Scott Mandia on teaching students to debunk climate misinformation

Back in 2010, I designed a climate change course called MET103 – Global Climate Change in order to bring modern climate change science to undergraduate liberal arts students. 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.

Very quickly, students come to realize that climate change is the most important news story they are not hearing enough about. They also realize that action is required now if we wish to avoid the most serious consequences. I am fond of telling my students that I hope there are 35 activated climate change ambassadors by the time the semester is finished. Students’ friends and family are more likely to listen to them than an unknown college professor. (This is known as Messenger Effect where information is accepted if it comes from somebody who is in the same culture group but discarded if not.)

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 skeptic 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 2014 Geological Society of America (GSA) Annual Meeting as well as Cook and Lewandowski’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:

The two papers below are from the Fall 2014 semester and represent the success of this approach. The authors have given Skeptical Science permission to post their term papers.

The Medieval Climate Anomaly: A Myth Debunked by Christopher J. Mignano

The Serious Nature of Ocean Acidification and Its Implications for Human Beings by Neil P. Costa

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 set to go live in April 2015 and 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 academic credit. Successful completion of this course will equip you to effectively respond to climate misinformation and debunk myths.

Posted by ProfMandia on Wednesday, 4 February, 2015

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