What’s the best way to show a climate change denier the error of their ways? A new online course answers this question for the masses.
Hint: it’s not lobbing an endless stream of scientific evidence that proves human-driven climate change. While this approach may be cathartic, telling those who refuse to accept climate science for political, cultural, or ideological reasons over and over that they’re wrong is ineffective at best, and oftentimes counterproductive.
How to make progress in this Sisyphean pursuit then? Cue the new, first-of-its kind climate change denial massive open online course, or MOOC. So far the course, called “Making Sense of Climate Science Denial” has more than 10,000 people from 150 countries signed up to find out not only how to confront climate science deniers more effectively, but the psychological and social drivers behind this denial. The 7-week curriculum, which commenced on April 28, also includes responses to the most pervasive climate change denial myths and the insights into the underlying techniques these anti-science perpetrators most frequently employ.
In the scientific community there is little controversy over the root of climate change, with 97 percent of climate scientists concluding humans are causing global warming. However in the public the issue is far more muddled with misinformation and fraught with disingenuous objectives. The course attempts to bridge that gap and in doing so, move the discussion around climate change one giant step forward.
The course, also referred to as “Denial101x,” includes interviews with 75 researchers from the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the U.K., including some big names such as Sir David Attenborough. It is being coordinated by John Cook, a fellow at the University of Queensland Global Change Institute Climate Communication and creator of the popular website Skeptical Science.
Once people understand the techniques used to distort the science, they can reconcile the myth with the fact.
In describing the course, Cook writes that in his own research, when he’s “informed strong political conservatives that there’s a scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming, they become less accepting that humans are causing climate change.”
He says you can’t adequately address the issue of climate change denial “without considering the root cause: personal beliefs and ideology driving the rejection of scientific evidence. Attempts at science communication that ignore the potent influence effect of worldview can be futile or even counterproductive.”
So what is the best response?
According to Cook, the answer can be found in “inoculation theory,” a branch of psychology in which misinformation is neutralized by “explaining the fallacy employed by the myth.”
“Once people understand the techniques used to distort the science, they can reconcile the myth with the fact,” writes Cook. Instead of more science, what will help stem the spread of climate denial is debunking misconceptions about the science, an approach that “results in significantly higher learning gains than customary lectures that simply teach the science,” according to Cook.
Inoculation theory works in a similar way to how flu vaccines work: by providing a weak form of the virus. In the course, students will be exposed to “a weak form of science denial” that will inoculate their minds against misinformation.
By taking advantage of the online education opportunities available through MOOCs, Cook and his associates in the course hope that instead of just reaching a few classrooms, they can potentially reach hundreds of thousands of students.
Dan Bedford, a geography professor at Weber State University in Utah, told ThinkProgress that the concept of the MOOC is to equip people with the tools necessary to identify what’s wrong “with all the arguments presented in climate science misinformation” and “move past the manufactured ‘debate’ about climate change.”
Bedford contributes to one lecture in the course, but wrote a 2010 paper called Agnotology as a teaching tool: Learning climate science by studying misinformation that heavily influenced the curriculum. He said that the bottom line is that the MOOC “is important because we’re providing an understanding of how misinformation works, why it’s wrong, and thereby, we hope, helping people to spot it and ward it off.”
Sarah Green, a chemist at Michigan Technological University, told ThinkProgress that “educating people about facts is not sufficient.” Green, who contributed four lectures to the course, said this is especially the case when political or industry groups can “bamboozle them” with easily digestible “pseudo-facts.”
Some of the most common myths that will be dispelled by the course include the “long pause” argument that there hasn’t been any warming since 1998; that global warming is caused by the sun; and that climate impacts will be no big deal, and possibly even beneficial. It will also investigate climate science to some degree in an effort to better understand past climate changes as well as how models predict future climate impacts.
The course also helps differentiate denial, which is a process, from skepticism, which is an intricate part of the scientific method. A real skeptic comes to a conclusion after considering all the evidence, while someone who denies the science discounts any evidence that competes with their beliefs or worldview. In a way, deniers and skeptics are polar opposites.
Keah Schuenemann, an assistant professor of meteorology at Metropolitan State University of Denver and an instructor in the course, told ThinkProgress that she meets numerous people frustrated at the lack of understanding and action on climate change.
“It is these passionate people who I would like to arm with some of the knowledge, critical thinking, and communication skills that I have picked up through years of teaching this topic,” she said. “My true passion stems from wanting to improve science literacy.”
In the introductory video about the course, Cook says the course is necessary “at the most fundamental level” because “a well functioning democracy depends on a well informed public.”
“People have a right to be accurately informed,” he says. “And if the public is being misinformed by people who deny climate science, that has social and environmental consequences.”