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Researching climate change communication at George Mason University

Posted on 7 September 2016 by John Cook

Next January, I’ll be relocating to the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. For a Brisbane boy who has never lived outside of Australia, moving to walking distance from Washington, DC is a big call. Two factors influenced this life-changing decision.

First, since I initially learnt about psychological research into debunking, my approach to climate communication has been guided by social science. When I started my research fellowship at GCI at The University of Queensland, my two-pronged approach was to research how to better communicate science, while putting that research into practice. 

As we communicated the scientific consensus on climate change, I also ran psychological experiments into the efficacy of consensus messaging. While we’ve debunked over 190 climate myths, we’ve also published the Debunking Handbook, a summary of psychological research into misinformation. Our MOOC on climate science denial is informed by a synthesis of cognitive psychology, inoculation theory and educational research.

What attracted me to MASON'S Center for Climate Change Communication (or 4C) was their approach to climate communication: a mix of theoretical research combined with practical outreach. They’re not ivory tower boffins - they directly engage with the public, putting into practice their research into the psychology of climate change.

Second, I was also enticed by the collaborative research environment at 4C - a center of scientists and students conducting academic research into the psychology of climate communication. The potential for future lines of enquiry springing from that community is quite exciting.

So after long, thoughtful conversations with my family plus focused research into how to source Vegemite in the U.S., I made the life-changing decision to relocate to the USA. Over the last five years that I’ve been at The University of Queensland, the Skeptical Science team has achieved impact far beyond our expectations, being highlighted by Senators, Presidents and Prime Ministers. My hope is that working at 4C will take our societal impact to another level.

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Comments 1 to 18:

  1. i wish you all the best hello

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  2. Congratulations, John.

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  3. Welcome to the States, John.  I'm sure you will do well.

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  4. Welcome John Cook!

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  5. Onward and upward!

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  6. So pleased to have grabbed the chance to meet you in person. Best wishes.

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  7. Best of luck. Sounds like a great fit. 

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  8. GMU had quite a bad name - until recently? Patrick Michaels, S. Fred Singer, Ed Wegman. Lots of Koch brothers money.

    But now: Great to see you go there!

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Fixed links. Please learn how to do this yourself with the Link icon in the comment editor

  9. 4C@GMU is a long way from your background in solar physics, John. Congratulations on the courageous move.

    Do you think you still be able to apply your original expertise in your research, or have you switched your professional focus completely to social sciences now, and there is no overlap of it with solar physics?

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  10. chriskoz, my professional focus is fully on social science now. Having a background in physical science is certainly helpful in understanding and communicating climate science - but the work I'll be doing at 4C (and the research I've conducted over the last few years for my PhD) has been focused on the psychology of climate change.

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  11. You'll certainly be able to observe firsthand how climate denial is 'baked' into America's conservative identity politics.  People feel assaulted by modern life, pine for 'heartland values', and are fed a well-funded concoction of selective 'memories' involving religion, guns, patriotism, white patriarchy, free markets and climate denial.  To just argue climate alone is like trying to pick the okra out of gumbo.

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  12. @11 ubrew12

     Don't believe everything you read. Just because politicians say something doesn't necessarily mean they are representing the people's views. As often as not they are engaged in persuasive speech rather than reflective speech.

    I happen to live right square in the middle of the US heartland, and sitting right on top of the Oklahoma City oil field. I even grow okra! If you approach the conversation correctly, you can gain significant traction. I have yet to find a single "baked" in denialist. Rather, more often than not you'll find more of a pragmatist view.

    Surprisingly easy to explain systems science views on biological cycles to people here. Just add CO2 to that conversation, where AGW is an example of a symptom instead of a cause, and they usually end up on your side. Also easy to explain why even 2 or 3 degrees is so bad, on a day it is 105 already. Just say something like, "I know that jerk Imohofe likes to deny a few degrees of warming is important, but can you imagine what even a couple degrees would do on a day like today? People start dieing!"

    Now it is possible that people here just naturally listen to another conservative farmer like me more than they would another "Damn Arrogant Liberal City Folk from back East". It's also possible they are just being polite to a neighbor. But I don't see at all the attitude you described. In fact the ONLY one I ever talked to here that displayed the attitude you describe was an exec from a gas company I was trying to lease some land from to use in Oklahoma's No Till and Carbon Sequestration Program.

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  13. Not to worry! Vegemite is available at Rodman's in Bethesda and Friendship Heights. Ye shall not suffer!

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  14. The Vegemite is easy to find in Rodman's, because of the biohazard tape around those shelves.

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  15. Many congrats John. I thoroughly enjoyed my time doing my PhD at the Harvard Smithsonian though that was back when Carter was president. I'm sure you will have a great time. We had an interesting discussion one night about how much you could make if you perjured your scientific integrety. This was long before the diagraced Wille Soon joined.

    I'm sure you will find it great the DC area is wonderful, but the traffic is worse than it was in the '70s!

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  16. Welcome to Mason, John!  Those of us in Atmospheric, Oceanic and Earth Sciences (and our Climate Dynamics PhD) have a long history contributing to WCRP, IPCC, Clivar, etc.  Although I have just gone emeritus, I look forward to helping out in any ways that I can. 

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  17. Congratulations, John, and welcome to the "other" colonies.  

    As to Vegemite, you may wish to latch on to our native sandwich spread delicacy:  Nutella!  It's equally nauseating, so you should feel right at home! 

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  18. Congratulations, John.  Seems to me you are stepping into the lion's den.  I can't think of anyone better to help tame the deniers.

    Best Wishes and have Great Success.

    Marty Weirick

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