If no good deed goes unpunished, John Cook is living proof. He could be considered the official messenger of the Anthropocene age – and history has not often been kind to its messengers.
By Cook’s estimate, he and his colleagues have been on the receiving end of over 300 published attacks for their work on just one scientific paper. That paper, “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature,” was published on May 15, 2013 in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Environmental Research Letters.
According to Cook, they began receiving the attacks on the very day of its publication. “And it hasn’t stopped since,” he told Planet Experts.
What sort of scientific demon did Cook and his fellow researchers unleash two years ago? A statistical one. And unlike the demons of Maxwell and Laplace, this one is very real.
In the first phase of their study, Cook et al. analyzed the abstracts of 11,944 peer-reviewed climate papers published over a 20-year period and found that 97.1 percent of the relevant papers endorsed the position that humans are causing global warming. The second phase of the study invited the authors to rate their own papers and returned a 97.2 percent consensus that anthropogenic (or man-made) global warming is occurring.
For their sins, Cook and his colleagues were denounced in the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Post, the Australian, in blog posts and in YouTube videos.
“One critic in the UK was flown to Washington and gave testimony in Capitol Hill attacking our research,” said Cook, “immediately followed by the Republican party issuing a press release saying that our research had been debunked.”
After nearly a decade of researching misinformation and attacks on science, Cook was not surprised by the reaction. But he laughed as he admitted, “I didn’t expect just how intense it would be. I didn’t expect Capitol Hill testimonies and complaints to my university and Freedom of Information Act requests.”
In Cook’s new online course on climate science denial, he links his students to a video that features the world’s leading scientists telling stories about how their research has been subjected to similar anti-science campaigns, including abusive emails, online attacks, bullying in various forms and attempts to get their papers retracted from scientific journals. “All of the descriptions and stories in that video we’ve experienced over the last two years,” he said.
Last week, I spoke to Planet Expert Michael Mann on his participation in the new course, which included sharing his own horror stories. Cook, like Mann, now maintains a Zen-like (and sometimes black) humor about the whole experience.
“Apart from Michael Mann’s story about how he received white powder in the mail,” Cook added with a wry laugh. “We haven’t received that yet.”
Who Is John Cook?
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.
Cook is also on a mission to separate the term “skepticism” from its current connotations. This is an idea that dates back to the initial naming of his site, which was all about reclaiming that word.
“I think that it’s a real shame that the good name of skepticism has become associated with climate science denial,” he said. “The two things are polar opposites. Skepticism is about taking an evidence-based critical-thinking approach to science. Science denial is about just rejecting any evidence that threatens your beliefs or preconceived position.”
Unraveling the Greatest Hoax
Back in January, the Chief Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, told members of the American Meteorological Society that “[s]cience is under attack like it has never been before.”
The past five months have almost turned that into an understatement.
In Florida, the Governor has barred government officials from even mentioning the terms “climate change” and “global warming”; an analysis conducted by the Center for American Progress found that over 56 percent of Congressional Republicans dispute or deny climate change; and in the last election fossil fuel companies spent at least $721 million getting their candidates of choice reelected. Even presidential-hopeful Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), who heads the subcommittee that oversees NASA, has repeatedly claimed that the last 15 years have shown no signs of global warming.
To Cook, this uncompromising denial of what’s happening to the planet is easily explained.
“The reason why people are so opposed to climate science is because of the consequences of what the science is telling us,” he said. “Humans are causing it, and therefore humans need to change the way we’re doing things.
“Look at any time throughout history. Whenever there’s been an attempt to change the way things are done, to upset the status quo, there’s always been the greatest resistance from the people who have the most to lose. In the case of climate change, the solutions to climate change involve regulation of polluting industries. […] What my research finds and what a number of studies have found is there’s a strong correlation between climate science denial and support for free, unregulated markets.”
Republican Senator Jim Inhofe is perhaps the Ur-example in this case. In 2005, Inhofe described global warming as “the second-largest hoax ever played on the American people, after the separation of church and state.”
Inhofe is the Senate’s most vocal disputer of anthropogenic climate change, which he regards as arrogant and un-Christian. “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what [God] is doing in the climate is to me outrageous,” he wrote in his 2012 book,The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.
This past February, Inhofe nearly achieved internet meme-status when he pulled out a snowball on the Senate floor as proof against global warming.
Cook looks on Inhofe with a frustrated bemusement. “His brand of misinformation is quite blatant,” he said, “quite easy to see through.”
But Inhofe’s stunts are problematic because of their effect on the national conversation.
“The danger of that kind of talk is when you have someone so extreme in such a prominent position advocating such extreme positions,” said Cook, “that shifts the Overton window of public discussion about climate change, so that suddenly having fringe extremist positions is almost acceptable.”
And while Inhofe might be citing religious reasons, added Cook, “he also is a strong advocate of unregulated free markets. So we come back to the number one driver of climate science denial being political ideology.”
Climate Change as a Social Justice Issue
Despite their polar positions on climate change, Cook and Inhofe are united by their common faith: Christianity.
In the past, Cook has stated that he never actually considered himself an environmentalist. Social justice, however, is an issue very close to his heart.
“The countries that contribute the least to climate change are the ones that are being affected the worst and are the ones who are least able to adapt,” said Cook. “And so that means that climate change is inherently an unjust situation. The developed, richest countries are creating this problem and the poorest countries are having to suffer because of that.”
For instance, sea level rise is one of the most visible and extreme examples of global warming brought on by burning fossil fuels. In part due to melting ice sheets, areas like Florida have already recorded 10 inches of sea level rise since the 19th century.
The U.S. and China, the two richest countries in the world, emit nearly half of the planet’s greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, Kiribati, a small island nation in the central Pacific, is expected to sink beneath the ocean in the next 30 years. The situation is so dire that the government has already purchased a part of a Fijian island in preparation for relocating its population. In the meantime, salt water is filling the wells of the small, poverty-stricken nation, leading to sickness and death among its children.
“At the core of Christian values is social justice,” said Cook, “and that’s a strong motivating factor for why I care about this issue.”
Enrollment Is Still Open
Enrollment for Denial101x is still open, and students are welcomed to join up and learn the logical fallacies behind 50 or so of the most common climate myths.
“You’re largely banging your head against a brick wall trying to change the minds of Senator Inhofe or the leading critics of climate science,” said Cook. “And so that means that the answer is inoculating the rest of the population against their misinformation, reducing their influence on everyone else – because misinformation does have a very significant effect.”
At the moment, surveys show that the American public is unclear about the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change. Cook hopes that clearing that confusion will lead to more vocal policy support.
“It’s happening, it’s us, and the impacts are serious,” he said.
Then he went back to work.