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All IPCC definitions taken from Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Annex I, Glossary, pp. 941-954. Cambridge University Press.

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If Done Correctly, Refuting Climate Myths can be an Effective Educational Strategy

Posted on 15 January 2016 by ProfMandia

I have been teaching MET103 – Global Climate Change to undergraduate liberal arts students for five years. The course description appears below:

The impact of global climate change is far-reaching, both for humanity and the environment. This course will provide students with the scientific background to understand the role of natural and human-forced climate change so that they are better prepared to become involved in the discussion. Students will learn how past climates are determined and why humans are causing most of the observed modern day warming. The technical and political solutions to climate change will also be discussed.

It is pretty much a given that most young people today are aware that humans are causing the planet to warm. That was not true when I first began teaching this course in 2010. Anonymous surveys revealed there were still some students who either thought global warming was not happening or if it were, humans were not responsible. The biggest surprise for students now is how sensitive the planet and its species are to even small temperature increases. They are also surprised that there are still those who do not believe humans are causing climate disruption and they feel empowered to challenge those individuals who are often older family members.

One requirement of the course is to visit Skeptical Science’s Global Warming & Climate Change Myths – a collection of the most often propagated climate science myths and misinformation, and write a term paper that summarizes the myth in a way that will convince a doubter to change his or her position. About mid-way into the semester, I use one lecture period to discuss why misinformation exists and how to properly debunk that information. I present a talk I gave at the 2015 Geological Society of America (GSA) Annual Meeting as well as Cook and Lewandowsky’s The Debunking Handbook in order for students to learn how to avoid the various backfire effects that can occur when debunking misinformation. Students also have access to a grade rubric to understand what is expected for top marks.

Students are taught that the most effective myth refutation strategy includes:

  • Lead with the facts
  • Keep arguments simple and few
  • Warn listener before stating myth
  • Provide a more credible alternative
  • Message must align with person’s cultural world-view

The paper below is from the Fall 2015 semester and represents the success of this approach. The author has given Skeptical Science permission to post his term paper.

Why the Time to Act on Climate Change is Now by Trevor Lipp

I also recommend reading Raising Climate Literacy Through Addressing Misinformation: Case Studies in Agnotology-Based Learning by Cook, Weber, and Mandia (2014) for more examples of effective refutation techniques.


Agnotology is the study of how and why ignorance or misconceptions exist. While misconceptions are a challenge for educators, they also present an opportunity to improve climate literacy through agnotology-based learning. This involves the use of refutational lessons that challenge misconceptions while teaching scientific conceptions. We present three case studies in improving climate literacy through agnotology-based learning. Two case studies are classroom-based, applied in a community college and a four-year university. We outline the misinformation examined, how students are required to engage with the material and the results from this learning approach. The third case study is a public outreach targeting a climate misconception about scientific consensus. We outline how cognitive research guided the design of content, and the ways in which the material was disseminated through social media and mainstream media. These real-world examples provide effective ways to reduce misperceptions and improve climate literacy, consistent with twenty years of research demonstrating that refutational texts are among the most effective forms of reducing misperceptions. [DOI: 10.5408/13-071.1]

The takeaway here is that we should not be afraid to address myths in the classroom because if we do so using effective refutation strategies, climate science literacy can be improved.

You too can also learn to make sense of the science and to respond to climate change denial by enrolling in the MOOC Making Sense of Climate Science Denial. This Massive Online Open Course taught by 13 experienced scientists and professors is produced by The University of Queensland, Australia. You can take the course for free or for a small fee take the course and receive a certificate. Successful completion of this course will equip you to effectively respond to climate misinformation and debunk myths.

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