do the reading or get exposed to the arguments. How do we overcome the problem of selective exposure and the subsequent motivated reasoning that ensues (especially online, where people can completely control what information they are exposed to)?

Skeptical_John_Cook6 karma

That has been a problem weighing on my mind for the last half-decade. Even if we devise the perfect inoculating message, how do we crack the media echo-chambers and get those messages to those parts of the population who need them most and yet are the most inaccessible? For several years, I had no answer. Just over the last year, I may have accidentally stumbled over a possible answer.

I finished the Cranky Uncle book in October 2018 and handed the manuscript over to the publisher, who informed me the book would be released in early 2020. What do I do in the meantime? The final season of Game of Thrones was months away and I didn't even know Baby Yoda existed at that moment in time.

So I started adapting the content from the Cranky Uncle book into a game. As I developed a prototype, I started talking to climate scientists about the game. I was struck by the enthusiasm that educators had in wanting to adopt the game in their classrooms - without even trying, I had college classes all over the country lined up to test the prototype. It drove home to me the strong need that educators have for interactive educational resources that engage students. A smartphone game that raised climate literacy and critical thinking with game play and cartoons was exactly what climate educators were interested in. I began to realize that this kind of smartphone game could crack the echo chamber problem - I had received interest from red states and blue states from every corner of the country.

Now I know I'm describing one very specific application of inoculation theory - and not every researcher in this area is also a cartoonist (that I know of). But the general principle here is that I think classrooms are the key to overcoming the problem of selective exposure.

kaefers7 karma

Which are your main sources of funding?

Skeptical_John_Cook22 karma

I only have one source of funding - George Mason University.

carbonhomunculus7 karma

how would you respond to individuals using the argument of a natural climate cycle being the main cause of fluctuating climate change?

Skeptical_John_Cook12 karma

There are several ways to respond to this and which option you choose depends on the context.

I'm quite attracted to the logic-based response - pointing out the logical fallacy behind this argument. The argument basically goes "climate has changed naturally in the past before humans, and climate is changing now, so current climate change must be natural now." This is logically the same as arguing "people died of cancer naturally before cigarettes were invented, and people are dying of cancer now, therefore any cancer deaths now must be natural and not caused by smoking." The beauty of debunking misinformation using logic is 1) you don't necessarily have to explain all the complicated science in order to show an argument is wrong, and 2) you actually boost people's resilience against misinformation across a range of topics that use the same logical fallacy. Inoculation researchers call this the "umbrella of protection."

However, another way to respond to this myth is to point out that what's happening now is substantially different to natural climate change in the past. First, climate change now is dramatically faster than natural climate change in the past - which is demonstrated visually by Michael Mann's hockey stick figure (which is why it's so powerful and hence attacked by deniers).

Second, we observe patterns all through climate change now that confirms human causation and rules out natural causation. E.g., patterns like the upper atmosphere cooling while the lower atmosphere warms, or winters cooling faster than summers, are all patterns expected from human-caused global warming and rule out natural causes like the sun.

In my research - and other researchers like Phillippe Schmid and Cornelia Betsch - these two approaches of logic-based and fact-based debunking have been experimentally tested. Schmid and Betsch found both approaches worked so which approach you take probably depends on your own background - it makes sense for climate scientists to lean on their knowledge and go with fact-based debunking. That said, they concluded that logic-based (or as they called it, "technique based") debunkings can generalize to other topics and hence are an efficient form of responding to misinformation.

Lastly, I have new research coming out shortly that directly compared logic-based to fact-based corrections. We found the logic-based approach performed better but only in certain contexts (you can find out all the nuances soon when the research is published).

That answer ended up being longer than expected - I hope it answers your question!

haelaeif4 karma

Have you ever been mislead by misinformation yourself?

What are ways we can guard against being hoodwinked, and kept mentally on our toes?

I find myself, upon occasion, missing a whole lot.

For example, The Economist ran an article a while back on something I happen to know about. I read this article, was like hum, but I didn't really have an 'adverse reaction' to it, as it were, and just carried on about my day - it took someone I know independently in the field to write a long critique of the article for me to 'realise' it was essentially pedalling pseudo-pop science. (NB: I think The Economist is a perfectly fine publication. This article was not.)

This wasn't because this critique brought things I didn't know about to the table, rather, it is more like those neurons simply didn't fire when I was mindlessly doing some browsing. I find this happens to myself quite a bit.

Sorry for the long ramble, but do you relate to this or see this kind of thing featuring in how misinformation spreads? I know for example that pseudoscience sometimes runs off tautology after tautology so fast that you can't possible disentangle it; often the criticisable claims and trains of thought are heavily obfuscated. It seems plausible that this allows for the possibility of things to be kind of shoehorned into us.

Skeptical_John_Cook5 karma

Once Dana Nuccitelli (gleefully) pointed me to an old interview of mine - prior to 2013 - where the interviewer asked me about the scientific consensus and I said I don't like talking about the consensus, I'm much more interested in evidence which is what scientific understanding is based on. Which is true, sure, but what I didn't realize at the time was the psychological importance of perception of expert consensus (which is why deniers spend so much effort casting doubt on the 97% consensus).

So that's not exactly what you're asking - I'm talking more about a misconception or a lack of awareness of scientific research into how people think about climate change. But it is an example of how I said something based on my understanding at one time, and years later adopted a radically different approach based on a richer understanding of the issue.

a_quirkles4 karma

Given that opposition to climate change is not due to misinformation, but a specific stance in a larger culture war, what is the point of countering misinformation? Isnt this based on a misunderstanding of the source of the conflict?

Skeptical_John_Cook9 karma

I love this question because it cuts to the heart of something I've been talking about for a while. Yes, there is a culture war about climate change and the issue is highly polarized. We need to address the polarization. But any attempts to solve polarization without acknowledging and addressing the cause of the polarization is merely nibbling away at the edges and will not adequately solve the problem.

Public polarization about climate change isn't an inevitable consequence of human psychology. We are not hard-wired to be so polarized. The current situation was engineered. It happened gradually over decades, beginning in the early 1990s when conservative think-tanks began producing misinformation about climate science. Their misinformation polluted the information landscape and gradually turned the issue more partisan.

So addressing polarization and addressing misinformation are not separate issues - they're inextricably linked. We need to find ways to counter misinformation if we are to depolarize the issue, and if we ignore misinformation, then our depolarization efforts will be nullified by misinformation.

This is why my inoculation research (http://sks.to/inoculation) is interesting and intriguing. I found that if we approach the issue through the lens of critical thinking rather than climate change, then the misinformation is neutralized across the political spectrum. The misinformation no longer has a polarizing effect. So logic-based inoculation carries the potential to side-step the culture war by emphasizing critical thinking rather than climate change.

silence74 karma

What, besides showing that denial is wrong, is needed to effectively advocate for decarbonization?

Skeptical_John_Cook3 karma

I think a really important point to make about climate communication is that there is no single magic bullet. There are different audiences holding different values in different situations and different approaches work depend on the context. Reducing psychological distance by explaining how climate change impacts their local region currently can work. Pointing to positive actions that a community can make to mitigate climate change can work. Removing barriers to behavior change can not only improve behavior but beliefs about climate change. Communicating the 97% scientific consensus on human-caused global warming can increase support for policy action. Empowering people who are already convinced about climate change to break climate silence and speak up about the issue can build social momentum.

There are a whole suite of things we can do to make a difference about climate change, and all of us as individuals have something unique we can bring to the table. So I encourage people to reflect on what they're good at, what they're passionate about, and bring their unique qualities to the issue.

I don't think that I personally excel at any one thing but I'm slightly above average at communication, critical thinking, cartooning, and science. It's when I combined those diverse skills into a unique combination that I found a way to engage people about climate and make a difference.

sgramstrup4 karma

As I understand it, much of both the causes of climate change, and the causes of denial, are linked to ideology.

Does the research into denialism/brain-biases go beyond only 'climate denial', and into common beliefs of main-stream ideology ?

Skeptical_John_Cook4 karma

Certainly, the foundational research during my PhD looked at the role of political ideology and its influence on 1) climate beliefs, and 2) how people responded to climate information. I found that political ideology had a very strong relationship with climate beliefs and later research by Matthew Hornsey (at the University of Queensland) found that the biggest driver of climate beliefs is political affiliation (with ideology second). In other words, the biggest influence on our beliefs about the greenhouse effect is which political tribe we belong to.

I also found that our political beliefs influence how we process information about climate change. Information confirming climate change is more positively received by political liberals, and misinformation casting doubt on climate change has a disproportionate effect on political conservatives. This is why the issue is so polarized, and misinformation further exacerbates the polarization.

My research into inoculation (http://sks.to/inoculation) found that when you explain the misleading technique used by the misinformation, it neutralized the misinformation across the political spectrum. It no longer has a disproportionate effect on conservatives - the misleading technique doesn't work on anyone. This is because aversion to being deceived is bipartisan - no one likes to be misled. This points to critical thinking as a fruitful approach to neutralizing misinformation and reducing its polarizing influence.

ferbadass4 karma

Did you draw the characters of your book, or hired an artist to do it for you? (Dumb question sowwy) I hope one day I can do this but about mental health topics!

Skeptical_John_Cook9 karma

I drew all the cartoons. Before I was a scientist, I did cartooning for a living.

And you didn't ask this question but I'm going to take the opening to point out the difficulty of writing/drawing a book that is constantly switching from scientific prose to comedic cartoons. It requires two completely different types of thinking and creativity - writing the book at speed was like driving in a high speed race where you constantly had to switch from a forward gear to a reverse gear, back and forth, page after page. Mentally, this was a super challenging task! (sorry had to get that off my chest)

Gorgulak4 karma

Some of the most blatant misinformation has come out of the Australian wildfires. Started by someone making the claim with no evidence that they were started by arsonists. Of course there is a kernel of truth to this since there are people commiting arson everywhere. The statistic was 24 people had been charged with arson, bloggers and media amplified this to 183 'arsonists' by lumping in all total fire ban related charges which would include things like people having a barbecue when they're not supposed to. And then for good measure deniers started saying that these arsonists were environmentalist terrorists. So from 24 charges of arson it became the wildfires were caused by 200 environmental terrorists.

This is extremely demotivating, is there any way to help people better choose the sources they get their information from? So many of the sources people trust in spread wildly untrue misinformation.

Skeptical_John_Cook7 karma

Although I'm based in the U.S., I returned back to Australia for Christmas - right in the middle of the Australian bushfires - and I was dismayed at the sheer amount of conspiracy theories and misinformation springing up in response to the bushfires. In fact, it motivated me to create a satirical cartoon pointing out how ridiculous the conspiracy theory was that the bushfires were started intentionally: https://www.instagram.com/p/B7EEnIIHRdY/

Certainly improving people's media literacy is one solution to reducing the influence of misinformation and there are many educational programs that teach students how to assess media sources in order to be less vulnerable to misinformation. The focus of my research has been on a different aspect of critical thinking which is teaching people how to assess arguments, and detect the misleading techniques of misinformation. I think both approaches - media literacy and logic-based critical thinking - are both required in order to build a more resilient public.

But critical thinking is also hard work, cognitively speaking. And it's an unfortunate fact that our brains are hardwired for the more effortless, instantaneous type of thinking (called fast thinking or System 1 thinking). How do we push against the wind and make the public more predisposed to effortful, slow, reasoned thinking? That's a huge challenge and the way we're approaching it with the Cranky Uncle game is testing whether gamification can get people practicing spotting fallacies in misinformation, and over time with much practice, turning a difficult slow thinking process like detecting fallacies into a more instinctive, fast thinking reaction. I talk more about this project at http://crankyuncle.com/game/

BloomingtonFPV3 karma

I did the MOOC, which was very good. I encourage others to look into it. My question is this: once you see how easily manipulated people can be, and how willing they are to embrace crazy ideas, what is your simplest explanation for why some people believe crazy things?

Skeptical_John_Cook9 karma

We believe crazy things when we are motivated to believe them. The motive can come from different sources. Denial of evolution science can come from religious ideology. Denial of climate science can come from political ideology.

But over time, I've come to recognize the psychological importance of social identity. We believe things because our social group believes them. And that social pressure provides a very strong motive for sticking to those beliefs and rejecting scientific evidence that contradicts those beliefs. If disagreeing with our social group results in a social cost, we have a strong motivation to keep agreeing with our group - and you might argue that at a personal level, there's a kind of rationality to irrationally rejecting scientific evidence if it means reducing personal cost.

So my simplest explanation for why people believe crazy things? Tribalism.

sciencequiche3 karma

Are climate scientists the best messenger for combatting the misinformation using the message framing and techniques you mention?

Also, is this unique to climate or do you think this would also apply to health misinformation?

Skeptical_John_Cook2 karma

Good question. Research by Schmid and Betsch found that both explaining climate facts and explaining logical fallacies are effective in debunking misinformation - so they conclude that for climate scientists, a fact-based message might be a more natural fit for them. I fully understand if they stay within their comfort zone of talking climate science.

But maybe climate scientists can walk and chew gum at the same time? I'd love to see climate scientists take on board my research and my recommendations of logic-based inoculation.

This approach certainly does apply to health misinformation as well. Schmid and Betsch's research covered both climate change and vaccination misinformation, finding the same result across both issues. And I've also done experiments with vaccination misinformation that find similar results to my experiments with climate misinformation. The critical thinking approach translates well across issues.

Nathan_20003 karma

How successful have you been in changing people's mind? Is there a pattern you follow? In your opinion does bringing up rational facts in an argument make it better or worse?

Skeptical_John_Cook1 karma

It's important to point out that the target audience for the Cranky Uncle book is not cranky uncles. And more generally, my research has not focused on changing the minds of people who are dismissive of climate science. This is because 1) dismissive are a small percentage (~10%) of the public, and 2) attempts to change dismissive's minds are mostly ineffective.

Instead, my research has focused on building resilience in the 90% of the public who aren't dismissive of climate science - for whom rational arguments do hold sway. At the risk of oversimplification, I see two main segments - the concerned and the disengaged. My communication goals have been to activate the concerned and engage the disengaged.

capri712 karma

Not seen any of the cartoons but I was wondering if it's tricky to balance the humour with the seriousness of climate change. Do you ever concerned that the message might not be clear because of that?

Skeptical_John_Cook6 karma

Really good question. The research into using humor to communicate serious issues like climate change find that with every benefit of humor comes a potential drawback. For example, humor makes an intimidating topic like climate change more accessible so it's easier to get people (particularly disengaged people) to engage with it. But the drawback is that humor messages make people less concerned about climate change compared to non-humorous messages.

So what I try to do with the Cranky Uncle book is have my cake and eat it too. I use cartoons to engage readers and draw them into the issue. But the book is a constant tight rope walk - with every joke and humorous cartoon is some serious prose explaining the seriousness of climate change. The cartoons are the sugar to help the medicine go down.

multivac20202 karma

Misinformation & disinformation are two different things. Which do you focus on and why?

Skeptical_John_Cook5 karma

Disinformation is false information that is intentionally meant to deceive, while misinformation is agnostic about the motive of the misinformer. I focus on misinformation. Why? Because it's almost impossible to distinguish between a person who is intentionally trying to deceive and a person who is self-deceiving themselves. The techniques of denial (Fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry picking, conspiracy theories, summarized with the acronym FLICC) can be deliberate strategies that are cynically deployed by a deceptive person. But if a person holds genuine beliefs but is subject to motivated reasoning (e.g., their ideology biases their beliefs), their biased reasoning manifests with the same denialist techniques.

Consequently, I find it more constructive to focus on the techniques of denial rather than the mostly-unknowable motives of a specific denier. I talk about FLICC and these psychological dynamics in more detail in this video: https://youtu.be/wXA777yUndQ

DivergentMind2 karma

Do you ever scroll through your facebook feed and just get totally demoralized at the impossibility of the task you've set for yourself?

Skeptical_John_Cook3 karma

I don't scroll through my Facebook feed that much, to be honest! Life is too short!

dreadbeard2 karma

Who was your favorite wrestler in the 80s?

Skeptical_John_Cook7 karma

Oh gawd, I can only think of two: Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant. Hmm, I'm both a big Rocky fan and a big Princess Bride fan. I think I'm going to have to go with Andre.

anarchaavery2 karma

Do you think that your research on how to counter misinformation can help inform those who want to counter disinformation campaigns? (e.g. when the KGB started the conspiracy theory that the government created and spread HIV/AIDS)

Skeptical_John_Cook4 karma

Yes, definitely, while my research has focused mostly on misinformation about climate change (and a little bit of attention on health misinformation), the approaches are generalizable to other topics.

For example, when we tested the Cranky Uncle game in college classes (http://crankyuncle.com/game), we found that while the game focused on explaining logical fallacies in climate misinformation, the players developed the ability to spot the same fallacies in other topics like anti-vaccination misinformation. Boosting people's critical thinking helps build resilience against misinformation across a range of topics.

Webimpulse1 karma

There’s some misinformation about human-caused climate change that basically says nothing can be done about it, that it’s hopeless to try and stop it and we may as well all head to the bunkers instead of putting forth any effort trying. Think Jonathan Franzen. What do you plan to do to counter this particular set of misinformation?

Skeptical_John_Cook7 karma

I debunk this very myth in the Cranky Uncle book by pointing out the fallacy of false dichotomy that is often found in how people think about climate change. Often the question of climate change is framed as "can we avoid climate change?" as if it's a yes or no question. But climate change is a matter of degrees (literally and figuratively). Every bit of mitigation now reduces the degree of climate impact we experience in the future.

That's not just abstract rhetoric, that's the thought that gets me out of bed every morning. We have already committed to some amount of climate change - indeed we are already experiencing climate impacts now. But every scrap of effort applied now will reduce the amount of impact that our children and grandchildren have to experience in future decades. That thought wards off the temptation to succumb to fatalism, which can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

subbierobbie1 karma

Did you always wanna be Misinformation Fighter?

Skeptical_John_Cook8 karma

No, and I didn't even know I was a misinformation fighter until I'd been doing it for a while. I started Skeptical Science as a personal project - compiling a database of different climate myths and what the peer-reviewed science said about each myth. But this was just a personal resource - I had gotten into an argument about climate change with a family member and I was preparing before the next family get-together (I was leaving nothing to chance, I maybe get a little competitive sometimes). It was only when I realized that others also had cranky uncles that I decided to publish my personal database as a public website - the Skeptical Science website. That one fateful decision inevitably led to me fighting misinformation full-time but I could never have predicted how it would grow back in those early days.