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A workshop for educators on debunking misinformation

Posted on 18 October 2012 by John Cook

A key to a well functioning democracy is a well informed public. However, the ever-increasing flow of misinformation facilitated by the Internet and a fracturing mainstream media makes a well informed public a difficult proposition. But in a valiant effort at a glass-half-full attitude, I suggest that there are positive educational opportunities available in the correction of misinformation.

When we first launched the Debunking Handbook last November, one of the key messages was that when you debunk a myth, you need to replace that myth with an alternative narrative. In other words, by debunking, you create a gap in the person's understanding - you then need to fill that gap to fully remove the myth. The most succinct expression of this idea comes, fittingly, from the authors of Made To Stick who recommend this approach to debunking myths: fight sticky ideas with stickier ideas.

Several weeks later at the AGU Fall Meeting, I was at a climate communication workshop held by Susan Hassol where she quoted from, funnily enough, Made to Stick. She advised that one way to communicate in a compelling fashion was to arouse curiousity by creating gaps in people's knowledge, then filling that gap. It's how murder mysteries keep you watching to the very end to find out who the killer is. The very structure of an effective debunking lends itself to compelling communication, if done properly.

As I further explored this notion, I discovered a great deal of research into the refutation of misconceptions and misinformation in an educational setting. Most recently, Daniel Bedford published a paper Agnotology as a Teaching Tool: Learning Climate Science by Studying Misinformation where he directly addressed misinformation in order to sharpen students' critical thinking skills and better explain the processes of science. A lesson plan of Bedford's approach is available on the CLEAN website. Experiments in a classroom setting have found that directly addressing misconceptions is twice as effective as standard lecture formats.

The Climate Literacy & Energy Awareness Network (CLEAN) has run a number of workshops providing resources for climate educators. Earlier this year, I was invited to present an online workshop on how educators can teach climate science through addressing misinformation. You can view the talk which is freely available on the CLEAN website.

Part of the workshop involved the participants collaborating on taking a specific myth and develop a resource for teachers debunking the myth. Here are two examples created from the workshop:

For those attending the AGU Fall Meeting, I will be giving an invited talk at the AGU Fall Meeting on this topic for an oral session organised by CLEAN. Here are the session details:

Talk: Addressing climate misinformation as an educational opportunity
Session:  ED42A. Climate Literacy: Higher Education Efforts in Climate Change Education II
TIme: December 6, 2012; 10:50 AM to 11:05 AM
Location: Room 302 (Moscone South)

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