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Video series: The science of Cranky Uncle

Posted on 22 February 2022 by BaerbelW

To celebrate the Cranky Uncle game's 1st birthday, John Cook started a video series titled "The Science of Cranky Uncle" on December 14, 2021. This blog post contains the first three videos in the series and links to John's corresponding Twitter threads announcing each video. The Cranky Uncle game is free and available to play on these platforms:


Part 1 - Why we can't ignore misinformation

This video explores why we can't ignore misinformation, examining research into the different ways misinformation does damage.

First, misinformation erodes accurate beliefs. A recent meta-analysis found misinformation was even more potent in reducing climate literacy than accurate information was in increasing climate literacy.

Second, climate misinformation polarises the public. It has a disproportionate effect on political conservatives which means as misinformation pushes people further apart in their attitudes about climate change, exacerbating polarisation.

Third, misinformation can cancel out accurate information. In other words, even if we communicate our science in clear, accurate ways, all those good efforts can be cancelled out by misinformation. This is why we can't ignore misinformation.

Twitter thread

Part 2 - Inoculation Theory

The second video of the Science of Cranky Uncle looks at research into how inoculation theory offers an approach for building public resilience against misinformation. The study "Inoculating the public against misinformation about climate change" (van der Linden et al. 2017), found that explaining the techniques of a specific myth inoculated people against that myth (in this case, the Global Warming Petition Project).

Cook et al. (2017) found that explaining a misinformation technique in one topic (tobacco) neutralized the same type of misinformation in a different topic (climate change) via logic-based inoculation.

Vraga et al. (2020) tested fact-based and logic-based corrections. They found that the factual explanation was cancelled out by the myth if the myth came last. But logic explanations worked regardless of order.

Twitter thread

Part 3 - Fighting misinformation with critical thinking

The third video of the Science of Cranky Uncle looks at how to use critical thinking to deconstruct misinformation and identify any misleading reasoning fallacies misleading and rhetorical techniques. The video uses snippets from a hilarious video abstract for research published in Environmental Research Letters (Cook et al. 2018) called  Critical Thinking Cafe where Peter Ellerton, David Kinkead and John Cook  explain how to use critical thinking to deconstruct misinformation.

In the paper the authors developed a step-by-step methodology for deconstructing and analysing misinformation in order to identify reasoning fallacies. There are three main steps to analysing misinformation.

  • Step 1 is deconstructing the misinformation into an argument structure: premises (any starting assumptions) leading to a conclusion.
  • Step 2 is examining whether the argument is logically valid - assuming the premises are true, does it logically follow that the conclusion must be true? If not, the argument is logically invalid and you must identify unstated premises that would make the argument logically valid.
  • Step 3 is when you check whether all the premises are true. By breaking a misinformation claim into premises and conclusion, you can more surgically identify where the argument goes wrong and what the reasoning fallacy is.

In addition, John Cook looks at one way to explain fallacies to the general public - through parallel arguments or “logic analogies”. You, for example, take the bad logic in misinformation and transplant it into a concrete, real-world example. Cartoons are a perfect delivery mechanism for this approach.

Twitter thread

To not miss additional videos in the series you might want to keep an eye on the Science of Cranky Uncle playlist!

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Comments 1 to 8:

  1. This set of 3 videos is a great presentation of the problem of misinformation and effective solutions.

    When dealing with a person claiming that 'global warming isn't happening because it is cold' I like to try to further than pointing out the fallacy of believing that since it is cold somewhere at some time during the year global warming is not occurring. I like to ask them if they are aware of how much 'average global surface temperature warming' has been measured in the past century (today vs the 1910s). The answer is that the warming has been about 1 degree C through the past 100 years. That leads to the question "Would 1 degree C warmer be expected to mean there would be no more cold days anywhere?"

    The SkS Temperature Trend Calculator is very helpful if the person questions, or is unsure of, this point. It shows that:

    from 1910 to 1920 the global data sets indicate an average of about -0.4C with variations ranging from -0.1C to -0.5C.
    from 2010 to 2020 the global data sets indicate an average of about +0.75C with variations ranging from +1.1C to +0.6C.

    If they let me show them the SkS Temperature Trends, I also point out that the trend of temperatures during 1910 to 1920 is a significantly slower increase than 2010 to 2020. Which is consistent with the knowledge that human activity was causing global warming impacts at a slower rate 100 years ago. And the atmospheric CO2 levels support that understanding. And if they are willing to learn more I show them the NOAA Global Monitoring Laboratory website CO2 Animation ... and that can lead to more learning about ghgs.

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  2. I noticed something else misleading and concerning about the "Global Warming Petition Project" that should raise doubts and concerns about it and its signatories and its developers and promoters.

    The Petition wording is very questionable. It states: "There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of [ghgs] is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating ...". The term "catastrophic" is misleading and open to interpretation. And the term "human release" could be interpreted as only being human breath, burps and farts. And what exactly is the "foreseeable future"?

    The Petition also states that "... proposed limits on greenhouse gases would harm the environment." Anyone claiming to seriously believe that point has more questionable mental capability than the point that they lack direct climate science experience.

    Post-secondary education is not required to see how questionable the posed Petition is. People should really be concerned about the potential that the people who signed such a misleading vague and incorrect claim as if it was a legitimate understanding could have responsible 'public safety related' roles in society. Perhaps the signatories should not be doing the jobs they are doing.

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  3. Is there a plan B?  Given the geopolitical crises and the fact Russia and China generally ignore then IPCC, it is more then probable that the rate of emissions may increase in spite of climate change policies  elsewhere.  So what is the solution?  

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    Moderator Response:

    [BL] Your rhetorical posturing by Just Asking Questions has worn thin. Unless you actually provide substantive commentary on the blog posts you are responding to, expect to see such questions deleted in their entirety.


  4. There is also an ethical angle for critically evaluating the "Global Warming Petition Project"

    My understanding (open to improvement) is that ethics is about evaluating and governing things based on "Do no harm - Help develop lasting improvements for Others". The petiton includes statements that are clearly irrational and inconsistent from that ethical perspective.

    The premise that "... proposed limits on greenhouse gases would harm the environment." is clearly ethically incorrect. In addition to the harm done to the existing environment by the global warming produced by human actions increasing the ghgs, the extraction, processing and burning of fossil fuels causes many other types of harm to people and the environment.

    And, after that incorrect application of the concern for 'harm', the petition jumps to "There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of [ghgs] is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating ...". Suddenly 'convincing evidence' (a matter of personal interpretation) is required and the harm has to be 'catastrophic' and has to occur in the 'foreseeable future'. None of those criteria were part of the earlier flawed position.

    Anyone who accepts such an ethically compromised presentation probably has developed a powerful preference for ethically compromising many matters, including compromising the term 'ethics'. That reinforces the concern about signatories of the petition who have jobs related to 'public safety'.

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  5. Regarding the "Global Warming Petition Project". I believe it is also called the Oregon Petition. It has no credibility. For example many of the signatories are social scentists, and some are dead people and others fictitious people and very few are climate scientists. The wikipedia entry documents investigative studies on the so called petition.

    And the petition statement: "There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of [ghgs] is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating ..." Is just a strawman because scientists have not claimed such a thing could happen. So its a meangless statement. They have found the consequences of global warming will be very serious for humanity, due to increased severity of heatwaves and floods, other changes to weather extremes, sea level rise,  and reduced agricultural output etc, etc. 

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  6. The Oregon Petition was accompanied by 2 pieces of AGW denier malfeasance. Firstly was the cover letter from Frederick Seitz signed as past president of the National Academy of Sciences and secondly an AGW denier paper with Baliunas and Soon as co-authors formatted to make it look as if it was published in PNAS.

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  7. Note that the Oregon petition is on the SkS list of most-used climate myths.

    Whenever such petitions are discussed, I also like to point out the National Center for Science Education's Project Steve. (Disclaimer: one of the Steves is there because I told him about it.)

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  8. nigel, Ian and Bob:

    My comments were meant in the context of the content of the video series. They are additional ways of exposing the lack of good reason in the Oregon Petition (referred to in the videos as the "Global Warming Petition Project"), and the potential harmful reasoning behind its creation.

    The points you present are valid. However, they are not likely to be effective at spoiling the misleading marketing attempt of something like the Oregon Petition. Focusing on the lack of good reason in the claim is likely a better way to inoculate a person from being fooled in the future. It is also better than saying a version of "Believe me when I say that the Oregon Petition is incorrect".

    I added the ethical angle of challenging a claim on purpose. It applies to this case. But, more importantly, the ethical perspective can effectively refute economic evaluations that conclude that significantly more than 1.5 C warming is Fair and Justified. The ethical perspective makes it easier to point out the ways that the economic evaluations fail to properly evaluate the case, and have the added bonus of raising questions about the motivations of the people who do the evaluations in those ways. They are attempting to excuse understandably harmful actions.

    There have been many economic evaluations performed to compare the 'perceived impacts today if climate change harm is limited' vs. 'perceived future impacts of not limiting climate change harm'. There are many ethical faults in those evaluations, even in the one done by Stern that showed the benefits of aggressive action to limit climate change impacts. They discount the cost of harm done in the future. And they fail to fully evaluate the future harm that is discounted because the total harm is uncertain at this time. The Ethical Engineering approach to uncertainties about potential harm is to amplify what is able to be evaluated to account for the uncertainty. None of the economic evaluations did that, because they need to try to excuse known harm being done.

    A more powerful critique of those evaluations is not the Stern approach of using a 'lower discount rate'. It is the fundamentals of Ethics which clearly indicate it is unacceptable to "Compare the Benefit some people obtain with the Harm done to Others and claim things to be OK as long as the situation is a Net-Zero". And the ethical evaluation goes further than that. The ethical evaluation does not allow the people hoping to benefit form compromising or participating in the evaluation of the acceptability of their beliefs and actions.

    It can be very powerful to focus on the fundamental understanding that it is best for all actions to be governed by "Do no harm - Help develop lasting improvements for Others". That statement, that is the core of Ethical Engineering and the Sustainable Development Goals, can be very hard to argue against (but some people will still try, usually by attempting to make it appear that such thinking is Ivory Tower Elitist or Incredibly Naive or a fancy way of hiding the true intent of Authoritarian take-over. It isn't any of those things. But those appear to be the only paths of attack available).

    I will close by saying that my perspective is clearly 'not the norm', not even among engineers or professors of ethics. But I will add that things are likely to only get worse, while misleadingly appearing to be improving, until the ethical focus becomes the norm among Leaders who are no longer harmfully compromised by the potential popularity or profitability of harmful misunderstandings.

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