Why teach critical thinking about climate change?

Climate Ed Now emblemSadly, misinformation has become ubiquitous in modern society. Whether it’s politics, climate change, vaccination, or even the shape of our planet, we are bombarded with a dizzying flood of conflicting messages. How do we make sense of the information overload?

This problem is even more challenging when we consider research finding that accurate scientific information can be cancelled out by misinformation. When people are confronted with two conflicting messages and no way to resolve the conflict, the risk is they disengage and believe neither. This means that our best efforts to teach science can potentially be undone by misinformation. Teaching scientific facts is necessary but insufficient.

Fortunately, there is an answer. If the problem is not being able to resolve the conflict between fact and myth, the solution is equipping people with the skills to resolve that conflict. Inoculation theory is a branch of psychological research that offers a way to achieve this. Just as exposing people to a weakened form of a virus builds up their immunity to the real virus, similarly, exposing people to a weakened form of misinformation builds up their “cognitive antibodies” so that when they encounter real misinformation, they’re less likely to be misled. We deliver misinformation in a weakened form by explaining the rhetorical techniques used to mislead, like explaining the sleight of hand in a magician’s trick.

Consequently, as well as teach the science of how climate works, it’s also important that we teach how the science can get distorted. Applying this approach in the classroom has many names — misconception-based instruction, agnotology-based learning, or refutational teaching — all representing the same style of teaching scientific concepts by explaining scientific misconceptions. This approach has been shown to be one of the most powerful ways of teaching science. It’s more engaging for students, it achieves stronger learning gains, and the lessons last longer in students’ minds. [Note: NCSE's climate change lesson sets take a misconceptions-based approach.]

To provide a framework for explaining the misleading techniques used in misinformation, I developed the FLICC taxonomy. FLICC stands for the five techniques of misinformation: fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry picking, and conspiracy theories. Of course, these five are just the tip of the iceberg sitting atop a large number of other rhetorical techniques, logical fallacies, and conspiratorial traits.

These fallacies can be found in misinformation across a range of topics. Fake experts are deployed to cast doubt on scientific research whether it’s relevant to climate change, COVID-19, or vaccination. Cherry picking can happen wherever scientific data can be found. This means that a critical thinking approach to teaching science can have benefits beyond a single subject. Explaining a fallacy in one topic helps a student spot the same technique in other topics. Critical thinking is a universal vaccine against misinformation.

Teaching climate science is crucially important as climate change is one of the most important issues facing humanity today. But we also need to teach our students how to think and assess arguments, particularly in a modern world where we are all bombarded with misinformation. Misconception-based learning can help teachers achieve this, building both science literacy and critical thinking skills in their students.

Read other essays from our #ClimateEdNow series.

John Cook
Short Bio

John Cook is a postdoctoral research fellow with the Climate Change Communication Research Hub at Monash University. His research focus is on using critical thinking to build resilience against misinformation. In 2007, he founded Skeptical Science, a website that won the 2011 Australia Museum Eureka Prize for the Advancement of Climate Change Knowledge. In 2020, he published the book Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change applying critical thinking, inoculation research, and cartoons to engage and educate readers about climate misinformation. He recently released the Cranky Uncle game, combining critical thinking, cartoons, and gamification to build players’ resilience against misinformation. He currently works with organizations like Facebook and NASA to develop evidence-based responses to climate misinformation.