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Debunking climate myths: two contrasting case studies

Posted on 6 February 2014 by John Cook

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Here, I've used my original submitted headline.

Debunking myths requires an understanding of the psychological research into misinformation. But getting your refutation out in front of lots of eyeballs is a whole other matter.

Here, I look at two contrasting case studies in debunking climate myths.

If you don’t do it right, you run the risk of actually reinforcing the myth. Fortunately, there are a number of steps you can take to avoid any potential backfire effects.

Facts vs myths

First and foremost, you need to emphasise the key facts you wish to communicate rather than the myth. Otherwise, you risk making people more familiar with the myth than with the correct facts.

Duty calls.

That doesn’t mean avoid mentioning the myth altogether. You have to activate it in people’s minds before they can label it as wrong.

Secondly, you need to replace the myth with an alternate narrative. This is usually an explanation of why the myth is wrong or how it came about. Essentially, debunking is creating a gap in people’s minds (removing the myth) then filling that gap (with the correct explanation).

If you had to boil down all the psychological research into six words then it can be summed up as follows:

fight sticky ideas with stickier ideas.

Myths are persistent, stubborn and memorable. To dislodge a myth, you need to counter it with an even more compelling, memorable fact.

The skeptical plan

With that principle in mind, the Skeptical Science team set out to debunk two climate myths in 2013. We were guided by cognitive psychology as we constructed our rebuttals.

In both cases, we sought a different path to our usual social media practice of immediate blogging, tweeting and Facebook and looked for something that would have a long-term impact.

Case Study 1: Communicating the scientific consensus on climate change

We decided to tackle arguably the most destructive climate myth of all, that there is no scientific consensus about human-caused global warming.

This misconception has grave consequences for society. When the public think that scientists don’t agree on human-caused global warming, they’re less likely to support policies to mitigate climate change.

We decided to increase awareness of the scientific consensus with a three-pronged approach:

  1. scholarly research
  2. mainstream media coverage
  3. social media outreach.

The Skeptical Science team spent about a year doing the scholarly research - reading the abstracts of 12,000 climate papers published from 1991 to 2011. We identified around 4000 abstracts stating a position on human-caused global warming and among those papers, more than 97% endorsed the consensus.

The media message

When our research was published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research Letters, the University of Queensland and the universities of my co-authors issued media releases describing our work.

The release was constructed with the psychology of misinformation in mind. The emphasis was on the key fact we wished to communicate: 97% agreement among relevant climate papers.

But we also activated the misconception by mentioning survey data finding low public perception of scientific agreement.


Consensus on human caused global warming.

The result was media coverage all over the world, including many non-English speaking countries.

At the same time, we launched The Consensus Project website that explained the results of our paper with clear, simple animations. We released a series of shareable infographics, making it easy for people to share our results on social media.

Our goal was for the message of scientific consensus to push beyond people already engaged with the climate issue, and raise awareness among people who had no idea that there was 97% agreement among climate scientists.

Obama hears the message

We achieved this goal beyond our expectations when President Obama tweeted our research to 31-million followers.

Obama tweet on 97 per cent. Twitter

His tweet was retweeted over 2,500 times. Several weeks after the tweet, Obama gave a landmark speech on climate change in which he acknowledged the 97% consensus.

This exercise taught us that while social media is the future, old media isn’t dead yet. And perhaps the sum of the two are greater than their individual parts.

Case Study 2: Communicating our planet’s heat build-up

The second myth we tackled was the mistaken belief that global warming has stopped. This myth has many variants, such as “global warming stopped 15, 16 or 17 years ago” (the time period varies) or “no statistically significant warming since 1998”.

Typically, scientists respond to the “no warming” myth using statistical explanations that go over the heads of most people. How do you debunk this myth in a compelling, memorable way?

Global warming is a build up in heat. Greenhouse gases are trapping heat which is building up in our oceans, warming the land and air and melting ice. When scientists add up all the energy accumulating in our climate system, they find the heat build-up hasn’t slowed since 1998.

The greenhouse effect continues to blaze away. It turns out the laws of physics didn’t go on hiatus 16 years ago.

Creating a metaphor

To communicate this, we used a metaphor. We toyed with many metaphor ideas but found none able to conceptualise the heat build-up in a stickier manner more than this:

Since 1998, our planet has been building up heat at a rate of 4 Hiroshima A-bombs per second.

We released a website with an animated ticker widget to show how much heat our planet is building up each second. The widget, which can be freely embeded on other websites, also includes a number of other metrics such as the amount of energy in hurricane Sandy, an earthquake and a million lightning bolts.

Unlike traditional social media campaigns that flare brightly then quickly fade away, the widget steadily and incrementally increases the number of people it reaches.

Since it was released in November it has been embedded in a number of blogs. The figures continue to grow with latest showing it used by more than 80 blogs and viewed more than 2-million times.

We knew the Hiroshima metaphor would be controversial but several factors influenced our decision to use it. One was that distinguished climate scientist James Hansen had been using the metaphor for years.

Another was an article by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a prestigious journal founded in the 1950s to warn of the dangers of nuclear weapons. The Bulletin endorsed the use of the Hiroshima metaphor as a compelling way to communicate the reality of global warming.

But ultimately, the cognitive science told us this was the most compelling way to refute the “hiatus” myth.

As expected, the widget provoked a strong reaction, predominantly from those already dismissive of climate science (and keen to prop up the “global warming stopped in 1998” myth).

A less explosive metaphor

I put the challenge out there to come up with a better metaphor to conceptualise the amount of heat that our planet is accumulating. No viable alternatives have come forward.

However, at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in December, I proposed a tongue-in-cheek metaphor that I thought may get away with offending no one: kitten sneezes!

Showing the planetary heat imbalance in units of kitten sneezes.

Two communication outreaches by Skeptical Science in 2013 took wildly different approaches but with the same goal. One adopted a top-down approach, attempting to reach the public through scholarly research and mainstream media. The other took a bottom-up approach, raising awareness through a widget embedded on a wide range of blogs.

Both were based on the psychological research into debunking. Both were conceived as slow burn communication, with both achieving long-term impact.

This is an edited version of John Cook’s presentation Combating a two decade misinformation against the scientific consensus on climate change, delivered this week at the Australian Science Communicators national conference in Brisbane.The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Comments 1 to 11:

  1. In the original article introducing the widget on 25 November 2013, the HB count (in the snapshot down the page, not the embedded object on the top) was 2,037M.

    After just a little over 2 mounts elapsed (a very short timespan, at least for me), the count went up to over 2,063M. An increase by 26HB (1.3%) in just 2 months!

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  2. It will be interesting to see if there are measurable shifts in public attitudes from these efforts.

    I think the consensus project has been very successful... I never see 'skeptics' pushing the 'no consensus' myth any more. The more hard core deniers still dispute the 97% figure when it comes up, but even then it seems clear that most people can see they are grasping at imaginary straws.

    However, the 'no warming for time period too short to show statistical significance' myth still seems to be the 'go to' disinformation for the vast majority of skeptics... maybe temporarily supplanted as #1 by, 'Look! Snow! Where is your global warming now, huh?', but still cited on a routine basis. The heat widget is a good counter to this, but I don't think the message has gotten out to the general public yet.

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  3. How do you measure the success of your campaigns?

    Besides surveys that are conducted by others, do you have any way of (automatically?) collecting data on the internet with respect to how often certain words, phrases or memes popup?

    CB Dunkerson says that he(she?) never sees "skeptics pushing the 'no consensus' myth any more".

    Is it possible to quantify such statements?

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  4. I used the anomalous cat energy metaphone in one of my YouTube videos about 15 months ago, because a few people objected to the atomic bomb metaphore. Instead of sneezing, I used the caloric requirements of an average cat.

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  5. I see a couple of problems with the suggested debunk of myth #1.  One, is you really don't want a politician communicating it.  That Obama cites the 97% is enough to consider it automatically wrong in many circles.  And Gore's "Inconvenient Truth" may have done as much harm as good.  Second, I've heard it said that there are people who claim that 97% of scientists are convinced of global warming but that is because they are all getting grant money from Big Nuclear or green power sources.  And I hear the argument that there is plenty of science on the other side, insisting on peer-review is cherry picking.  Yes, I've actually heard that said with a straight face.

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  6. OK, ok, nobody likes the Hiroshima analogy. But there has to be something better than kitten sneezes. You need some BIG energy user, preferably with heat as its basis. How about traincars of coal or US energy consumption? Or...?

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  7. My personal experience is that very few people have an issue with the Hiroshima bomb analogy. People that do have an issue, however, tend to make a spectacle of themselves. Which of course attracts attention and likely alters any bystander's perception.

    SkS contributors had a very heated discussion over this, but in the end no one was able to come up with a 'stickier' metaphor. Your suggestions are no improvement, but if someone is able to come up with something 'stickier' than Hiroshima..........   

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  8. What about a large, infamous forest fire?  Perhaps the Yosemite and/or Colorado Springs fires?  Or the total firepower expenditure of WWII (minus Hiroshima/Nagasaki) or Vietnam?  Or Pinatubos?

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  9. How about power plants? 4 Hiroshima bombs = 50,000 power plants (Did I do the calculation right?). Seems impressive to me.

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  10. I like Hiroshima bombs.  It is recognized by everyone and indicates the seriousness of the situation.

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  11. I do not like the bomb thing (rotting apples vs. contaminated dead or starving oranges). But I do like the underlying message. In showing how absurd and blatantly false this "it stopped warming since [whenever]" gibberish really is, tamino has found a visually appealing answer recently (I think).

    Hypothesis: "Warming has stopped in 1998":


    Measured data:

    Measured data

    Putting this into a nicer graphic and you should have another "Escalator".

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