Got Climate Change Misconceptions?

Got Climate Change


John Cook Can Help.

The climate is always changing.”

Scientists disagree about the causes.”

Animals and plants can just adapt.”

The three false statements above are just a few of the biggest misconceptions about climate change that afflict many individuals—including students. How should educators combat these misconceptions? According to John Cook, Research Assistant Professorat the Center for Climate Change Communication at George MasonUniversity, the best approach is to tackle them head-on and leveragethe misconceptions into learning opportunities. The creator of the website Skeptical Science and co-author of several books on climatechange denial, Cook works  closely with NCSE’s Turning Misconceptions into Educational Opportunities (TMEO) Teacher Ambassadors in developing misconception based lessons and relatedprofessional development for science educators. In an era whenmisinformation is prevalent, and easily disseminated, John Cook’sapproach helps students (and non-students) separate fact fromfiction, guiding them on a path of scientific understanding aboutclimate change. We decided to interview Cook about his misconceptions work to gain insight into what has been recognized as an extremely powerful way to help young people construct their own understanding of climate change. Our exchange has been edited for sense and length.

PaulOh: My first question is pretty basic: Why misconceptions?

John Cook: To quote that famous educator Yoda, “You must unlearn what you have learned.” Misconceptions interfere with new learning. They can give students false confidence that they understand a phenomenon whentheir understanding is actually faulty. And in the worst case, misinformation can stop people from acknowledging facts. For example, studies have shown that when people are presentedwith facts and corresponding misinformation that distorts thosefacts, if they don’t have a way of resolving the conflict betweenthe two, there’s a danger that they’ll disengage and not evenaccept the facts. Misinformation can cancel out factual information.

PO:I know that you recognize the importance of misconception-basedteaching in general, but you also have a particular interest inmisconceptions about climate change. Of all the climatemisconceptions, which do you most wish you could bust permanently?

JC: The mostdamaging climate misconception is that climate scientists disagree onhuman-caused global warming. Only around 10 percent of Americans areaware that over 95 percent of climate scientists agree that humansare causing global warming. The reason this is so important isbecause perceived lack of consensus is a gateway misconception—itnot only affects views on whether climate change is happening andwhether it’s human-caused, but also colors willingness to supportclimate action. Fortunately, it’s one of the easier misconceptionsto dispel, as it just requires communicating a

single number: 97percent of climate scientists agree on human-caused global warming.

PO:So if a teacher has just one lesson to cover climate change, I assumethat mentioning the 97 percent consensus would be important? Anythingelse?

JC: Yes, absolutelyyou need to bring up the consensus— that is critical, and as Isaid, it doesn’t take up much time. In fact, a complete explanationof climate change can be compressed to just ten words: “It’sreal. It’s us. It’s bad. Experts agree. There’s hope.” Inother words, climate change is happening; human activity is causingit; the impacts are serious and already happening; there’sscientific consensus (97 percent!) on the first three points; but wehave all the technology we need to avoid the worst impacts of climatechange.  

PO:Okay, that’s what educators should do. How about what they shoulddefinitely not do?

JC: There are twoaspects to climate change: the problem and the solutions. What weshould avoid is only giving half the picture. If we only communicatethe problem, it ends up being a doom-and-gloom message that canactually paralyze people and cause them to disengage from the issue.While if we only communicate the solutions, that’s a positivemessage, but it lacks the urgency that the dire situation of climatechange dictates. We need to communicate both—climate change is adire, immediate problem, but we can solve it if we act with urgency.

PO:Speaking of communication, what would you change about how thepopular news media covers climate change?

JC: The media does alot of damage through false balance—by giving deniers equal weightwith climate scientists. Research (including my own) has shown thatthis conveys the impression of a 50–50 scientific debate, lowerspublic perception of scientific consensus, and reduces acceptance ofclimate change. But the news media could cover climate changeaccurately, while fulfilling the journalistic norm of balance, bycommunicating the weight of evidence or the weight of experts. Forexample, they can acknowledge the existence of contrarian voiceswhile also pointing out that they are a vanishingly small minority.

PO:What I notice about the way the media covers climate change, besidesthe false balance you mention, is that it is often so bleak. Iusually feel a certain amount of despair as I get more informed. Doyou feel that, too? How do you fight despair?

JC: I remind myselfthat climate change is not a binary proposition. It’s not a case ofsuffering climate impacts or avoiding climate impacts. Climate changeis a matter of degrees (literally). Every scrap of action now means some amount of avoided climate impacts down the track. So I continueto fight, and communicate the reality of climate change, so we willtake actions now that will reap dividends well into the future.

PO:That helps, thanks. I’m going to try and internalize that message,and I hope our readers do, too. Is there anything else you’d liketo share about your misconceptions work?

JC: Misconceptionsare an unfortunate reality, but they’re also an opportunity.Misconception-based learning is one of the most powerful ways ofteaching science. Not only do students achieve stronger learninggains (compared to straight teaching of the science), but also thelearning gains last longer. The students develop critical thinkingskills that they can apply to all different forms of misconceptionsand misinformation. They come away empowered to talk about the issue,which is crucially important with climate change, since climatesilence is an impediment to meaningful societal progress. So Isuggest that rather than running from misinformation and denial, weuse its presence as a powerful educational opportunity.

PO:Thank you so much for all of your work. Our Teacher Ambassadors haveembraced your approach in the lessons they’ve developed—andcontinue to develop—and I really look forward to spreading the wordabout the power of misconception-based teaching with your continuedhelp.

Paul Oh is NCSE’sdirector of communications.