Spotlight on SciComm: John Cook

Dr. John Cook shares his experiences combating climate change denial.

Go to the profile of Alexa McKay
Apr 21, 2017
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Name: John Cook
Position/affiliation: Research assistant professor, Center for Climate Change Communication, George Mason University
Research area: Climate communication, climate misinformation, science denial
Twitter: @johnfocook

What first motivated your involvement in outreach and science communication? How have you decided which audiences to engage with?

My journey began when I first encountered misinformation about climate change. My first engagements were small exchanges with family members, then with people online. I began collecting resources and peer-reviewed studies relevant to the different climate myths that I'd encounter. It was when I realized that others might find this resource useful that I first published my website, Skeptical Science.

The theme for the 2017 Earth Day is ‘Environmental & Climate Literacy’. What does ‘literacy’ mean to you? What (or who) do you imagine when you think of a ‘science-literate’ citizen?

My focus is on climate literacy, which is an understanding of the reality of climate change. We typically think of lack of information as the main impediment to science literacy. But another significant problem is misinformation, which not only reduces science literacy but also interferes with science communication efforts. Misinformation cancels out the positive effect of science communication. So a science-literate citizen is someone who not only understands the science of climate change, but also can see through the techniques that misinformation employs to distort the science.

Which arguments or approaches have you found most effective in communicating the realities of climate change, or other pressing environmental issue, to those in doubt?

There are two sides of effective climate communication. First, communicating the science with simple, clear messages. The five key beliefs of climate change are a succinct, effective way to sum up the whole climate story in just ten words: it's real, it's us, it's bad, experts agree & there's hope.

Second, explain the techniques used to distort climate science. I draw on the 5 characteristics of science denial as a useful framework, summarized with the acronym FLICC: fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry picking & conspiracy theories. When you explain these techniques, misinformation loses its influence - even over those people in doubt.

What has been your most rewarding experience in environmental or climate communication?

When I was at the University of Queensland, we developed a Massive Open Online Course, Making Sense of Climate Science Denial. The purpose of the course was to explain the realities of climate change as well as the techniques of science denial. It was extremely encouraging hearing from students feeling empowered to talk about climate change and engage even when encountering climate misinformation. The most rewarding outcome from our course was when educators at high school and college level reported taking our content and using it in their own classrooms.

Go to the profile of Alexa McKay

Alexa McKay

Associate Editor, Nature Communications

Alexa has been an ecology editor at Nature Communications since May 2016. She earned a PhD from the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, investigating the consequences of migration for parasite resistance in monarch butterflies. Alexa previously worked at the University of Puget Sound, the US Geological Survey, and Washington University in St. Louis on projects related to animal behaviour, wildlife conservation, landscape ecology, and disease ecology.

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