Must-Hear Podcast: John Cook of Skeptical Science on How to Debunk Climate Myths

How exactly does one break a deeply embedded myth? We often believe that bombarding people with facts and figures is the best way to combat misinformation. But busting myths is not just about providing more data — it’s about presenting the data in a way that people will actually process it.

John Cook, founder of the popular climate website Skeptical Science, likes to think about the way people think.

As a climate communications fellow for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, Cook devotes his time to understanding how the booby traps and backfire effects within the human mind allow us to embrace myths, even when presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

In this podcast, we’ll have a lengthy discussion with Cook about how to counter the backfire effects within the brain. He’ll discuss his recent “Debunking Handbook,” which he co-authored with the cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowski, and apply his research to the manufactured “debate” over climate change:

“Because there is such an organized disinformation campaign, we need to be as scientific and evidence based as we can in our response. Which means take advantage of all this psychological research and that will help us form the most effective responses we can in trying to reduce the influence of disinformation.”

“For a long time, scientists have been operating under the information deficit model, saying that if we could just get more information to people, then that will solve the climate problem…but there’s more to it than that. We need to understand how people think, how they process information, so when we do try to reduce the effect of disinformation — and we have to do that — then we can do it more effectively.”

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And if you want to read about the concepts we discuss in this show, check out the below posts on the various backfire effects:


12 Responses to Must-Hear Podcast: John Cook of Skeptical Science on How to Debunk Climate Myths

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    John Cook is a treasure- his blog posts are among the best for clarity and graph quality.

  2. wvng says:

    You have to pick the right audience to talk to. Some are lost to reason.

  3. NatashaDelCardo says:

    Links do not lead back to same page. Transcripts please? Thanks.

  4. NatashaDelCardo says:

    Sorry: links DO lead back to same page.

  5. Joe Romm says:

    Fixed. Thx.

  6. Great post. Good information, but let’s remember that breaking myth and establishing truth is still a giant step from actually changing behavior.

  7. The world is rapidly heading toward climate, food, water, and energy catastrophes, and it is essential that w increase awareness of the need for major changes.

    When conservatives express doubt about climate change I strongly suggest that they visit the web site of “Republicans for Environmental Protection” ( This conservative group was only able to endorse 4% of Republicans in the US 2010 midterm elections because so many Republicans have horrible records on climate change and other environmental issues.

  8. Walter Borden says:

    I agree. As communication strategy this really might be the best way to go. I am experimenting w/it, ie. I am sending folks with certain cognitive styles, so to speak, there, with the idea that maybe if they hear it from one of their “own” it might resonate more.

  9. Joan Savage says:

    Back in debate club, we learned to put forward the strongest assertions in our primary presentation and save the rebuttal information for ..the rebuttal. Information on how to fine-tune a rebuttal is good, but getting key assertions out is better. A rueful lesson from the skepticalscience experience is that putting the rebuttal first can stick the opponents’ points in people’s minds!
    What I keep looking for is an expression of clear and solid assertions. Even well-respected sources seem tempted to muddy the primary scientific assertions with less-sound rebuttal points and policy commentary.
    Back to the Main Event!

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    This type is lost, not primarily on the intellectual plain, but in the psychological and spiritual dimensions. Many do not care what happens to others, including future generations, so long as they are dominant and powerful NOW, and many lack a real immersion in and attachment to life, here and now and as it will be until the Sun goes red giant. They have died, inside, somewhere along the way, and their ambulatory cadavers are just passing the time until the physical process of decomposition catches up with the advanced state of spiritual decay. Often, I suspect, they are subconsciously aware of their dreadful fate, and attempt to over-compensate with that heightened, hysterical, religiosity we see so often on the extreme Right.

  11. fred says:

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  12. J4zonian says:


    I agree with you that they are lost, but not dead. That means they can be found. Psychological problems can be healed. Some therapy happens in a room with one other person or a small group but if we do it right, present the right symbols to the public and are willling to accept conservatives’ statements in a patient, therapeutic way, we can begin to heal their serious problems. Of course, society would have to grow up really really fast to be able to do this. The president is in the best position to do it nationally, as congress is to do it for their constituents, but he and they would have to grow up as well. One of our main strategies should be to help them do that (and elect people who have or can do it.)

    I’m as bad as anyone at being that loving, most of the time, and have a lot of trouble doing such therapy, but it’s something we can work on. Since they contain our shadow and we contain theirs, none of us can be fully healthy without doing this to some extent.

    Derrick Jensen talks about people offended by nudity who look at a picture with (a breast, I think) in one corner while their eye movements are tracked. Some look at the entire picture without once even glancing at the breast. To avoid it that thoroughly, they have to know it’s there; they have to see it. Yet they say they don’t remember it after.

    Of course most deniers know climate cataclysm is happening. Otherwise they wouldn’t have to be so rigid in refusing to admit that it is. True conservatism–making sure we’re OK just in case it does happen, would kick in. We don’t need to make them change; we need to make it possible for them to.