An Interview With John Cook, Founder of Skeptical Science & Denial 101x

Sir David Attenborough being interviewed by John Cook at Heron Island in the Great Barrier Reef. (Image Credit: John Cook)

Sir David Attenborough being interviewed by John Cook at Heron Island in the Great Barrier Reef. (Image Credit: John Cook)

(This is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared on Planet Experts.)

John Cook is the founder of the website Skeptical Science, which breaks down climate change misinformation and provides links to peer-reviewed journals and scientific articles. Yet Cook, as his detractors like to point out, is not by definition a climate scientist. Though he holds a B.A. in Physics, when Cook created Skeptical Science, he was working as a web and database programmer.

“How I got interested in it was just having conversations with my father-in-law,” he said, “who thought that climate change was a big hoax. […] He brought it up and so I did what I guess a database nerd would do: I created a database of climate myths as a way of organizing the information, just for myself personally, and really just leaving nothing to chance the next time we got into a conversation at a family get-together.

“The reason I created it was because no one else had done exactly what I needed,” he said, “which was sorting all the peer-reviewed scientific research according to different climate myths.”

Since establishing the site in 2007, Cook has seen both its utility and his role in the scientific scene expand. He co-authored the 2011 book Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand, as well as the 2013 college textbook, Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis. He is currently completing a PhD in cognitive psychology and holds the position of Climate Communication Research Fellow at the University of Queensland.

On April 28, he rolled out his latest creation, a seven-week University of Queensland course entitled, “Making Sense of Climate Science Denial,” aka, Denial101x. The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), is free, open to the public and can be enrolled in anytime.

Climate Science Denial 101

Cook built Denial101x around three educational concepts: misconception-based learning, sticky facts and inoculation theory.

As Cook explains, misconception-based learning is an educational technique that teaches science by debunking misconceptions about the science. In researching the cognitive psychology behind belief, Cook learned that it wasn’t enough to simply prove misinformation false; the “sticky myths” had to be replaced with “stickier facts.” A crucial part of reducing the influence of misinformation, Cook decided, was to “inoculate” students against propaganda.

Dating back to the 1950s, inoculation theory posits that overcoming denial requires more than just more science. “You actually need to expose them to a weak form of this science denial so that they basically develop resistance to the misinformation,” said Cook. “It’s like giving them a flu shot.”

Using these three educational concepts, Cook hopes to impart essential critical thinking skills to his students. As of this writing, the course has drawn in over 15,000 people from 166 different countries.

Read the full article on Planet Experts

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