Published on January 13th, 2020 | by Michael Barnard0
Cranky Uncle Vs. Climate Change: John Cook Is A Cognitive Scientist, Climate Communicator, & Cartoonist
January 13th, 2020 by Michael Barnard
John Cook, like everyone who has been wandering around on the planet for more than a few years, is many things. He’s a PhD. He’s a cognitive scientist. He’s an ex-pat Australian working in the United States. He’s a research assistant professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. He’s the award-winning founder of SkepticalScience.com, the site which tackles the most common climate denialist myths with peer-reviewed evidence and logic.
He’s also a cartoonist, and has been for a long time. He’s been using his drawing skills for a while to communicate key points about how to communicate about climate and how better to debunk climate change denialist talking points.
And now, there’s a book, Cranky Uncle Vs. Climate Change: How to Understand and Respond to Climate Science Deniers. Cook provided me with a pre-release copy when we were talking about a climate communication piece I am working on and wanted to illustrate it with a couple of his cartoons. His book is coming out February 25th, 2020, so get your pre-orders of e-book and physical copies in now. I think it’s so good that I’m recommending that people buy it for others, as a leave-behind for people trying to move the needle on climate change. Buy one for your parents’ and grandparents’ homes, for your state representatives, for your congressman, and for the office. If you’re a politician, as is an Oregon state representative I was providing guidance to recently on how to communicate with her rural constituents on the subject, buy copies to leave behind with influential people in your district.
Like Katharine Hayhoe’s excellent Global Weirding YouTube series, most skeptics won’t be convinced by the book, but they will return to it and it will keep them from backsliding to earlier conversations.
One of the key themes of the book is that a lot more people want to talk about climate change than do talk about climate change. Cook refers to this as the spiral of climate silence. My preferred poll, Monmouth University’s from late 2018, show that 71% of American voters think that climate change is serious or very serious, and that 69% of them want the government to take action. Among other things, this book is a great and low-risk conversation starter. Leave it on your coffee table, desk or in the lunchroom, people see the cartoons and leaf through it, and before you know it, you’re talking climate.
The book covers a lot of ground. It deals with why and how the incredibly well supported science of climate change became controversial in the first place.
Unsurprisingly, as Cook is a cognitive scientist, one of the pre-eminent scholars in that field, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow, gets a mention. I’m working my way through that fascinating book now, fleshing out the bits and pieces of how remarkably irrational we actually are that I’d assembled from my readings in behavioral economics (influenced strongly by Kahneman) and cognitive science. Cook spends a chapter on the reality that our brains are not wired to comprehend, with very accessible explainers of the basics. He takes another chapter on our unwillingness to take responsibility.
Throughout the text, Cook illustrates logical fallacies and the ironic mental leaps that denialists make, not recognizing their own inconsistency.
In addition to great material on the science and consequences that are being denied, Cook provides communication solutions. His work is colorful, fun, and grounded deeply in how brains actually hear and internalize information. It was through him and his frequent collaborators, Stephen Lewandowsky, Dana Nuticelli, and Katharine Hayhoe, that I learned to start with the fact when debunking, not the myth. The way our brains work, we frame things based on what we hear first, not what’s most relevant. Starting with the myth cements it instead of the fact.
One of the impactful things Cook has authored was a significant study on consensus among climate scientists that climate change is real, serious, and caused by us. It’s his study with his collaborators which found the 97% number. A key point in the book is that many people don’t know that there is a consensus among actual experts, and simply getting them to accept that significantly moves the needle on their views on climate science.
Throughout the book, there are delightful cartoons illustrating the gulf that many of us who communicate regularly on climate change encounter. The UN IPCC is the single most scrutinized body of scientific knowledge in the history of the world. 30 years of systematic meta-analysis of the scientific research by experts in a transparent and public process is the very top of the pyramid of evidence. Yet while that’s not good enough for denialists, they’ll cite YouTube videos, photoshopped memes, non-experts, and consider that far more than adequate to maintain their positions. Similar treatment is given to the running problem of shifting goalposts.
It’s January as I write this, but New York was experiencing 70° F springtime weather which is likely to cause problems with early budding. It’s snowing in Texas and I’m looking out at an unusual snowscape in Vancouver BC. Australia has had months of wildfires and its historical wildfire season started just days ago. The weather is weird globally and only going to get weirder and we need to take action. As Cook said when we were talking about this:
“What is the most important thing we can do to contribute to climate action? Open our mouths and talk about it! This is the key to building the social momentum that is the foundation of political action.”
As Kahneman and the cognitive scientists and communicators he has inspired and worked with over the decades point out, we are really bad at thinking rationally. Denialists are very human, and just as susceptible, but they can be won over. Cook’s cartoons are an excellent way to cut through denialists’ cognitive biases and to engage what Kahneman calls System 2, or thinking slow.
Once again, buy the book. Spread it around. Have the conversations. But a key point is that if people change their minds, don’t point it out, gloat, or rub it in. Another key insight from Kahneman et al. is that people are incredibly bad at realizing and admitting that they’ve changed their minds. Just accept it and move on.
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