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“Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change”: Advice from GMU’’s Center for Climate Communication [UPDATED]

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by A Siegel

Since November 2016, election after election has made clear that Democratic voters will crawl over broken glass to get to the polls to defeat Trump and #Cult45-enabling Republicans. Massive turnout in Virginia’s (and many other states’) Super Tuesday primary is the latest tangible sign of that.

One of the reasons for this is that Donald Trump is the epitome, a real-life version of the stereotype of the rather lunatic, self-centered, loud, and arrogantly ignorant Cranky Uncle to be put in a corner by himself at family events in hopes that his rantings and rudeness don’t blow the event.

George Mason University’s Center for Climate Communication research Assistant Professor John Cook has just published a book that should be useful in putting that Cranky Uncle into the corner — at least when it comes to the issue of climate science denialism (which is one of the (perhaps too numerous to mention) spaces of Trump’s worst Cranky Uncle ravings).

Now, for some quick background …

When it comes to climate and GMU, many are well aware of the Koch Brothers uber-funding of George Mason and the fostering of climate-science denialism and confusion within portions of the University. A tip of the hat to UnKoch / Transparent GMU for their efforts to expose and fight this.  At the same time that there is part of GMU that is a center for climate confusion fostering, the GMU Center for Climate Communication is a font of wisdom about key climate communication challenges and has done truly stellar work in some domains to foster improvements in how climate issues are communicated to the broad public. For example, this group has been central to and had some real success in a decade-long effort to engage and educate TV meteorologists about climate.

Cook is an Australian academic brought to GMU a few years ago. Perhaps without realizing it, you know of his work. He did (okay, was a key player in) the analytical work to show that at least (and, more recent work shows more than) 97% of the relevant world’s scientists agree with the consensus that (a) climate change is happening and (b) human actions are the primary cause of the global warming.

>97% of scientists agree: Its real, us, serious, and addressable

Less visible to most, Cook also is a key player in the website Skeptical Science, which seeks to identify, dissect, and provide the actual science to refute climate science denialism talking points. (For some of us, that work has provided a “Science Denialism by the Numbers” shorthand for summarizing inane comments from scientific luminaries like Cranky Uncle Donald.)  John is also the author of the Debunking Handbook. While focused on climate science issues, this short and thoughtful piece is extremely useful for dealing with ‘myth’ and falsehood busting. (I highly recommend it.) Unknowingly to me, until recently, Cook is also a cartoonist. He has now combined his specialization in tackling climate science denialism with that skill set.

With  “Cranky Uncle vs Climate Change”, Cook has provided an extremely digestible illustrated guide to the climate science denier tactics and arguments, how one can think about them, and how to engage with (or against) them.  (Or, well, how to engage them to influence and educate onlookers because that Cranky Uncle is unlikely to be convinced they are wrong and best kept in the corner.)

Now, rather than provide a full book review, I’d recommend Greg Laden’s excellent discussion.

This book gives us the whole ball of wax that is the science of climate science denial in a very funny, really well produced, and compelling wrapping. It will amuse you, and it will advise you. Your cranky uncle is done for.

If you’re intrigued, this is a last minute heads-up that you have a chance to hear from the author directly about how to deal with your/our Cranky Uncles.  This evening, 7-8:30 pm, at GMU’s Arlington campus (Room 134, Van Metre Hall 3351 Fairfax Drive), there is a book release event. If interested, sign up here: Cranky Uncle vs Climate Change.

UPDATE: Cook’s talk and the following question and answer session provided some richness as to how John became a foremost expert about dealing with (climate science) denial, the purpose and potential impact of the book, and the forthcoming Cranky Uncle ap.

  • A “Cranky Uncle” actually sparked John’s focus on refuting climate-science denialism.  John got a BS in physics and then, naturally, became a cartoonist.  This cartoonist’s father-in-law regularly spouted climate science talking points and, as per “what any nerdy, competitive son-in-law” would do, John pushed backed. And, to prove the “nerdy”, Cook put together a spreadsheet with the denialist truthiness-laden arguments and the debunking, with sourcing, of them. The father-in-law eventually gave John a book by a US Senator to ‘prove’ that global warming was a made up hoax.   This led Cook to realize that he wasn’t alone and that others might benefit from his debunking spreadsheet. That realization led to creating the valuable Skeptical Science site (which is, to be clear, far from just Dr. Cook but involves numerous climate scientists).
  • Inoculation is the point.  Cognitive science research has shown that, like with a biological disease, the mind can be inoculated against illogical disinformation viruses.  An exposure to mild versions of the disinformation — along with making clear, in humorous ways the absurdity — can improve ‘resistance’ to the disinformation.  Amid a major cold snap, denialists will spout off jokes about ‘where’s global warming when you need it?’ The analogy to show it’s absurdity: nighttime proves that daylight doesn’t exist.

  • Deniers FLICC us off.  Cook’s shorthand support of science deniers’ illogical is FLICC. They promote Fake experts; use Logical fallacies; create Impossible expectations; incessantly Cherry pick; and are tin-foil hat wearing Conspiracy theorists.  John hopes to educate about and inoculate against FLICC methods.  And, recognize that this is far from just climate science denial at play. Cranky Uncle Trump and his co-conspiracists use FLICC about coronavirus, industrial pollution, (Trump campaign collusion with) Russian interference in U.S. elections, and so much more.
  • The developing Cranky Uncle app (should be available in June) will take this to a new level. A book and a lecture like last night’s are ‘passive’ inoculation paths.  Studies of gaming experiences show that they are active. Cook and collaborators are developing (with testing going on in university and high school classrooms) a Cranky Uncle app that rewards players for being a Cranky Uncle while educating them about the illogic of their argumentation. Testing, to date, indicates that this is providing some degree of inoculation against FLICC techniques that perhaps will extend well past an ability to fend off climate science denialism but to Cranky Uncle rantings and ravings across so many other issues.
  • A key takeaway is the necessity to speak about climate change. A large majority of Americans recognize and are concerned about climate change. Due to the noise that Cranky Uncle climate denialists make and ‘climate silence’ (in the media, by political elite, by ‘us’), too many don’t recognize this and, in many cases, even those who are deeply concerned about climate change are too often silent (whether in social circles, work, or engaging with politicians).  Ending that climate silence is, in itself, a virtuous cycle path to fostering greater public understanding of climate issues and support for action to address the climate crisis.