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Climate Hustle

Interactive mythbusting in Lane Cove

Posted on 9 March 2012 by John Cook

Last week, I was part of an interactive mythbusting evening at Lane Cove, Sydney. The evening was the brain child of Rebecca Jones from Sustain Me Consulting who organised a series of interactive sustainability workshops with Lane Cove Council. The idea of these workshops is to inspire local residents and businesses to take practical actions on environmental issues. You can check out some of the other workshops on her Facebook page, including a cook-off with Masterchef contestant Billy Law using leftovers to raise awareness about food waste.

Rebecca's approach is organising interactive workshops where the audience actively participate and contribute to the evening. So her suggestion was rather than give a prepared talk, we let the audience decide the agenda for the evening, decide what skeptic arguments they find most convincing and then it would be up to me to debunk any myths that arise. I have to admit that removing the security blanket of a prepared talk was a little unsettling - public speaking is hard enough as it is! But the idea of a purely interactive mythbusting evening did sound pretty cool albeit unpredictable.

As preparation, I put together a powerpoint of slides addressing the most popular climate myths (I will make this powerpoint avaiable online down the track but would like to tinker with it some more first). I had the list of myths on my iPad, each with it's own slide number, and when needed, I'd punch the number into Powerpoint and jump to the appropriate slide. Sounds good in theory, right?

The evening began with Rebecca asking the audience for the most convincing skeptic arguments they'd heard about why climate change isn't a problem. The first myth the audience suggested was "warming isn't happening". I was happy to hear this as I had a few slides on this topic, including Dana's animated Escalator and one of my personal favourites, Total Heat Content. A number of other myths came up as well - the reliability of the surface temperature record, global warming being good, natural cycles, the usual suspects.

No poker face

Rebecca asked for a show of hands on which myths they had encountered, to narrow it down to three myths to address. I noticed that she failed to ask for a vote on "warming isn't happening" and pointed that out. However, Rebecca sensed my enthusiasm to address that particular myth and instead scrubbed it from the list, saying she wanted to make it more difficult for me. Curse my lack of a poker face! Sorry, Dana, the Escalator didn't get a chance to shine that night.

The philosophy I take when debunking myths is that responding to misinformation doesn't need to be a combative, aggressive experience. On the contrary, responding to misinformation is an opportunity for teachable moments, placing the myths in the broader context of the full body of evidence. After I debunked each myth, the audience voted on whether they considered the myth busted.

Most of the audience held up the 'busted' sign although there was one guy in the front row who was never swayed (you can see him stoutly sitting on his hands in the picture above). But the interesting (and in hindsight unsurprising) result was when Rebecca asked how many people changed their mind. Throughout the night, only one person indicated changing their mind, after encountering some information they weren't aware of previously.

It brings to mind when the late Stephen Schneider spoke to a room of 52 climate skeptics and at the end of the evening, only one person reported changing their mind. This effect has even been quantified in psychological research - when Republicans who believed Saddam Hussein was linked to the 9/11 terrorist attacks were shown conclusive evidence that there was no link, including a quote from George Bush, only 2% consciously changed their minds.

Following the myth busting, a local Lane Cove resident and her son presented examples of specific actions their family took to reduce their carbon footprint. It was a great way to structure the evening - a climate message is incomplete without either the science or the solutions (and the young boy worked their powerpoint presentation better than I was able to). The interactive element made the evening engaging for the audience (and for me). Many thanks to Rebecca and Lane Cove Council for inviting me to participate in the mythbusting evening.

Rebecca Jones from Sustain Me Consulting, John Cook and Corinne Dickinson, Waste and Environmental Education Officer from Lane Cove Council.

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Comments 1 to 25:

  1. Sounds like a cool event. Too bad they missed out on the Escalator! Do you know how many were 'skeptics' to begin with?
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  2. Admitting that you were wrong and have changed your mind is hard, especially in public.

    I wonder how many people silently change their minds and just change their stance next time the issue comes up?
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  3. Perhaps next time you should ask right at the beginning how many believe that at least one of these skeptic statements has merit?
    Of course, there might be quite a number of undecided people who simply believe that the science isn't settled.

    Anway, it sounds like you enjoyed yourself.
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  4. I suspect that it is easier to publically agree that a climate science myth has been satisfactorily busted without also publically admitting that one's mind has been changed about climate science (if indeed many minds required changing), even if the mythbusting will eventually result in changing of mind.

    The former agreement does not entail loss of face; the latter admission does - IMO of course, since I am ignorant of the literature on the topic.
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  5. The fear of being wrong publicly (and the humiliation that we've been trained to think naturally goes with it) keeps most people from presenting their beliefs and the sources of those beliefs. Having people talk with each other in small groups as peers (within the context) first is a good idea. It allows people to defuse the public spectacle, to look at each other as humans and recognize that the event is a co-learning experience rather than a banking-model experience. Of course, all it takes to ruin such an excellent social situation is one or two crackpot ideologues who have access to the Absolute Truth and respond with terminal intent to any challenge or question. Many people--even those who feed themselves from the ideological trough--probably suspect that there's something to the science. It is, after all, very hard to completely toss aside that whole epistemological project. Working with suspicions is better than working with Absolute Truths, and pure lecture tends to come off as Absolute Truth too often (and, in the classroom, often quite unintentionally). Bring out the suspicions in a comfortable, safe, and friendly environment, and then bring forth the science, very carefully and one key chunk at a time. New understandings, like eggs, must be tempered before they are added to a hot mix (and AGW is certainly a hot mix).

    Small, un-shiny, local events like this need to occur all over the place--in the sticks, the burbs, and the cities. I think I'll do something like this over the summer, if my local experts aren't off in woods doing research. Maybe there should be a SkS Local Outreach team--a mod-accessible listing of people who would be willing to travel up to 50 miles or so to put on a workshop/discussion. Room and board provided by the requester.
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  6. I also suspect that it might be better not to ask about "changing minds." Keep it in the realm of ideas, and don't ask people to critique their ability to learn. You might do a pre-test/post-test, but delay the post-test for about six months. Let the pudding cook for a while.
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  7. I suspect that anyone who is entrenched ideologically to "believe" one side or the other will never change their minds. There were people that believed the horse and buggy was a better form of transportation than the automobile that were never convinced, but they eventually died.

    I also suspect that even in these types of well thought out presentations, the very fact that it repeats myths for the purpose of debunking also has an unintended consequence of reinforcing the myths for those that believe in them. (See? She tried to debunk it but I don't believe her argument! Ha!)

    I have no answer for how our society can convince the deniers. As in the case of the horse and buggy, some times you just have to wait for them to disappear.

    I admit I am personally entrenched in the ideological belief that what the majority of our climate scientists says is true. Since I am not a scientist myself, I must choose to believe one way or the other based upon information that others have written.
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  8. On a different tack, I like the idea of leftover-mastercheffing. I've been thinking for a while that there's a place for 'real-life masterchef', where contestants are faced with a fridge full of half finished jars and bottles, a few wilted vegetables and some unidentifiable green fur.
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  9. Great forum. On review, it would be very good to get simply constructed graphics like the escalator for some of the essential topics. That escalator one is a gem and is undeniable!
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  10. Paul Magnus: "That escalator one is a gem and is undeniable!"

    Ha! Undeniable! Was that naivety or caustic humour?
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  11. Well done :)

    Perhaps if the audience instead had a card to fill out anonymously with something like 'yes', 'mo' 'maybe' to tick and put in a box on the way out could have helped avoid saving face IMHO
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  12. I think the reason why you didn't have many people changing minds was that the audience was mostly composed of people who believed it was happening because they trusted the scientists and it was not a threat to their ideology. So they probably wanted more detail about what was happening and what they could do.

    I was talking to the bloke in the gray shirt in the front row. He did not seem like a denialist though I didn't get much detail on his opinions. I suspect he just didn't want to play along. I'm there in the brown shirt in the front row.

    I thought it was a pity that we didn't deal with the "It's not warming." myth but the encouraging thing is that it does not seem to have got anywhere near as much circulation as the others. Few in the audience had heard it, at least in the "Global warming has stopped." form. As a statistician I could have defended Foster and Ramsdorf's paper from criticism.
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  13. It is a mistake to put people into a corner where they have a choice of admitting that they were wrong or clinging to their old belief. Some may change their minds without admitting it that is good.

    Alternatively you may have been preaching to the choir. In the latter case we should hope that the choir sings a bit more loudly in future.
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  14. Perhaps, rather than "Has anyone changed their minds?", a better question might be "Has anyone heard something interesting and new on the topic?"

    Less confrontational, and opens up the possibility of discussing why those items are interesting.
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  15. Sceptical Wombat probably makes a good point. I was recently involved in an exchange (not climate related) in which someone was making an argument from authority. I pointed to a very simple situation that obviously proved the argument did not hold. The same person replied right back with the correct explanation for that situation, which summarized as being the exact opposite of the argument from authority made immediately before. Yet when I tried to have the person acknowledge that he had just made 2 completely opposed arguments that were incompatible, he could never get to admit it openly. Not an unusual attitude.
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  16. Sceptical Wombat, my impression is that it was preaching to the choir. Not that that is useless in this case. I think there were people there who had taken things on trust but wanted reasurance that their trust was justified. And possibly they wanted to be able to arge with doubters.

    You have to recognize that for some people seeking action on climate their reasons are similar to those of denialists. They just happen to be right by chance. A larger number, I think, reasonably trust scientists in a field that they have not had the opportunity to investigate. Those people are likely to grab opportunities that don't take up too much of their time to get a better understanding of the science.
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  17. Ah, John, you had a perfect opportunity to show The Escalator - when you were told that you couldn't bust that one, you should have said "But I've got this great graph for it, see?" and thrown it up on-screen right then. :-)

    In my experience, having a prepared talk is good, but answering questions from the audience is actually just as easy if you know your topic well. I had that experience when I did a few presentations while studying for my Masters degree, and have found the same in most presentations since. If you've done the homework and know the topic in some depth, this gives you an opportunity to demonstrate to the audience that there's a whole lot more information & science backing up what you've shown them.
    (It's also where a lot of people fall down on presentations -especially students. If you *don't* know the topic well, it shows pretty quickly at that point.)

    Considering how much you know about climate science, John, it should have been a cake-walk for you! :-D
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  18. I wonder if it is a mistake to have a session entirely devoted to debunking myths. Might it not be a good idea to start by having at least a quick run through the evidence for AGW and its dangers?
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    Response: [JC] I find the debunking is usually a good opportunity to present the evidence - most myths thrive on cherry picking and the best antidote to a half-truth is the full truth. So most debunkings take the form of presenting the full picture.
  19. Hey John! I was there on the night and I can see myself in a couple of the pics.

    My strong impression was that the vast majority of the audience were already convinced about climate change. We put forward myths we heard, not myths we believed.

    You did a good job of explaining things. You were friendly and knowledgeable. Your metaphor of the open fridge door to explain the impact of the warming Arctic on a colder EU has stayed in my mind. Tricky concepts that appear to be counter intuitive need graphic metaphors. Just as this website has an archive of scientific explanations and of images, perhaps it could also hold a metaphor archive.

    The approach of letting the audience set the agenda was excellent because it set up an active learning environment. In future perhaps you could avoid/minimise the 'chalk and talk' that makes the audience passive, and go straight to the Q+A section.
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  20. Reading this thread made me wonder what makes me, myself, so convinced that AGW is happening. I've come to the conclusion that it's the fact that no matter how deeply one investigates one finds answers (or at least hypotheses). There are no big unknowns in the mainstream theory.

    If you look at some of the other "explanations" they quickly come to a halt with something unknown. For example anyone who accepts that it's warming but denies that GHG is responsible comes to big unknown when you ask where the extra energy is coming from, given that we can prove it's not the sun. People end up saying that they don't know (or care) where the energy is coming from, they are just sure that CO2 is not responsible.

    Evolution has a similar feel about it, and the talk origins web site has a similar purpose to this one. Including an "arguments" section.
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  21. Sapient Fridge, it's called consilience. The idea is that a unified set of laws underlies all of nature. Explanations obtained in one field of research will be consistent with explanations obtained in another field. That is why the more different lines of evidence support a conclusion, the more confidence scientists have in it.

    Evolution is a superb example. It undelies all of biology and results consistent with it turn up all over the place. The same applies in climate science. The same explanations that explain the heating now explain the amplification of the Milankovich Cycles to cause the glacial cycle. And they turn up all over the place in climate studies.
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  22. I'd like to second Gillian suggestion of a metaphor/ analogy archive.

    Using John's "open fridge" explanation would probably have saved a lot of time explaining the same issue to my father in law.

    As a scientist I like give science answers to science questions but appreciate that a metaphor/ analogy is a good way to help people grasp a concept. I remember Stephen Schneider had a good water level in a bathtub analogy to explain how human C02 emissions could raise atmospheric levels given the high level of natural flux occurring at the same time.
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  23. Sapient Fridge, I agree entirely but it's fascinating to watch others go through the same process and come to the polar opposite conclusion. On more than one occasion I've come across someone who has claimed to have been reinforced in their 'scepticism' precisely because those they are debating with have an answer for everything.

    On the other hand I wonder if this is a deliberate tactic to avoid having to face reality. Are some of those who continuously challenge the deficit model doing so in order to impede effective communication?
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  24. We could play devil's advocate and come up with tens, hundreds, .. of questions that would not have been addressed at a short presentation. People who have already considered some of these aren't going to change their minds without going down that list to some degree. Those who might be convinced on the spot might develop doubt later on as some of these questions surface. Many people will not "change sides" until they can go back and first remove a fair amount of the doubts they acquired from numerous websites. This is why this comprehensive website is great and why a presentation (or even interactive gathering of at most an hour or two) might be only marginably successful if the goal and focus in it largely becomes to get skeptics to change their minds within the short time period of the presentation. Let me ask, how many of you here "changed your minds" in a few hours and solved the doubt for good?

    I would agree that a primary goal of the presentation should be to motivate people to pursue this topic further if they have questions (eg, by visiting this website). Passing on that motivation would be very useful. Those who agree should also know they have this website to use to help others.

    BTW, "debunking 3 myths" is catchy and can be used to draw an audience (and interactivity and feedback during the presentation are great).

    As an aside (and indirectly also a positive review of much of what this website covers): One debunking/motivational technique I like is to raise doubts about "skeptics". Scientists put a lot of burden on proving x and y, but we don't see that serious effort on skeptic sites. If we could easily present a convincing, comprehensive, cohesive answer in the way science demands, then scientific papers would also be simple and hardly rely on mathematics or not come with extensive reference sections. ["If anyone believes the papers are easy to read, then you should be reading them."] The fact is that it is easy to raise doubt yet hard to cover all loose ends in addressing that doubt. Impress this idea upon people.. that without reading lots of formal literature and gory details, in the end they are necessarily going to rely on faith.. faith in scientists who offer cohesion and lots of research ["Did you know there are hundreds of papers written every x days?"] or else in skeptic amateurs who ignore that detail. As a stat, show them how most who do go in depth end up coming out convinced (show the 97% agreement and how this number drops as knowledge decreases). .. We should be skeptical about skeptical websites online. Are the websites using data that is accurate? Are they explaining all the context? Are they accurately representing the state of the science? Are they conducting experiments or are they making things up? Etc. Turn the tables on skeptics to prove a little of their ideas in a rigorous fashion. Explain how its easy to create doubt but hard to prove anything or even come out with a theory that is consistent with the rest of reality and established science and engineering. ..Note: Monckton excels at giving the impression everything he says is backed by reams of precise mathematics... Now, to address the fact that there is skeptic math out there (eg, as that indirectly referenced by Monckton), I think this website should continue to debunk such skeptic papers and website arguments that have prominence. It should be easy to find the rebuttal to almost any skeptic "peer-reviewed" paper even if the peer-review is very weak and the paper is professionally ignored. Except for legit papers, just the fact a rebuttal exists goes far in limited debates (eg, to counter Monckton and similar speakers). Legit papers that don't dispel anything about AGW and which are used as padding on such skeptic lists should be so marked so as not to count in a tally against AGW. .. It's important to note that the goal of the IPCC is to present risk management scientific information. AGW may never be "proven" in various uses of that word, but there can certainly be overwhelming evidence behind it. The IPCC's goal is to define probabilities, much as is done in the insurance industry and by people managing risks every day. This should be made clear. In a public debate, I wouldn't want to get pinned (a) trying to show climate science has proven AGW or otherwise (b) offer only silence to allegations it hasn't. The answer is on risk management and abundance of evidence for or against. And speaking of debates with Monckton: challenge Monckton to agree that all claims will be listed at the end of the debate (or else don't count) and a followup will be done, first where each side lists references in support of their claims, and then where the other side can offer it's rebuttal.. and then the counter-rebuttals, etc, on some official debate webpage run by a neutral party.
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  25. John - I am glad you did this and that it went so well. I am not sure what your skill set/career path was when you started SkS, but you are becoming a world-class expert in the psychology of educating hostile minds. I hope you find a way to make money doing that.
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