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Humans need to become smarter thinkers to beat climate denial

Posted on 6 February 2018 by dana1981, John Cook

Climate myths are often contradictory – it’s not warming, though it’s warming because of the sun, and really it’s all just an ocean cycle – but they all seem to share one thing in common: logical fallacies and reasoning errors.

John Cook, Peter Ellerton, and David Kinkead have just published a paper in Environmental Research Letters in which they examined 42 common climate myths and found that every single one demonstrates fallacious reasoning. For example, the authors made a video breaking down the logical flaws in the myth ‘climate changed naturally in the past so current climate change is natural.’

Video abstract for paper “Deconstructing climate misinformation to identify reasoning errors” published in Environmental Research Letters by John Cook, Peter Ellerton, and David Kinkead.

Beating myths with critical thinking

Cook has previously published research on using ‘misconception-based learning’to dislodge climate myths from peoples’ brains and replace them with facts, and beating denial by inoculating people against misinformers’ tricks. The idea is that when people are faced with a myth and a competing fact, the fact will more easily win out if the fallacy underpinning the myth is revealed. In fact, these concepts of misconception-based learning and inoculation against myths were the basis of the free online Denial101x course developed by Cook and colleagues.

Denial101x lecture on inoculation theory by John Cook.

The new paper published today suggests an even more proactive approach to defeating myths. If people can learn to implement a simple six-step critical thinking process, they’ll be able to evaluate whether climate-related claims are valid.

Step 1: Identify the claim being made. For example, the most popular contrarian argument: “Earth’s climate has changed naturally in the past, so current climate change is natural.”

Step 2: Construct the argument by identifying the premises leading to that conclusion. In this case, the first premise is that Earth’s climate has changed in the past through natural processes, and the second premise is that the climate is currently changing. So far, so good.

Step 3: Determine whether the argument is deductive, meaning that it starts out with a general statement and reaches a definitive conclusion. In our case, ‘current climate change is natural’ qualifies as a definitive conclusion.

Step 4: Check the argument for validity; does the conclusion follow from the premises? In our example, it doesn’t follow that current climate change must be natural because climate changed naturally in the past. However, we can fix that by weakening the conclusion to “the current climate change may not be the result of human activity.” But in its weakened state, the conclusion no longer refutes human-caused global warming.

Step 4a: Identify hidden premises. By adding an extra premise to make an invalid argument valid, we can gain a deeper understanding of why the argument is flawed. In this example, the hidden assumption is “if nature caused climate change in the past, it must always be the cause of climate change.” Adding this premise makes the argument logically valid, but makes it clear why the argument is false - it commits single cause fallacy, assuming that only one thing can cause climate change.

Step 5: Check to see if the argument relies on ambiguity. For example, the argument that human activity is not necessary to explain current climate change because natural and human factors can both cause climate change is ambiguous about the ‘climate change’ in question. Not all climate change is equal, and the rate of current change is more than 20 times faster than natural climate changes. Therefore, human activity is necessary to explain current climate change.

Step 6: If the argument hasn’t yet been ruled out, determine the truth of its premises. For example, the argument that “if something was the cause in the past, it will be the cause in the future” is invalid if the effect has multiple plausible causes or mechanisms (as with climate change). In our example, this is where the myth most obviously falls apart (although it had already failed in Step 4).


Flowchart for evaluating contrarian claims. Circles indicate possible fallacies to be detected at each stage. Illustration: Cook et al. (2018), Environmental Research Letters

Deployment via social media and schools

The authors suggest that their six-step critical thinking process can be deployed via social media through ‘technocognition,’ and in the classroom. Co-author David Kinkead from the University of Queensland said:

Click here to read the rest

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Comments 1 to 10:

  1. This sort of critical thinking, logical reasoning,and identification of fallacies should be compulsory at school. It's as important as basic arithmetic, because it applies to so many areas of life including science, politics, business etcetera.

    Wikipedia has a comprehensive list of fallacies as below.

    It also needs to be pointed out that a science theory requires both causation and a statistically significant correlation, and that denialist myths all lack either one or both of these things. This can help cut through to the core of denialist myths.

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  2. I just loved the humour in the first video. John, Peter, and David .... you can keep your day jobs. But if you do have trouble in the future, you've got a future. :-)

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  3. A few decades ago, back when I was still a member of the working class, I was at a conference on Reliability & Maintainability (R&M) of large and complex manufacturing machines. I went out for dinner and beer with two young German engineers who worked for a competitor to my employer. They were both worried about their employer moving manufacturing to Brazil. Knowing that I am fluent in Spanish, it didn’t take much beer for them to believe that I’m fluent in “Brazilian” also.

    I never was able to convince them that the main language of Brazil is Portuguese. (Something to do with the beer, most likely.) But they kept pestering me with “How hard is it to learn Brazilian?” I gave up and told them, “It’s much easier to learn Brazilian than to learn how to live on a Brazilian engineer’s income.”

    One of them scowled and said, “That’s not the answer I wanted.” The other said, “The answer does not care if you like it. It just is.” Then he swigged some more beer.

    These two young engineers were wiser than climate change deniers: at least they recognized the risk of their jobs being offshored… which did happen, several years later; Dunno know what happened to these two engineers. But at least they did not deny the oncoming peril. That memorable line from “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel, “…still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest” did not apply to at least one of the engineers.

    Tuning out what they don’t want to hear is not peculiar to climate change deniers and squiffed German engineers only.

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  4. Nice write up!

    nigelj, seems to me we haven't done very well with the math these past decades either.  Case in point:  "Sustainability 101: Exponential Growth - Arithmetic, Population and Energy (Dr. Albert Bartlett discusses the implications of unending growth on economies, population, and resources.)

    “The answer does not care if you like it. It just is.” Should be carved in stone.  ;- )

    (SkS, have reposted this at )

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  5. Recently someone suggested that the cold in the USA from about December 24 to January 7 was record cold.  Climate Central has analized the cold outbreak in the USA at that time.

    They find that the cold outbreak was the coldest in that area since 1994, but outbreaks that cold (or colder) were not innfrequent from 1960-1994.  It is just that people have forgotten that it used to be colder.

    cold waves

    You can see from the above graph that while it was cold this year, it was not record cold.  They used the area of this years cold to measure all the cold outbreaks.  That makes it appear that it was colder this year than it really was since past cold outbreaks were not necessarily in the same area.

    Cold outbreaks are getting warmer faster than average global warming.  They calculate that it is 15 times less likely for this cold outbreak to occur.

    I thought their article was an interesting read.

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  6. Regarding cold weather, a lot of climate denialists are probaly older people with time to comment on websites. Older people feel the cold more. We are all good at fooling ourselves in so many ways.

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  7. The recommended process is an excellent way to show that there is no Good Reason to believe an unjustified but appealing made-up claim.

    Going through the process with a believer of such a claim would clearly show them that it is not reasonable to believe the claim. However, if their motivation for believing the unreasonable claim is a Private Interest that is contrary to the understanding that Good Reason would develop, they are likely to 'resist changing their mind, perhaps seeking out a different unjustified claim that appeals to their desire for the harmful (not Good) Private Interest'.

    In the case of a person who is motivated by a Private Interest that is understandably harmful or unfair to Others (like a private interest in benefiting from the continued burning of fossil fuels which is harmful and unfair to the future generations of humanity), it will likely be necessary to implement ways of keeping them from being able to significantly influence what is going on until they have proven they have changed their mind about what is a deserving (good/helpful) Private Interest. The focus needs to be on investigating and correcting the actions of all of the wealthiest and most powerful - the Winners; measuring the 'contribution to the future of humanity' of their actions against a comprehensive and robustly established set of Good Goals like the Sustainable Development Goals.

    The international community still struggles to effectively achieve this when horrific current day things like regional genocides are occurring, so it can be expected that there will be even less success in correcting unacceptable Private Interests in pursuit of popularity and profit that mainly produce 'future harm'. But that correction of the behaviour of the International Community of Leaders, political and economic, is clearly going to be necessary for humanity to have a future. It is especially required for the future (regionally as well as globally) to be a sustained improvement from the past.

    The examples of unacceptable reactions to climate science by 'Current Winners in the games of regional popularity and profitability' powerful exposes the need for such change, and exposes the unacceptable attitudes that develop in poorly refereed competitions, competitions that undeniably devolve into fighting to win any way that can be gotten away with, and become more vicious the more that Private Interests are at stake.

    Each person has their individual predisposition in the spectrum of 'harmful selfishness <-> altruistic helpfulness'. Many ancient/aboriginal cultures include parables about people having 'two sides inside them' and identify that the side that grows is the one that is fed. Clearly, refereed competition for popularity and profitability feeds harmful selfishness. It develops people who will resist accepting Good Reason. That needs to change.

    Teaching all students this process would be an excellent step towards the required changes of what is going on. It should be built into as many aspects of the education curriculum as possible, not just be a part of one subject in one grade.

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  8. The adjective "natural" is vague. A strict materialist like myself can argue that there is no such thing as an un-natural death. I your opponent in a duel pierces your chest with his fast "court" sword, then in the nature of things you will die quite soon. Likewise, the entirely natural effect of polonium 210's radiation within Litvinenko's body slew him. Murder by these usages is an entirely natural death.
    But both of these instances are human-caused.
    Perhaps the most ridiculous error in the "climate change is natural" argument is that the Earth's atmosphere for 3500 million years was unbreathable by modern aerobic life.
    When it and the seas became sufficiently oxygenated, they became deadly poisonous to all strictly anaerobic bacteria and archaeans.
    That change was not due to any inorganic cause. It was created bythe first photosynthetic life.

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  9. Minor correction/clarification near the end of my comment@7

    "Clearly, even refereed competition for popularity and profitability can feed harmful selfishness. The desires of some to Win any way they can get away with will motivate them to try to be secretive (evade detection by a referee), or try to influence the making up of the rules (eliminating rules or creating loop-holes for the unacceptable behaviour they hope to get away with benefiting from), or trying to get 'their preferred and biased referees' (having rules selectively enforced)".

    Teaching all students about the importance of having Good Reasons for their actions, along with teaching them how to determine if there is Reason to accept a claim, would be more helpful than just teaching them about Reason (because a harmful Private Interest can be a Reason to accept a claim).

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  10. Conradin Sakison @8

    What you say seems quite interesting, and technically true. At that level of thinking, there's no absolute division between natural and un-natural. I would say theres no absolute division between a lot of things.

    However the term natural is just a way of categorising things for convenience in discussion, so we dont have to constantly recite detailed lists. Its sort of a way of organising information. For example saying he died of natural causes saves having to go into complicated details about diseases, especially if more than one contributed to the death.

    It only relies on general agreement on what fits in the category of natural versus un-natural or mad made, and this is generally not so difficult to agree on. Its not a contentious issue in the climate debate, because everyone pretty much agrees on what constitutes the group of natural causes versus human causes. Categories are useful things, even if there are sometimes no absolute divisions between categories.

    I think climate denialists might respond to your idea along those lines, and I'm not sure it would be worth arguing with them. Most of them would also struggle to grasp what you are saying philosophically, because the climate denialist world view seems to crave for absolutes and clear divisions in all things. So good luck!

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